Significance of special 2022 Kansas football run measured by more than just this season’s accomplishments

Kansas head coach Lance Leipold watches his players during the second half of the Liberty Bowl NCAA college football game against Arkansas, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022, in Memphis, Tenn. Arkansas won in three overtimes, 55-53. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Throughout the 2022 season, Kansas football coach Lance Leipold was asked repeatedly about the significance of the Jayhawks’ improbable and faster-than-expected turnaround.

Over and over, from about Week 3 through Wednesday night in Memphis, reporters asked Leipold to sum up what six wins, bowl eligibility and the reawakening of a fan base desperate for something to cheer about meant for the program, both now and in the future.

“Things have moved positively in a good direction,” Leipold said after KU’s Liberty Bowl loss to Arkansas on Wednesday night. “We could look at the stat sheet and start there and talk about a lot of good things and we could talk about a lot of things that need improvement. Sometimes on that, I like to defer to you guys who have been covering this program for a long time and ask for you opinions. And I don’t mean that sarcastically.”

As someone who has covered the program for as long as pretty much anyone, here it goes coach.

Leipold knows that the 2022 team getting to six wins and competing in a bowl game for the first time in 14 years was at least a little unexpected and at most a downright shock in most corners of the college football world. And he saw firsthand how it brought joy back to Saturdays in the fall in Lawrence and restored pride among KU fans for something other than the men’s basketball team. There’s actually a lot of that happening around the Kansas athletic department these days, but we’ll stick with football for this column.

So, yeah, there’s newfound pride in the program and belief that even better days are ahead. The players feel it. The fans feel it. The buzz in the community is palpable. And saying you’re a Kansas football fan is once again cool in Lawrence, Kansas.

Those are no small feats. But the significance of this season and what it meant for the program goes beyond it serving as a springboard for better days ahead.

There are things Leipold does not quite know, nor has he been around long enough to fully understand. That’s why he genuinely deferred his assessment to those who have seen the struggle up close for longer than he has.

Sure, the 6-7 record, the Jayhawks’ wild Liberty Bowl showing, the home sellouts and College GameDay coming to town will always be talked about first when the 2022 team is brought up.

But of equal significance to this year’s run is what the 2022 team’s success meant to dozens and dozens of former players who put their hearts and souls into the program for years only to continue to see the losses and laughing-stock comments pile up.

This season was a validation of all of the work put in by those guys, often to no avail.

It meant every carry by Tony Pierson was worthwhile and every extra yard churned out by James Sims, Angus Quigley, Taylor Cox, Brandon Bourbon, Khalil Herbert, Ke’aun Kinner, DeAndre Mann and others was in fact a positive gain.

The linemen who opened holes for those guys and often looked — and likely felt — overmatched by their opponents and even their own sideline were worthy of being remembered and appreciated all the same. Guys like Gavin Howard, Mike Smithburg, Pat Lewandowski, Ngalu Fusimalohi, Larry Mazyck, Duane Zlatnik, Trevor Marrongelli, Riley Spencer, Joe Gibson, Jordan Shelley-Smith, Larry Hughes, Mesa Ribordy, Malik Clark and more may not have been as efficient and effective as this year’s five horses up front. But you know damn well they tried to be.

It meant Pooka Magic was more than just a saying.

It meant the underappreciated but oh-so-important impact made by guys like Trent Smiley, AJ Steward, Lubbock Smith, Ryan Schadler, Courtney Arnick, Greg Brown, Jimmay Mundine, Tim Biere, Keba Agostinho, and T.J. Semke was felt somewhere.

It meant the endless effort and physical and mental sacrifices by guys like Toben Opurum, Michael Reynolds, Ben Goodman, JaCorey Shepherd, Victor Simmons, Fish Smithson, Cassius Sendish, Dru Prox, Mike Lee and more was actually a meaningful part of this long and painful rebuilding process.

It’s OK to remember playmakers like D.J. Beshears, Daymond Patterson, Nigel King, Nick Harwell, Steven Sims Jr., Jeremiah Booker, Stephon Robinson Jr., Kwamie Lassiter II and others as real difference makers.

It meant the warrior mindsets of quarterbacks Jordan Webb, Kale Pick, Michael Cummings, Montell Cozart, Carter Stanley and Miles Kendrick were also worth honoring. Jalon Daniels they were not, but not because they didn’t give all they had.

It meant the leadership shown by Bradley McDougald, Tyler Patmon, Keon Stowers, Jeremiah Hatch, Justin Springer and others actually did lead this program forward.

And it meant every single tackle made by Steven Johnson, Ben Heeney and Joe Dineen Jr. mattered.

Those names just scratch the surface on the number of former Jayhawks who worked to see a day like this come. There were others whose efforts led to all-conference honors and NFL draft selections after struggling and suffering with the Jayhawks. That was their reward. This season was those other players’ crown.

Those Jayhawks on the current roster were the guys that finally got it done and made Kansas football relevant again. They all believe there’s more yet to come. But no matter what happens during the next couple of years, the members of the 2022 team, rightly so, will be the players who history remembers.

Their accomplishment, however — led by Leipold — does not cast a shadow over all those who previously tried and failed.

Instead, it shines a light back on all of those guys who battled before them, a light made brighter by the beaming smiles those former players are flashing back today.


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