A bunch of media types were assembled in Hadl Auditorium after the Kansas-Washburn basketball blowout Thursday night, waiting for Jayhawk players to arrive for post-game comments. Talk quickly turned to the Arizona-Oregon football game, which stood at 31-14, ‘Zona, at the time. Visions of upsets were dancing in everyone’s heads.
Someone mentioned that Kansas head football coach Mark Mangino’s office is almost directly above Hadl Auditorium, and I instantly pictured Mangino in my mind, the room blue-lit by the glow of the TV, watching intently, rubbing his hands together slowly and saying, ala Montgomery Burns, “It’s all going to plan – Excellent! Bwahahaha!”
Cue obligatory lightning flash and clap of thunder. In my head, there was no Mini-Mangino sitting next to him, but if you want to see it that way, be my guest.
KU football fans are finding it tough enough to not look ahead and not think about what could be. A loss by then-unbeaten Ohio State last Saturday and #2-ranked Oregon’s defeat Thursday night, however, have made it nearly impossible.
Many of those same fans also have memories of another era in KU sports history, when a group of Jayhawks came in with tempered expectations but then had all the cosmic tumblers – and major upsets – fall into place in front of them. Any Kansas fan who doesn’t know to whom I’m referring should just crawl back underneath their rock now.
“Todd and the Miracles” doesn’t have the same ring to it as the original, but it’s hard not to get a chill down one’s spine when one thinks about it.
We’re into the latter stages of the college football season, a time that’s comparable to March Madness. The cream has risen to the top; good teams have positioned themselves for title runs. And although there are still games in front of you to play, this time of year means one slip and you’re done. Thanks for calling.
March Madness, 1988 edition, arrived with the Kansas Jayhawks fully deserving of some good karma. Their 21-11 regular season record was hugely disappointing for the fans and the team – especially for all-universe big man Danny Manning, who had passed up NBA money to return for his senior year and one last title shot.
KU limped into March like a Liberian tanker limping into port. The Jayhawks were a tournament bubble team, despite 21 wins. They’d just gone 8-6 in Big 8 Conference play and didn’t look particularly impressive doing it. A 55-game Allen Field House winning streak was broken in January by rival Kansas State. Not only that, but they lost twice more at home: to Duke and to Oklahoma. University athletic officials even started planning for a first-round Nobody’s Interested Tournament game at Allen Field House. On Selection Sunday, KU got the call from the NCAA, though: the Jayhawks would be the 6-seed in the Midwest Regional.
After a convincing 85-72 win over upstart Xavier in the Midwest regional opener in Lincoln, NE, the 6th-seeded Jayhawks barely squeaked by a gritty Murray State squad, 61-58. Danny Manning scored 25 points, including several clutch baskets down the stretch.
The next weekend, Kansas traveled to Pontiac, MI, to try to win two more and earn a spot in the Final Four. The gods were smiling on the Jayhawks: in their Sweet Sixteen game, Kansas did not have to square off against a very physical and 2nd-seeded Pittsburg team. Instead, they got Vanderbilt, the 7-seed, who had upset the Panthers, 80-74, in the second round.
KU easily beat the Commodores, 77-64. Danny Manning went off for 25 first half points against Will Perdue, one of the pastiest men ever to play the game. For all intents and purposes, the game was over at halftime, and Manning ended up with 38. KU was one game away from the Final Four in Kansas City’s Kemper Arena.
The Jayhawks’ next opponent should have been the Midwest region’s top-seed, Purdue, who was coached by Kansas native Gene Keady, who possessed the worst comb-over in recorded history.
Not so fast, my friend. As Kansas was beating Vanderbilt, future NBA star Mitch Richmond and his 4th-seeded Kansas State Wildcats were spanking the Boilermakers, 73-70. A second major upset fell neatly into place ahead of the Jayhawks.
Kansas went on to defeat Kansas State in the rubber game of their three-game set, 71-58, for the right to play in the Final Four in Kansas City. Revenge was also sweet in that Kansas State had won in Allen Field House on January 30, ending a 55-game Jayhawk home court winning streak.
In the Final Four, Kansas had to face Duke, the 2-seed from the East region. The Blue Devils had also beaten the Jayhawks at home in midseason, 74-70 in OT. Manning shouldered the team as he did throughout the postseason, collecting 25 and 10 en route to a 66-59 victory.
The title game featured KU and Big 8 foe Oklahoma, the last of three teams to beat Kansas at home during the 1987-88 season. The Jayhawks ran with OU to a 50-50 halftime tie and then methodically picked apart OU coach Billy Tubbs’ Evil Empire and showed tremendous poise on the way to an 83-79 win and KU’s first national championship since 1952. Manning collected 31 points and 18 boards in what is arguably one of the greatest championship game individual performances ever.
My point – and I do have one – is that this football season is taking on the same kind of look and vibe that the magical 1988 basketball season had. Look at it this way:
- Kansas went a disappointing 6-6 last season. The 1988 Jayhawks hoops squad went a disappointing 9-8 in their last 17 games headed into the NCAA tournament.
- The 2006 Kansas football team found itself sitting by the phone, waiting for a bowl invitation. The 1988 Kansas basketball team was prepared to play in the NIT, which is very similar to sitting at home but not as fun.
- The 2006 Kansas football team suffered greatly from injuries and lack of depth. The 1988 basketball team lost silky-smooth forward Archie Marshall to a second blown knee in January and 6-11 behemoth Marvin Branch to grades at semester. Compounding the problem, players Otis Livingston, Mike Marshall and Mike Masucci were all encouraged to explore other options by coach Larry Brown during the season.
- The 1988 hoops Jayhawks saw two significant upsets unfold in front of them – Vanderbilt over #2-seeded Pitt and Kansas State over #1-seeded Purdue – that clearly made their road to the title game considerably less bumpy. The 2007 football team has seen numerous top five BCS teams, including Boston College, Oregon, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Arizona State, fall in front of them. Meanwhile, they keep sawing wood, taking the games one at a time and beating whoever happens to be next on their schedule.
- The ’88 basketball team was coached by Larry Brown, a coach who had been with a national championship caliber team at another institution (UCLA) prior to coming to Kansas. The ’07 football team can say the same thing as Mark Mangino was offensive coordinator and assistant head coach during Oklahoma’s 2000 title season.
- The 1988 basketball squad had Danny Manning, a phenomenal college basketball player who, when needed, would put his team squarely on his shoulders and carry them to a win. Manning averaged 24.8 points and 9.0 boards a game his senior year. For the six-game tournament run, he ratcheted that up to 27.2 and 9.3 (including games of 10, 12 and 18 boards).
The 2007 football squad has a quarterback who may not yet have assembled the body of work Manning did; however, Todd Reesing’s cockiness and sometimes-dominant talent can combine to pull his team to a win. As a true sophomore, Reesing is primed to break the KU single-season passing record; with 2,657 yards, he needs just 339 more to break Mike Norseth’s record (2,995). With two regular season games to go, he has already blown the KU single-season TD record of 18 (held by Bill Whittemore) out of the media guide by throwing 26 of his own, including a school-record six against Nebraska’s vaunted blackskirt defense.
“Team of destiny” is a sports cliché, but it may be an apt one for the Jayhawks.
Yes, upsets happen. Good records happen. Great individual seasons and performances happen. It doesn’t always come together at once, though, like some sort of harmonic convergence set in motion by either God or Vince Lombardi (who some would argue are the same being).
Mark Mangino and his staff have laid the foundation for good football for years to come, it’s true; but this is the kind of year the likes of which programs like USC, Notre Dame and Oklahoma brag about when it’s over. We may experience this same joy and expectation and celebration again next year or the year after that. Then again, we may not. Remember: this hoops season celebrates the 20th anniversary of Danny and The Miracles and KU’s last national championship.
So go absolutely nuts this weekend, Jayhawk fans. Show up and cheer your brains out. Wear blue and thank the seniors who will take the Memorial Stadium turf for the last time Saturday. Live for the moment. Who knows if this moment will come around again?