Archive for Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Keegan: Apathy a thing of past

September 6, 2006

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Any talk of an apathetic football fan base at Kansas University will be just that for true freshman running back Jake Sharp: talk.

As he looked out the window of the bus that took the team from the football locker room near Allen Fieldhouse to Memorial Stadium before Saturday's season opener against Northwestern State, he saw footballs flying, grills smoking, beers flowing.

He saw passion. It struck him as pretty cool.

"It was kind of like you're on your way to battle and you see all the fans there," Sharp said. "It kind of reminds you of why you play."

Another memory from Sharp's first game day will be repeated every game day, in identical, precise fashion.

"It was a stellar production, really," he said of the pregame routine. "Everything fell into place. It was all very planned out. The attention to detail. Everything was specifically jotted out as to exactly what we were going to do. There was no confusion. We all stayed focused."

Sharp's baptism came into a program that no longer is finding its way. The degree of success in the ongoing struggle to find elite athletes to sign up will determine how much better things get, but all the little things, all the details found in big-time programs, are in place.

Even the parties near the stadium had more of an exciting, big-time feel.

Fifth-year coach Mark Mangino, head architect and caretaker of all those precisely executed details of which Sharp spoke, noticed a difference.

"I was on the bus coming to the stadium from the football complex, and the atmosphere was amazing," Mangino said. "One of the assistant coaches joked that our first couple of years here, people would be walking down the street and wonder if something was going on in the stadium. Today, people are everywhere, tailgating, having fun, playing football. That is a 180-degree turn from our first couple of seasons. Things have changed."

The incoming freshman class of the KU student body gets to watch Kerry Meier play quarterback and Sharp bust long runs for four years.

It's not a bad time to be a freshman in college. (Then again, there's no such thing as a bad time to be a freshman in college, staring down the barrel of four years of good times).

"The student section was packed, and it seems like it is getting bigger," Mangino said. "I have said all along that part of the college experience for students is football games on Saturday afternoons on campus. I think our student section was unbelievable.

"When the kids make plays, the crowd gets into it. Good crowds keep going after bad plays, and our fans are doing that now. They realize that when things aren't going right, they have to jump in and be a factor. The crowd recognizes when it's time to cheer and support."

Alumni supply financial support to college athletics, but only the students can truly change the culture of a fan base. The support students lend has deeper roots. They take ownership in a team in a passionate way better measured in decibels than dollars. Students can relate better to the players because they face some of the same issues, such as how to manage their time in such a way as to leave ample attention paid to studies.

It seems as if the students at KU have connected with their football team and coach, and that sort of thing tends to have a multiplying effect.

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