The blue Gatorade had been dumped on the coach’s head. The Kansas students had hopped a short railing and cascaded onto the field. The yellow goal post in the south end zone had been hastily dismantled and ushered off to the bottom of Potter Lake, the body of water at the foot of Mt. Oread.
It was late on Saturday evening at Memorial Stadium, the Kansas Jayhawks exulting in a dominating 34-14 victory over Iowa State, and senior linebacker Ben Heeney finally pushed through a doorway, arriving back inside the KU locker room.
Standing near the entrance was Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger, who clutched a football in his hands. He handed it to Heeney, the bearded senior captain and Kansas native, and offered one instruction.
Moments later, Heeney stepped in front of his teammates and found interim coach Clint Bowen.
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“Listen up! Listen up!” Heeney said. “Game ball, coach Bowen.”
This was the final scene from Kansas’ third conference victory in five seasons, a night in which the goal posts came down (again) and Bowen bolstered his candidacy for the full-time job. On the day former KU coach Mark Mangino returned to town as Iowa State’s offensive coordinator (sparking a wave of nostalgia for the ole Bear) the Jayhawks buried the Cyclones with a complete performance — the most convincing Big 12 victory since Mangino stalked the sidelines in his leather-sleeved coat.
“They just keep fighting back,” said Bowen, who was coaching his fifth game since taking over for a fired Charlie Weis on Sept. 28. “They’re a resilient group of young men. If you ever did want to quit, they wouldn’t let you.”
For the past four seasons, of course, the Kansas program has suffered through the worst stretch in its history, a quagmire of coaching changes, humiliating losses and, often, utter despair. In one sense, the stretch had been encapsulated by a four-game losing streak to Iowa State, including blowout losses in the last two seasons. If the Jayhawks couldn’t compete with Iowa State, who could they really beat?
“We wanted to win this for coach Bowen,” Heeney said.
On Saturday, junior quarterback Michael Cummings engineered the program’s best offensive performance in years. He completed 24 of 40 passes for 278 yards. He tossed a touchdown pass. He guided an offensive unit that outgained Iowa State 514 to 373.
The Jayhawks surpassed 500 total yards for the first time since a 45-42 victory over Northern Illinois on Sept. 10, 2011. And they had not defeated a Big 12 opponent by more than two touchdowns since drubbing Kansas State 52-21 on Nov. 1, 2008. On that day, Mangino stood on the sideline in his usual crimson and blue garb. K-State coach Ron Prince was fired in the hours after the game.
This victory was not as dominant, of course. But when was the last time you could even use the word “dominant” to describe a Kansas victory?
“A true program win,” Bowen said.
The Jayhawks sprinted out to a 24-0 lead in the opening two quarters, gashing the Iowa State defense with an efficient passing game and suddenly resurgent rushing attack. In three straight losses against Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Baylor, Kansas had combined to rush for just 235 yards. On Saturday, behind senior Tony Pierson, they piled up 180 rushing yards in the first half.
The Jayhawks then weathered an Iowa State rally. After ending the first half with a quick-strike touchdown drive, Iowa State opened the second half with scoring drive that lasted just 67 seconds. When Iowa State quarterback Grant Rohach hit a streaking D’vario Montgomery for a 35-yard touchdown, a 24-point lead had suddenly been sliced to 24-14.
On the sideline, Bowen looked around.
“Holy cow,” he would say afterward.
But Kansas’ defense clamped down for the rest of the day, and Cummings, who had to retreat to the locker room in the first half to take a pain-killer for a shoulder injury, led an 80-yard scoring drive that put the game out of reach with 2:49 left in the third quarter.
From that point, Saturday was less about the final score and more about the future of the program. After a jubilant scene in the locker room, the Kansas players took turns lobbying for Bowen, who will be a candidate in a wider search for the program’s next coach.
“Everyone loves him,” Kansas tight end Jimmay Mundine said, “everyone wants to play for him.”
“I think it should be 100 percent,” Heeney said. “We’re all behind him — our whole team feels like he should be the guy. We want him to be the guy. There’s not a guy in the United States of America that loves Jayhawk nation more than him.”
Before he left the Memorial Stadium field, Bowen stopped to share a moment with Mangino, his old boss. But in the moments after the game, he shied away from questions about his own future. Zenger will make the best decision for Kansas, Bowen said, and then he returned to talking about his first victory as the Jayhawks’ interim coach.
“A true program win,” Bowen said.