That saying, typically used in a negative way to tell somebody that they aren't quite cutting it, can be used to describe both the negatives and the positives of Kansas Coach Mark Mangino's career. Sure, there were ifs and buts that Kansas fans used to rationalize heartbreaking losses. But at the same time, just the fact that Kansas fans were able to entertain the notion that there could have been a positive outcome was a victory in of itself.
As with any great story, this one is in need of some perspective.
In this case, it is imperative to remember that Kansas fans had no
hope. Just a year before Mangino took the Kansas job, the Jayhawks were
in a total state of disarray. Players slept on the bench. The Jayhawks
trailed SMU 24-0 after twice failing to execute punts. The Jayhawks
took leads of 14-0 and 16-6 over the Texas Longhorns, only to fall
51-16. Allen followed arguably his greatest achievement — a
hold-onto-your-seats 34-31 overtime win at Texas Tech — with a 28-point
drubbing on Homecoming.
The Allen era was ending, and quickly. There were no what ifs. There
was no hope. How could there have been? The Jayhawks were getting brow
beaten by almost every team on the schedule. The Jayhawks went 3-8 and
1-7, and the losses were brutal, coming at an average margin of nearly
And along came Mangino, a former Oklahoma offensive coordinator with a
deep pedigree as an assistant at both Oklahoma and at Kansas State
under Bill Snyder. The first year, as with many first years taking over
a flailing team, was a disaster. The Jayhawks went 2-10, with victories
over Tulsa, one of the worst teams in D1A at the time, and a
closer-than-expected scrape with Missouri State.
But the seeds were sown for 2003. Kansas showed some potential under an
unknown JUCO quarterback with a shredded shoulder named Bill
Whittemore, and there were enough young, talented players like Nick Reid that there was reason for optimism.
And so the ‘what ifs' game began in Mangino's second year. Sure, the
Jayhawks went to their first bowl game since the 1995 Aloha Bowl. But
there were chances for even more, if Whittemore hadn't been hurt early
on in the Kansas State game. The Jayhawks actually outgained K-State
(who would later win the Big 12) while Whittemore was in the ballgame.
The Oklahoma State and Nebraska games were also games that might have
gone a little differently with a healthy Whittemore under center.
But the ifs and buts were off the charts in 2004. Sure, the Jayhawks
went 4-7, and 2-6 in conference. But at the same time, the Jayhawks
were more competitive than they had been in a long time. Kansas only
lost two of those games by more than one score, and in one of those
games, Kansas held a 14-point lead when the Jayhawks'
starting quarterback went out with an injury. With a few more breaks
here and there, Kansas fans reasoned, the Jayhawks could easily have
been a 9-2 or a 10-1 squad. In a year where Colorado won the North with
a 4-4 record, the possibilities were salivating.
Perhaps even more importantly, Kansas fans were beginning to see
inspired football. They could relate to, and get behind players like
Whittemore, the multi-talented Charles Gordon and the gritty Nick Reid.
Sure, there were some great performances under Allen, from Ron Warner
and Algie Atkinson to Nate Dwyer. But nobody gets inspired by a
three-sack effort in a blowout loss.
Those what ifs continued the next two years, as Kansas went to a bowl
in 2005 (with no offense until late) and became bowl eligible in 2006
(with very little defense). 2006, especially, looked like 2004. The
Jayhawks, who finished that year 6-6, led late in games against Toledo,
Nebraska, Texas A&M and Baylor, only to see those games slip
At that point, the what ifs began to define Mangino's career in a
negative light. Sure, it was nice to be competitive, everybody said,
but at what point do those close losses have to become wins?
It didn't take long for those fans to find out. In one fabled year,
Kansas finally got the breaks. The Jayhawks, using a manageable
schedule and a relatively injury-free squad, ran the table up until the
last game of the season. Ultimately, this would serve as Mangino's
greatest what if. The Jayhawks, with injuries finally starting to catch
up, failed to score on four consecutive trips inside the Missouri 30,
and fell behind early. A rousing comeback attempt fell short, and the
Tigers represented the Big 12 North in the conference title game. An
Orange Bowl victory took most of the sting off, but there was still
that feeling that the Jayhawks had unfinished business.
They wouldn't finish it in 2008, though Kansas was able to finish just
a game out of the North race and avenged its loss to Missouri in Kansas
All of which set up the 2009 season. With Kansas returning impact
players like Todd Reesing, Jake Sharp, Dezmon Briscoe, Kerry Meier and
Darrell Stuckey, the Jayhawks were a popular pick to take the North for
the first time in conference history. But somewhere along the line, the
wheels came off. The Jayhawks lost winnable games to Colorado, Texas
Tech, Kansas State, Nebraska and Missouri to finish 1-7 in conference.
Instead of playing for first, the Jayhawks brought up the rear. And
again, the what ifs ran rampant.
And that's where the story ends. Mangino's career at Kansas will likely
always be defined by what could have happened. In a way, it's a loss
because you'll always be left to ponder what could have been had the
ball bounced a different way.
It's also a victory in a way — prior to Mangino, fans had no reason to
wonder, no reason to be excited about the future, or to relive the
The Jayhawks have a new coach now, one who will get a chance to build
on the successes of a coach who boasted KU's first career winning
record since Jack Mitchell. But remember, that under Mangino, KU fans
had a very Merry Christmas, indeed.
JI Extra: The Mangino Era at KU
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