Since the news broke early last week that Kansas University athletic director Lew Perkins had launched an investigation into the conduct of KU football coach Mark Mangino, distractions have run wild throughout the KU football program.
Former players have come forward with nasty allegations, current players have both openly supported their coach and quietly avoided members of the media on an almost daily basis and Mangino himself has dealt with a constant barrage of questions about his actions and his future.
Add to that the fact that the Jayhawks (5-6 overall and 1-6 in Big 12 play) are mired in a six-game losing streak, are still desperately seeking that sixth win that would make them bowl eligible and have hated rival Missouri (7-4, 3-4) on the schedule this week — at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium, no less — and it’s easy to see how it might not be in the cards for the Jayhawks to finish the season on a successful note.
Not so, according to the KU players. They say the aforementioned distractions have done nothing to rattle their focus.
“We’re football players,” offensive lineman Brad Thorson said. “And we’re here to play football and win. There are plenty of distractions that we deal with every day and every year, not all of them end up on ESPN.”
Thorson, a junior who has started all 11 games for the Jayhawks this season, said the team’s distractions were not limited to what the media was reporting. In addition to preparing for the Border Showdown and trying to digest the daily happenings in the Mangino saga, Thorson said many Jayhawks had family coming into town and also still had schoolwork to focus on.
“I’m concerned about beating Missouri on Saturday, I’m concerned about having my best game of the year so far, and I’m also concerned about the 10-page paper I have due the week after that,” Thorson said. “So I’ve got plenty on my plate other than (the Mangino situation). It’ll take care of itself and I’ll still be here doing what I love to do.”
When word of the investigation first surfaced, many Jayhawks chose not to comment. A week later, several of those same guys changed their stance, this time to talk about how they had grown tired of having their program under a microscope and not the specifics of the situation.
“People don’t want to talk about the next game, all they want to talk about is coach,” junior defensive back Chris Harris said. “But since it just started, we know it’s going to be going on until it’s over and we’ll just have to deal with it.”
In the last week alone, Harris and Thorson both said they had been approached by everyone from friends and family members to random people on campus who wanted to know something about Mangino’s status. The answer they gave was the same each time.
“Everybody wants to know,” Thorson said. “But the truth is, we’re not focusing on that. They’ll find out everything as I do.”
The team’s fixation on being focused is exactly what the 15 seniors want to see. For them, the reality of Saturday’s game against Missouri is that it could go down as the final contest of their college careers.
“It’s a tall order, it really is,” KU senior defensive back Justin Thornton said. “But I think that the fact that this week is Missouri outweighs all of the other distractions. We want to beat them and we want to get our sixth win so we can be bowl eligible. When you combine those two things together, there’s really nothing else to focus on.”