When the 2009 Kansas University football season began, people everywhere — from players and coaches to fans and family members — were fixated on this being KU’s best chance to win the Big 12 North.
That’s not so much the focus anymore.
These days, after three straight conference losses dropped them to 5-3 overall and 1-3 in Big 12 play, the Jayhawks are more worried about finding a way to win again than they are about what their victories might mean.
“We can’t sit around talking about winning the North; we gotta talk about winning a game,” Kansas coach Mark Mangino said.
For many on this year’s team, the current three-game losing streak is the longest of their careers.
“I don’t recall a three-game losing streak, but I know I had a two-game losing streak,” said red-shirt freshman Kale Pick, who played his high school ball at Dodge City High. “We played Garden City and lost to them and then played the No. 25 team in the country, Hutchinson High, and we lost to them.”
Linebacker Drew Dudley had similarly vivid memories of a rough stretch in middle school. But since cracking his high school’s varsity roster, Dudley hadn’t lost three in a row until now.
“I know that it’s three in a row, but it doesn’t overwhelm me,” Dudley said. “We’ve been disappointed by each loss, but it hasn’t overcome us; we’ll get it turned around.”
A big reason for Dudley’s belief that the Jayhawks will return to their winning ways is tied to the leadership on this year’s team. The Jayhawks haven’t lost three in a row since 2006. All four of this year’s captains — Todd Reesing, Kerry Meier, Jake Sharp and Darrell Stuckey — were on that team.
“A lot of those guys from ’06 who are still here have a lot of pride, and they don’t want to be a part of a streak like this,” Dudley said.
Junior offensive lineman Brad Thorson looked a step farther.
“You don’t expect things like this,” Thorson said. “Going into the season, nobody plans to deal with these types of things. But one of the biggest assets we have is coaches who have been through a lot more adversity in life than us 18-to-22-year-olds have. So we lean on them pretty heavily. We rely on their life experiences.”
During the Mangino era, KU has lost three or more games in a row six separate times. The longest skid, which came during Mangino’s first season in 2002, was seven games. In 2004, KU endured two different losing streaks: a three-game slide early on and a four-game winless streak later in the year.
Despite being down about the team’s recent losses, Pick said even losing streaks have silver linings.
“It makes you work harder in practice, makes you more focused and makes you more dialed in to what your assignments are,” he said. “It also makes you more eager to get back onto the field.”
Stuckey, one player on the KU roster who went through more than his share of losses during his high school career at Kansas City (Kan.) Washington High, agreed with Thorson and said it was up to the team’s leaders to get the Jayhawks back on track.
“You have to lead by example and have to show people that your spirit is going to be unwavering,” Stuckey said. “And that’s what’s going to be consistent here. That unwavering spirit of leadership that we have with this team is what’s going to get this turned around and get us through what some people call, ‘This dark place.’
“It’s all about how you finish, anyway,” Stuckey added. “You want to finish stronger or just as strong as you started, and that’s what we’re focused on doing.”
The Jayhawks will look to snap the skid at 11:30 a.m. Saturday in Manhattan when they take on Kansas State (5-4, 3-2).