In the summer of 2015, before Kansas Coach David Beaty even coached his first game at Memorial Stadium, I made the point that KU Football seems to ignore, let alone celebrate, its past successes. While minor in comparison to recruiting and coaching competency, the bland, lifeless atmosphere and lack of celebration of the program and its history contributes to the hapless feeling around Jayhawk football.
At the time, I actually reached out to the athletic department and a source who chose to remain nameless informed me that the department was aware of and taking this issue seriously. I was also told that they were working on bringing past players back to campus and celebrating past successes in a big way in the near future.
Well, kudos to the Athletic Department of the University of Kansas, because they seem to have addressed any and all issues I had with KU football’s presentation in the summer of ‘15.
If you haven’t seen the improvements to Memorial Stadium yet, then you are in for a fine surprise. It looks fantastic. They’ve dressed it up nice, adorned it with massive images of great players new and old. And in honor of the tenth anniversary of the greatest team and season in the program’s history, the AD is bringing back the 2007 Orange Bowl team to be honored during tonight’s game. That includes the big man, former head coach Mark Mangino - something I honestly didn’t ever see happening.
I can’t wait to see it all. In addition to Coach Beaty’s uptick in recruiting classes of the past two seasons, the seriousness with which the program seems to be taking the change of football culture on the whole is very encouraging.
Many ‘Hawk fans are looking at this season, Beaty’s third, hoping it will provide a turnaround the likes of which they saw in Mangino’s second season (2003). The 2002 ‘Hawks struggled to a 2-10 record, but in ‘03 they were much improved, winning six games and securing bowl eligibility.
Now, the Terry Allen years left things a little stark in Lawrence when Mangino arrived, but in comparison to the scorched earth aftermath of the Charlie Weis era left to Coach Beaty three seasons ago, it’s not really fair for Jayhawk fans to think bowl or bust this season. There are, however, some encouraging similarities to that ‘03 season to inspire hope.
That ‘03 season started with a game against Northwestern at Memorial Stadium in an absolute monsoon. The sheets of rain really ugged up what ended up being a hell of a game. Northwestern had a 14-7 lead and was driving for more when KU defensive end (and family friend of mine) David McMillan picked off a pass and took it back to the house to tie the game. (God rest his soul. David was shot and killed in an attempted robbery outside of Atlanta in 2013).
After McMillan’s pick six, it was game on, with the teams trading scores, and KU’s attempt to force overtime dying on the five yard line. Even though the season started with a loss, KU fans saw a greatly improved roster and effort. Kansas then went on to win five straight games, including a 35-14 drubbing of then 23rd-ranked Mizzou in Lawrence.
While tonight’s game will be against a much worse opponent than the Northwestern Wildcats, ‘Hawk fans will be looking for improvement in play as well. While I’m not sold on the Air Raid offense, I am encouraged by the depth at wide receiver and improved QB play, whether it’s Carter Stanley or Payton Bender. But I’m most encouraged by the depth of the improving defense. Dorance Armstrong Jr. emerged as a monster on the D Line last season, and Mike Lee looks to continue KU’s quiet reputation as DB University in sending quality pass defenders to the NFL.
That’s where the improvement started in ‘03 and the Mangino era. It started with the defense. And I feel like that turn is starting to take place again under Beaty. The depth on that side of the ball will lead to even more improvement in the coming years.
So be excited, ‘Hawk fans. If for nothing else, be excited for the fact that college football is back. The parties on Alabama and Illinois Streets north of the stadium are already going, and the Hill is full of tailgaters, all of which making for one of the underappreciated but solid pregame college football atmospheres in the Big 12.