The temp read "low 40s", but the rain made the faces of the marching band red and raw as if it were much colder. Clouds of loosed steam billowed up from their mouths between trumpet blows. The drumline tamped damp snares with vigor even though few people were there to feel that beat.
The floats rolled slow, their wheels squeaking rubber atop wet asphalt, their crepe paper and streamer decorations wilting in the rain. Water spilt from a large beak of a Jayhawk like tears that belied his comical grin.
The theme of the University of Kansas Homecoming Parade last Friday was "Ghosts of Jayhawks Past." With homecoming falling on Halloween weekend, the parade committee found it fitting. It was, perhaps, more so than they initially realized.
Kansas football is dead, and this sad homecoming parade staged an appropriate funeral procession through bleak conditions. The experience bringing to mind an old Jeff Buckley lyric:
Looking out the door
I see the rain fall upon the funeral mourners
Parading in a wake of sad relations
As their shoes fill up with water...
The march down Massachusetts Street caused people to look up from their dinners or beers and through the windows of bars and restaurants in a state of perplexed annoyance.
"Oh yeah, it is homecoming weekend," one of them muttered before sipping his beer and paying it no further mind.
In sports, no team, no program is beyond redemption, beyond resurrection if a proper road to recovery is found. See the Kansas City Royals, dead nearly 30 years, a fact made all the more painful for Jayhawk football fans who have memories of success that actually took place in the high def era of television.
If Jayhawk fans are honest, they can admit that 2007 was a perfect storm of good fortune: Competent coaching staff; solid collection of All-American and pro caliber talent; first legitimate division one quarterback to wear a Jayhawk helmet since David Jaynes; and winning the lottery of dodging Big 12 juggernauts Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech during conference play thanks to the old Big 12 staggered schedule.
'Hawk fans have no reason to apologize for their enjoyment during the ride.
That was eight long years ago now though. Nearly two whole graduating classes have come and gone. Based on the results of the last seven seasons, this one included, these kids have no reason to believe that Orange Bowl season even happened.
The Kansas Jayhawk football program, and its fans, have been clinging to the corporeal remains of that '07 success long enough. They can no longer pretend not to smell the stink.
That cold, soaked, funerary march down Massachusetts Street that the University of Kansas welcomed home alumni to experience last Friday night is the present reality of Kansas football.
Can football ever succeed at Kansas again? It has in the past. The question, rather, is on what level and with how many wins will Jayhawk fans measure that success?
In a way, the 12-1, '07 season tainted a bit of 'Hawk fans' perspectives. A taste of success breeds a demand for built upon improvement. Kansas believed it was closer to that gaudy 12-1 record than they actually ever were. A handful of coaches have won at Kansas: Pepper Rodgers; Jack Mitchell; Don Fambrough; Glen Mason; and Mark Mangino. Among them, Mitchell was the only one to do it year in and year out.
Among modern era coaches (i.e. 1980+), Mangino is by far the most consistent. Yet, if you remove the worst and best seasons from his resume (2-10 in 2002 & 12-1 in 2007), Mangino's time in Lawrence looks like this:
2003 - 6-7 with a bowl loss
2004 - 4-7
2005 - 7-5 with a bowl win
2006 - 6-6
2008 - 8-5 with a bowl win
2009 - 5-7
Ask fans at most football institutions if they would be okay with the above records and they'd be calling for the head of the coach responsible. Ask Kansas football fans these days if they'd take a six year stretch like that and they'd renew their season tickets in the blink of an eye.
Dropped in the middle of those seasons of middling success, that 12-1 season is as blinding as someone's high beams on a dark highway. It was the reason that former Kansas Athletic Director Lew Perkins assumed Kansas was ready to take the next step, and he was frustrated with Mangino for an apparent regression. Subjectively justifiable. But, was it just as subjectively unreasonable?
Perhaps. But little of that matters now. All Jayhawk fans have is the here and now, the terrible football team wearing crimson and blue, and the freezing marching band followed by floats dropping clumps of wet tissue paper onto the street like colorful turds.
For current University of Kansas students, and Kansas fans even younger, like the little kid in a Jayhawk sweatshirt standing under an umbrella with his mother on the corner of Tenth and Mass last Friday night, you all will share a blessed experience as Kansas football fans, because you have no memory of success on which to dwell and gripe about its loss. Success for you all is tempered. It's whatever comes next, because whatever comes for Kansas football after 2015 cannot ever be any worse.