Every Kansas football fan remembers the play.
The date, Saturday, November 28, 2009. The place, Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri.
Kansas clings to a 39-36 lead over hated rival Mizzou. Fourth quarter. 2:50 left on the clock. Jayhawks backed up on their own 3-yard line. Third down, 10-yards to go. After dialing up two consecutive pass plays only to see them fall incomplete and thereby preserve Mizzou's lone timeout, Jayhawks' Offensive Coordinator Ed Warinner sets up a quarterback draw.
Based on the Jayhawks once again lining up in a four wideout passing formation, Mizzou rushes with their base four defensive lineman. Mizzou linebacker Andrew Gachker creeps up, threatening a blitz, Kansas' center Jeremiah Hatch calls him out, but Reesing makes note of Gachker resting back on his heels, an indication that he's ready to peel back into a soft zone to guard the pass and the play call remains the same. The draw here, while risky, was set up for a big gainer. If Reesing could get by the line, he'd have acres of space in front of him, with all four Kansas receivers taking their defenders deep, and center Hatch and running back Rell Lewis released up the middle to deal with Gachker and his line backing cohort Sean Weatherspoon.
The ball is snapped. Gachker and Weatherspoon drop back into pass coverage. Every other Tiger defender disappears down field. Lewis and Hatch fake their blocking assignments and then take off, with Reesing right behind them. Everything was going according to plan. With one rather large hitch...
Kansas' right tackle Brad Thorson and left guard Sal Capra are absolutely wrecked by Mizzou's Brian Coulter and future NFL All-Pro Aldon Smith, who meet each other at Reesing's rib cage and drop him in the end zone for a safety.
Such was the last play of Reesing's brilliant 498 yard and 4 TD day and his celebrated career at Kansas. More importantly, it was the final nail in Mark Mangino's coffin as Kansas' Head Coach.
With 2:47 left and Mizzou now down by just a single point, the 'Hawks had to kick off to the Tigers and then watched them drive into field goal range before kicking the game winner with four seconds left.
Speculation is a major aspect of sports fandom. You always wonder. One more yard... One more play... What if...
You can't change the past, and there's good reason to obsess about it, but this particular play and its ramifications essentially crippled KU football and left it in the sick shape we know it as today.
What if Reesing had broken free?
Let's explore this alternate reality for the moment.
Rewind to November 28, 2009...
Let's say Thorson and Capra justify their scholarships and Reesing gets loose as Hatch and Lewis neutralize Gachker and Weatherspoon. Reesing breaks to his left and easily picks up the first down before going into a slide around the 20-yard line. Following this play, Kansas eats enough of the clock to preserve the win.
For Kansas Athletic Director Lew Perkins, who made it no secret that he didn't like Mangino, the disheartening six game losing skid and trumped up player mistreatment charges against Mangino gave him the ammo he needed to finally get rid of the man. Only now with the win over Mizzou he would have found it much harder to make that case.
With a win over the Tigers, Mangino would have posted his fifth straight winning season in Lawrence, a rate of consistent success the Kansas program has not seen since Jack Mitchell's days in the early 1960s.
The win also would have earned Mangino and his Jayhawks a bowl bid, bumping 6-6 UCLA out of the 2009 EagleBank Bowl by virtue of the Big XII being the stronger conference. This bowl bid would have been the fifth in seven years and third straight for Mangino, a feat unprecedented at Kansas, as were the three bowl victories the big guy already held in his honey glazed ham greasy mitt.
So in my speculative alternative reality, Perkins would have vowed to hold off on a decision on Mangino until after the bowl game.
Mangino and the Jayhawks would have made their way to RFK Stadium in Washington D.C. on December 29, to take on the 9-3 Temple Owls out of the Mid American Conference. Riding the offensive momentum that saw Reesing throw for nearly 500 yards and Dezmon Briscoe reel in 14 catches for 242 yards against Mizzou, coupled with the full month Reesing's ailing groin injury (sustained during the first loss of the six game losing streak that killed the season) was given to heal, the Jayhawks rally around their coach and blow out the Owls 35-14 for Mangino's fourth straight bowl victory in as many appearances.
The contingent of the fan base ready to hoist Mangino up on a reinforced steel, hydraulically assisted, tow truck cross, shuts their mouths. Enough pressure is applied to Perkins to keep him as coach, for the time being, but under the heavily scrutinized watch of Perkins' ogre eyes, just waiting for him to fail.
And had Mangino still been around in 2010...
His career at Kansas would have caught a huge break in its favor with the news that Perkins and several members of his direct staff were under investigation for a ticketing scandal involving the office of the Athletic Director. Perkins was eventually fined by the State of Kansas Ethics Commission, and in the wake of this Perkins announced he would retire following the 2010-11 school year. Ultimately, Perkins expedited his plans and left in early September of 2010.
As for the 2010 football season itself, Mangino would have certainly kept Ed Warinner on as his Offensive Coordinator, seeing as how Warinner had overseen one of the best offenses in the nation and in Kansas' history (2007-2009), the same man now seen as an offensive whiz and potential head coach for teaming up with Urban Meyer and helping Ohio State win 2014's National Title.
This would have been huge considering that Turner Gill came in and abandoned Warinner's spread offense to run the power I, in spite of inexplicably moving his biggest and best running back, Toben Opurum, to the defense side of the ball.
Saved from such insanity, Mangino and Warinner would have been able to weather the post Reesing offensive woes by leaning on their strong running game led by the team's leading rusher in 2009, Opurum, and incoming freshman James Sims - who very much still would have been in Lawrence without Gill seeing as how he was recruited by Mangino's assistant, and current real life Kansas coach, David Beaty.
Utilizing a more run oriented spread would have allowed for the new starting quarterback, sophomore Kale Pick, to ease into the flow of things. He was never going to be Reesing, but in Warinner's offense Pick's athletic ability (finished his KU career as a wideout) would have been more appropriately used.
But things would have really got interesting in 2011...
With the hiring of new Kansas' Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger, Mangino, with whom Zenger worked with while the two were on Bill Snyder's coaching staff at K-State in the mid-1990s, would have had the full support and confidence of the Athletic Department for the first time since 2008.
In July of 2011, Kansas would land athletic wunderkind and star quarterback from the state of Texas, Seth Russell, stealing him from the likes of both Oklahoma and Texas A&M.
This happened in reality, once again David Beaty played a huge part in landing this recruit, only then he was working for Turner Gill. When Gill was fired after the 2011 season, Russell withdrew from Kansas and signed with Baylor, where he's now set to be their starting quarterback in 2015.
With Beaty and Mangino not going anywhere, Russell would have made his way to Lawrence to join the Jayhawks in 2012.
As for the 2011 season, already having Opurum and Sims making for one of the best one-two running back punches in the Big XII, when Mangino and Warinner would have gotten their hands on multi-talented speedster Tony Pierson out of East St. Louis, unlike Gill and Charlie Weis, they surely would not have wasted his abilities.
The Jayhawks' offense would have become explosive as Warinner modified the scheme to run a sped up spread option system in order to more effectively utilize Pick's superior running to passing ability - similar to the offense Warinner and Meyer ran when Braxton Miller was under center for the Buckeyes.
On to 2012...
Russell makes his way to Lawrence where he is promptly redshirted behind senior starter Kale Pick.
Riding the running back trio of senior Opurum, junior Sims and sophomore Pierson, and taking advantage of a rather down year for the Big XII Conference outside of K-State and Oklahoma, the Jayhawks could have made a significant move up the conference standings.
Meanwhile, down in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Okie State coach Mike Gundy idiotically fires his Defensive Coordinator Bill Young for being too old, even though Young revitalized the Cowboys defense after his hire in 2009 and helped OSU flirt with National Title aspirations just two years before Gundy washed his hands of him.
Young, having been the architect of Kansas' 2007 Orange Bowl defense, is quickly snatched up by Mangino and brought back to Lawrence.
With a big time quarterback in Russell running Warinner's offense and Young stabilizing the defense, Kansas would have been set up for very big things to come.
Also in 2013, Mangino would have made headlines for being the first coach in college football history to use a Rascal scooter on the sidelines for every game...
Back to reality...
This is all obviously highly speculative escapism of course. There's no guaranteeing anything would have played out like this. But I do believe that the firing of Mangino set the program back for years. And it's a cautionary tale for all coaches on the fickle nature of fans. When Mangino was winning, people in Lawrence loved their perpetually sweaty butterball of a coach - his negative qualities be damned if not outright ignored. When he wasn't winning anymore? Well, how quickly everyone's triple chinned heroes die...
As one of just a handful of people in Lawrence - if any others exist at all - who is a bigger fan of Kansas football than basketball, I appreciated how Mangino finally gave the football team an identity. I honestly wanted to see the giant statue of him, riding a Rascal, the University was sure to erect at the base of the hill, in the open end of Memorial Stadium's south end zone in the year 2020 after the big guy retired as the winningest coach in the program's history.
Instead, the lasting image I hold of Mangino is not one of him immortalized in bronze, but of him sheepishly walking off the field at Arrowhead Stadium, leaving us football fans with a strong feeling that there was so much left unfinished for his team and the program.
And Mangino will probably be the first one to tell ya, when it comes to football legacies and sandwiches, leaving them unfinished is an absolute crime.