Let's hope it isn't true, but a lot of people are saying it: Kansas could be 30-35 percent better in football this fall and still not win as many games as during the 6-7 season of 2003 because of a back-breaking schedule.
There are 11 Jayhawk games, six in Lawrence, starting with Tulsa here Sept. 4 and ending with Missouri at Columbia on Nov. 20. Last season, KU got off to a 3-1 start -- a rain-drenched loss to Northwestern followed by victories over UNLV, Wyoming and Jacksonville State. There are three non-conference games this season -- Tulsa and Toledo here and at Northwestern. No gimmes.
Northwestern has enough of a Big Ten Conference aura to handle even an improved Kansas club the second year in a row; being at home won't hurt. Toledo and other Mid-America Conference up-and-comers have dealt big misery to plenty of unsuspecting opponents. Tulsa's program is strong enough to cope with the lower-echelon Big 12 Conference members. KU will have to claw and scratch and have some luck to emerge 2-1 from that trio of tests. Then things really get ugly.
The remaining eight-game grind includes Texas Tech here Sept. 25, a trip to Nebraska on Oct. 2 and a visit by Kansas State on Oct. 9. Mark Mangino's Jayhawks must show an awful lot early on to be rated within a couple touchdowns of those foes. Next is an Oct. 23 trip to Oklahoma followed by an Oct. 30 junket to Iowa State. To be honest, Iowa State could be the only one of those first five conference games where KU will be given at least a 50-50 chance for victory.
Things close out with Colorado and Texas here Nov. 6 and 13 and the Columbia finale Nov. 20.
If Kansas somehow can win six of those 11 games and again qualify for a postseason game, many will consider it a minor miracle and will be touting Mangino for coach-of-the-year honors.
After its 4-1 start in 2003, including that 35-14 stunner over Missouri, KU had stars in its eyes. There followed a 50-47 near-miss loss at Colorado, a victorious 28-21 struggle with Baylor, then a 0-4 stagger that was alleviated by a winning 36-7 season-ender here with Iowa State. The 56-26 romp by North Carolina State in the Tangerine Bowl came as no surprise. But KU had experienced its first non-losing regular season (6-6) since 1995, was rewarded with an enjoyable holiday trip, made a little money and presumably could look to 2004 with a little optimism.
But that was before people began studying the 2004 schedule, the eight-game conference lineup and the fact the Jayhawks would be entering another season without a proven quarterback. The presence of versatile Bill Whittemore was justification for excitement about the past fall, and the way the team struggled while he was hurt proved his merits. There are good prospects with young Adam Barmann heading the list, but there's no Whittemore established as a guy who can lead the Jayhawks to at least a 6-5 record.
The roster has been bolstered for 2004 and when you have the likes of do-everything Charles Gordon handy, you can dream a bit bigger. But there's always that doggone Valley of Death created by a treacherous schedule. If KU's team last year had been 30-35 percent better than it was, it could have wound up with as many as three more victories -- Northwestern and that overtime nail-biter at Colorado among them.
It was so welcome to see the football club moving along in improved fashion last season that people weren't always lagging back and waiting for basketball. Some welcome gridiron momentum was generated, more people began to care about and talk about football. How great it would be to see that same kind of thing happen this fall?
Coach Mangino and his staff think they have a batch of motivated young men who won't back down to anybody. The defense should be much, much improved, and that could be a huge boost. If KU can find a strong quarterback, get some early breaks and avoid crippling injuries, the schedule won't be the killer factor some fear it may be.
If the Jayhawks and their fans are looking for signs, they should hope for some 100-year magic -- the kind that began when Dr. A.R. "Bert" Kennedy took over the Jayhawks for the 1904 season. Bert, also a dentist of note for nearly 60 years, fashioned the best seven-year record, 53-9-4, in KU's history, including a 9-0 wallop in 1908. He's understandably in the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame.
Bert started for the 1896 and 1897 KU teams and captained the '97 team to an 8-2 record. He transferred to Penn and in 1902 formed one of the first-ever professional teams. He devised a nifty single-wing offense and quick-kick program for the undefeated Washburn team of 1903. At Kansas, Harrison Weeks was 6-3 that same year but didn't please the right people and was fired. Immediately, KU raised a $3,000 salary to lure Kennedy here.
During the summer of 1904, Washburn people accused Kennedy of trying to steal some of its star players and Bert replied: "They have a right to play where they wish." Kennedy was 8-1-1 his first year here and left after a 6-1-1 season in 1910. Nobody has come close to that .833 winning percentage since, so if Mangino and Co. are looking for carrots on a stick to encourage them, all they have to do is duplicate what Bert Kennedy started a century ago.
Only KU coaches to come close to Kennedy's excellence were Fielding H. Yost at 10-0 in 1899, his only season here before moving to Michigan fame; E.M. Hopkins with a 7-0-1 (.938) season in 1891; and Wylie G. Woodruf with a 15-3 (.833) stretch in 1897 and '98. But Old Bert set a long-term standard that local coaches have been chasing forever.
(P.S. Gotta keep reminding you that Jack Mitchell is the last coach to leave here with a winning record, 44-42-5 from 1958 through 1966).
So who says Kansas never has been a football school? Imagine how the local joint would start jumping if Mark Mangino and the boys could swing a 53-9-4 wallop over the seven coming seasons ... and basketball could stay as good as it has been and is! Would this be Jayhawk Jock Valhalla or what?