Saturday, March 26, 2005

A Rather Long Lament

What can you say about being Kansas fan? Mind you, I'm not just talking about the rather abrupt end to the latest KU basketball season, though that's what prompted this particular missive. I'm talking (whining?) about years of frustration for all teams, all sports. Let's, shall we say, go to the video tape:

Once upon a time, basketball was invented. The inventor of the game, James Naismith, moved to Kansas and became the coach of the fledgling University of Kansas basketball squad, even though, as he told one of his students (they were really students then), "you don't coach basketball, you play it." Probably because of this attitude Naismith had a losing record as a coach.

Naismith's student, however, was one Forrest "Phog" Allen. Phog went on to become the coach of KU, and during the 1920s and 1930s was instrumental in making college basketball a national sport. His teams included players Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith, who later went on to become outstanding coaches in their own right. Though there was no NCAA tournament until 1939, several of Allen's early teams are now recognized as National Champions, though of course that's just a vote of journalists far removed from the actual event. However, the success of Phog Allen's teams is the cornerstone by which all college sports in Kansas must be judged.

Eventually, of course, the NCAA started holding a tournament, and, after some years the winner of the tournament was recognized as the National Champion of College Basketball. (For a time there was quite a bit of competition from the NIT, now a mere shell of its former self.) In 1952, only a few months after I was born, Allen's team, lead by Clyde Lovellette, won the tournament. A few years later, Allen recruited Wilt Chamberlain out of Philadelphia. Allen then retired, figuring all would be well. After all, with Wilt how could any team lose? (We now pause for the fans of several NBA teams to finish laughing.)

Chamberlain's team lost the 1957 title to North Carolina in triple overtime, perhaps the best college basketball game ever played. And then, Wilt moved on to the Globetrotters, and then into the NBA, becoming Kansas' most famous college non-graduate.

Hope didn't die, however. While the basketball team puttered along, winning Big 8 titles but not many tournament games, a new phenomena appeared - Major League Baseball. In 1957, as Wilt was leaving, the Philadelphia Athletics moved to Kansas City. Here we are, real major league baseball. True, it was in Kansas City, Missouri, but it was only a few blocks from the state line and you could even order something stronger than 3.2% beer by the bottle.

It is difficult for the modern fan to realize how truly dreadful the Kansas City A's were. As Bill James noted in his 1986 Baseball Abstract article, "A History of Being a Kansas City Baseball Fan," from 1957 to 1967 the A's had six months with a winning record. That's right, out of 66 months playing baseball in KC, the team was only over 0.500 in one sixth of them.

Other sports in the 1960s fared better. K-State (1964) and Wichita State (1965), the other two Division I schools in the state, each went to the NCAA Final Four. Once each, and each team lost in the semi-finals. They played third-place games back then, and each team lost those games as well.

But in 1966 KU did even better. Led by JoJo White, the team defeated Texas Western University on a last second shot in the MidWest regional and went on to win the national championship.

Oops. White's foot was on the out-of-bounds line on that last shot, and Texas Western won. They went on to defeat Kentucky for the championship in a game I suspect you've heard about.

Football wasn't all bad. Gale Sayers fled the dreadful (I'm not making this up) football program in his native Nebraska and went to KU. A running back named John Riggins, along with his two brothers, ended up there, too. The teams were reasonably successful during that time, though there was one year where KU and K-State played to see if they could avoid a winless season for the state. (It wasn't impossible then, in college there were still ties.) But the biggest success of a football team was in the 1969 Orange Bowl, where KU stuffed Penn State's two-point conversion try to win the game.

Oh, wait, KU had twelve men on the field. On the replay, Penn State scored and won the game. My insurance agent, who played on that Penn State team, still reminds me of that every chance he gets. (He wonders why I don't call.)

In 1971, Kansas, coached by Ted Owens, had its best team since Wilt left, loosing only one game in the regular season and having a perfect season in the Big 8. Unfortunately, there was this team called UCLA from someplace out west. They won a lot of games that year, and defeated KU in the semi-final game. You can look it up, it's somewhere in the middle of all those other NCAA games UCLA won.

Meanwhile, Charley Finley bought the As and in 1967 moved them lock, stock, and mule to Oakland. (The one in California, not the college with the basketball team.) The As in the 1970s were very good, and Finley was never forgiven. There was, however, salvation at hand. A Kansas City drug-store owner named Ewing Kaufmann bought a new American League franchise, the Kansas City Royals. They won the American League West title in 1976, 1977, and 1978. Each time, of course, they lost the American League Championship Series to the New York Yankees, already hated in KC for the perception that they'd once treated the A's as a AAAA minor-league team.

During the early part of the 1970s KU basketball was still pretty good, going to the Final Four in 1974 and having the privilege of playing in Bill Walton's last game, which, unfortunately, was for third place (remember David Thompson?) and was another KU loss. The basketball program went into decline until Owens was finally fired in 1983.

The Royals, however, kept winning. In 1980 they finally beat the Yankees in the ALCS and went to the World Series. Where they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies, who won there first championship in memory.

In 1985, KC finally won the World Series, beating the cross-state St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. Of course, the Royals probably wouldn't have got to game seven had not umpire Don Denkinger had his famous mental hiccup in the ninth inning. So the joy of winning was tempered a bit, even though James in his article tries to cover it up.

In 1983, as I said, KU fired Ted Owens as basketball coach, after 19 years of moderate success. They'd hoped to hire Dean Smith away from North Carolina, but the "click your heals three times"* thing didn't work. Smith recommended Larry Brown, who wasn't doing anything at the moment. KU locked Brown into a five-year contract. Brown brought along his assistant, Ed Manning, who had a son, Danny, who was an incoming high-school senior. Y'all know what happened then. KU went to two Final Fours, and defeated Oklahoma for the title in 1988.

After which, Brown quit. The NCAA studied his work at KU and put the school on probation. No major college coach would touch the program. Even in success, there was failure.

The KU powers that be went back to Dean Smith, who didn't offer to come home but did point out that he had a pretty good assistant coach named Roy Williams. Roy came to Kansas and had a fair amount of success early, going to two final fours, in 1991 and 1993. However, Roy's teams lost games they shouldn't have, especially when they were a number one seed in the tournament. Lost to Rhode Island in the second round. A loss to Arizona in the regional finals. Lost to Duke in the Final Four. Every year, Roy ended the season in tears. And, in many years, saw another coach who had never won a national championship go on to win one. Mike Krzyzewski, Lute Olson, Gary Williams and Jim Boeheim all won their first title after beating KU in the tournament.

While all this was going on, I should mention, the K-State football program was declared to be the worst ever by Sports Illustrated. Since then, KSU hired Bill Snyder and has had moderate success, meaning that they occasionally beat Nebraska and/or Oklahoma, but not all that much. Better than KU, which hasn't beaten Nebraska since 1968 (the above-mentioned Orange Bowl season).

In 2000 the North Carolina basketball coaching job came open. Williams was the leading candidate and he wanted to go, but loyalty to his players and the school that had given him a chance kept him at KU. Kansas went to the Final Four twice after that. In each case, of course, the team lost, to eventual champ Maryland in 2002 and to Syracuse in the finals in 2003. More tears, and a declaration that Roy "didn't give a @^*% about Carolina." By this time, in fact, Roy Williams didn't have Dean Smith's job, in Kansas he was Dean Smith. Maybe we should have pushed for a name change, or at least the order of the Buffalo.

Then the Carolina job came open again. For whatever reason, Williams decided that being Dean Smith wasn't enough, and left. KU hired Bill Self from Illinois. Self led KU to the regional finals in 2004, where KU lost to Georgia Tech in overtime. I'm going to assume that you know about what happened in 2005. Number 3 seeds don't lose to 14 seeds very often, especially if the Number 3 was a pre-season pick to win it all. Meanwhile, Self's old team and Williams new one are probably going to meet for the National Championship. (ew, I didn't think I could write that.)

So, Red Sox fans, you thought you were jinxed? Cubs? Don't make me laugh. At least, when you win (OK, Cubbies, you may have to wait a while), you win. In Kansas, you mostly can't win, and even when you win, there is always a footnote.+

*I can make Oz jokes. You don't, unless you've got proof of Kansas citizenship.

+Consider the use of color film in a certain movie.