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No one likes to lose. I know, I know, that is akin to saying, “No one likes to be gored by a bull!” or, “No one likes to see the State Trooper hiding on the side of the road when they’re doing 90 in a 65.” But, don’t those things really come back to the essential difference between winning and losing? When that bull tosses you 10 feet in the air and gives you an instant, built-in ventilation system, you are the loser. The bull is the winner. When you are sitting in your car waiting for your ticket and hoping no one you know drives by, you are the loser. State trooper Buff McHugeLarge, who thinks he’s Eric Estrada from CHiPs, is the winner. It’s no fun. It hurts. It makes you angry. It makes you sad. It makes you want to get even with whoever put that sign around your neck that says, “LOSER.”
Now, contrary to popular belief – at least in sports – not all losses are created equal. I understand the need to minimize some losses so that the players don’t get snowed under in an avalanche of despair and self-pity, but those sports experts who say, “It’s just one loss” are, close your eyes mom, full of it. Some losses hurt. A lot. The University of Kansas men’s basketball team endured one such loss last spring. A season ender. With the entire college basketball world watching. To a team they had no business losing to – or even trailing, for that matter. And yet, at the end of the night, the Jayhawks were headed back to Lawrence and the Bucknell Bisons were marching on in the NCAA tournament. It was a crushing blow to a team that had struggled all year to meet expectations. The 2004-05 Jayhawks were full of senior leadership, but assumed they could survive on talent, then flip the switch and win any game. In stead, their season ended with a last second shot that rimmed off.
That shot set off as tumultuous an off-season in Lawrence, Kansas, since Quantrill’s raiders burned the Eldridge Hotel. Just two weeks after the Jayhawks were sent packing, much of Lawrence watched with envy as former coach Roy Williams cut down the nets with his North Carolina Tar Heels. With four seniors ready to try their fortunes in the pros, the new team was already facing a void in leadership and scoring. Next came the decision from freshman Alex Galindo to transfer closer to home. Then the ugly incident at the Moon Bar in Lawrence that eventually led to J.R. Giddens leaving Lawrence for good. Suddenly, six of the top eight players from the year before were gone. The off-season excitement ended with the odd recruitment and eventual commitment of Brandon Rush to wear crimson and blue. Rush talked of the NBA, then pulled out and flirted with several schools, then started attending classes at KU, though not officially enrolled as a student. Finally, his name was added to the roster as a Jayhawk, no matter where his brothers played.
Suddenly, the outlook for the new year wasn’t so bleak. The Jayhawks will be young, there is no doubt about that. But with the addition of Rush to an already strong freshman class that includes Mario Chalmers, Micah Downs and pre-season Big 12 freshman of the year Julian Wright, this recruiting class is now ranked number one or two in the land. The four freshman join a strong group of sophomores, including C.J. Giles, Sasha Kaun and Russell Robinson. The team still has a void of veteran leadership, with Christian Moody and Jeff Hawkins the returnees with the most experience. But, even after the Bucknell loss and all that followed, there is a sense of hope and excitement in Jawhawkville. The team will be fast. The defense will be tough. The pressure is off with the Jayhawks picked to finish third in the league. I see good things in their future, with excitement this year, followed by big time expectations in the seasons that follow. Bill Self already has a high profile recruit, point guard Sherron Collins, committed for next year. The program has sent notice to the rest of the college basketball world that, despite all that has happened in the last seven months, the Kansas Jayhawks are still a college basketball power.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. I think the Jayhawks will be good this year and potentially great next year and the year after. Though I believe they will flirt with double digit losses, I think they’ll make the tournament as a six or seven seed. With little pressure on them, they could even make a run to the round of 16. But, here’s the thing. This isn’t the University of Kansas men’s basketball program that I grew up on. Things have changed at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, and I don’t just mean the new seating arrangements. I’m not even saying things have definitely changed for the worse. That all depends on how you quantify good and bad. Judged by wins and money generated by the program, the changes are probably good. Judged against the old tradition of Kansas basketball, I don’t believe the verdict is quite as kind.
The change began a little over two years ago, when Williams bolted for UNC. Now, I’m not one of those conspiracy theorist KU fans that believes all that has gone wrong over the last two years is Roy Williams’ fault. I think he made a business decision that paid off for him last year in St. Louis. However, when he got on that plane and left Lawrence, the innocence of Kansas basketball went with him. Just a short time later, KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway made a decision that, for all its subtlety, couldn’t have been more obvious. The decision to hire Lew Perkins as Athletics Director meant one thing and one thing only: Kansas was ready to step up and join the world of big time college athletics through big time financial success.
The rewards for this decision are clear. First, more money generally equals better facilities which often translates into better players which should become more wins. It is also a huge step forward for Kansas football. When this season has ended and, barring a miracle, the Jayhawk football team is 0-8 in Big 12 play, Perkins is going to wave goodbye to Mark Mangino. You see, Lew wants a football program that will look good on the national scale and the uncomfortably large, ever-scowling Mangino does not qualify. There are rumors that the two don’t get along and Perkins has the power in his corner. I think Mangino would have been gone last year, but he was able to knock off both K-State and Missouri, and earned himself another year. After the stinker in Manhattan a couple of weeks ago and playing behind an offense that hasn’t seen the end zone in nearly a month, the Mangino supporters better start praying for divine intervention. I don’t see it happening. But, with Mangino out of the way, Perkins will be able to hire either a big name or a young up-and-comer that will be the new face of Kansas football. Because Lew understands that the real way to make money is by putting rears in the seats at Memorial Stadium. Basketball may be sacred in Kansas, but football generates dollars.
Step number two in the transformation of Kansas athletics came with the hiring of Bill Self as men’s basketball coach. Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe Bill Self to be a great coach and as a fan of Kansas basketball, I think he is the perfect man for the job. But he also fits the profile for a national power. Self is a tireless and very successful recruiter. He is a tough coach with a winning record. He is a passionate coach with a desire to win early and often. He is going to win big with the Jayhawks, despite last year’s set back. But there are some things that Bill Self is not. He is not the “aw shucks” Roy Williams good ole’ boy. Far from it. He’s going to lay it on the line. He’s going to play straight up with the media. He’s going to do things his way and if you’re not with the program, he’ll assume you are against it. He seems to have that edge that Roy Williams never had at Kansas. He’s not as worried about being a friend to all as he is about doing his job and doing it well. And, again from the Lew Perkins perspective, he puts the “right” face on Kansas basketball. Young, energetic, cut-throat and ready to win. These aren’t your daddy’s Jayhawks.
There have been other indicators that times are changing on Mount Oread. The handling of the J.R. Giddens – Moon Bar fiasco, for one. In Bill Self’s house, Giddens had to go. I think he stays under Williams because he’s one of the family. The transfers of Padgett last year and Galindo this year are signs that if you can’t take it, the door is always open. Self’s philosophy seems to be, “If the parts don’t work or don’t want to work, remove them.” Williams was always worried transfers reflected poorly on his ability as a coach/father-figure. I think the NCAA infractions in football and men’s and women’s basketball were handled to in a way that would look bad for the “old regimes”. No, I am not surprised that the problems in Mangino’s football offices were lumped in with the relatively minor infractions by Williams’ and Marion Washington’s staffs. After all, in a year, Mangino will be part of the “old regime”. The Brandon Rush recruitment never would have happened with Roy. He didn’t want risky players that might not buy into his schtick. And, of course, the big one for fans with men’s basketball season tickets: the decision to change how those tickets are assigned. In a nutshell, the new policy is, the more you give to the program, the better your seats will be. Sure, the stories of the 60-year season ticket holders being pushed towards the rafters are generating some negative press, but the department will hold firm. After all, it’s a money issue.
So, here’s where I’m having trouble. I don’t want to sound like another rabid fan that has no soul. I love the feel of Lawrence and the hominess of the Fieldhouse. It doesn’t bother me that KU is a “basketball school”. I think that’s great. But, deep down inside, only coming up for air after really bad losses, there is this: I want the Jayhawks to win. I want more banners hanging from the rafters. I want to be the featured team on CBS broadcasts. I want recruits to dream of playing for the Jayhawks because they know they’ll have a chance to win it all. I want to go to the victory parades and wear the championship t-shirts and buy the commemorative issue of Sports Illustrated. My rational self tells me to settle down, there are more important things than wins and losses. These are only kids. It’s more about the community. It’s the education that matters. But, for what it’s worth, I truly believe that ship has sailed and I don’t know if the school or the department can ever bring it back. Nor do I believe they want to.
So, things have changed in Lawrence. Next time you’re there, check it out. For the most part, it all looks the same. But the feel is different. The new Kansas family is not as loving, not as friendly and not as warm. This family is more likely to frisk you at the front door than offer you a loving hug. But, on the other hand, the new Kansas family is dedicated to winning and you, too, can be an integral part of the team by contributing your hard-earned dollars to the cause. So, if you want to get a word in to Coach Self, you can buy a plate at the next fundraising dinner. If you want the new training complex and locker rooms, there are plenty of good season ticket packages still available for next year’s football schedule. If you want a seat closer to the floor or a covered parking space, you’ll need to dig a little deeper in your wallet, your bank account, the cushions of your couch. And, for goodness sake, when the next heartbreaking loss comes, just remember you probably didn’t give enough to deserve the win. Welcome to the team.
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