Orange Bowl the Biggest KU Sports Win Ever?

Mark Mangino (Steve Puppe photo)

It's been 40 years since a Kansas football team stretched a season into a second calendar year. Needless to say, it was well worth waiting for.

KU head football coach Mark Mangino and his band of two- and three-star recruits may not be badass five-star IHOP stallions, but Jayhawk fans can take comfort. What Kansas lacks in recruiting-service stars, they more than make up for in Bowl Championship Series winners' trophies.

No one on earth outside of the state of Kansas gave the Jayhawks a chance of beating perennial powerhouse Virginia Tech last Thursday night in Miami's Dolphin Stadium. Kansas hadn't beaten anyone all season. Hell, they'd barely played anyone, and according to all the so-called experts, the one time they did, they were run out of Arrowhead Stadium by eight whole points.

Not 28. Not even 18. Eight.

Clearly all these shortcomings were a recipe for disaster for anyone wearing crimson and blue.

But somehow, someway, the Jayhawks managed to muster the courage – some would even say "audacity" – to show up for the Orange Bowl. As Kansas jumped out to a 17-0 lead, I couldn't help wonder if Hokies coach Frank Beamer had ever seen "Rocky," especially the part when Apollo Creed's trainer has to remind the battered Master of Disaster, "He doesn't know it's a damn show! He thinks it's a damn fight."

About 4 ½ hours after the carnage was supposed to begin, Mangino and his squad left the stadium with a big crystal bowl full of oranges and a collective grin wider than the Cotton Bowl.

So considering all this, how does this unlikely win fall not just on the list of all-time great football wins but on the list of all-time great KU sports wins?

Having overcome a hangover that would've slowed down John Riggins, I've considered this question. I'm calling my shot: this is the greatest sports win in the history of KU athletics, just ahead of the 1988 basketball championship win over Oklahoma. Sorry, basketball-only fans.

It was a hard call to make. There's nothing in the world better than a Saturday spent at Memorial Stadium, even when the football team isn't 12-1. As someone who told anyone who'd listen all season long that smart fans would enjoy the ride, however long or short it may be, I had an amazing time.

But when I walk into Allen Field House, I hear sneakers squeaking on the hardwood, even when the building is empty. The smell of popcorn has permeated the stone walls. To this day, I walk out on the floor, stand at half-court and tell myself, "Wilt Chamberlain stood here. So did Manning and Born and Collison." So the history and significance of Kansas Basketball isn't lost on me. Not even close.

The 1988 basketball team was led by mobile coach Larry Brown and All-Universe forward Danny Manning and came into the NCAA title game being given the same kind of chance to win as their football counterparts some 19 years later. They would face Big 8 rival Oklahoma who had already beaten them twice that season, 73-65 and 95-87, and neither game was as close as the score would seem to indicate. Danny Manning scored 58 points and pulled down 27 rebounds in those two games and it still wasn't enough.  Super quick guard Mookie Blaylock, silky smooth center Stacy King and sharp-shooting Dave Sieger were just too good for Kansas during the regular season.

But anytime you have the best basketball coach working and the best player in the country, you have a puncher's chance. After running with the lightning-fast Sooners to a 50-50 halftime tie, Kansas downshifted into a deliberate style of ball that drove OU coach Billy Tubbs' squad absolutely nuts. The Jayhawks won the game, 83-79, and their fourth national title.

Now fast-forward.

The 2008 Orange Bowl had all the necessary conditions for the perfect storm. Virginia Tech won  the mighty ACC. They were making their 15th straight bowl trip. Their defense was rated number two in the nation. They were bigger, faster, stronger. Their mascot is a castrated male turkey.

Kansas? KU couldn't act like they'd been there because, well, they hadn't. How would they respond?

Five weeks of badmouthing not only from casual football fans but also highly-respected football minds like Lee Corso and Mark May set the Jayhawks up for a monumental, "Told ya so," played out on a national stage.

Those people apparently hadn't paid a lick of attention to this team all season. The Jayhawks had spent the entire year doing things they weren't supposed to do. They weren't supposed to score 50 points a game in the noncon. With the departure of Jon Cornish, they weren't supposed to have a 1,000-yard rusher. They weren't supposed to go into Bill Snyder Family Stadium and win. They weren't supposed to be able to win outside the state of Kansas. They weren't supposed to win at Boulder. And College Station. And Stillwater. All they did do, week after week, was focus on next week's game and execute the game plan. All they did was win.

Most people also seemed to forget that Mark Mangino had been to a big game before with Kansas State and Oklahoma. Given that experience, combined with a month to find every possible chink in Va Tech's armor, and smart fans knew that these Jayhawks also had at least a puncher's chance.

Punch, they did. In fact, KU landed some devastating body shots and some punches to the head that rocked their bigger, stronger opponent. By the time Virginia Tech was on the scoreboard, they were in a 17-7 hole that, while still manageable, seemed much, much deeper, thanks to a mean, physical defense headlined by CB Aqib Talib, LBs Joe Mortensen and Mike Rivera and much-maligned DEs Russell Brorsen and John Larson, who turned in their best game of the season.

Consider, though, where Kansas basketball was in 1988. Sure, the Ted Owens years were still in the rearview mirror (13-16 in 1982-83, his last season as coach), but Larry Brown had returned the Jayhawks to the national spotlight, including a Final Four trip just two seasons before. The '88 tournament trip was their fifth straight bid. And never forget: Kansas Basketball had never totally lost the glitz of being Kansas Basketball.

Kansas Football? Glitz? Not so much.

In six years, Mark Mangino has led the Jayhawks from national doormat (2-10 in his first season in charge with just one win over a D-1 opponent) to national title contender and, finally, to 12-1 Orange Bowl champion with a win over the nation's #3 team.

It's far more difficult to turn around a football program than a basketball program. It takes more time, more money, more commitment from more staff and – most importantly – far more young men who make a difference on the playing field.

The Jayhawks have been to three postseason bowl games and were eligible for a fourth during Mangino's tenure – something no other Kansas coach has come close to doing. Unlike Brown, Mangino hasn't returned Kansas to the national college football spotlight; he's delivered them there.

I'll always remember Brown, Manning and the rest of the 1987-88 basketball team, but Mark Mangino's 2007 Jayhawks football team will always hold a special place in my sports memory and the memory of anyone who's ever waved the wheat on a crisp, fall afternoon. They were a reflection of their coach's philosophy: work hard to get better everyday, respect yourself and your opponent, don't get sidetracked and good things will happen. And they have.

See you August 30th. Florida International. I'll bring the beer. Wear your blue.

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