Six wins is all it takes to make a college football team bowl-eligible. In the days of the eleven-game schedule, six wins was a winning season. Just barely, but it counted. Now that college football has gone to a twelve-game season, a team can finish at .500 and still be eligible to play in the Rust-O-Leum Bowl in Tucumcari, New Mexico on December 12th. It might not sound like much, but for one glorious Tuesday, a 6-6 team has a chance to get off that balance beam, either soaring to 7-6, and a recruiting bonanza, or plummeting to a shameful 6-7. And the opportunity to retard the oxidation of ferrous metals is nothing to sneeze at, either.
But what of the proud coaches who must play the 6-6 waiting game? Mark Mangino has guided the Kansas Jayhawks to just such a record, making them bowl-eligible for the second time in as many years. The pride of that accomplishment is not lost on him, but the agony of being the ninth-best team in an eight-bid conference has taken some of the shine off of the team’s commitment to mediocrity.
I don’t know if the term is strange” Mangino said after taking several comforting bites from a turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sandwich. “We’d certainly like to play another game. We feel like we deserve the opportunity to play another game. But we don’t have control of the situation.”
The most difficult task for the coaching staff is keeping the edge on a team that doesn’t know if the season is over. “We’ve got to stay hungry” Mangino said. “That’s not going to be easy. But I told the guys to think about the pre-game buffet table we had at the Fort Worth Bowl last year. They had those awesome little crab puffs, some prime rib, even regional cuisine, like taquitos and sour cream. A 5-7 team hasn’t earned that. The buffet table is for closers!”
Ironically, the Jayhawks’ inability to close might be exactly what keeps them home this year. The Jayhawks lost in overtime at Toledo and failed to hold a fourth-quarter lead in an extra-period loss to Nebraska. Dropping games to hapless Baylor in Waco and fellow fence-sitters Oklahoma State at home didn’t help matters.
Mangino rejects the notion that Jayhawk fans might enjoy a holiday season spent licking wounds and regrouping instead of watching the KU secondary get deep-fried by the likes of Kent State. He paused to reflectively suck a spot of gravy from his sweater before replying. “There’s a lot of pressure to win in the Big 12. It’s not an easy task. You look these kids in the eye and tell them fourth place in the North Division is nothing memorable… you tell them, because I can’t do it”.
KU basketball coach Bill Self scoffed at Mangino’s sensitivity to criticism. “He’s got it bad? My kids just knocked the defending national champs out of the #1 spot and I’m still getting flaming bags of dog poop on my lawn for losing to Bucknell two years ago. If Man-gina needs to alleviate stress, maybe he should spend some of his $1.5 mil a year on a gym membership. Boo-hoo, I beat Northwestern State, I deserve a bowl game! Give me a break!”.
Whether a coach with a 25-35 career record and a 1-1 record in lower-tier bowl games should be rewarded with a multi-year contract is a question for another day. For now, the only question the Jayhawk seniors have is “Will we ever play football again?”. And if the only question their coach has is “Will they ever open a Carl’s Jr. in Lawrence?”, who are we to judge?