Maybe the Musical Chairs Can Stop Now

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 their team.
 
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 Mangino?
 
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.
 
"Yep."
 
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.

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