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Saturday, September 6, 2003

Ah, the yarns to be spun at ‘Fam and Friends’ gala

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He was a college All-American, is the last football coach to leave Kansas University with a winning record and was, is and always will be a delightful entertainer.

The name's Jack Mitchell, and word is he's getting cranked up for a boffo appearance at the Don Fambrough and Friends caper here Sept. 25. That's a Thursday night event at the Holidome to benefit the Bert Nash Mental Health Center.

Jack, now about 80, will wheel in from his Arizona retirement digs along with a who's who of KU gridiron immortals. Even at $125 a plate it will be a night to remember -- the burst of adrenaline the struggling Jayhawk program needs right now. It is designed to emphasize "we've been good, and entertaining, and we can be again."

There'll be all-everythings galore from Kansas football history. A major goal is to get the past, present and future linked in stimulating fashion to germinate the kind of success the Jayhawks once enjoyed, though not since 1995.

The centerpiece will be the charismatic Fambrough. His 57 years of devotion, achievement and love for KU should encourage others to do likewise.

"Jack's (Mitchell) really up for this," chuckled Fambrough this week as he headed for another KU football practice. Don does that virtually every day and admits "I appreciate them (Mark Mangino and Co.) letting an old guy show up and keep in touch. I still enjoy being around it. I was 30 years old before I learned that Labor Day didn't mean two-a-days."

Back to Mitchell. "Jack's been calling me about every week, sometimes twice, to polish his material and maybe even do a little rehearsing," Don said. "Nobody's ever been funnier about football than Jack. When he was here and I was an assistant, one of the first things we'd do at staff meeting on Monday was practice stuff for the quarterback clubs he'd be attending. He loves playing to the crowd and is just as wild as ever.

"Thing about Jack is that he was such a salesman that he could take a loss and turn it into something the listeners figured was a victory. From what he's been saying, he should be in rare form on the 25th. But he's just one of the great people who'll be here."

Realtor John Novotny is master of ceremonies and the speaker list includes All-Americans David Jaynes, John Hadl and Gale Sayers and broadcaster/ex-player David Lawrence. Look for the likes of flamboyant former coach Pepper Rodgers, already confirmed, Otto Schnellbacher, Bobby Douglass, John Zook, Mike Shinn, Galen Fiss and Charlie Hoag. The tales will get taller as the evening progresses. That's the nature of these beasts.

"We've been planning this about a year and Jack's been trying to get us to move it up because 'Hell, Don, I might die before then!'" said Fambrough. "All the stories might not be perfectly accurate but they'll be about as much fun as you can have."

Don had two four-year tenures as KU head coach and assisted lots of guys. Jack was head man from 1958-66 and left with a 44-42-5 record. Nobody's been above .500 for a KU career since. No, not Glen Mason, either. Fam aided J.V. Sikes, who was 35-25 from 1948-53.

Mitchell and Fambrough first connected at Texas University. Don, from Longview, Texas, was a sophomore in the fall of 1942 when Mitchell, out of Arkansas City, was a freshman.

Don played for UT as it beat Georgia Tech in the Jan. 1, 1943, Cotton Bowl game. Each team was allowed two freshmen on bowl rosters and one of the Longhorn yearlings was Tom Landry, carried as a punter. No Mitchell. Right after that, most dispersed to the armed services.

After World War II, Mitchell became a flashy A-A quarterback at Oklahoma and Don followed close friend Ray Evans back to Kansas, where he was an all-league guard-linebacker and place-kicker.

"A lot of us were veterans and I remember a time when I was 24 and Forrest Griffith (fullback) came in at age 17," recalls Fambrough. "He kept calling us older guys 'sir,' and we had a tough time getting him out of the habit. But we were serious about football, school and our growing families, so I guess we really struck the young kids as old men. We shared some great times, though."

Maybe you never heard of fabulous armed forces football teams from the '40s, like the Iowa Seahawks, the Great Lakes Navy guys, the Quantico Marines AND the Second Air Force outfit. Fambrough, Evans and Jayhawk Hugh Johnson performed for the latter.

The Fly-Boys ran the single-wing offense and their three tailbacks were All-Americans Evans, Glenn Dobbs of Tulsa and Frankie Sinkwich of Georgia. Also on the roster were all-pro performers such as center Bulldog Turner of the Chicago Bears and Tom Fears of UCLA-Rams.

The "quarterback," which in that lineup meant blocking back, was Fambrough. No wonder Evans liked him so much.

Fam and Friends is on a Thursday, the guys will play golf Friday, then go to the Kansas-Missouri game Saturday, Sept. 27. You couldn't cram all the stuff they'll cackle about in an Encyclopedia Britannica. And some of it is true!

The Fam Bash is the very kind of family-style gathering Kansas football needs to get plugged into what it takes to perform and excel. Let's hope the 2002 Jayhawks can tuck at least a couple victories under their belts by then.

The new guys on the Hill need to get inspired by this assembly of standouts and regenerate some of the pride and warmth that once existed here. Otherwise, KU is truly doomed to being "a basketball school" while the Purple Pumas to the west extend their embarrassing modern dominance in the rivalry.

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