University of Kansas

Die-hard Jayhawks look for football hope

LAWRENCE — Some Kansas football fans remember the view from the mountaintop. Others cherish memories from the steps it took to get there.

For Paul Turec, the fairy tale begins in October 2004, when the Jayhawks ended their 11-game losing streak to Kansas State. KU went just 4-7 that year, but that win was the only sign he needed.

For Jason Keiter, the rise became clear while standing with his father on the Memorial Stadium field a year later in November 2005 after the Jayhawks' first win over Nebraska since 1968. Dad sure was emotional that day.

For Luke Bettis, who grew up a KU fan in Wichita during K-State's decade of glory, the now-we're-talking moment came in October 2007, when the Jayhawks won in Manhattan for the first time since 1989.

For Mark Brentano, who went to K-State in the late '90s but still attended every KU home game of the dreadful Terry Allen years, the weather in January 2008 in Miami sticks out. Temperatures were frigid that night as the Jayhawks knocked off No. 3 Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, but the electricity Brentano felt surrounded by joyous KU fans made him feel warmer than any extra layering could have.

"We could have lit up half of Miami in that stadium," Brentano says.

On that night, on the grandest of stages and after more than a century of waiting, Kansas football had finally arrived. Mark Mangino, standing on a podium holding an orange, seemingly would have a job at KU for life. Lawrence, Kan., the land football forgot, would at last be on the map.

Then, within two years, it was all taken away. Mangino gone. A program divided. Turner Gill in. A 3-9 record last season, dropping KU to 3-16 since entering a 2009 game at Colorado 5-0 and ranked No. 16 in the country. For long-suffering supporters, the reality of starting over again.

"It almost kind of felt like being on a financial bubble," Turec says. "I think a lot of KU football fans had a hard time believing it was actually happening, and then it just burst. It just fell apart. It vaporized as quickly as it came together."

So what does all of this mean for Gill and the future? It could make one of the hardest coaching jobs in college football even harder. Because fans have experienced success recently, they'll be less tolerant of early struggles that inevitably happen on the way to prosperity.

No matter what, it is going to take time, a tired refrain for those who fell for the tease of 2007.

This week, Sports Illustrated released its 2011 college football preview. Almost four years after the magazine put Kansas football on its cover with the headline "Dream season," it predicted KU to finish 1-11. It's almost as though the greatest run in program history never happened.

* * *

In the spring of 2009, when Sheahon Zenger was athletic director at Illinois State, his women's basketball team traveled to Lawrence to play Kansas in the Women's NIT. Zenger, a native Kansan who got his doctoral degree at KU, came to the game and wanted to show the folks from Illinois around.

Before the game, Zenger took a group into the Booth Family Hall of Athletics. In one case sat the 2008 Orange Bowl trophy. In another sat the 2008 NCAA basketball championship trophy. The visitors were blown away.

Back then, the football team looked like it had turned the corner and could join the basketball program as a consistent postseason participant. Two years later, fans have flocked out of Memorial Stadium and Zenger is overseeing a total rebuild in his first year at KU.

Fans expect Zenger to be meticulously evaluating every move of Gill's program — especially because Zenger should have the skill-set to do it. Zenger has a football background, having been director of football operations under Bill Snyder at Kansas State and an assistant coach at South Florida and Wyoming.

But Zenger, who would have to pay Gill the entire salary owed to him if he is fired before his contract runs out at the end of the 2014 season, has no choice but to remain patient. Gill will make $8 million over the next four years.

"The key word we're all searching for is sustainability," Zenger says. "You want to build something that's sustainable. Building a football program is a step-by-step, day-by-day, year-by-year process."

That's how KU built its team leading up to the Orange Bowl.

"Your margin of error is a lot smaller than a lot of places," says Clint Bowen, who played at KU during 1992-93 and was an assistant coach for eight years under Mangino. "You've gotta develop kids more than at some programs."

Bowen says development, more than recruiting, was the key to Kansas' improbable climb. But that system broke down in 2009.

It couldn't have happened at a worse time. Before the season, former KU athletic director Lew Perkins announced plans for the $34 million Gridiron Club, a luxury club expansion to the east side of Memorial Stadium. With the team ranked in the Top 25, the next step was to take the stadium closer to the big-time — increasing revenue and improving the appearance of one of the oldest and smallest venues in the Big 12. But within months, Perkins was investigating Mangino for his alleged mistreatment of players and hiring Gill, a coach with a 20-30 record at Buffalo, to replace him.

The Gridiron Club soon died, and then Nebraska and Colorado left the Big 12 for the Big Ten and Pac-12. The Big 12 nearly didn't survive, a threat that showed KU's lack of a flagship football program was going to put it in a precarious situation.

A year later, with Texas A&M possibly on its way to the Southeastern Conference, Kansas hasn't improved its football stock in the minds of the people who matter — TV executives and conference commissioners. If the Big 12 breaks apart, KU would be counting once again on its blueblood basketball program to make sure it landed safely.

"Now our job is to make sure that all the other sports catch up," Zenger says, "and football has to be at the front of that."

* * *

An assumption too often made is that, if things don't go well for the Kansas football program, the entire KU fan base is more than happy to begin the countdown to "Late Night at the Phog" and the beginning of basketball season.

This may be true for many fans, but there's a subsection that actually cares more about football than basketball. Fans of other programs may find this fact hard to believe, but these KU football die-hards exist. Heck, without them, Memorial Stadium may have been close to empty by the end of last season.

Mark Browne, a 24-year-old KU grad from Kansas City, Kan., is one of these tortured souls. He says his preference for football over basketball is usually met with shock by fellow Jayhawks.

"I kind of liken it to underground music," Browne says, "because no one knows about it yet. KU football, there's just something about it. When they do have success, you feel like someone that has ridden with them all the way through."

When the Jayhawks nearly rose to the top of the college football charts in 2007, Browne and KU's real Gridiron Club got to say, "Hey, I've known about these guys for years!" They were happy to have company in Memorial, which was finally playing host to packed houses and television trucks from ABC and ESPN, but they've seen enough KU football to figure the attention wouldn't last.

"There was a pretty substantial increase the Orange Bowl year and the year after," says 37-year-old Jason Keiter, who drives up for games from Parsons "and then where have those people been the last year or two?"

They're the same kind of fans who tormented Bettis and Ryan Staub when they were growing up in Wichita — fans who had the nerve to cheer for KU basketball and K-State football.

"That always really rubbed me the wrong way," says Bettis, KU class of 2008. "I latched onto KU football. Of course, I loved the Hawks in basketball, but it took a lot more dedication to be a KU football fan."

These are the members of Jayhawk Nation who rode the roller coaster of the last four years, experiencing the ride as catharsis. They believed that the worst was behind them, and now they enter another season with the fear of falling further from respectability. They are realistic, and they have adjusted their expectations because that's the only way to get through another autumn.

"I don't want to see us getting blown out in the first half of games," Staub says. "I want to see us competitive, to see us fighting, even if we are down. Last year's team didn't seem to have much fight. KU fans this year need to see it."

Related stories from Wichita Eagle