Five seasons ago, KU football started epic fall

08/30/2014 2:11 PM

08/30/2014 5:54 PM

On a warm evening in May, Charlie Weis pressed through a set of interior doors at Sporting Park and waited to make his case. Inside the Members Club, in the soccer stadium’s lower level, close to 150 Kansas alums, boosters and fans gathered to hear a springtime state-of-the-program update from their beleaguered football coach.

KU balloons adorned tables. Cheerleaders greeted fans at the door. A hype video played. And finally, Weis took the stage and offered his vision for the program.

Then there was one more thing.

“For the last month or so, I’ve been listening to the Kansas football fans feel like the sky is falling,” Weis said, pausing for a beat.

“Shut the hell up! I’m tired of listening to it. I really am. We’re all in this together.”

After the worst four-year stretch in school history — a 9-39 record and just two Big 12 victories — a head coach coming off a 3-9 season was telling the fans to stop being so negative.

“When I look at the Kansas program,” one former KU player says, “I just scratch my head.”

In 2007, the Jayhawks finished 12-1, won the Orange Bowl and announced their presence on the national stage. After another bowl victory the following season, the message appeared clear: At a blue-blood basketball school in the heartland, Mark Mangino had built a college football program to be reckoned with.

Five years after Mangino’s final season, the Jayhawks are sitting in a quagmire. They haven’t had a winning record since 2008. They’ve lost 24 straight on the road. Attendance and morale have flat-lined, leaving boosters frustrated and fans in a familiar state of malaise.

So how does a college football program go from really good to really bad, really fast? The answers are complex and the blame cannot be placed on one coach, one regime or one athletic director.

Rather, the story of Kansas football is one of crucial missteps, ego clashes and a power vacuum that drove the on-field product into the ground. There was the ugly departure of Mangino, the failed tenure of Turner Gill, more turnover in administration, a sudden scarcity of talent and a general lack of identity and discipline within the program.

Under Weis, discipline has returned, but consistency remains elusive as quarterbacks and offensive systems have come and gone. There is also this brutal reality: This sort of thing has happened before.

KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger is still trying to move the program forward as Weis begins his third year. A student of military history, Zenger is well-versed in the old clichés about those who do not understand history.

“I’m going to use a vernacular that folks use in the football world,” says Zenger, a former college assistant coach. “When you fire the only football coach that’s ever won an Orange Bowl for you, the football gods don’t smile kindly on that.”

Perhaps this is a solid place to start. Why did KU part ways with its only coach to win the Orange Bowl?

***

On Oct. 16, 2009, the Kansas football team gathered at the Anderson Family Football Complex for its regular Friday walk-through.

For the Jayhawks, 5-0 and ranked No. 17 in the country, life was mostly beautiful. The fall air was crisp and fresh. The campus was buzzing about the latest version of the “Fighting Manginos.”

Moreover, the Jayhawks needed just one win to become bowl eligible for the third straight year, another first for a program that framed the season with a simple slogan: “History awaits.”

As the players finished the workout, they streamed back toward the building, preparing for a team flight to Colorado. Up near the front, a couple were laughing and joking as they entered a small hallway by the locker room. Moments later, according to multiple players present that day, a frustrated Mangino stepped into the hallway and stopped linebacker Arist Wright, still in his practice attire of mesh shorts and a cotton shirt.

“He just blew up,” says Angus Quigley, a former KU linebacker and running back.

The moment quickly escalated. Mangino confronted Wright, poking his chest. Wright knocked Mangino’s hand away, and Mangino continued the tirade.

“Mangino used his hand and pushed him,” Quigley said, “and he told him to his face: ‘You’re done. You’ll never play again.’ And everyone was like: ‘Whoa, what just happened?’”

It was not out of the ordinary for Mangino to rip into players about their focus or discipline. A hardscrabble coach from blue-collar roots in New Castle, Pa., Mangino had built his program on the core tenets of discipline, structure and toughness. He motivated through fear, players say, and there was little question: Kansas football was a dictatorship.

By fall 2009, it was hard to argue with the results. On the day Mangino confronted Wright, he had racked up a 50-41 record and gone to four bowl games in the last six seasons — KU had gone to eight bowls in its previous century-plus of football. Mangino coached with an edge, and his players, often unheralded and un-recruited prospects, bought into the mentality.

“We were just a bunch of decent, scrappy dudes,” former defensive lineman Jeff Wheeler says. “We didn’t care if you were bigger or stronger than us.”

That day in October, however, would turn into a flashpoint for the program — a moment that, coincidence or not, preceded change. Beginning at Colorado, the Jayhawks lost five straight games, and word of the “poke” trickled up to athletic director Lew Perkins.

By mid-November, players were summoned to an evening meeting during which Perkins and associate athletic director Chris Howard broke the ice: Mangino, they said, was being investigated for improper treatment of players. Soon, a list of names was called off — these were players with whom the administration wanted to speak. Most of the names, Quigley recalls, were players who’d had issues with Mangino in the past.

“They started dropping all this stuff that we had known — incidents that we had kept in-house,” says Quigley, who remembers answering questions in a small meeting with Howard. “But obviously, it wasn’t kept in-house.”

Soon, Perkins formally announced the internal investigation. A debate over Mangino’s character played out in public, tarnishing his reputation and torpedoing the season. The Jayhawks finished with seven straight losses.

Instead of making history, Mangino was history.

“It’s hard to stay focused if you don’t know if your coach is going to be there the next day or the next practice,” says Daymond Patterson, a former KU receiver.

In the days after the season, Perkins announced that Mangino had “resigned,” agreeing to a $3 million buyout that kept private the results of the internal investigation. Five years later, it’s still difficult to find a clear story in the wreckage of Mangino’s final weeks. Perkins declined multiple interview requests for this story, while Mangino, now the offensive coordinator at Iowa State, has avoided specifics about his days at KU.

“I’m very proud of the success of the players and the way we did things at Kansas; I’ll stand behind that forever,” Mangino said earlier this year.

He added: “I’m proud that every day I did my best. Every single day. Whether it was the right way or the wrong way, it was well-intentioned and it was my best.”

Six of the former players who spoke for this story believe that the investigation was warranted and that Mangino regularly crossed the line with personal insults and verbal abuse. Among the insults that still resonate: Mangino told one player that “he would send him back to the ’hood and have him on a corner drinking out of a brown paper bag.” Another time, according to Quigley, Mangino referenced a player’s recently deceased grandmother to motivate him.

“He lost the trust of the team,” Quigley says. “The team was done following him. I can tell you that right now.”

Others players, though, still praise the turnaround that Mangino engineered at Kansas. In recent years, Mangino has helped multiple former players claim a foothold in the coaching world. Even Quigley, a staunch critic of Mangino’s style, remembers the days of the “Fighting Manginos” with a prideful nostalgia.

“He was more than a coach to me,” says Kerry Meier, a KU receiver from 2005-09 who is the program’s career leader in catches. “He was a guy that I built a friendship with.”

“He could be a great guy,” adds Joe Mortensen, a former KU linebacker and vocal critic of Mangino during the investigation in 2009. “He could let you know he’s there, let you know he cared.

“It was just, when I was there, it was more ‘beat down, beat down’ than ‘build up’. But a lot of people would argue it kind of brought the team together. That’s how I felt. It was basically the team versus him.”

While Mangino’s transgressions were well-documented, many former players still wonder if his behavior was the true reason he was forced out. Among players, it was no secret that Mangino had a strained relationship with Perkins, who arrived at KU nearly two years after Mangino was hired. Mangino, the players say, did not change overnight.

The Orange Bowl victory may have heightened expectations and escalated tension within the program. But when the Jayhawks were beating rivals and collecting bowl invitations, the personal attacks and tough-love tactics sparked little concern from members of the athletic administration.

“Let’s be honest,” says one former player, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity to protect his current career. “That’s not why Mangino got fired; I mean, I hope everyone in Lawrence knows that by now. Coach Mangino didn’t get fired because of the players.”

***

The color-coded workout cards were gone. So were the detailed instructions printed on them, tailored for each position group. And the gut-busting runs that former Kansas players describe in one word: “Insane.”

When KU’s players gathered in 2010 for their first year of strength and conditioning under new head coach Turner Gill, there was a less-nuanced mandate from new strength coach John Williams:

“‘We’re gonna get strong,’” Quigley recalls. “That’s how it felt … We’re going to do curls, we’re going to lift heavy, and that’s really how it went. The cards went away.”

Under former strength coach Chris Dawson, who now works for head coach Bill Snyder at Kansas State, the Jayhawks’ strength program was a well-structured machine. There was a focus on technique and process, and Dawson was a highly regarded motivator. Like many aspects of Mangino’s program, Dawson’s philosophy was rooted in respecting the little things. Every year, for instance, the staff assigned each player an “accountability partner” — and if you missed a workout, your partner was going to suffer.

When Gill arrived before the 2010 season, this was one of the first signs that things were certainly going to be different in a new regime.

“Opposite ends of the spectrum,” says Steven Johnson, a former linebacker under Mangino and Gill.

In the months after Mangino’s departure, Perkins had swung big, taking a run at then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh. When that option fell apart, he landed on Gill, a Nebraska quarterback legend who had resuscitated a terrible program at Buffalo. The contract they settled upon was five years for $10 million, all guaranteed.

Gill was the embodiment of a players’ coach, focused on maximizing the college experience. Bibles were toted into meeting rooms. Players were encouraged to find joy in football.

“What he walked into at Kansas, I don’t think he was necessarily ready for it,” says Brad Thorson, a former offensive lineman under Mangino and Gill. “We were athletes that were trained to react based on fear, and we were asked to behave based on personal responsibility.

“It’s the right message, but it was such a significant shift, I think it was tough for him to control the discipline.”

Under Mangino, low-level staffers in the football office were often asked to check on star players in class. Meetings were small and tense affairs. Players were told to be on “Hawk Time,” 10 minutes early to everything.

Under Gill, Hawk Time was gone. More and more players skipped tutoring sessions and classes. Players naturally let up, seeing how far they could push the line of acceptability.

“(Guys said) ‘I’m running a little late; I’ll just show up to meetings five minutes late,’” Thorson says. “Those things become cancerous.’”

If Gill’s philosophy was noble, it was also an awful fit. He took away cellphones on road trips. He installed a strict curfew. He took players’ names off the Jayhawks’ jerseys and instituted a “no swearing” policy around the football facility. Many players rebelled and the threat of punishment from Mangino was now gone. The relaxed mentality bled into Gill’s coaching staff, as well. According to one former assistant, one coach was caught napping multiple times by other staffers.

The Jayhawks went 5-19 in two seasons under Gill, often getting bludgeoned in the process. Attendance, which hit an average of 50,907 in 50,071-seat Memorial Stadium after KU’s 2007 Orange Bowl season, plummeted to 42,283 per game in Gill’s final year and 37,884 last year.

While Gill won some early battles in recruiting, Kansas was no longer churning lower-ranked recruits into stars or developing talent on the offensive and defensive lines. On that front, players say, the program missed Dawson.

When Zenger arrived in 2011 — following Perkins’ retirement in the wake of a $2 million dollar basketball ticket scandal — he began an excavation process to evaluate the foundation of the program. Zenger cut bait, paying Gill the remaining $6 million on his contract to walk away.

“This quicksand was grabbing us by the ankles pretty good,” Zenger says now. “… If I had felt that things were going well in the classroom, the weight room (and) off the field — that the foundation was being laid as we wanted — then I would go tell any fan to hang in there. I couldn’t do that.”

Gill, now the head coach at Liberty University, declined to comment for this story. But more than two years after he left KU, nearly all the former players that spoke for this story say they still hold Gill in high regard. He treated players with respect, they say, and he emphasized character and growth. Some even believe he needed more time for his experiment to take root.

“The guy is dear to my heart,” says Olaitan Oguntodu, a former linebacker under Mangino and Gill.

“To blame Gill solely for two years,” Patterson says, “I don’t think that’s fair.”

In life and college football, though, fairness is often a relative term. While Gill may have been tasked with an impossible job, others believe his failings ran deeper than a simple culture change. Sometimes football is about … well, football.

In the late 2000s, Mangino had assembled a staff of inventive young football minds. Former assistant David Beaty is now at Texas A&M. Former offensive coordinator Ed Warinner is now at Ohio State. Former assistants Clint Bowen and John Reagan are now coordinators for Weis. It was the right staff to mold a golden era of talent, and they found ways to cover up for KU’s historical disadvantages.

“We always have to be innovative with the way we operate,” says Bowen, who also played for former KU coach Glen Mason in the early 1990s. “We can’t just can’t do everything exactly like everyone else does.”

Under Warinner, Thorson says, the Jayhawks’ high-powered spread attack was “incredibly simple offensive football.” The scheme consisted of three runs, 10 passes and two pass-protections. The players made few mistakes. And it worked.

Quarterback Todd Reesing shattered the KU record books, piling up the program’s first three 3,000-yard passing seasons and leading the Jayhawks to the Orange Bowl. One of his main targets, receiver Dezmon Briscoe, broke KU’s career receiving record by nearly 1,000 yards.

“We had good players,” Oguntodu says, mentioning future NFL defensive standouts Aqib Talib and Chris Harris. “And we had good coaches.”

In time, perhaps Turner Gill would have adjusted to the demands of Kansas. After two years, Zenger had no interest in waiting.

***

He was hired to clean up a program in disarray, so Charlie Weis began with the roster: Just months after arriving at Kansas in December 2011, Weis tossed 29 scholarship players off the team. Not exactly a subtle entrance.

Zenger believed Weis was the man for a rebuild. His philosophy was simple: He needed a “warhorse.” He coveted a coach with experience as a coordinator. He believed in Weis as a disciplinarian. He hoped Weis’ NFL pedigree could generate a recruiting bump.

“We were 10 out of 10 in the league from a recruiting standpoint,” Zenger says. “We didn’t have a lot to offer at that point.”

Two years later, the Jayhawks are 4-20 under Weis — with one Big 12 victory — and the program appears to be at a crossroads. Weis has three years and $7.5 million remaining on his contract. And as much as Kansas officials desire to avoid more turnover and chaos — can they really afford another three-win season?

“We need momentum,” Zenger says. “Well, let’s be real clear: momentum is wins.”

From his beginning days at KU, Weis has styled himself as a disciplinarian and an academic stickler. The team raised its GPA from 2.4 to 3.0 his first semester and strength and conditioning coach Scott Holsopple brought structure to the weight room.

Weis applied a consistent hammer of discipline. He defends his early purge of players, but he concedes that it drained resources from a fragile roster. (“I miscalculated the impact,” he says.)

But to this point, the program cleanup has not led to more on-field success.

When he arrived, Weis was seen as a quarterback guru. He coordinated the New England Patriots’ offense under Tom Brady to three Super Bowls and helped the Chiefs make the playoffs in 2010 under Matt Cassel.

But at KU, Weis is on his third starter in three years after the failures of transfers Dayne Crist and Jake Heaps. His pro-style system was a disastrous fit, and Weis hired John Reagan in the offseason to bring the college-style spread back to Kansas.

“He humbled himself,” Zenger says.

“We obviously needed to make changes or else we would be 3-9 again,” Weis says.

So what now?

Seven years after Orange Bowl glory, the public is left with a framework of failure — but not quite the full picture. Those directly involved have little motivation to discuss the past or pick at old wounds. The past is now prologue.

But sitting in his office on a summer morning, Zenger traces the past and hopes that it holds hope for the future. For the last 25 years, Kansas has seen a familiar cycle. A tough-minded disciplinarian has molded a winner. A nice guy has failed. Glen Mason begat Terry Allen. Mark Mangino begat Turner Gill.

“There’s certainly a cycle here,” Zenger says. “We’d like to think we’re in an uptick right now.”

This is partly why Weis now has two former Mangino assistants — Bowen and Reagan — as his coordinators. (“That didn’t happen by accident,” Zenger says.) This is partly why Kansas is counting on Weis. And this is partly why Zenger is here, on the eve of another football season, hoping for mercy from the football gods.

Reach Rustin Dodd at rdodd@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.

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