How bad was Kansas football? Oh, baby. One year the Jayhawks' big game with equally hapless Kansas State was anointed the Toilet Bowl. Another year, when Nebraska's ritual thrashing of Kansas was nationally televised, announcer Keith Jackson wondered aloud—a la Admiral Stockdale—"Why are we here?" In 1986, during Oklahoma's ritual thrashing of the Jayhawks, Kansas cheerleaders sidled up to Sooner linebacker Brian Bosworth to ask for his autograph. Kansas was so bad in 1988 that in the second half of a 56-7 loss to Auburn the officials mercifully allowed the clock to run at times when it should not have, so that the game would end sooner. "It still seemed like it took forever," a Kansas player said later.
Kansas football was so bad in the mid-'80s that attending Memorial Stadium was considered evidence of a ghoulish personality. "Those were the days when you'd look into the stands and see just family," recalls former Jayhawk center Chip Budde, who played on single-victory teams in 1987 and '88. And it seemed to Budde that even kin averted their gaze when he looked up for support.
In 1987, Glen Mason brought Kent State to Lawrence. His team drove 76 yards on its first possession, and he was startled when some Kansas fans yelled, "When does basketball start?" It was the second game of the season. "I remember the headline the next day," says Mason of Kent State's 31-17 win. "It said THE ANSWER TO KANSAS FOOTBALL: ABOLISH IT."
Five years later Mason is coaching Kansas, and the newspapers are proclaiming a Jayhawk juggernaut. Last Saturday in Lawrence, Kansas beat Oklahoma 27-10 to improve its record to 6-1 and its national ranking to No. 18. Considering what the Jayhawks had already done this season, it wasn't much of an upset. The surprise? That the students knew that they should march to Potter Lake for the immersion of the goalposts. That's a tradition reserved for huge victories, a tradition little remembered in these parts. Indeed, the students carried the posts up Campanile Hill with some uncertainty before they hit the lake with a splash.
Not only did the Jay-hawks beat Oklahoma for just the third time in 28 years, but they did it with a vengeance. When told before the game that Sooner quarterback Cale Gundy had been mouthing off—"He said we had fat asses," reported defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield—the Kansas players decided that victory, however historically improbable, would not be enough. Gundy was knocked out of the game in the third quarter, by Stubblefield, with a separated joint in his collarbone. The Jayhawks watched with some satisfaction as Gundy left the field on a golf cart.
This team, if you haven't noticed, has been tearing up the Big Eight. Kansas's 6-5 finish of a year ago, the school's first winning record since 1981, hinted at what was to come. In 1988, Mason's first season in Lawrence, the Jayhawks ended up last in the country in total defense. This season the defense, led by Stubblefield, linebackers Larry Thiel and Hassan Bailey and end Kyle Moore, is 10th. Further, the offense is third in the nation in scoring (40.3 points per game). "The times," says Mason, "are changing."
Although the defeat of Oklahoma certifies Kansas's ascension to the Big Eight elite, the times have not changed overnight. It just seems that way in Lawrence, where the townspeople have suddenly taken notice of the team. Athletic director Bob Frederick says that before the Oct. 10 game against Kansas State, which was sold out—and which the Jayhawks won 31-7—a season-ticket holder told him he would visit the stadium early in the week to be sure where his seat was. "He'd never sat in it before," says Frederick.
Mason came to Kansas from Ohio pretty full of himself—his last Kent State team had gone 7-4—and at first he dismissed the obvious problems. Like finding only 50 players on scholarship, because previous regimes had depended so heavily on junior college talent. This was in January, just a month before signing day, but Mason said not to worry, he would sign more players.
"So, I'm in a hotel in Wichita," he says, "and it's not just that I can't recruit anybody to Kansas, I can't get them to visit." Mason called his wife, Sally, and said that he was thinking of calling Kent State to see if he could have his job back. But by the next morning, his depression had lifted—sort of. "I just said, 'The hell with it,' " he says, and he plunged forward.
But not everybody followed. Twenty-two players left between spring practice and the beginning of that first season. Says Budde, "A lot of them just didn't see any payoff for hard work." That year Mason had nobody. "I had a true freshman backup center whom I switched over to defense," says Mason. "Three days later he was starting against Nebraska."
Mason would get so anxious about the lack of talent that he would bolt for Frederick's office from time to time, wondering if there were contingency plans, if a fourth quarter could be called off. "He worried about that a lot," says Frederick.
The 1988 season was humiliating enough without forfeiture. "Nobody on campus knew who we were," says Budde, "and those who did, didn't like us."
With that season behind him, Mason vowed he would never be disappointed in Wichita again. He returned to Ohio. Quarterback Chip Hilleary, who has produced more than 5,000 yards of offense for Kansas since '89, was meeting recruiters in his hometown of Westerville with his arm in a sling. "I impressed nobody," says Hilleary. A high school teammate of Hilleary's, fullback Monte Cozzens, attracted no one's attention but Mason's. Kansas was the only school besides a few in the Mid-American Conference to pursue tailback Maurice Douglas, of Columbus. On Saturday, Cozzens and Douglas each rushed for more than 100 yards and scored a touchdown, and Hilleary threw an 18-yard scoring pass.
The recruiting at other positions has been similarly providential. Defensive tackle Chris Maumalanga, a rare blue-chipper landed by Mason, was told by his parents to accept the scholarship offer that would take him the farthest from his gang-torn neighborhood in Los Angeles. Maumalanga understood their concern. "But Kansas!" he protested. Still, he was a happy man after his visit. "I had never seen snow," says Maumalanga. "On my visit they took me sledding. Stayed on that hill until 4 a.m. I was ready to sign."
Mostly, though, the Jayhawks are a bunch of overlooked players who fit nobody's idea of what, say, a lineman should look like. Shortly before the Oklahoma game, former Sooner coach Barry Switzer visited Mason and told him that his offensive linemen were kind of short. Mason said yes, but they're very wide, more or less confirming Gundy's observation. They come in all shapes and sizes, and Mason's gift is that he makes them all fit.
Kansas is not likely to get the Big Eight's automatic bid to the Orange Bowl this season—Nebraska and Colorado are back-to-back opponents in November—but this team is far removed from the '88 squad. "I remember our players getting off the bus at Oklahoma that year," says Frederick, "and they were kind of small. Some Oklahoma fans said, 'When do the real football players get off?' "
The answer, apparently, is 1992.