When the schedule came out, this particular game was circled by many Kansas football fans. Then, as the things worsen under former coach Charlie Weis, there was the chance that this game could be very awkward, as fans would be very vocal in their love for Iowa State offensive coordinator Mark Mangino, the program’s former leader who would be making his long awaited return to Memorial Stadium with his new team.
Now, this game represents an ode to a successful, but all to brief time when Kansas football was respected nationally. It’s an ode to a time when Jayhawk football soared to some of its greatest heights, appearing in four bowl games and culminating with a 12-1 season in 2007 and a win in that year’s Orange Bowl. All of which can be easily thought of by fans as nothing more than a dream, considering all that would happen following Mangino’s departure five years ago.
However, this game now serves as motivation for a team and for interim coach Clint Bowen, who can look to that past as a goal for the future of the program, while seeking a win that would mean a lot to this year’s team and one that is severely needed. In the end, a Kansas victory is the only appropriate way for Bowen’s team to pay homage to the former boss that wouldn’t want any peripheral issues to distract from the task at hand.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for him,” Bowen said. “He did a lot of things for me personally to help my career, to help me develop as a coach, took numerous things from the way he operated our program. A few of the things is his work ethic is second to none. We worked extremely hard. We paid attention to the details and learned little things do matter. We worked hard and developed a good program.”
Since Bowen took over for the departed Weis in late September, that the plan he has tried to implement around Kansas football. You could say Bowen has tried to bring the saw back to the wood and it’s shown in the games since, even if he has yet to win a game.
Beginning with his first game at West Virginia, Bowen’s Jayhawks have fought for four quarters. In that first game, they held the Mountaineers offense scoreless and saved a game from becoming a humiliating blowout, even causing some frustration for the opponent.
Against, Oklahoma State, Kansas had a chance to win the game before giving up a game clinching kickoff return touchdown. A week later in Lubbock, the Jayhawks stayed in their game against Texas Tech. Even in last week’s 60-14 loss at Baylor, Kansas’ defense did all they could despite turnovers and short fields against one of the nation’s most lethal offense.
Practices have been more spirited and physical and players have bought in. In reality, it was an easy strategy for Bowen to implement. It’s how he was taught in the eight years he spent as an assistant to Mangino from 2002-2009 and when he formally interviews for the Kansas coaching job following the season, it’ll be sure to be one of the top items he presents when making his case for the job that has always been his dream.
“At that point in time we did focus on -- when you think about little things, you went to the practice field, it was as little as every player better be wearing the exact same thing the exact same way,” Bowen said. “When you told a guy to do something, it better be done, whether it's touch the line, stretch this way; the way you told him to do it was the way it had to be done. It was just a standard that was set that the players had to meet at all times, and it was philosophical the way things probably should be. You ask a guy to do something, it should be done right, and that's what we hold our players accountable for.”
So, when Kansas hosts Iowa State Saturday afternoon, it will mark the return of Mark Mangino, but if you ask either he or Bowen, it shouldn’t be about anything more than the game, which will showcase two teams who have had rough seasons and could really use a good win.
“You know, on game day, it’s more about, there’s so many other things to go an take care of you kids and get them ready to go and make sure everything is running smooth there,” Bowen said. “You seldom have time to see the other guys on other staffs you know.”
“KU's a great place and I had a lot of fun there and met a lot of wonderful people,” Mangino said during a conference call earlier this week. “Many people from Lawrence and affiliated at one time or another with KU have text me, emailed me, Tweeted me and I sincerely appreciate that. But it's really a business trip. Maybe after the game I might feel differently but not going into it.”
In the end, it’ll just be a game about two teams trying to improve and feel better afterwards than they have in most contests they’ve competed in this season. Most importantly, it’ll be about the process, about the work and about continuing to saw wood.