In the head coach’s office at Kansas, the view often is spectacular. Inside, there are floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook Memorial Stadium, which will soon get a $350 million renovation. Outside, there’s a patio that gives you a look at Kansas’ landmark hill leading up to the Campanile World War II memorial.
And then, when David Beaty wants to shut out the light, all he has to do is a push a button and custom shades bearing larger-than-life images of Kansas players roll out of the ceiling, transforming the walls of his office into a recruiting pitch.
It happens in the blink of an eye.
Just 10 years ago this month, Kansas and its longtime rival Missouri were part of one of college football’s unique feel-good stories as they started the season outside the polls but kept winning and winning and winning. By the time those two traditional also-rans played each other on Nov. 24, 2007, Kansas was 11-0 and ranked No. 2; Missouri was 10-1 and ranked No. 4. Because No. 1 LSU had lost to Arkansas the previous day, the winner when they kicked off that night in Kansas City had a chance to be the nation’s top-ranked team and would be one more win away from playing for a national title.
“The environment that day was as good as college football can ever have,” former Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said in a phone interview this week. “I didn’t have to tell the players, but it was the biggest game in the history of this huge rivalry. And I knew, probably, there would never be a game like that again.”
A decade removed from that moment in time, college football could be shaping up for a chaotic repeat of 2007, when the top two teams in the BCS standings lost on championship weekend, opening the door for two-loss LSU to climb all the way from No. 7 into the title game, where it beat Ohio State.
But Kansas and Missouri won’t be part of it, and in fact, one or both programs could very well spend the first week of December contemplating coaching changes.
Despite pouring significant amounts of money into its facilities and coaching staff, Kansas has sunk to the bottom of the bottom in the Football Bowl Subdivision, winning three games in his nearly three seasons, two of which were against FCS opponents. Last week, the Jayhawks lost by 29 points at home to previously winless Baylor.
Missouri’s situation isn’t quite as dire, as the Tigers have shown signs of life over the last month after a dreadful 1-5 start that put second-year coach Barry Odom’s job in jeopardy.
But the current plight of Kansas and Missouri illustrates just how difficult it is for interlopers in the national conversation to remain relevant, and how easy it is to slip to the bottom once the momentum goes away.
“Even though I didn’t like the way it went down and the way the ending was, walking out the door I said I left this place in much better shape than I found it,” said Mark Mangino, who was forced out in 2009 amid an investigation into his treatment of players. “Unfortunately, it’s kind of looking like the way I found it back in 2002.”
Mangino struggles to come up with a reason why Kansas football has deteriorated so badly, other than his observation during a recent 10-year reunion that the current players, physically, didn’t look like the ones he coached to four bowl games in his eight seasons. Knowing how difficult the job had been historically, Mangino focused in recruiting on identifying athletes who may not have projected into a defined position like cornerback Aqib Talib (a two-star recruit-turned-All-American) and, admittedly, taking some risks on players with baggage.
“We gave some second chances, and I’m very proud of that. Sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn’t,” Mangino said. “We went after some kids people thought might be a step slow or not quite as tall as they'd like, but we saw they were hard-working guys, loved to play the game, and we took chances. We hit on a lot of them. A lot of head coaches will have their recruiting board and say, ‘I’m not taking a guy until somebody takes him at a position. I was the opposite. My athlete list was as long as any position and I just said, ‘I’ll worry about his position when he gets here.’ That worked out well for us.”
Similarly, Pinkel’s ascent at Missouri was built on identifying recruits with “size and speed potential” and put them in the development system he had learned as a player under Don James at Kent State and then as an assistant under him at Washington.
“We weren’t overly concerned with what kind of player they were,” Pinkel said. “We could teach them how to catch, how to backpedal. We could get them there with our player development program. We wanted kids that were explosive athletes, guys who could dunk a basketball.”
Missouri had finished with a winning record just twice in 17 seasons before Pinkel arrived from Toledo, and it took him four years to build a program that could win with consistency. Going into 2007, he felt the Tigers were talented and on the cusp of winning at a national level.
In the opener that year against Illinois, Missouri nearly blew a 37-13 lead but held on, 40-34, as Cornelius Brown intercepted a pass at the 1-yard line with 51 seconds left.
After the play, the camera panned to Pinkel who raised his arms, mouth agape, and then put his hands on his head before returning to his typically stoic sideline look. At that moment, he realized his program had perhaps turned into something different than what it had been.
“I’m thinking, we can be pretty good, and these guys might be figuring it out,” Pinkel said.
Missouri’s 36-28 Border War victory against Kansas on a cold night at Arrowhead Stadium gave the Tigers the Big 12 North title and the No. 1 ranking in the BCS standings. But their chance at the national title never materialized, as they lost the following week’s championship game to Oklahoma, which had also beaten them in the regular season. That same day, No. 2 West Virginia capped off a year full of upsets in college football by losing to unranked Pitt.
Adding insult to injury for Missouri, the BCS made the highly controversial decision of giving Kansas the Orange Bowl because of Missouri’s second loss, relegating the Tigers to the Cotton Bowl.
That moment of lost opportunity is something Pinkel still regrets.
“At the time, you’re aware of everything that was going on,” he said. “You can’t not (notice) how things are falling. I just didn’t do a very good job of getting our players to play their best against Oklahoma, and Oklahoma obviously had been there before. They were a very experienced team, and their guys just looked like it was another game. If we won it, we probably go (to the championship game), and I just didn’t get that done. We won five divisional championships and we didn’t win any of them. I did a lot of good things, but there are certain things I didn’t get done.”
It wasn’t long after 2007 that the one-of-a-kind Border War moment started falling apart. Mangino’s ouster at the end of 2009 occurred six months before conference realignment gripped college sports. In November 2011, Missouri accepted an invitation to join the SEC, ending the rivalry for the foreseeable future. Kansas hired Turner Gill and then Charlie Weis, who both failed spectacularly, and then Beaty, a former Mangino assistant who has turned the football facility in a recruiting wonderland with flashy graphics and mood lighting but hasn’t gotten anything done on the field.
Pinkel, after winning the SEC East in 2013 and 2014, retired the following year after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, which is now in remission. The feeling around Missouri is that Pinkel’s recruiting dipped in his final years, which didn’t help Odom get off to a fast start. Missouri, like Kansas, is going through an expensive facility transformation and can’t afford apathy from its fans and donors. Though the Tigers are still far from where they were in 2007, at least three consecutive wins, including last week over Florida, has given fans a jolt of hope.
But will there ever be another month like November 2007 for those two programs? Given the current circumstances, it’s hard to envision.
“In the middle of it all you’re doing is trying to find a way to prepare to win the next game,” Mangino said. “But when I stepped back from it after I left Kansas, it was a golden age. if you were a Missouri fan or a Kansas fan, you were in your glory. We were both ranked really high, we had really good teams with really good players that were fun to watch. You reflect back like, wow, something special was taking place. Things have changed from the good old days.”