R.I.P. Senior Night

Senior nights like Wednesday night will soon be the rule and not the exception

Since the dawn of time, great ideas have come and gone.  As times change, those once-innovative notions are often re-examined and better ways to do things are developed.

Or maybe the idea just runs its course and goes off into the mountains to die quietly, away from the herd.  There’s nothing wrong with that; things just change.

And I know this isn’t a popular notion, but someone’s got to say it: Senior Night in Allen Fieldhouse is one of those ideas.  Stick a fork in it; it’s done.

I grew up watching the old Big 8 TV broadcasts.  I remember vividly that toward the end of each season, you’d get a pregame camera shot of the two teams’ seniors at center court, being presented with Big 8 watches and a hearty handshake by some conference representative in a bad suit.  And we looked and we saw that it was good.

My first memory of a KU Senior Night is the one that I think put this annual ritual on the map: 1988.  Hundreds of fans lined the path from the locker room to the floor as well as the perimeter of the floor to shower Chris Piper, injured Archie Marshall and all-universe Danny Manning with roses.

Led by Manning’s 31 points, 10 boards and 6 assists, the Jayhawks beat Leonard Hamilton’s Oklahoma State squad, 75-57.  However, the highlight of the night was when Marshall, who blew a knee in game 11 against St. John’s, hobbled onto the court with Hamilton’s blessing and just 1:33 left.

He checked into the game and took about three hops out onto the floor, near the scorer’s table.   Marshall – who had blown his other knee two years earlier – quickly took a pass from a teammate and launched an uncontested 40-footer in his final appearance in a Kansas uniform.  He missed, but it didn’t matter.  The crowd went nuts.  KU coach Larry Brown waved and yelled thanks to his counterpart in front of the Cowboy bench.  I still think fondly of Hamilton for that gesture.

That, my friends, is Senior Night.

It could be argued that Senior Night jumped the shark in 1997 when the KU faithful said goodbye to the class of Jerod Haase, Jacque Vaughn, Scot Pollard and B.J. Williams.  I mean, how could you follow that group when it came to togetherness, family and all things schmaltzy?

Of course, I could argue that the phrase “jump the shark” has jumped the shark.  But I digress.

Fast forward to Wednesday night.  KU’s seniors kept it relatively short and sweet, but most of  the Allen Fieldhouse crowd thought it would be best listened to on KLZR in their car on the slow drive out of the parking lot.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not picking on the four seniors who were honored.  It’s not their fault they’re not Jacque Vaughn or Jerod Haase.

And despite feelings that have been well-documented on this web site, I won’t pick on Roy Williams and his every-other-year recruiting pattern that yielded a lackluster senior class.

But get used to it.  This is what Senior Night will become: a bone thrown to walk-ons and little-used reserves while the student body distractedly chants, “One more year,” to guys like Brandon Rush, Julian Wright and, next year, Sherron Collins – guys who’ll never sniff a Senior Night of their own.

If this concept bothers you – if this challenges your paradigm of what college athletics should be about – don’t blame Hawks head coach Bill Self.  College athletics is a dog-eat-dog world, a setting in which you absolutely must win big yesterday or end up asking people if they want to super-size their drink.

The reality of college basketball today is that, to win at the highest level, you have to have players you know won’t be around for Senior Night.  Jacque Vaughn and Kirk Hinrich, say hello to Carmelo Anthony.  Danny Manning is no longer the rule; he is the exception.

When Self was hired, I said that you’d start to see a different type player being recruited to Mt. Oread, and that those players probably wouldn’t be sticking around all four years.  Iowa coaches’ sons were on their way out; players who cut their teeth at Rucker Park and in the Chicago Public League were on their way in.

But to make sure you have enough bodies to practice everyday, you need four or five guys who are just happy to be there.  And who knows?  If you’re one of those guys, the star you’re guarding in practice today may endorse the Adidas you’re wearing next fall.

I have no doubt that future Senior Nights at KU and at other elite programs across the country will be loaded with substance and warm wishes, full of phrases like “hard worker” and “gym rat” and “overcame all odds” and “ultimate team player.” 

Unfortunately, they’ll also be short on phrases like “leading scorer” and “broke the school career record” and “scored 31 points” and “a two-time all-conference first team player.”  In other words, they’ll lack flash and star power.  And flash and star power are what makes ceremonies like Senior Night at Kansas or anyplace else memorable.

And the guys who would have supplied the star power to Senior Night?  They’ll be in their second or third season of bringing flash to the Boston Garden and the Staples Center and Madison Square Garden.

Don’t bother asking them if they’re disappointed they didn’t get a Senior Night.  I have a feeling the answer is no.

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