It was just a towel.
A Kansas University football player in 2002 took a towel out of the weight room after a workout one day. It was on the floor of KU's locker room when a coach found it - where it wasn't supposed to be.
If they hadn't gotten the memo yet, the Jayhawks were about to find out what life was like under new coach Mark Mangino.
The players spent 15 straight minutes the next day doing up-downs on the Anschutz Pavilion turf with former strength coach Mark Smith. Hands and knees were bloodied. Even the fittest of elite athletes were gasping for air like never before.
Over a towel.
"I stopped counting at 165," one former player said.
That day served as a clear message in the early years of Mangino's tenure. Discipline and structure were going to be established immediately. KU's head coach was not out to make friends. He was out to make winners.
Five years later, the response is evident. Kansas is 10-0, the darling of college football and ranked third in the Bowl Championship Series standings.
How did it all come together for this program?
This season has come out of nowhere to most, a history that treaded in mediocrity (or worse) for years before suddenly rocketing out of it this fall.
It seems to be a number of circumstances - some planned, some targeted and some just a stroke of good fortune - which have meshed to give Kansas its dream season. The first of many, perhaps.
Here's a look at how this mansion may have been built so far:
Big on discipline
As the towel incident shows, discipline has been preached constantly since Mangino arrived in 2002.
The fruit of that is perhaps the most overwhelming - and overlooked - reason for KU's success. The Jayhawks have refused to hurt themselves this season, putting up big numbers because they don't get in their own way.
"We pay real close attention to detail, and we don't make a lot of mistakes in practice," tight end Derek Fine said. "It carries over into games."
Kansas hasn't committed a turnover since the second quarter of the Colorado game on Oct. 20, when James McClinton fumbled away an interception return.
In addition, the Jayhawks have 37 penalties all year, easily the fewest in the 120-team Bowl Subdivision. KU's average of 31.4 penalty yards per game also is best in the country.
"A big, big factor that has to be recognized is that we have a smart group of kids," Mangino said. "They're intelligent, and they're disciplined."
The run of bad luck was just incredible.
An uneasy point for Mangino's first two years at KU bottomed out in year three. In one four-week stretch in 2004, Kansas went through four quarterbacks. Adam Barmann and Jason Swanson were lost to shoulder injuries in back-to-back weeks. John Nielsen went down the next game due to an ankle injury. Brian Luke was the last man standing at the '04 season finale.
The merry-go-round continued in 2005 with inconsistent play, then on into 2006, with a shoulder injury to starter Kerry Meier.
Quarterback, the most important position in an offense, often was a complete disaster at Kansas.
"If they kept a stat," Mangino says now, "we had to lead the nation in injuries at the quarterback position for our first five years here."
Now in 2007, Todd Reesing has started all 10 games, longer than any starter has lasted in the entire Mangino era.
Even better, he has performed well beyond expectations. In a dead-even race with Meier for the starting job after spring ball, Reesing shot out of a cannon, it seems, and now is a dark-horse candidate to win the Heisman Trophy. He has 26 touchdown passes and four interceptions so far and more importantly is undefeated as the starter.
The thought alone causes Mangino to smile. Just thinking of the way it once was is easy for him, because it wasn't all that long ago.
"It's helped tremendously that we've had stability at that position," Mangino said. "To have a healthy and outstanding player like Todd just helps us tremendously."
New offensive system
KU offensive coordinator Nick Quartaro left coaching after the 2006 season, and Mangino decided it was time to re-evaluate what sometimes amounted to a stale offensive attack as he looked for a replacement.
"I literally sat down and created a blueprint of what I wanted from the offense - everything from formations to motions to pass routes to the run game," Mangino said. "And then I wanted to find a personality that would be a very good teacher, that the kids would have confidence in and that : would be a hard-nosed guy. Very, very demanding."
He found that guy by accident. Ed Warinner was an offensive-line coach at Kansas in 2003 and 2004 who had left for a similar job at Illinois. While the two were talking on the phone about a different candidate for KU's cornerbacks-coaching vacancy, Mangino mentioned in passing that the offensive-coordinator position was open at KU, too.
Warinner then expressed his interest, and was hired soon after.
Mangino's plan and Warinner's major input have created an exciting, up-tempo offense that Reesing seems suited to maintain. The game plan is built perfectly around the Jayhawks' parts, and it's a versatile cast - Reesing at quarterback, Brandon McAnderson and Jake Sharp at running back and a fleet of wide receivers led by 6-foot-4 speedster Marcus Henry. An offensive line has come together better than expected to keep everything running smoothly.
Kansas now is second in the nation in scoring offense, putting up 45.9 points per game. Other teams, quite simply, can't keep up.
"We're always," Henry said, "in attack mode."
Health and depth
KU's 2006 team went a disappointing 6-6, a step backward after the 2005 Fort Worth Bowl got fans jazzed.
The '06 team was decimated by injuries from the get-go, with no fewer than seven significant parts missing extended time - many on defense. It's never an excuse, but it certainly didn't help Kansas throughout the trying 2006 season.
"They were lucky," Mangino has since said, "to win six."
Fast-forward a year. The Jayhawks are 10-0, and they're almost completely healthy. Of the regular contributors, only two have missed any games - cornerback Kendrick Harper, who missed the first four games, and safety Patrick Resby, who missed Saturday's victory over Oklahoma State.
Even so, Kansas was fortunate to have depth at both Harper's and Resby's positions. True freshman Chris Harris filled in admirably for Harper and started the first seven games at corner. Sophomore Justin Thornton, who plays a lot anyway, started in place of Resby.
Other players have played through nicks and bruises, but Kansas has been able to play with its best pieces almost every week this season.
For almost a year, it was apparent that the Jayhawks were going to get off to a strong start thanks to a weak nonconference schedule.
And they did. KU beat Central Michigan, Southeastern Louisiana, Toledo and Florida International by a combined 214-23. It was impressive domination, but a stretch that still left most critics skeptical.
But the Big 12 Conference slate has worked out surprisingly well even on the fly. Having no Texas or Oklahoma on the schedule helped, but Texas A&M; was thought to be a dark horse candidate to win the South. It instead showed its share of flaws and has lost more than it has won in Big 12 play.
Same with Nebraska, the preseason pick by many to win the Big 12 North. Instead, the Huskers gave up 76 points to Kansas and likely will be firing their coach once the misery of this 5-6 season ends.
The Big 12 has been separated into the top four - Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas - and the eight also-rans. The Jayhawks have played nobody holding on to a winning conference record currently.
Of course, KU's own success against those teams - a 6-0 mark with two to play, including an impressive 4-0 mark in road games - has a lot to do with the opponents' unimpressive resumes.
The byproduct of that weak nonconference slate was four victories, four chances to get things situated and four weeks to get players comfortable.
In Mangino's eyes, it was a perfect start to the season.
"We got players in the right spots, and you could see their confidence growing each and every week," Mangino said. "As soon as we went out and played on the road and played well on the road in our first game in Manhattan, our kids really understood they had a chance to be a good football team.
"They were a confident team, but I think they realized they had a chance to be a good team and win a bunch of games."
The 5-0 start helped Kansas go 6-0. The 6-0 start helped Kansas go 7-0. The victories, stacking up one by one, became an expectation instead of a goal.
Now the Jayhawks are chasing history and are in position to pounce. A win today would give KU an 11-0 start for the first time. Ever. In addition, it would keep KU in the national-championship hunt, with time running out in the regular season.
"There are so many different things historically about this program," Mangino said. "They haven't played well against this team, haven't done this, haven't done that.
"It's been a century of inconsistency here, and we're trying to get that righted."
For one year, at least, that ship finally is going full-speed toward a target nobody could've imagined.