In major college football, there were only two teams in the country last season that failed to win a single game—Central Florida and Kansas. The Jayhawks play their first game of the season this Saturday.
The crimson and blue program is buoyed by a corps of fans even during their struggles last year.
In KU’s season opener last year against South Dakota State, the Jayhawks never got the chance to kick the potential game-tying field goal in the final seconds. As a result, South Dakota State won, 41-38.
KU head coach David Beatty this week reflected on that finish, “That one sticks out to you because of what happened on the final play, the final offensive play. But we learned a lot from it.”
Beatty learned that it would be better if he called the plays himself this season. In his second season, Beatty says he’s more at ease.
“I’ll be honest with you. I’m excited,” says Beatty. “I can’t wait to get to practice every day because it’s a lot of fun to be out there with those guys and be involved in them.”
That doesn’t sound like a guy in a high-turnover business whose team not only failed to win, but lost by an average of 30 points last season. But when KU athletics director Sheahon Zenger traveled across the state the last few months, he discovered, even with a struggling program, that Beatty’s enthusiasm rubs off on KU fans.
“I haven’t experienced this in my six years, and I say this with real joy in my heart, how much they like Coach Beatty. ‘We hope that you keep him around a long time.’ It tells me that he has gone out and put his best foot forward every day,” says Zenger.
Zenger spoke from a recent pep rally in Prairie Village where KU fans gathered to commiserate about the past and hope for better times in the future.
At least, that’s how Mike and Lisa Nickel of Leawood see it. They’ve been season-ticket holders since they were married in 1992.
“We scheduled our wedding day on a KU home game to give our friends who are out-of-town an additional reason to come to Lawrence and the Kansas City area,” he says. (It was a 62-10 win by the way.)
But Lisa Nickel says the marriage got off on the right foot because of her KU lineage.
“In fact, my grandfather (Frosty Phelps) played for the Jayhawks in football in ’33, ’34 and ’35. He was an All-American behind (future President) Gerry Ford,” she says.
But even with KU DNA, Mike Nickel says he and his wife try to be eternal optimists.
“It’s easy to be a basketball fan. It takes work to be a football fan,” he says.
And to display their loyalty. You can buy KU basketball shirts on practically any street corner. Football are readily available, but considering that the Jayhawks haven’t won more than three games since 2009, you’d hardly say they’re trendy.
Christina Lewis of Overland Park wore one at the pep rally. She went to every game last year and admitted it wasn’t fun seeing the how the Jayhawks found another way to lose.
“Well, no, but you still have to support your team, even if they don’t win,” she says.
In KU’s first two games last season, the games at Memorial Stadium topped 30,000, but attendance dropped off during the rest of the home games. Zenger says season-ticket sales this year have remained steady though he wouldn’t say a number.
“We’re at or above where we were last year. I think people are anxious to get it going,” says Zenger. “I think we’ll have a lot of walk-up. People just want to try this team out. I think if you get around them you can’t help but like them. The coaches, the players, they all just have that can-do attitude.”
Beatty says he appreciates the loyalty the fans have shown and hopes that more fans become interested.
“It’s going to be great weather this weekend and I just want the Jayhawks to know that they’re the magic and we need you out there,” says Beatty.
Zenger thinks Beatty’s enthusiasm will help more than fans.
“(Beatty) talks about doing a front hand-spring out of bed every morning. I think he really does,” says Zenger with a laugh.
Zenger knows though it will take a lot more than hand springs and dedicated fans to get the Jayhawks turned into a winning program again.
Greg Echlin is a sports reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can reach him on Twitter@GregEchlin.