LAWRENCE — The most surprising thing about the Kansas football team's weekly gathering with reporters Tuesday was not that the Jayhawks spent a considerable amount of time talking about Texas Tech girls, KU girls and girlfriends of football players in general.
No, what had heads spinning was the identity of the guy who was willing to get it all started.
"There's pretty girls everywhere," KU coach Mark Mangino said. "Tech's got their share, KU has their share. We're partial. We think KU has the best. I think you can have fun with it. That's what Mike is trying to do."
That would be Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, who is known for saying outlandish things. Mangino, on the other hand, is known for saying nothing. So when Leach asserted after the Red Raiders' 52-30 loss to Texas A&M on Saturday that his players must have been listening to their "fat little girlfriends," you would have figured Mangino would avoid the topic altogether.
Never miss a local story.
Instead, Mangino defended Leach's usage of free speech. The two were assistants on the 1999 Oklahoma staff.
"Mike's the type of guy, he speaks what he's thinking," Mangino said. "To some degree, I think it's good. You can't accuse him of being a hypocrite. He tells it like it is."
Mangino, as it turns out, is a bit envious of coaches who allow themselves more freedom from the podium than he does.
"We're really uptight in society," Mangino said. "We're really politically correct. I love watching Joe Paterno's press conferences. We watch them on tape. I think they're the best. He is the king of college football. He can say anything he wants, and I love it. He's earned the right to do that. I sit there and I say, 'Jeez, if I said something like that, I'd have to apologize.' We need a little bit of that. We're too uptight in this society. We need to loosen up and have some fun and not everybody take everything so literally."
Mangino's comments had some of those present in the Anderson Family Football Complex wondering if they had ever really known the man at all. At age 53, in his eighth season in Lawrence, has Mangino decided to open up and show his true colors? All of a sudden, he is a coach who gushes about his players and promotes them for individual postseason awards. He is a coach who takes time to analyze other coaches' press conferences. He is a coach who could have fit in just fine at Woodstock.
OK, that may be a stretch.
"This here is a democracy... to a point," Mangino said. "But the cutoff line, we don't talk to players about who their girlfriend should be, what they should look like, all that. I'm telling you, our coaches aren't sitting up here until 10:30, 11 o' clock at night worried about our players' girlfriends."
Mangino's discourse on freedom of speech set the tone for his players and coaches, who also spoke more openly than usual. Redshirt freshman safety Lubbock Smith, making just his second appearance in front of reporters, was asked if he had heard Leach's comments and if he had a girlfriend. He did. He met her at KU.
"She talks football all the time," Smith said. "That's all she likes to talk about. I don't listen to my girlfriend when it comes to football. I listen to my coaches."
Smith and sophomore cornerback Daymond Patterson both said that KU coaches have talked with them about managing distractions such as girlfriends.
"The biggest thing Coach talks about, if it's going to be your girlfriend, mom, dad, fans, don't let them get into your heads too much, telling you that you're the greatest player," Patterson said.
That idea is at least a part of what Leach was trying to convey about his Red Raiders, who may have started thinking they were better than they are after a 31-10 win at Nebraska on Oct. 17. Now, after laying an egg at home against the Aggies, nobody knows how good Texas Tech is. Of course, thanks to Leach, there has been more talk about the body type of the Red Raiders' girlfriends than their leaky defense.
Even the Jayhawks, Texas Tech's next opponent, couldn't help but wonder if Leach's words may affect the program's future.
"I don't think high school players would want to go to a school where all the girls would be fat," Patterson said.
KU defensive coordinator Clint Bowen laughed when told of Leach's latest diatribe.
"I think that's a bad statement for the recruiting of Texas Tech," Bowen joked. "No one wants to go there if they have 'fat little girlfriends.' Here at Kansas, our players' attractive girlfriends, whatever they are, they're very smart KU students."
It was that kind of day in Lawrence. By the end of it, nothing that was said felt like a surprise.