JI Extra: The Mangino Era at KU

If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a very merry Christmas.

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 31 points.

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 away.

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 City.

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 oh-so-close past.

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.

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