LAWRENCE — He entered the locker room and began to peel off his pads, his mind wandering toward the future. It felt bright and real.
Tanner Hawkinson was a redshirt freshman starter on the No. 16 team in the country, and he’d just blocked his guts out in a wild 41-36 victory over Iowa State at Memorial Stadium. It was Oct. 10, 2009.
This was why Hawkinson chose KU, for moments like this. He had arrived in the fall of 2008, just months after the Jayhawks had celebrated a 12-1 season and Orange Bowl victory, and watched from the sideline as Kansas won the Insight Bowl, the first time the Jayhawks had reached back-to-back bowl games. Now they were 5-0.
“One more game,” Hawkinson told freshman teammate Trevor Marrongelli in the postgame chaos, “and we’re going to a bowl game.”
More than three years later, Hawkinson sits in the KU football offices and remembers the story. In many ways, it feels weird to talk about — just three years ago, the Jayhawks were a nationally ranked program with a growing reputation.
Hawkinson, now a senior offensive tackle, even stops for a moment and remembers the slogan from that season.
“History awaits,” he says.
History did await. But not the kind the Jayhawks were expecting.
In the last three and a half seasons, dating back to the Iowa State victory, the KU football program has gone into a stunning freefall, losing 35 of its last 41 games. Two coaches have been fired — one after a whiff of scandal, the other after two years of ineptitude — and the Jayhawks are riding a 19-game Big 12 losing streak into Saturday’s home finale against the Cyclones.
How did it go so bad, so fast?
To get an idea, you have to listen to the senior class, a collection of players that have grinded through the coaching changes and miserable seasons — and have emerged with a new perspective on football, and life.
“It’s been a humbling experience,” senior safety Bradley McDougald says, “but it also makes you that much hungrier.”
They came to Lawrence for different reasons. Family connections drew Hawkinson, from McPherson, Kan., to Lawrence. Daymond Patterson was a speedy receiver from Mesquite, Texas, and the Jayhawks’ spread offense was the perfect fit. Kale Pick was a standout quarterback from Dodge City, Kan., who grew up rooting for Nebraska’s Eric Crouch. But then Pick saw the success Mark Mangino was having in Lawrence, and it just seemed like the place for him.
“They had just won the Orange Bowl,” Pick says now. “I really liked how things were going.”
It’s too simple to say that football players select their school based on the coach. But Marrongelli, now a senior center, says there’s some truth to it. He picked Kansas, in part, because he was a math junky and thought the KU business school would be a great place to study finance. But he also believed in Mangino and the program he was building.
“I thought he’d be here forever,” Marrongelli says. “It was kind of a shock to see him go.”
Kansas’ seniors have been conditioned to move on from the past, to not compare one regime to another. But change was such a constant part of their college experience that it’s hard to not look back.
“It’s still KU, but it’s not the same KU,” Marrongelli says. “It’s a different KU each time we get a new coach. It feels like it’s a whole new school, almost.”
The first change came after the 2009 season, when Mangino resigned amidst accusations and an investigation into his treatment of players. Then athletic director Lew Perkins hired Buffalo coach Turner Gill to replace Mangino, calling it a “magic moment” for Kansas.
It was anything but. The discipline that had been instilled under Mangino began to evaporate. Players stopped going to class. The Jayhawks were woefully unprepared to compete in the Big 12.
“Guys getting into trouble,” McDougald says, describing the years. “Guys not playing and doing things as a true Jayhawk should.”
The Gill experiment lasted just two years before new athletic director Sheahon Zenger pulled the plug. Morale had dipped. Attendance was waning. And for the second time in three years, Kansas’ seniors were going through a coaching change.
“I was like, ‘Wow,’” Marrongelli says. “I can’t believe this is happening again.”
Saturday is senior day. And if Bradley McDougald is honest with himself, he knows he might shed a tear or two.
Growing up in Ohio, he never thought he’d go to college — let alone graduate. Now he knows he will, and that his college football days are coming to an end. But for this KU senior class, the emotions are even more conflicting.
In a world that boils almost everything down to winners and losers, these seniors will leave school with one of the worst records in KU history. But here’s the thing: They don’t feel like losers.
What other senior class has been through what these players have? What other players have been through two coaching changes, or had their confidence sandblasted week after week?
When senior defensive end Toben Opurum says that he’s been through too many position coaches to remember — “Sometimes it changed during the week,” he says — he does so with a straight face.
What other players would have kept coming back, sweating through the offseason workouts, only to endure another 1-9 season?
“A lot of these guys are on their third coach,” KU coach Charlie Weis says. “I can’t even imagine that.”
There’s an old story around the KU football program, one that’s endured the losses and coaching changes. In 2002, Mangino’s first year in Lawrence, the Jayhawks stumbled to a 2-10 season.
All the while, Mangino was ruthless, putting his players through the toughest workouts of their lives and demanding more. Mangino kept telling his upperclassmen that they were the building blocks, and when KU’s seniors walked out the door, Mangino left them with a message: Before the Jayhawks could win, some blood had to be spilled.
“He was always saying stuff like that,” says Danny Lewis, an offensive linemen on Mangino’s first team.
Earlier this week, KU senior safety Lubbock Smith heard the story and began to nod. For the last year, Kansas’ seniors have done the same things. They put their trust into another new coach. They bought in. And the reward: More losing.
The only hope, Smith says, is that all the work will come to mean something.
“I definitely feel that way,” Smith says. “… A lot of guys have put a lot into this program, even before us … Hopefully, God willing, things will get turned around.”
McDougald says that his KU career feels like a “V-shape,” that Kansas is finally trending up after a lengthy nose-dive. Opurum and Marrongelli agree.
KU’s seniors were present for one of the most turbulent periods in KU football’s history. Perhaps they weren’t quite good enough to keep things afloat. But maybe a collection of outside forces — the coaching changes, the men in charge, the roster turnover — created something close to an unwinnable hand.
On Saturday, they will play their final game at Memorial Stadium. And Hawkinson, now a hardened senior, will start his 47th straight game, a school record. Nearly three years ago, he dreamed about going bowling in some exotic locale. And now, here he is, still sitting next to Marrongelli after a practice in early November. For three years, the losses have piled up. But so have the relationships, Hawkinson says, and in 10 years, maybe those will mean just as much.
“Honestly, it hasn’t been going in our favor too much,” Hawkinson says. “But being with these guys every day … we’ve still just come in to work.”