LAWRENCE, Kan. – When Kansas running back Brandon McAnderson was a student at Lawrence High School, getting tickets to a Jayhawks football game was easy.
He would walk up to the ticket booth just before game time and buy a ticket in the cheap seats. He could always sneak his way down to better seats, he figured, because the stadium was usually empty.
“It was always like (the fans) were just waiting for the basketball season,” McAnderson said.
But it hasn’t been that way this year. Led by coach Mark Mangino, the Jayhawks are 11-0 for the first time in school history and are ranked second in the BCS standings. Memorial Stadium broke attendance records this season, and fans are momentarily putting the No. 4 basketball team on the back burner.
If the Jayhawks beat Missouri on Saturday night at Arrowhead Stadium and defeat the Big 12 South Division winner a week later in San Antonio, they will play in the BCS national championship game.
Not bad for a team that didn’t have a winning record in 10 of its last 11 seasons and went just 2-10 in Mangino’s first season in 2002.
So how did Mangino, a man who was better known for his large waistline than his excellent record as an assistant coach, build a castle out of rubble?
The answer’s simple. He became a salesman.
Mangino believes in his system like Kirstie Alley believes in Jenny Craig. He had won as an assistant under Bill Snyder at Kansas State and as an offensive coordinator at Oklahoma under Bob Stoops. In 10 years at the two schools, Mangino went to nine bowl games, including the Fiesta Bowl in 1997 and the Orange Bowl in 2000.
The man knew how to win. But how could he convey that to the high school recruits who were being wooed by college coaches from all over the country? Not only was Mangino a relatively unknown coach, but KU’s football tradition rivaled that of Baylor’s, and the school’s athletic facilities were some of the worst in the Big 12.
With nothing but pride and a plan in his suitcase, Mangino did his best Willy Loman imitation and went door-to-door to make his sales.
When Mangino entered a recruit’s house, he pointed out KU’s high academic standings and downplayed the importance of fancy-schmancy workout facilities. (“Bricks and mortar don’t make you a better player,” he told his recruits. “The people working in the buildings help develop you as a player, as a student and as a citizen.”)
He also begged the players to visit the campus and meet the coaches before they made any rash decisions.
“We played to the strengths of the University of Kansas,” he said. “Obviously there were some struggles in football tradition, and we understood that.”
Aqib Talib was an all-district high school cornerback from Richardson, Texas, when Mangino came knocking on his door in 2003. Talib had several scholarship offers, but by the time Mangino picked up his suitcase and left for the next house, he was already sold.
“Coach was believable,” he said. “He just came in, told me about the program, told me he had intentions of turning it around and that he wanted me to be a part of it. I felt like that’s where I needed to be.”
And so did McAnderson. And quarterback Todd Reesing. And receiver Marcus Henry and all of the other players who have been vital to the Jayhawks’ perfect start this season.
“I think there’s a lot of pride being a Jayhawk,” Henry said.
But Mangino doesn’t like to take credit for his team’s success. Instead, he gives props to his players, both current and former, who have helped him get to this point.
“They deserve it,” he said. “They’ve worked hard, and they’ve invested in this program, and they deserve the opportunity to play at center stage.”
Mangino has received tons of support in recent weeks. He gets emotional when he talks about how he logs onto his e-mail account or checks his voice mail only to see that they are flooded with thank you’s and congratulations from former players. One of those players told Mangino how proud he is now to be able to tell his son that he played football at the University of Kansas.
And that’s why Mangino took this job.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “This is what the players who came to Kansas, the ones who came on faith, had hoped for. We told them if you work hard and do the right things, maybe something great can happen for this program.”