I meant to write this over the last week but I needed to wait until the next game ended to really come to a conclusion. I’ve seen this before, where the Jayhawks nearly upset a team much better than them, followed by a week of almost optimism, followed by a complete, total drubbing to bring us back down. Everything I write nowadays tends to tread a very thin line between incoherent cathartic rambling and coherent cathartic rambling, and I feel that this probably skews more towards the former. Regardless, here are my thoughts at this point.
There was something nice about being completely despondent about the Kansas Jayhawks of Football once again. Just embarrassingly sad, in that lovely sort of maudlin “woe is me” sadness that accompanies being sad about Kansas Football again. It’s been a feeling gone for so long, the last time I felt it, I think, was… Maybe TCU in 2016? I remember that one. The fourth down hook-and-lateral to get within field goal range only for the field goal try to be missed. I could barely stand, like I felt like I was going to pass out I was so disappointed. I never cried after a loss in school, but that was the closest I came, I can remember noticing that my lower lip was quivering, which is really weird because normally if I cry about something I’m well aware of it coming on, that caught me off guard.
I wish I had been there last weekend. I would have been absolutely inconsolable. There would’ve been tears flowing. I think it was more the “I can’t cry about this, I have to play the instrument” back then that stopped me back during college than any machismo posturing. But after this last year and a half? After having been away from all of that for so long? No question.
I went to the homecoming game against Texas Tech, and while I was primarily there for the festivities and seeing old friends, I was genuinely excited for the game itself – I thought we really had a chance against a bad Texas Tech team, a Texas Tech team that fired their coach this week. But it was a blowout loss.
I think that’s what made the Oklahoma game so perfect. The trajectory of the season so far had gone –
1 – Far too close win over FCS team
2 – Overall not awful first half against ranked team that hadn’t lost a game in over a season and then blowout
3 – Overall not awful first half against good in-conference team and then blowout
4 – Overall pretty good first three quarters on the road against non-conference team and then blowout
5 – Blowout with no redeeming quality on the road
6 – Blowout with no redeeming quality at home
7 – #3 ranked team in the country in town
Like I was fairly optimistic after game four, against Duke, that there was going to be at least a second win this season, probably against Texas Tech, which was the game I was going to attend! And then I did attend that game, and it was a blowout loss, just a hopeless blowout loss, and I kind of gave up on any belief that there was going to be another win in the 2021 season, let alone this next week against third-ranked, unbeaten Oklahoma.
But I still logged in to the TSN website to silently pull up a stream of this last weekend’s game while I was at work, but it was more out of obligation, maybe out of boredom, that I did so.
Then that first quarter went much better than it was supposed to… Then that second quarter also went better than it was supposed to… And then there I was, right the hell back in it, ready to be hurt again, ready to be absolutely fucking murdered by the Kansas Jayhawks once again.
It always hurts when you get pulled back in, right? It’s always worse there, when you’ve finally accepted the futility somewhat, detached yourself from the intense emotional affect somewhat – most other KU alumni had completely detached themselves before the season even started anyway – then they pull you back in, then you get punched in the gut again.
I don’t like it like that. I would like it more if I would get pulled back in right as the program turns the corner and they become a successful, high-tier… not even high-tier, like mediocre to decent-tier football program, a bowl game every now and then, you know… But I appreciate it. I know what I can get, I mean. People say they hate “moral victories” but “moral victories” are better than “50-point blowout losses” at least.
It’s a shameful thing, in many ways, to acknowledge that, while many people from other schools carve out a four-hour long chunk of their day to watch their games from start to finish, I typically only plan to watch the first quarter, and if it’s still competitive in the second, it throws off my plans for the whole day, how I’m so desensitized to this that I don’t even try, barely even consider the possibility of a win most weeks. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s really moreso that I do care, I care too much, and I’m glad that I care too much, I’d rather feel something than that parasitic false god of smug self satisfaction that everybody online has to give off all the time, but the acrid misery of watching this team’s futility from start to finish will eat at me in a blowout loss. I’ll just get bitter. That’s why I turned off the subsequent game, a 55-3 blowout in Stillwater, at halftime, the second quarter of which I was mostly only watching out of morbid curiosity, to see if the offense could earn a first-down before halftime (they didn’t).
That is ultimately the worst feeling in sports, that bitterness. That dejected, impotent, bitterness. As hard as the pain of that gut-punch final-minutes loss hits, it at least hits intensely all at once, not in a dull, drawn out slog. It’s the difference between laying on your stomach and getting stepped on in the back by one stiletto once versus having somebody in sneakers stand on your back for hours. Were it quantifiable, the pain of the former would be higher than that of the latter, but its worst point is only momentary. Some people at least get sexual pleasure for the stiletto thing, some people would pay money to get stepped on by the stiletto. Not me, though. I pay money to watch Kansas Football and that’s masochistic enough.
That acrid bitterness is fascinating. It hits the hardest during blowout losses like that. Big-time college football in the US, in my experience, is the sport which exudes that bitterness the most. I don’t just say that as a Kansas fan, though that’s a big part of it. The longitudinal, drawn-out nature of a college football program combined with the lack of any measures to create parity creates this problem – when a program falls down as far as Kansas has, it becomes so much more difficult to dig themselves out of it, in a way that’s not matched even in other big collegiate sports, let alone professional sports leagues.
When the Kansas City Chiefs went 2-14 in 2012, it took a change at coach, a good draft class, and good free-agent signings to get that team to a 13-3 record in the subsequent season. A consistently bad college football program doesn’t have any of that, there’s the arduous, years-long process of building a program through recruiting and talent development – and it gets harder to attract good players to your program with every poor season, and it gets harder to hire good staff, and even harder to keep the ones you do manage to hire because they immediately jump ship to somewhere better as soon as they manage any success.
Even other collegiate athletics programs don’t have that problem in the same way, maybe men’s basketball has it in some places but it’s still not as dire in many places as football is, the pressure to win isn’t as immediate in anything else, the embarrassment of failure isn’t as widely disseminated in anything like football is, and the exigence to fire a coach is so much more volatile in football because of that. KU has had the same head coaches in volleyball and soccer for nearly 20 years now, two very good coaches in their own right, who have put together many excellent seasons, and some poor ones as well, but we’ve stuck with them because they’re well above average coaches.
You put too many bad seasons together in a row in football and you’re just gone! It can’t be avoided, especially for a Power-conference program, you’re on TV every weekend – ESPN, FOX, ABC – and you’re embarrassing the university!
It’s really astounding, I don’t think enough people stop and just fathom how unique Kansas Football’s situation as the worst Power 5 team in the Football Bowl Subdivision for the past decade-plus is, especially with it happening in the specific decade in which it happened, with the constant shifting conferences and the introduction of the Playoff and how it somehow managed to further stratify everything in a way that even the BCS era didn’t, and how unfathomable it feels logically that it’ll ever get all that much better.
And yet… They’re not going to stop, are they? That’s the thing at the heart of it. We’re not going to fold the football program. They could go through the entirety of the twenties without a winning season just like they did the last decade (by the way, thank fucking god there’s a word we can all agree on for this decade) and in 2031, midway through another 1-11 season, either as one of the 36 teams in the Mountain Belt 12 Hypermega Conference Plus or inexplicably as a member of the Big Ten, I’ll probably still be writing things like this. We’ll be down 46 to conference rival Florida International and I’ll be like “oh, the bitterness! Woe! The bitterness!” Then I’ll link that bit in Swimming to Cambodia where he imitates his girlfriend screaming at their upstairs neighbors because that’s still the soundbite that runs through my head through all these particular games along with the sentence that succeeds it, “all weakness tends to corrupt, impotence corrupts absolutely.”
Anyway, that bitterness is an awful feeling, that was what I was getting at. Eats at you. The gut-punch, though…
How wonderful, the gut-punch. I think that’s a common cliché for losses like that Oklahoma game, but I do really, physically feel something painful in the bottom of my stomach at the end of losses like that. I was shaking at points late in the Oklahoma game, after it was clear that the Sooners were gonna escape with the win, so despondent about that realization – Coming back down to earth and remembering we always lose these. It’s a painful, negative feeling, yes, but it’s an intensive one, one that I rarely feel outside of genuinely life-altering negative moments. These ones are at least limited to a field of play. I think that’s healthy, to be able to feel your heart break without the emptiness and existential torment that heartbreak in real life presents. It’s certainly human.
I stated earlier that I never cried after a loss in Memorial Stadium as a student. This is correct. I cried very, very hard after that Texas win in 2016. As soon as the field goal went through and the game was won, tears just poured down my face. I remember like falling over doing the Wave-the-Wheat song. That genuinely felt like the moment that everything was going to change, like the one we’d be talking about for years as the turning point, like how they have it in Oregon with Kenny Wheaton, but it didn’t turn in to one of those things. It was not that moment. It was a moment we still talk about, but it wasn’t the turning point.
What I realized last week is that I will always hope for that next moment, and I will always find a way to believe that that next moment is about to come. It never goes away. I will not let it go away. I cannot let it go away – the feeling that this next game’s going to be the one where it all turns around. I wouldn’t want it not to be there when it does.