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Know Your KU History: Pepper Rodgers

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Yes, KU had too many men on the field, and that allowed Penn State to win the Orange Bowl. But, they could’ve iced the game if not for some other dubious decisions by coach Pepper Rodgers. Here’s a look at one of KU’s most famous football coaches.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

If it were played today, the 1969 Orange Bowl game would be an analyst's dream. So many questionable and exciting plays happened late in the game that you could see a certain 24-hour sports network dedicating hours on end scrutinizing the choices of coach Pepper Rodgers. Amateur know-it-alls and casual fans would take to the message boards and social media to express their disbelief and outrage and confusion as to why Kansas went for it on 4th and 1 with a 14-7 lead in the fourth quarter with a near certain field goal looming from the 14 yard line. Armchair coaches would wonder with incredulity how Kansas could possibly have 12 men on the field for the game winning two point conversion try by Penn State which Kansas stopped illegally. Pepper Rodgers would have been flooded with postgame questions from a disbelieving media as to why he could make such choices in what was the biggest game in the history of the program. He might not have escaped that game with his job if the game happened today. Of course, if the game happened today, Penn State coach Joe Paterno certainly would have kicked the extra point to tie the game at 14 and taken his chances in overtime.

(This video gives plenty of highlights with most of the exciting plays occurring after 29:00)

As it stands, KU lost that game 15-14 thanks to a second and successful two-point conversion by the Nittany Lions, but it shouldn’t overshadow what Pepper Rodgers did as the coach of the Jayhawks. For one, that 1968 team that went to the Orange Bowl is still the only conference champion that KU has ever fielded in the modern era and with the structure of today’s college football and especially the new Big XII, it’s possible that it could be the only conference championship that KU will ever see. That 1968 season will always be looked upon as something special and Rodgers obviously played a huge role in that success.

Coach Rodgers came to KU in 1967 as a heralded assistant at UCLA and although their 1967 season record doesn’t sparkle (5-5), Kansas had a great conference season in Pepper’s first season. The Jayhawks went 5-2 in conference play with wins over powerhouses Nebraska and Missouri and finished the season in second place in the conference, clearly setting the table for the spectacular 1968 season to follow. Kansas was back on the football map, if only for a few short seasons.

It’s hard to say if the decisions that he made in the Orange Bowl game affected his thoughts for the following season, or if it was the departure of star QB Bobby Douglas, or if it was simply that KU played the 7th hardest schedule in the country in 1969, but the 1-9 record left a lot to be desired. Certainly, the impending opening at UCLA probably occupied his thoughts a good deal in 1970, his final season as the Jayhawk head coach and a season that saw KU claw back to near respectability at 5-6. Of course, he took that job at his former employer and KU legend Don Fambrough was elevated to head coach. But for all the accolades that come Fambrough’s way for his success on the field and especially for his hatred of rival Missouri, it was Pepper Rodgers who took Kansas to heights never before achieved. Thank you, Coach Rodgers.