For Kansas football fans, it's unrealistic to look at the fall of 2015 as anything more than new head football coach David Beaty valiantly trying to quell a dumpster fire that has raged in Lawrence on the corner of Fambrough Drive and Mississippi Street for five seasons.
Anything beyond the almost universally anticipated "1.5 wins" this season for the 'Hawks should be viewed as a major step in the right direction for the beleaguered football program and its fans.
Kansas football is struggling not just in the win column, but with a crisis of identity.
Everybody knows about Kansas' basketball traditions at the Phog. The intro video. The replay of Mario's shot bringing the house down. The banners hanging in the rafters commemorating Conference and National Titles. The numbers and names of past great players proudly on display.
The basketball program isn't shy about shoving that history in the face of every visiting squad and prospective recruit. That gym is the grandest trophy case on the entire campus.
While the football program is far less accomplished, it's not completely devoid of players and wins worth boasting about. However, when you step into Memorial Stadium it appears that the athletic program has done very little to prove otherwise.
Running along the North Bowl there is a line of names, all former KU football greats, tacked up in bland, nondescript, white lettering that is almost always obstructed from view during games because people are either walking or standing in front of them.
As a long time season ticket holder, I enjoy football games at Memorial Stadium - especially at night. It's a beautiful experience at the base of the hill with the smoke of a very lively and underrated tailgating scene wafting into the open end of the stadium. However, if you look away from the campanile and into the horseshoe of the stadium there is very little that gives the place a memorable identity of its own. It looks like some blue painted generic stadium you'd find as a default template in the stadium creator function in one of those old EA Sports NCAA Football video games.
The completion of the new press box and Scholarship Suites in the late 1990s and the construction of the Anderson Football Complex at the base of the hill in 2008 were much needed major improvements to the infrastructure and look of the stadium. Now it's time to actually decorate the place with the history that the program and the University almost seems embarrassed to showcase.
Kansas football has won five Conference Titles.
"Really?" Is the first word out of everybody's mouth when I tell them this.
Sure, they all came in the old Big Eight Conference, but Big Seven and even Missouri Valley Conference basketball titles from way back when are still proudly displayed in Allen Fieldhouse. And rightly so. Why are there no flags flying from the Memorial Stadium's North Bowl proudly owning the 1908, 30, 47, 48, and 68 Big Eight Crowns?
Kansas has won six bowl games in the program's history, including the January 2008 Orange Bowl, and yet the only place you'll even see a mention of any of these bowl wins is in the bowels of the stadium hanging up behind fading plexiglass. Seriously. If you're not in the mood to hit the Pizza Hut food cart on the ground level you'll miss seeing them altogether.
The pregame pump up video needs some work as well. I'm not sure who is responsible for that thing. I don't know if Charlie Weis had final say, but the last few years the video the team showed on the jumbotron to get you excited about KU football was full of clips of the middling highlights of whatever the current season was with the sound of Bob Davis losing his mind almost as if he was surprised it was even happening.
Come on. Where is the shot of Aqib Talib's pick six in the Orange Bowl? Or Brandon McAnderson running all over Texas A&M at Kyle Field? Or Gale Sayers running all over Oklahoma in 1964? Or better yet, Nolan Cromwell and Laverne Smith wrecking the #2 ranked Sooners, in Norman, back in 1975? Or the 'Hawks abusing Nebraska to the tune of 76 points?? Or at the very least where's the Reesing-to-Meier 4th-and-7 touchdown pass to beat Mizzou in the 2008 Border War???
Maybe if the Weis era was less defined by more Adidas brand uniform wardrobe changes than the host of an Oscar night, somebody would have had some time to put a decent tape together.
More important than any of that though, is the fact that something needs to be done to more appropriately honor the young men who put their knees and brains at risk to play football for the Jayhawks. It's high time the football program adds to the 14 names currently included on Memorial Stadium's Ring of Honor.
According to the University's criteria, inclusion on the ring is reserved for players who were named First Team All-Americans as Jayhawks. The lone exception to that rule is Willie Pless, who only ever made it as high as Second Team All-American. Pless was a tackling machine who is widely considered one of the greatest linebackers to ever play in the old Big Eight Conference. So, he very much deserves to be up on the ring. However, the fact that Pless is the last name to earn the right to hang up there when he played his last down for the Jayhawks in 1985 looks bad for the program.
It speaks to the, "We're Kansas. We play basketball! Oh, and also football..." apathy surrounding the program that needs to change. If there is ever going to be life in Memorial Stadium again, then the first beats of this resurrected heart needs to come from a proud ownership of past success and the players who brought it.
During Big 12 media days this past week Coach Beaty, encouragingly, talked about returning life to Memorial Stadium.
"When you fill Memorial Stadium... There's not many places like it. That's how I know it. That's how I remember it."
Beaty is remembering his time in Lawrence as an assistant to Mark Mangino. Nine of the top 10 largest crowds in Memorial Stadium's history came during the Mangino era. Excluding the rebuilding season of 2002, Mangino's Jayhawks averaged a 5-1 record at home from 2003 through 2009. They were a perfect 7-0 at home during that ridiculous 2007 season. Yes, remember this time. Play it up for all its worth. The fans, students, and the current and future players of the Kansas program need it.
I have hope this is coming soon, possibly even this season, based on something Beaty said during Big 12 media days about reaching out to past players. "I want our guys to see as many of those guys that bled, sweat and cried on that field, because it's really hard to give up when those guys are always in your face... They're the ones who built that stadium."
This led me to put a call into the University of Kansas Athletic Department.
In 2007 both cornerback Aqib Talib and left tackle Anthony Collins were named First Team All-Americans. Why is it that their names have yet to be added to the Memorial Stadium's Ring of Honor?
After several days of playing phone and email tag with a source in the athletic department who agreed to speak with me on a condition of anonymity - due to the details still being ironed out in this process - I was told that both Talib and Collins are "very much on the program's radar for this honor."
Seeing as how both men are still actively playing in the NFL, it's a matter of coordinating a chance to get them both back to Lawrence.
"We prefer that the inductees are here when we put their names in the Ring of Honor," I was told before more intriguingly learning from this same source that, "As timing would have it, we are actually in the process of revamping the criteria."
To me, that statement screams Todd Reesing. I'm not sure why else they'd be revamping their criteria from that of including All-Americans only. Reesing never made the All-American squad, but the man shattered every meaningful passing record in the Jayhawks' books while captaining the Jayhawks to the winningest three year period in the program's history.
Bringing all three of these guys back to honor them with their names made permanent fixtures at Memorial Stadium would generate excitement in what could be an otherwise painful season. More importantly though, it would be a reminder of an attempt to return to the glory days. A reminder to young Jayhawk fans, Jayhawk students, players and potential recruits that it honestly hasn't been 30 years since Kansas put an impact player on the field.
The road to recovery begins with the Jayhawks acknowledging the pride and traditions from which the program can build upon to finally make Memorial Stadium a home worth defending.