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Saturday, July 9, 2005

Mayer: KU athletics need success in football, fans to be competitive

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With an athletics budget jacked up to something like $40 million, will the Kansas University athletics program get closer to abolishing its second-division syndrome in 2005-06? Mainly in football, of course, but also in Big 12 Conference all-sports competition.

There are miles to go before we can sleep in either of those beds, but there is promise.

More often than not, simply throwing money at a problem or project doesn't accomplish a lot, as in the case of the infamous Big Dig infrastructure fiasco in Boston. At last check, something like $15 billion had gone down that drain, and the inner-city tunnel still leaked, and insulation continued to drop on cars.

But KU athletic director Lew Perkins and his gang have created headlines with their financial activities, and people keep hoping that they will pay off with excellence in fields other than men's basketball and women's volleyball and soccer.

All three of these sports will continue to contend for titles. Yet they're going to need heavy backup to push KU's men higher than eighth in the league all-sports standings, the women higher than sixth and the male-female combo better than ninth (with only Iowa State, Colorado and Kansas State behind them).

The big kahuna is football. The Jayhawk brain trust has launched an all-court press to hike ticket sales, and early figures have looked good. But some veteran patrons I know have discontinued their gridiron ducats. Others have scoped out where they'll be sitting this year and think that unless there's a big upsurge in victories they may not renew for 2006. Like it or not, the football people must show some good reasons, soon, why crowds should be a lot bigger

Do the math. In 2004, KU was 4-7 overall in football (though with a little more good luck it could have been 6-5 or better). The Jayhawks were 2-6 in the Big 12 and tied for fifth in the North Division. But those league victories were enormous: Kansas State and Missouri. He might not say it, but I'd bet that in a secret moment, coach Mark Mangino would much prefer beating those arch-rivals in the same season to going to a lower-echelon bowl game. KU could have been as good as 6-5 and accomplished both.

Barring some massive disasters, Kansas again will be bonkers on defense. Its situation is the opposite of the Kansas City Chiefs. K.C. has been able to run up points and big yardage on offense but hasn't been able to prevent the opposition from outscoring it. Pathetic defense. Kansas time and again came close in 2004 because of a tremendous defense but couldn't move the ball enough.

Quarterbacking was undependable last season. That department needs to be settled and get increasingly productive this fall or we're going to be belabored by more of the "play hard, come close, lose" heartbreaks.

The beauty of all this is that coach Mangino, his staff and his players got the scent of success last season and still have it in their nostrils. They have good new people and are optimistic about a running game that will allow whoever is quarterbacking to play more within himself.

Kansas needs a situation similar to that of the New England Patriots with Tom Brady. For all his skills and mentality, Brady's main strength is that his team of dedicated, unselfish role players do their jobs so well that he doesn't have to provide John Elway-like miracles. Brady can get a game plan, follow the sideline guidance and be just as good as he needs to be to win because he gets so much help. And there's always that marvelous placekicker, Adam Vinatieri, for a clincher.

OK, forget place-kicking miracles at foot-loose Kansas for a while. But the other personnel may be potent enough to keep the quarterback from having to invite turnovers with wild heroics. It starts with defense, and Kansas should have that. Special teams seem to be coming along. If the Jayhawks generate enough offense to give their defenders better protection, we might see a long-dreamed-of winning record, the first since 1995.

In women's basketball, Bonnie Henrickson clearly has things moving in the right direction, and Bill Self's male Jayhawks will be a lot better than some gloom-and-doom forecasters contend. Contrary to some critics, J.R. Giddens was not a be-all, end-all factor in the program, never really measured up to his potential and his absence will strengthen rather than hinder a fine collection of kids.

As an e-mail pal, Bill the Bear, in Hawaii noted, Self in getting Giddens off the roster resorted to basic mathematics: addition by subtraction. The behavior pattern has been established and anyone else who sets off to become the village hale-fellow-well-met at the various bistros will either be sitting or going home. Self has seen his KU program embarrassed enough and he's ready to break out the whip and chair to orchestrate the circus ring back into a condition of excellence.

Beauty is, Bill has the personnel to do just that. Don't feel sorry for the Jayhawks, who'll be better because of the departure of Giddens. As for bad decisions, how dumb does Alex Galindo look about now? With so many doors for playing time so wide open and with the coaches planning on a fresh start after hindrances by several overrated guys, Alex would have had a great chance to showcase his talents. But so long, kid, it's been good to know ya. There are at least three guys who can do what you did and they REALLY want to be here.

OK, so Kansas with all its new expenditures doesn't leap into the upper echelon of the Big 12 all-sports pile in 2005-06. It'll have another fine basketball season (maybe men and women), there are seeds of success that the football program can germinate and other programs like baseball, softball, soccer and such may get a boost by improvement in track and field.

So Kansas doesn't overtake Texas at No. 1, with its $80 million budget, or kick Nebraska, Texas A&M; and Oklahoma off the ladder. KU, despite that costly, limp-legged new logo, is in a position to perform in improved fashion.

Just for daydreaming's sake, suppose the Jayhawks could beat K-State and Missouri in football again and win enough games to make a decent bowl game. As grandma would say, that'd sure beat a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, huh?

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