This Isn't Lightning

One of my favorite sports clichés is "lightning in a bottle." I love it. It conveys excitement. It conveys a "carpe diem," live-on-the-edge mentality. The problem is, it also says, "Enjoy this now, because it's not going to last."

KU’s 19-14 road win over the Colorado Buffaloes Saturday – their first win at Folsom Field since 1995 – was one of the biggest wins we’ve seen around these parts in a long time. Coach Mark Mangino and his squad continue to exorcise road demons and pass defense demons and 2006 demons and just about any other demons you can think of, getting yet another win in yet another measuring stick game.

Simply put, the Jayhawks took care of business Saturday night. QB Todd Reesing made plays – this time with his feet – and avoided costly mistakes as he has all season. LBs James Holt and Joe Mortensen were other-worldly, combining for 26 tackles. As a group, KU’s defensive played well all night and played very well late when it really needed to. The Jayhawks even teased the Buffaloes by dangling momentum in front of them just long enough for CU to take a 7-3 lead. Colorado’s fans started to get loud and the team started to get a little swagger. KU calmly responded by scoring 16 unanswered points and putting the game away.

This week, KU takes their act on the road to play Texas A&M, a team they’ve beaten just once in eight tries and one they’ve never beaten at Kyle Field in four tries, one of college football’s most hostile venues. If the Jayhawks find a way to sneak a win out of College Station, their 8-0 start will be just the second time in school history they’ve won eight games to start a season. They did it in 1908. They also did it again much more recently: 1909.

Recent KU coaches have experienced some success – enough to get to a bowl game, anyway. It was never really sustained, though. Don Fambrough, Bud Moore and Glen Mason all got to the postseason, only to follow up the nest year with lousy seasons. The closest thing to sustained success KU’s seen since Kennedy was president was Mason’s two bowl trips in four years back in the 90’s.

Nevertheless, those teams all seemed to – here it comes – catch lightning in a bottle. Assistant coaches like defensive guru Mike Hankwitz took a bunch of average players and slapped together a formidable squad, seemingly with chicken wire, duct tape and tissue paper. Bounces that usually went an opponent’s way went KU’s. For a season, all the cosmic tumblers clicked into place. Then, the next year, KU returned to a nasty 4-7 reality or 3-8 reality.

Well, this Kansas Jayhawks team has not captured lightning in a bottle. There. I said it.

The Jayhawks’ success – the national ranking, the 7-0 start, the big offensive numbers, the tough-as-nails defense, the whole thing – is the product of Mark Mangino building a real, live football program at the University of Kansas, with the help of athletics director Lew Perkins. This is no fluke; it’s the product of a carefully orchestrated plan. Call it a Mangino variation on a theme by Snyder.

First, Mangino has built the program from the ground up: with high school players. Yes, Mangino went juco heavy early, partly to fill gaps – and God knows Terry Allen had only recruited a handful of legitimate Division I players – but he also knew it was important for the Jayhawk players to experience at least some success as soon as possible. Since his first season, however, Mangino has worked extremely hard to sign 20 or so high school kids in each recruiting class.

Second, Mangino has made a concerted effort to recruit players with greater physical talent and a high football IQ. It started with guys like Lawrence’s own, RB Brandon McAnderson, QB Bill Whittemore and OL Cesar Rodriguez. Today, fans are seeing the results with guys like QB Todd Reesing, DT James McClinton and LB Joe Mortensen.

Need an example? Look no further than DE Max Onyegbule. After moving from linebacker to defensive end, Onyegbule has developed a reputation as a strong, fast rusher coming off the edge in passing situations. In the meantime, he’s seeing snaps at DE in non-passing situations and learning the ins and outs of the position. All indications point to Onyegbule being a good d-lineman for KU in the near future.

But here’s the key: it wasn’t all that long ago that Onyegbule would have been a four-year starter for KU someplace – anyplace – on the field, just because of his size, strength and speed. Sure he would’ve made mistakes, but he still would’ve been the best Kansas had at his position.

Another example? Anthony Webb was a starting DB for Kansas in 2006. In 2007, he didn’t even make the trip to Manhattan for the KSU game. Now he’s trying to find his way onto the field via special teams. That doesn’t mean Webb is a bad defensive back; it just means that his competition for minutes in the defensive backfield has gotten that much better.

It also means that KU doesn’t have to replace experienced players with redshirt freshmen who have never seen the field before. Guys like James McClinton are now being replaced with guys like Jamal Greene. Joe Mortensen gets hurt and guys like Jake Schermer take over.

Finally, Mangino’s philosophy of putting the 11 best football players on the field all the time – even on special teams – has paid tremendous dividends on the practice field and on game day. Otherwise, explain the special teams service of guys like John Cornish, Nick Reid, Joe Mortensen and Derek Fine. It’s why Kerry Meier is seeing snaps – meaningful snaps – at wide receiver: he’s a tremendous football player who is smart and works incredibly hard. Mangino’s going to find a way to get him on the field.

“Work hard and you’ll get to play” is standard recruiting lip service at every school. At Kansas, it’s how Mark Mangino does business. Sure, it’s a simple concept, but you’d be amazed at how many college coaches struggle with it, preferring to play an upperclassman over a more talented underclassman. Believe it or not, guys like DB Chris Harris and DE Jake Laptad wouldn’t be seeing the field at a lot of schools.

KU’s success in 2007 isn’t just a happy coincidence or the result of KU having a ton of seniors. Take a peek at the two-deep this week and notice you can count the number of upperclassmen on one hand.

This success also comes on the heels of three straight seasons of six or more wins, something no KU coach has done since Jack Mitchell (1960-62).

KU probably won’t win out this season, but rest assured, this isn’t lightning in a bottle. It will happen again – maybe next year. Hey, with the possible exception of Oklahoma, the South Division – you know, those teams that everyone tells KU they’re lucky not to play – aren’t exactly lighting it up.

This is how football programs are built and how they become established. A coach comes in with a proven plan and gets meaningful support from his boss. That leads to results.

Mangino and the Jayhawks are seeing results, and with a quick look to the future, I’m not seeing a lot of reasons why that’s going to change anytime soon.


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