LAWRENCE — There truly wasn't anything Kansas coach Turner Gill could have said after his team's latest embarrassment, a 59-21 thrashing by rival Kansas State, that could restore hope for a fan base that is growing more disillusioned by the day.
Only one man in town Saturday had the ability to reassure the crimson-and-blue faithful, and KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger decided it was time to weigh in on the state of the program being run by a second-year coach he inherited from former athletic director Lew Perkins.
After four straight losses, Zenger kept quiet. He has talked about being measured in his approach to evaluating his coaches and their programs, but a fifth straight loss and second straight blowout defeat against the Wildcats in Memorial Stadium was enough for Zenger to speak up.
"I don't expect any player, coach, administrator, fan or alum to accept the performance on the field today or in recent weeks," Zenger said. "We will get this thing fixed.
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"We will continue to evaluate the program on a week-by-week basis. At the University of Kansas, we will never make complete evaluations until the season is complete and the body of work is in."
Zenger knows what it takes to build a winning football program. He worked under Bill Snyder at K-State as a graduate student and coached under Jim Leavitt at South Florida before deciding to become an administrator. That Zenger did not issue a vote of confidence for Gill, who is 5-14 at Kansas and 1-11 in the Big 12, is saying something by omission.
The heat is now turned up. KU has five games left after losing its last five by an average of 33 points. There is still time to show progress, but even the ultra-positive Gill admitted that none was made against K-State.
"I think today we maybe took a little step back in terms of improving and that part of it," Gill said. "What's coming to the surface is our inexperience. There's a little bit of a temporary setback. That's what I see. It's one football game."
On Saturday, it was 4 minutes and 41 seconds of football that could end up defining the Gill era. The Jayhawks looked to be showing life when they scored a touchdown on a Jordan Webb pass to D.J. Beshears to pull within 28-14 with 14 seconds left in the first half.
But this time KU didn't wait until the third quarter to start its meltdown. With 11 seconds left and the ball at the K-State 43, K-State quarterback Collin Klein found a wide-open Tyler Lockett over the middle of the field for a 48-yard gain. K-State kicker Anthony Cantele made a 26-yard field goal to give the Wildcats a 31-14 lead at the half.
"As a defense we probably went out there thinking they're about to kneel the ball or run the ball," KU linebacker Steven Johnson said. "It's just us getting lazy, something that has to stop."
Apparently, the Jayhawks had the same problem this week at practice.
"The coaches felt that we were really good at the beginning of the week, our energy level was really high," KU quarterback Jordan Webb said. "Then it kind of tapered off throughout the week. If that happens, you can't come out here on Saturday and expect to beat a really good team."
Yes, if KU's players can't get motivated to practice hard for K-State, then what happened after halftime should come as no surprise. Lockett returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. Then KU running back Tony Pierson fumbled the ball back to the Wildcats at the KU 8, and Klein rushed for a 1-yard touchdown. Webb fumbled on the Jayhawks' next possession, and K-State scored on a pass from Klein to Lockett.
With 10:33 left in the third quarter, Kansas suddenly trailed 52-14.
"Right now we're not quite capable as a team to overcome adversity with the kind of grit that we need," KU defensive coordinator Vic Shealy said. "That's something we're trying to coach and challenge our players."
The Jayhawks are hitting more in practice this season in an effort to create toughness. It hasn't worked yet, and Johnson knows what that means for Gill.
"Coach Gill has to take the blame and the brunt for it," Johnson said. "I look up to him because he takes so much heat, but he still comes in every day and doesn't let it phase him. I'm pretty sure you guys and other people will talk bad about him and try to get him out of here, but I feel as though that would be a big mistake. This program is on the rise. You may not see it right now, but we fight every day. It's just a tough patch right now."
A patch so tough that Gill, who still has three years and $6 million left on his contract, had to answer the first of what could be many questions about his job security.
"I'm here to coach and teach," Gill said. "I still believe in my ability to coach, I still believe in my ability to develop, I believe in this staff's ability to teach and develop. I feel good about it. It's just taken a little bit longer time to get things done."