Saturday, September 27, 2003

Mayer: ‘Fam’ proof KU football can thrive


If the warmth, pride, nostalgia and camaraderie that prevailed Thursday night at the Lawrence Holidome sufficiently radiates into the proper channels, the Kansas University football team will beat Missouri today and the program's future will be brighter than it's been since 1995, the school's last winning season.

The Jayhawk heritage was spotlighted in stimulating fashion by people best-qualified to do just that.

Don Fambrough was honored by some 700 at a fund-raiser. The label was "Coach Fam and Friends." It's appropriate that the first syllable of the legendary coach's name is also the lead-in for "family."

That's the heartwarming atmosphere which prevailed; it could pay huge dividends, even if KU doesn't upend Mizzou. It would take a book to chronicle all the delightful yarns exchanged by the great, the near-great, the often-unheralded spear-carriers and the many "civilians" who shared in the occasion.

John Novotny, the local real estate guy with a KU staff background, orchestrated the proceedings, threatening to blow his referee whistle if things got the least bit off-color. He tooted quite sparingly, never for anything really bad. It was the kind of event your kids could have been exposed to with positive results.

Current KU coach Mark Mangino early on described Fambrough as "the most loyal Jayhawk ever." He presented the honoree with a current KU helmet. The 80-year-old Fambrough quipped: "The last helmet I had was made out of leather."

Another transition between the past and present was provided when new athletic director Lew Perkins awarded Fambrough and former coaches Pepper Rodgers and Jack Mitchell with big "portraits" of Memorial Stadium where they had worked. Perkins appropriately described the evening as "a wonderful family experience, very special."

With good reason

There was an obvious effort to link KU tradition with the new order and it seemed to get off the ground swimmingly. People ate it up, and with good reason.

Novotny described KU's All-Americans, all of which emerged in the 1946-82 period when Fambrough was directly connected with the university. The emcee also had attending members of bowl teams stand, then demanded all lettermen to do likewise.

All-Americans in attendance were Otto Schnellbacher (1947), George Mrkonic (1951), John Hadl (1960-61), Curtis McClinton (1961), Gale Sayers (1963-64), Bobby Douglass (1968), David Jaynes (1973) and Bruce Kallmeyer (1983). Gil Reich (1952) and John Zook (1968) were unable to attend. Ray Evans (1947) and Oliver Spencer (1952) are, worse luck, no longer with us.

Featured speakers were Pepper Rodgers, executive vice president for Washington Redskins operations; broadcaster-former guard David Lawrence; Jaynes; Sayers; Hadl; Mitchell; finally Fam the Man himself.

Never at a loss for words in a football crowd, Don admitted he had become a little rattled by all the attention, "so confused I'm like the father whose daughter comes home at 4 a.m. with a Gideon Bible."

Fambrough and all the others regaled the adoring crowd with anecdote after anecdote, most of them true, or at least partially so.

Rodgers said Don was his first staff hire here in 1967 and "no one ever gave me as much support or gave more to KU than Don. . . . He never wants anything from you, just your friendship."

Blame the officials

Rodgers evoked guffaws when he pointed out that when KU dropped the 1969 Orange Bowl game to Penn State by a point because of a 12th man on the field, the Jayhawks actually had an extra man in the lineup the four previous plays due to mixups.

"They blame me, but it was those lousy officials," he jibed. "If they'd done their job earlier, it never would have happened."

David Lawrence, in fine form, did an uncanny imitation of a Fambrough pep talk and stressed that prior to a Missouri game Don noted that "at least this time we know the bastards are coming."

The reference was to the surprise Quantrill Raid in 1863, the fact Fambrough often contended that Billy Quantrill was a Missouri graduate, and that Jayhawks always must be ready for such invaders. Like today.

Lawrence emphasized that Fambrough recruited "mommas" and as a kid in Parsons, "Kansas was the only place my mom would let me go."

Jaynes on bandwagon

Jaynes, still movie star-handsome and articulate, said the greatest thing he got from Fambrough was self-confidence, and lessons in life beyond football. "This is the only place in the world I'd want to be tonight. We have a common link, all of us, through this man right here," said David.

Jaynes recalled one Missouri game when during a timeout he, as a sophomore, asked Fambrough what play to call. Don told David that as a sophomore he had two years left and "I've got only one year on my contract, so it's your decision, son." The vote of confidence led to a successful play.

The Sayers remarks should go out to all "student-athletes." He admits the three greatest sources of pride in his life are (1) getting his Kansas undergraduate degree; (2) getting his KU master's; (3) making a success of his business career.

"Early on, I decided God had given me some special talent and it was up to me to use it. I knew I could play," Sayers told me before the meeting. "Then it was a case of using my mental abilities beyond football. The fact I could do that is what makes me proudest."

Education first

On the podium, Sayers said: "What I appreciate most about Don was that he kept stressing 'you're here to get an education!' I played only 68 pro games (gaining Hall of Fame status) and the average pro life is under four years. You have to prepare to play and you have to prepare to quit. Coach Fambrough led me down that path and I say to any athlete: 'You get no education, SHAME ON YOU!'"

Sayers called Fambrough "a role model who has constantly enriched my life."

Hadl says he's blessed as a KU staffer to see the retired Fambrough almost every day and will always treasure him as a deep friend. His first contact with Don was on the 1958 KU freshman team recruited by Mitchell and Fambrough. "Don actually made me enjoy practice."

In introducing Mitchell, Hadl recalled that as a 1957-58 LHS senior he had committed to Oklahoma and Bud Wilkinson.

"But Jack got after me when he succeeded Chuck Mather. He was a horse man and my dad liked horses, too. We didn't live too far apart. One day, Jack comes riding down the street on one horse and leading another and carrying a big jug of orange juice," John explained.

Case closed

Hadl said his dad, Jess, was invited for a ride and he and Mitchell were gone about an hour.

"They must have hit that orange juice pretty good because when they got back, Dad got off the horse and said, 'John, you're going to KU.' Case closed."

The colorful Mitchell, still a spellbinder at age 80, talked about his and Fambrough's early days at Texas University and how Jack as a freshman got pounded by Don as a sophomore during workouts. Came World War II, military service; then Don was lured to Kansas by Ray Evans and Mitchell won All-America quarterback honors at Oklahoma.

Mitchell termed Fambrough "the best linebacker in America, old No. 22, as a Jayhawk." Jack also gave one of his many versions of hypnotism efforts for a fumbling back. Fambrough had debunked the idea since only "wackos" do that. Mitchell claimed that Fambrough fell asleep while the hypnotist dangled a nickel from a string and learned he was as "big a wacko as the rest of us in this business."

Always the charmer, Mitchell said he has never treasured a relationship more than the one he has enjoyed with Fambrough.

The Friends of Fam bash was one of the major highlights of KU football history. As Novotny noted repeatedly, the "unbelievable passion" Fambrough has brought to the program and to KU loyalists is a treasure beyond evaluation. "We must trade on that."

If the new regime can convert the kind of enthusiasm and appreciation that prevailed at the bash into new support and excitement, Jayhawks might not have to listen much longer to Kansas Staters who delight in their recent dominance in the series.

It was truly, a night to remember.

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