Kansas football program and its fans have golden opportunity to make a key statement Friday night
There have been 12 season opening home football games at the University of Kansas since Mark Mangino left town and the attendance at each one told some kind of story.
That includes the 2020 opener, which hosted no fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Friday night, as the Jayhawks take the field for season opener No. 13 of the post-Mangino era — lucky 13? — Kansas fans will have the opportunity to make the biggest statement yet about the state of this football program and the direction they want it to go.
All they have to do to make it is show up to David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium for the 2022 opener against Tennessee Tech.
And don’t think for a second that people won’t be watching. Whether you’re talking future conference affiliation or the hopes and dreams of a stadium project that’s woefully overdue, the stakes are as high for those in the stands and in the suites as they are for the players and coaches on the field.
In case you’ve forgotten, this place does know how to show up for football games. But it’s more important now than it’s ever been.
The first four season openers that came after Mangino’s departure attracted attendance numbers north of 40,000, including a high of 48,417 fans for Turner Gill’s first game in 2010 and the 46,601 fans who came out to see Charlie Weis take the field for the first time as a Jayhawk in 2012.
Sure, those seasons were still close enough to the program’s glory days under Mangino for apathy, aggravation and downright anger to not have entered the picture yet.
But neither of those crowds had the backing of the vibe that currently surrounds the program to entice them to come out.
In 2010, no one knew what was coming and going to football games at Memorial Stadium was still considered cool and something KU fans did without giving it a second thought.
In 2012, the pain of the failed Gill experiment was gone and the big-name coach with his Super Bowl rings and Tom Brady ties was enough to get that crowd excited. Even then, no one quite knew what was coming.
That led to the stretch between 2015 (David Beaty’s first year) and 2021 (Lance Leipold’s first year) where the average attendance for the home opener dropped to 29,026, including a crowd of 26,103 last season.
It’s hard to blame anyone for contributing to the number being nearly cut in half since the final three years under Mangino, who inspired an average 50,486 to come out for the three season openers from 2007 to 2009.
But for the first time since then, there is a sincere feeling of optimism around the program again, and it’s not one that is rooted in hope. It’s based on tangible evidence of something solid and sustainable being built and backed by a strong finish to 2021 that was unlike any KU fans had seen in years.
KU running back Devin Neal, a Lawrence native, mentioned it to me the other day in the simplest terms. Neal said he feels like people are “curious” again. And he added that it was a great feeling to be in control of providing the answer to that curiosity.
“There’s a different aura surrounding the building, surrounding the city almost,” Neal said. “I think people want to support us so bad and they’re so curious to see what we can do this year. I think all of the work that we’ve done so far is leading up to this moment.”
The players have done their part to get to this point. But they can’t go it alone. The only way Kansas football becomes relevant again is if everyone joins together, from the stands to the sideline, to push this thing forward.
It won’t happen quickly. It won’t come easy. And it will be uncomfortable at times.
But others are watching. And if they don’t see something worth remembering, that could be bad news for the program in ways far worse than what shows up on the scoreboard.
I get it; Kansas football fans need something worth cheering for and should not be held responsible for the hard times of the past decade.
But the past is irrelevant now. College football is entering a completely new era and KU needs both its football program and its fan base buzzing to remain relevant in the sport.
So, forget the program’s 23-118 record since 2010. The record is 0-0 right now and Kansas sits on the brink of moving to 1-0.
That part we’ve seen before, but maybe not quite like this.
Kansas 49, Tennessee Tech 14.
15 years of season-opener attendance totals
2007 – 46,815
2008 – 52,112
2009 – 52,530
2010 – 48,417
2011 – 41,068
2012 – 46,601
2013 – 41,920
2014 – 36,574
2015 – 30,144
2016 – 28,864
2017 – 32,134
2018 – 24,305
2019 – 32,611
2020 – N/A, COVID-19
2021 – 26,103
2022 – ?????