LAWRENCE — The voice on the other end of the phone line is one of the greatest players in Kansas football history. But he’s no expert. Hasn’t been for years. And John Riggins can admit that.
So when Riggins, a Jayhawk legend who played running back from 1968-70, hears the statistic, he responds with a mix of mild surprise and acceptance. With a loss on Saturday at Memorial Stadium against the heavily favored Oklahoma State Cowboys, KU will drop below .500 as a program for the first time since 1891.
“Really?” Riggins asks casually, “Well…”
The history lesson is brief: In its first season in 1890, Kansas finished 1-2 before starting the 1891 season with victories over Missouri and Washburn. The Jayhawks finished the season 7-0-1. They haven’t been below .500 since.
Some see the historical nugget as an irrelevant note that has little bearing on how Charlie Weis’ Jayhawks perform the rest of the season. Others see it as another reminder of how much the program has slipped in the last three seasons. The Jayhawks are 6-30 in their last 36 games and in danger of completing one of the worst 40-game stretches in program history.
But if you look at the short list of other BCS programs that have been around as long as Kansas and are also below .500, you’ll see that former KU coach Mark Mangino may have been on to something when he remarked: “Anybody can have a bad century.”
The list of historical underachievers includes Iowa State, Kansas State, Northwestern and Oregon State — all programs that have had greater success in the last two decades. And for all the disastrous losses, Kansas is just five years removed from an Orange Bowl title.
Riggins, though, sees a program that just needs a steady hand in charge. The story, Riggins says, is less about historical precedent and more about the coach.
“When you look at it, you gotta hand it to the guys down the road on I-70 a little bit,” Riggins says of K-State. “How did they do it? They clearly have the right coach.”
The history of KU football provides something of an ink-blot test. On one hand, the Jayhawks can boast a program that produced NFL legends (Gale Sayers and Riggins) and college greats (Bobby Douglass and John Hadl). Riggins helped the Jayhawks to one Orange Bowl in 1968 before their Orange Bowl title in the 2007 season.
On the other hand, the Jayhawks have had two coaches in the last 50 years (Pepper Rodgers and Mangino) finish their tenure with a record above .500. And before the 2008 Insight Bowl, the Jayhawks had never made bowl games in back-to-back seasons. A loss on Saturday would be another check in the negative column.
On Friday, Riggins, now 63, was back in his hometown of Centralia, his family being honored at the old high school. He follows KU casually these days, but of course, he’d like to see them back in a more stable position. Hopefully, Riggins says, Weis can be that person.
“You have to create the illusion,” Riggins said, “and so far Charlie’s created quite the illusion. But so far… not a lot to show for it.
“You gotta find that diamond in the rough. You find that guy that, really, this is where his place is — and I’m not saying that isn’t Charlie Weis. There’s many different ways to skin a cat.”