By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 22, 2007
LAWRENCE, Kan., Nov. 21 -- When Mark Mangino showed recruits the unglamorous facilities, the Kansas coach urged them to look past the brick and mortar and focus on the credentials of the people inside. When he explained the lackluster football tradition, he told them to ignore past losses and letdowns and concentrate on possibility.
"It's faith," Mangino said this week. "Faith is believing in something you can't see."
The vision that Mangino articulated when hired five years ago has finally crystallized, because the Jayhawks are in the process of writing the most improbable story in recent college football history. A team that did not receive one vote in the Associated Press preseason poll is two victories away from playing for the national championship in a sport that has long favored the established.
The Jayhawks are the only unbeaten team remaining from one of the six Bowl Championship Series conferences. Their undersize quarterback, Todd Reesing, has fast become a Heisman Trophy hopeful. And Mangino has become a strong favorite for national coach of the year after leading the Jayhawks to their first 11-0 start in school history.
In addition to that acclaim, Saturday night's nationally televised game at Arrowhead Stadium, which matches 116-year rivals Kansas and once-beaten Missouri, could be the national game of the year and is being called the most significant game in the history of Kansas football, which began play in 1890.
"You can tell the people here are pretty shocked" about the success, cornerback Phillip Strozier said. "We're not shocked about it. Our whole approach has been 'Beyond the Wall.' Overcome any barrier, any obstacle."
Four of the Jayhawks' six losses last season were by seven points or less, prompting some players to say during the summer that Kansas would be among the country's most surprising teams. Improving on a 6-6 season, which did not end in a bowl game appearance, also was feasible because of a relatively soft nonconference schedule and a regular season conference schedule that did not include Texas or Oklahoma.
Mark Stallard, a Kansas football historian who has followed the Jayhawks for 40 years, believed Kansas would contend for the Big 12 North Division title this season. Had someone told Stallard that Kansas would be No. 2 in the BCS ratings in November, "I would have said, 'Can I drink what you are drinking?' I wouldn't have believed it. Everyone is crazy" with excitement.
A shop in downtown Lawrence displays a T-shirt that reads, "11-0. History was nice, until we decided to rewrite it." Female students wear shirts that bear the slogan, "Our Coach is Phat." The lead headline in the student newspaper this week read, "Rivalry reaches governors' mansions," referencing the friendly bet Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt made about Saturday's game.
"It's crazy," junior cornerback Aqib Talib said of the historical significance of this season. "I guess it will really hit me later on when I read some trivia and see that team I played for. It will hit me later in life."
Over the past few weeks, Mangino has received scores of e-mails, letters and phone calls from former players. One said he feels good about telling his son about his days playing football at Kansas.
"He's proud now of the football program," Mangino said.
For the better part of a century, there was little to relish on the football field at a school with a historic basketball tradition. While Kansas claims John Riggins and Gale Sayers as part of its lineage, the Jayhawks have won more than six games only three times -- in 2005, 1995 and 1992 -- over the past 25 years.
Mangino arrived in 2002 with sound experience in helping to rebuild Big 12 football teams, having been an assistant under Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and Bill Snyder at Kansas State. He knew he faced a hard sell in recruiting, but urged players to see the campus and get to know the coaches.
"He is doing what Bill Snyder did," said Stallard, who wrote "Tales From the Jayhawks Gridiron." "Take three-star players and coach them into four- or five-star players that Texas A&M or Texas overlooked."
Reesing is an Austin native who grew up a Longhorns fan. But Texas, as well as every other major school other than Kansas State, Duke and Kansas, decided not to offer Reesing a scholarship largely because he is 5 feet 10, short for a quarterback.
The sophomore has thrown for a school-record 30 touchdowns that are offset by only four interceptions. The offense ranks second nationally in scoring. Texas Coach Mack Brown recently told reporters, "Anybody who did not recruit him, including us, made a mistake."
Talib was so lightly recruited he could not even remember the other major schools that offered him a scholarship. He said he chose Kansas because Mangino came to his house and showed more effort than any other coach. Now he is a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Award, given to the nation's best defender, and the defense ranks second nationally in scoring defense.
Defensive tackle James McClinton, a native of Garland, Tex., said he received more than 10 scholarship offers, but chose the Jayhawks largely on faith. "My pastor saw me playing for the Kansas City Chiefs," McClinton said. "That's close to Kansas. Coach Mangino came to my house and did not put too much pressure on me."
Mangino continues to strengthen player relationships. During this period of unprecedented attention, Mangino is determined to keep his players well grounded. He said that tackling, blocking and catching -- not emotion -- will determine Saturday's outcome. He told players they should have the same friends today that they had a year ago when they were 6-6.
But he also feels they should enjoy the spotlight because they deserve it after committing to his hope of what the team could be.
"They have invested in this program and deserve the opportunity to play on center stage," Mangino said. "This is what the players who came to Kansas, the ones who came on faith, had hoped for."