One play that likely altered KU football history
Many years after Gene Mauch’s 1964 Philadelphia Phillies had led from Opening Day only to collapse in the final two weeks and get passed by the St. Louis Cardinals, a reporter summoned the courage to ask the intense Mauch what he remembered for those final weeks.
As the story goes, Mauch, sitting in the dugout, burned half a heater with one drag, exhaled slowly, paused and then did what he always did with questions he decided to dignify with a response.
“Not much,” Mauch said. “Just every (bleeping) pitch.”
Working for the Orange County Register at the time, it was difficult to watch from the press box as Mauch’s 1986 Angels drew so close to the World Series, leading by three runs in the ninth inning of Game 5. Inside the Angels’ clubhouse, the attendants had all the champagne on ice. Cops were on horses by the gates, ready to take the field to provide security. And the Red Sox stormed back to win that game and the next two, making that grounder through Bill Buckner’s legs possible.
The winningest manager never to make it to the World Series and a brilliant man, no doubt took the memory of every one of those ninth inning pitches to his grave with him as well.
In sports, one play can alter a man’s life. Nobody need remind Kansas defensive coordinator Clint Bowen of that.
The play that sticks in Bowen’s craw isn’t as famous as those from Mauch’s career and it wasn’t even nearly the most memorable 12-men-on-the-field in KU football history. That came in the 1969 Orange Bowl, won by Penn State, 15-14.
Bowen, the interim coach for the final eight games of the 2014 season, was coming off a 34-14 victory against Iowa State. Kansas' chances of scoring an even bigger victory were looking good with TCU trailing at Memorial Stadium.
“They had about a third and 6,” Bowen said. “Most teams on third down are going to slow the tempo and try to make sure they are in the best play for you and we usually substitute on third down. So we start to send it in. I’ll never forget Greg Allen's right next to me. I send Greg Allen in because he’s going to replace one of the linebackers.”
And then Bowen, both head coach and defensive coordinator for the final eight games, saw something.
“On that particular third and six they go tempo and I look out and I catch it and I yell at Greg to come back and Greg’s on the field by about one yard. JaCorey (Shepherd) pick six’s it, runs it in and we get called for 12 guys on the field with him one yard onto the field.”
And Kansas lost by four points. We’ll never know how that game would have ended, but it would have looked good for Kansas. And if the Jayhawks would have won, Bowen, in his sixth game, would've had as many Big 12 victories as Turner Gill and Charlie Weis combined for in 18 Big 12 games.
It would have been difficult for AD Sheahon Zenger to ignore the groundswell of support and he might have taken the interim tag off a day or two later. Instead, Kansas lost, got blown out in the final two games and the rest is history, which Bowen remains part of as DC.
“It was my fault,” Bowen said. I sent him in. It was on me.” It’s only human nature that Bowen must think of how his life would be different, but not for that one play.
Long pause. A smile masking an intense glare.
“Things happen,” Bowen said. “Very happy to be where I’m at. It would have been good for those kids. It was Senior Day and they had worked hard to win that game. Obviously, a lot of other plays factored in as well, the punt return at the end.”
Bowen's thoughts are dominated by TCU this week, but not the 2014 squad. He's trying to figure out how to slow down the undefeated Horned Frogs, ranked No. 4 in the nation.