Bradley McDougald (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
There are certain annual rituals that become a part of our lives. I always think of the return of the swallows to San Juan de Capistrano out in California. My wife’s family – mom, dad and five kids – used to pile into the family truckster every June for their annual pilgrimage up Nort’ to visit relatives in Minnesota.
A provocative move made at the beginning of spring football practice
under new KU head coach Turner Gill reminded me of a past fall ritual
for us Jayhawk fans. No one’s really sure why it started, and no one’s
really sure why it was never questioned. It just sort of happened and
we went with it.
Last week, though, Gill may have put a stop to it. I’m referring, of
course, to the annual Mark Mangino Annual Football Position Shift
Festival and Hootenanny.
Gill told players to return to the positions where they started last
year. Hell, he even asked some guys where they wanted to play.
Let me repeat that: the Kansas football coach asked some of his players
where they wanted to play, where they thought they could best help
The Position Shift Hootenanny usually happened in October: KU would get
five or six games in, and suddenly offensive players would show up on
defense, and vice versa. Lots of times, it was a starter who got moved,
which made some of the moves truly baffling.
For example, last year, Bradley McDougald was a big, strong wide
receiver who’d distinguished himself early in KU’s schedule because
he’d go across the middle without fear and catch anything thrown in his
area code. So, of course, he was moved from that position to defensive
back, where he languished in mediocrity. Sure, he made some plays, but
you always felt like it was because he was simply a great athlete, not
so much because he was a good DB.
Daymond Patterson also got moved. He started out as a 5-9/175
pass-catching jitterbug who was quick and elusive. He was also moved to
d-back, where he got to experience the joy of defending guys six or
seven inches taller and 40 or 50 pounds heavier.
I think I can explain this annual rite of fall with two words: Charles Gordon.
In his redshirt freshman season, Gordon, an All-American who left KU a
year early to enter the NFL draft, played wide receiver and absolutely
tore it up. He caught 57 passes for 769 yards. Those numbers weren’t
just KU freshman records; they were good enough to make everybody’s
freshman All-American team.
Following this memorable season, Mangino did what any coach would do:
he took his one of the most talented football players KU had seen in
years and made him switch positions.
In fairness to Mangino, he was convinced that moving Gordon to the
defensive backfield was (1) what was best for a Kansas team he thought
was loaded at receiver, and (2) what was best for Gordon. Mangino was
confident that if Gordon was going to make money playing football on
Sundays, he was going to do it on defense.
For the most part, the Charles Gordon Experiment made Mangino look
brilliant. His sophomore season, Gordon lead the nation with seven
interceptions. Against Colorado, Gordon was covering a post route. When
CU quarterback Joel Klatt threw the ball to a guy running a crossing
pattern, Gordon instinctively left his man near the sideline, covered
about half the width of the field in just a few seconds and intercepted
the ball. It was, without a doubt, the most amazingly athletic
interception I’ve ever seen. That opinion was quickly affirmed by a
scout from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who was sitting a couple of chairs
down from me.
Gordon dropped off a little bit his junior season, but he was named an
All-American and left KU early for the NFL.
I’m convinced this one position shift – this one found needle in a
haystack – was all it took for the outwardly-confident Mangino to think
that he could find another diamond in the rough whenever he thought he
needed to. So, the annual shuffling commenced.
No one remembers that at the same time Charles Gordon moved to DB, RB
John Randle – hero of KU’s first win over Kansas State since what felt
like the Coolidge Administration – also started spending a lot of time
at defensive back. Randle led the team in all-purpose yards his
sophomore year, but he never really got settled in his dual roles. Then
came some off-the-field adventures for the Wichitan. After failing to
find a niche on the field and spending plenty of time in Mangino’s
doghouse (not to mention the Douglas County Courthouse) off of it,
Randle transferred to Southern Illinois. Or maybe he joined the circus.
No one’s really sure.
Football writing legend Kevin Flaherty and I were walking to our cars
last year after KU’s narrow (and by “narrow,” I mean “frighteningly
lucky”) 41-36 win over eventually-bowl bound Iowa State last October
10th. Prior to playing ISU, Mangino had put the team through its annual
game of football musical chairs. This time around, it was in an effort
to jumpstart what had been a lackluster Jayhawks defense.
Jayhawk Football 2009 v.2.0 didn’t go so well. Sure, KU won, but Iowa
State’s QB sensation Austen Arnaud completed 25-of-40 passes for 293
yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed 27 times for 152 yards and two
more TDs. Arnaud was unfreakingstoppable.
At the time, though, KU fans still thought history was awaiting. The
Jayhawks were 5-0, ranked and headed to Boulder the next week to play a
clearly inferior Colorado team with a first-time starter at
quarterback. I don’t think anyone not wearing purple or who didn’t
think Quantrill had some good ideas thought that the Iowa State win
would be KU’s last of the year. And who would’ve imagined that a little
more than a week later, the wheels would start to come off for Mark
But as we walked, I asked Kevin, “Do other coaches do this every season
– shift six or seven or eight guys from one position to another,
especially from one side of the ball to the other – in the middle of a
season like Mangino does?”
“Nope,” Kevin said. Flaherty is nothing if not succinct.
“It just seems weird for a seventh-year coach to be slapping together a
defense with chicken wire and tissue paper the same way he did when he
first got here. Does that seem a little desperate?” I asked.
But no one, including me, ever asked Mangino about it in a negative
tone. Not once. Maybe we were all afraid that he’d talk about our dead
relatives or make us bear crawl on a live volcano or call us “son” in
the postgame news conference, a tactic that was used very sparingly but
pointedly over the years to belittle a media member who’d openly,
professionally and appropriately questioned one of Mangino’s moves.
But Gill’s decision to allow probably a dozen guys – maybe more – to
return to their old positions isn’t just another sign that there’s a
new sheriff in town or whatever sports cliché you want to use. It shone
yet another less-than-positive spotlight on Mark Mangino’s legacy.
What we see in that spotlight is that a coach with just three years
experience running a program of his own is secure enough and willing to
allow guys to take their best shot at the positions where they believe
in their hearts that they can help the Kansas Jayhawks win.
I can’t help but wonder why the old coach wasn’t.