An early indication of how far the Kansas football program has come under Mark Mangino's guidance may show up in the penalty column. Kansas in recent seasons has been notorious for its penchant to commit bonehead penalties at crucial junctures.
How many times have the Jayhawks made a big play at crunch-time only to have it wiped out by a blunder, particularly on defense where late hits and other unsavory deportment have been flagged?
Pass interference is one thing, since that generally means the defender was at least trying to do something. But those mindless bungles that wiped out key gains or let an opponent off the hook in a third-and-long situation were maddening for fans if not for the KU players and coaches.
Lax discipline became an undesirable backlash of the Terry Allen coaching regime. At times, you wondered why the coaches didn't take a whip and a chair and take some of the miscreants to the woodshed. That apparently is not going to be the accepted route under Mangino.
Players and viewers alike have taken note of the new coach's tougher stance on work ethics and discipline. Mangino has made it clear he'll not stand for sloppiness or reluctance. You can't take physically outmatched kids and make them world-beaters with tough treatment, but the evidence is you can get more out of them than has been the case.
Attitude? Several fans noticed at last week's intrasquad windup how the team stood firmly as a group at attention during the National Anthem. No shifting around, picking noses or scratching rumps. Just appropriate for the occasion.
Mangino made friends when, right off, he got quarterback Mario Kinsey off the roster. Good athlete as he might be, Kinsey didn't buy into running the team as programmed; coach Allen was remiss in not benching him hard and often. Along with his off-field antics involving credit card theft and drug activity, Kinsey was flibberty-gibbet at "directing" the team, serving his own agenda.
Mangino sees something worth salvaging in running back Reggie Duncan, with a shoplifting rap and a Dumb and Dumber caper with Kinsey on that credit card. But there are two strikes. One more and Reggie will be looking at KU in a rear-view mirror.
I can't believe Mangino would have allowed that one defender to brag about what a butcher he was and call for people to wear appropriate clothing for his own personal cheering section. You don't call for that, you earn it.
Getting rid of Kinsey types and shoving a Duncan into line is only fair to the other guys on the roster who work hard, listen, try to do what they are asked and want to win as a team rather than as a showboat. Let Kinsey wheel and deal at Sam Houston State.
KU would have been much better off if Kinsey had been put on the pine or the asphalt early last year and Zach Dyer had been handed the reins. He's emerged as the main man and with some more tutoring and experience could be far superior to what we have had. Dyer is inexperienced but the character credentials are sound and the coaches feel good about him.
After the past season when too many guys were allowed to amble in their own divisive directions rather than embracing a team concept, things should be better. Laugh if you will, but Mangino's first Jayhawk team with luck and fevered cohesion could win six of its 12 games.
It's generally agreed Kansas still is maybe 15 people short of a stern competitive status in the Big 12. Some already are thinking more about 2003 than 2002.
But not the kids Mangino and Co. have been putting through their paces.
The key, naturally, is that Aug. 31 opener at Iowa State. Kansas will be a decided underdog, but supposing it could rise up and dump the guys at Ames. There'll be efforts to exploit the angle that ex-coach Allen is now on the ISU staff; that he'd like to help beat the school that fired him; that the Jayhawks would love to show the old coach how good they could or should have been.
That's smoke and mirrors. It's the guys on the field who ignore such froth and hit each other with victory in mind. If KU could start with a win, ugly or not, at Iowa State, all kinds of good things could happen.
Let's say KU goes to UNLV on Sept. 7 at a stunning 1-0. And comes home 2-0. Then come Southwest Missouri State and Bowling Green here, a Sept 28 trip to Tulsa and an Oct. 5 visit to equally struggling Baylor. There's a wondrous chance for a 5-1 start before Colorado arrives Oct 12.
Who knows. If these Jayhawks get the sweet odor of of triumph in their beaks, they can consider dumping Missouri at Columbia on Oct. 26. Then there's that little matter of Kansas State here Nov. 2. Man, are Jayhawk loyalists fed up with being K-State's whipping boy!
There's no earthly reason to predict a KU upset of K-State after nine straight setbacks. But the Cats are rebuilding and still playing quarterback roulette. Injuries here and there, a little unexpected early success for Kansas, a rivalry with an "on any given day" tradition this could be the year The Streak ends.
Rebound time. KU was 3-8 last fall. It went from 3-6-1 in 1956 to 5-4-1 in '57; from 4-7 in '74 to 7-5 in '75; from 4-5 in '80 to 8-4 in 1981; from 6-5 in '94 to 10-2 in '95, its last winning season. Good comebacks are on the books.
Mangino has his reorganized, better-focused club thinking "big improvement" in 2002; if KU somehow can stifle Iowa State in that opener, no tellin' how big.