Once upon a time spring football practice at Kansas University was perceived as a necessary evil by the players and met with a yawn and a chin scratch by the masses.
Now spring football practice at Kansas University has taken on a new meaning under first-year coach Mark Mangino.
Spring football practice is deemed so important by Mangino that he has closed about two-thirds of the 15 drills to the public and to the media. The No. 1 reason, Mangino said Wednesday, is the danger.
"If you have the general public walking around between practice fields and areas where kids are working," Mangino said, "it doesn't take much for one of those youngsters Â especially with a helmet on Â to run into one of those people."
Yes, but not if you limit the general public to a designated area within the practice fields. So I don't buy the danger factor. They don't close baseball spring training to the public because they're worried a spectator will be struck by a foul ball. Or preseason hockey workouts because Â as we learned just recently Â an errant puck can kill.
The other reason Mangino gave was the focus factor.
"The kids have to get down to work," he said. "We can't have distractions. We can't have kids worrying about who's watching practice. They need to focus on the job at hand."
OK, I'll buy that one. Closing practice has long been a tactic used by football coaches to emphasize the importance of an upcoming game. Mangino is trying to heighten the awareness of how important it is to take advantage of the relatively short time he has to teach his system.
Mangino didn't mention the third reason for closing practice. It's the paranoia factor.
Over the years, spying has always been a part of football. More than one coach has been astonished to learn on game day that an opponent knows everything about his team Â from offensive line splits to signal counts to formation tendencies.
As a past member of the cadres that pulled those quick turnarounds at Kansas State and Oklahoma, Mangino surely knows the ins and outs of contemporary gamesmanship. In fact, I'd be surprised if Mangino wasn't aware of all the tricks of the trade. And if you know the latest undercover tactics, Job No. 1 is to prevent them from being used against you.
By now Mangino surely knows how difficult it will be to turn the Kansas program around. Bare the cupboard isn't, but it is not stacked high with dog bones, either.
Mangino labels his inherited talent "not all that bad." It isn't. But he could have also said it isn't all that good. What Mangino has now are a bunch of bodies. From those bodies, he has to cull leaders and playmakers.
Ninety percent of football isn't half mental. Football is 90 percent physical. You win football games with speed, quickness and aggressiveness, so playmakers are more difficult to develop than leaders.
Another hurdle is the 2002 schedule. Does KU always have a dreadful schedule? Last year's was generally regarded as the most difficult in the country. Now the Jayhawks have to play four of their first six on the road.
"Yes," Mangino said, "but we have four of our last six at home."
Bravely spoken, but three of those four are Colorado, Texas A&M; and Kansas State, and all three were bowl teams last season.
Still, Mangino has to weave a positive spin. He has inherited players who have forgotten how to win. This spring he has to convince them they can and will win if they buy his doctrine.
Close spring practice sessions to the public and media? It's like prescribing chicken soup for a cold. It might not help, but it couldn't hurt.