LAWRENCE — Jeremiah Hatch had just experienced the 28th defeat of his Kansas football career, but that didn't make KU's 13-10 loss to Iowa State last weekend any easier to take.
Hatch, like the rest of his senior class, had not given up on this season. The rest of the Jayhawks followed their lead, taking the Cyclones deep into the fourth quarter before succumbing yet again. Hatch walked off the Jack Trice Stadium field and into the KU locker room and couldn't hold back his hurt.
"I might have shed a tear," Hatch said. "I might have."
As these seniors prepare to play their final game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday against Baylor, it is clear that the consistent losing has not broken them — even though they all arrived at KU imagining that they would accomplish so much more. The fifth-year seniors like Hatch redshirted during the Orange Bowl season. The four-year guys like tight end Tim Biere committed to Kansas during that magical ride and figured they were signing up for something special.
Instead, they have endured a demoralizing 5-23 stretch that began with a loss at Colorado on Oct. 17, 2009, when the Jayhawks were ranked 16th. They are now staring at a possible second coaching change in three seasons if KU coach Turner Gill is not able to get things going in the right direction during the next three games.
Still, Hatch has been around for greatness at Kansas, and the Jayhawks beat Iowa State his first three years. To Hatch, beating the Cyclones is something KU is supposed to do.
"I came in expecting to win," Hatch said. "I wanted to win. I needed a win. Anytime you do that and you take a loss... that was a tough loss."
This is not what Gill imagined either when he took over the Jayhawks in Dec. 2009. Then, he talked about winning the Big 12 North (which is no longer a possibility), winning the Big 12, beating Missouri (which may no longer be a possibility) and recruiting the best players from around the country, and now it's unclear whether he will have the chance to coach the one class of recruits he's brought in past this season.
Given that context, Gill can preach a heartfelt message to his seniors who are desperate for something good to happen.
"I always talk to them about, 'It's like life,' " Gill said. "You're going to have some ups and downs. You're going to have to stop and think about 'How am I going to continue to do this?' Football is a part of your life experience. It teaches you a lot about things you will have to deal with down the road. I think it's going to help them to deal with things and make them better people in our society. That's the overall picture of college athletics."
Gill has always known that he would be defined by wins and losses. But he has also always maintained that he is here to help mold young men. So far, the dual mission of winning on the field and being a life coach to the players has not panned out. But Gill is still thinking big picture.
"It's a win-win deal for our guys," Gill said, "and I really think our guys believe in what we're doing here. It's unfortunate we won't have the W's as far as for our seniors like they wanted, but they are still teaching these young guys and still encouraging them."
Gill gave credit to the seniors for keeping this team together. Certainly, the KU football graduating class of 2012 will know how to respond when things don't go their way.
"It sets up well for the rest of our lives," Biere said. "Here at Kansas, we've seen some tough times, but everybody is pretty resilient around here."
The resiliency nearly paid off against Iowa State, which made it even more painful.
"Anytime you take a lot of heavy blows like we're taking," Hatch said, "you tend to learn things. Keep your head up. Stay positive. So, you learn a lot."