The undercard is finally over and everyone can start looking forward to the main event.
The KU locker room was an especially happy – and crowded one – Saturday after KU's 45-7 win over Iowa State. The New York Times was there. ESPN The Magazine was there. Sports Illustrated was there. Snowy Owl was there. This was big.
Sure, there was the usual talk of staying focused on the present, but there was also a high-spirited undercurrent of achievement, and maybe even a little basking in the moment going on. It seemed like, for at least a little while, it was okay to look back on the previous 11 weeks.
After each win, Kansas coach Mark Mangino has said something like, "We're going to enjoy this one tonight and then get focused on next week's opponent first thing tomorrow." But I never really believed him. I always thought the Big Pasta went straight from Memorial to the film room at Parrot Athletic Center to start breaking down film.
I believed him this time, and why wouldn't you? The Jayhawks had just won their 11th football game of the season, something no other Kansas team had accomplished in 107 seasons of football at either McCook Field or Memorial Stadium.
For Mangino, this is simply what happens when you carry out a well-designed plan.
"If you work hard, if you're prepared to play every week, if you execute your responsibilities, anything is possible, and that's what's taking place," he said, matter-of-factly. "The kids wanted an opportunity to play for the Big XII north, and next week they'll get an opportunity to try and do that."
For some of the players, Saturday's post-game happy hour was a chance to think about how much the Jayhawks team and program have grown.
Senior James McClinton said, "When I got here, everything wasn't all chocolate sundaes. We had to eat, so we had to work hard. But I kind of like going through the trials and tribulations, because that's what makes you stronger. I don't want a silver spoon put in my mouth, because after it's all said and done, we'll appreciate what we've been blessed with. I just thank the Lord."
McClinton said that the dedication his teammates have shown even in just the past year has been something he's noticed.
"We've grown a lot. Working hard, waking up at 5:30 – some of them 5 o'clock – walking through the cold air to go work out, get ready for the season. Winter workouts, spring ball, it's a year ‘round game. We stuck in there together, like, ‘You know me, count on me.' This ain't like it was. Trust in God. That's all it was."
Kansas native and RS freshman RB Jake Sharp grew up watching KU football, so he's been treated to more than his fair share of blowouts and 4-7 seasons. He was also confident that he'd made the right decision when he verballed to KU.
"When I committed, I knew this program was in for a huge turnaround. Now, we've turned this thing around, and I've been a part of it. We just go out for practice and work hard, and things are working out."
"Don't look ahead" is KU's mantra, but even Sharp admitted that with so many higher-ranked teams in the BCS falling while the Jayhawks just – wait for it – kept sawing wood, the team knew that there are tremendous opportunities just ahead of them.
"We try not to look forward at all. Week in and week out, we're just looking at the opponent coming up Saturday. But I would definitely say that things are in our hands and it's there for us to take…or for us to not take."
Junior LB Joe Mortensen also knew he wasn't signing on for an easy ride at Kansas. Mortensen had committed to Nebraska his senior year at Clayton Valley High School in California, but when Bill Callahan was hired, Mortensen's scholarship offer was rescinded – yet another entry in the book, "Brilliant Moves by Cornhusker Coach Bill Callahan. When Mortensen turned his attention to Kansas, he also saw things he liked and thought the Jayhawks were on the cusp of something special. He credited Mangino with the upswing in KU's football program.
"My first year, we were 4-7," he recalled. "The next year, we were 7-5, that was Nick (Reid) and Kevin's (Kane) senior year. That was a really fun year for me. Last year, we were 6-6 and were disappointed we didn't go to a bowl game. Ever since coach Mangino got here, it's gotten better and better. To be 11-0 feels great."
For athletics director Lew Perkins, Saturday was a great day in a season of great days. He said that while it was true that the season had brought him and his coach tremendous satisfaction, there was something even better.
"I'm just so pleased for the players," he said. "Walking through the locker room and seeing all those bright faces…that's really what this is all about."
Mangino echoed that sentiment while mentioning the support staff and assistant coaches.
"It means a lot to the people who work with our players everyday, and the players themselves, the team as a whole. It means a lot to them that they've able to do something that hasn't been done in the past."
Mangino doesn't anticipate this week being any different than the previous 12, even with a fictitious Big XII North title on the line, and even though the possibilities for distraction and maybe even a little cockiness are seemingly endless, at this point. He has no plans to try and downplay what his team has accomplished. It's all up to them, he said.
"You can still enjoy it and still show up prepared for practice and meetings, focused on your work. Our kids have done that so far. Nothing's going to change. They're going to show up very focused on the task at hand."
He added, "If you win, it all takes care of itself. You control where you go. I don't see it any differently now."
"We believe your ship doesn't come in; you have to swim out to your ship. Our players understand that. You've got to earn your way in life; no one's going to hand you anything."