MIAMI – Away from the flying oranges – away from the coaches hugging their wives and the players flexing for television cameras – Kansas chancellor Robert Hemenway stood near the tunnel at Dolphins Stadium on Thursday and explained how one of the nation's worst football programs transformed into one of its best.
"This," Hemenway said after the Jayhawks beat Virginia Tech 24-21 in the Orange Bowl, "is what can happen when you hire the right people. This is what can happen when you hire the right coach."
For the past six years, no one was convinced Mark Mangino was that person.
He ended KU's eight-year bowl drought in just his second season, and people made jokes about his weight. He turned no-name, misfit recruits into all-league players but faced questions about his job security. This year's team won 11 of its 12 regular games, and pundits chalked it up to an easy schedule.
Last month – when high-profile jobs surfaced at schools such as West Virginia, Michigan, Nebraska and Texas A&M – Mangino's name was never mentioned. Not once.
For whatever reason, no one has ever taken Mark Mangino seriously.
Now we have no choice.
Mangino is one of the best football coaches in America. "The Bear" proved it Thursday, when his Jayhawks capped off the best season in school history by beating ACC champion Virginia Tech before 74,111 fans.
Barring an Ohio State upset of LSU in Monday's national title game, Kansas, 12-1 will finish the season as one of two BCS teams (Hawaii the other) with a single loss. The Jayhawks also became the only Division I team in Sunflower State history to log 12 wins in a season.
"All the stuff our players read," Mangino said, "all the pundits banging on their desks on their TV shows, talking about how we haven't played anyone and about how we had no chance against Virginia Tech … it didn't hurt their feelings. It motivated them.
"I want to thank everyone that did that. It made my job easier."
Make no mistake, though. There was nothing easy about the task Mangino faced when he was hired to replace Terry Allen in December of 2001. Kansas had been to just two bowl games in the 20 seasons before Mangino's arrival.
Mangino has joked that, during his first few years, bus rides into Memorial Stadium on game-days were traffic-free, with the only obstacles being the joggers who trotted on the outskirts of the complex, unaware that there was a game.
Kansas went 2-10 in Mangino's first season and winless in Big 12 play. The marketing department literally gave away tickets in hopes of filling the 50,000-seat stadium more than halfway.
"Oh yeah – I remember that," said Bill Whittemore, the quarterback of that team and now a Kansas grad assistant. "It's unbelievable how far we've come. We're Orange Bowl champs. It's almost hard to fathom."
Even more amazing is that Mangino turned Kansas' program around with a group of recruits who were overlooked by the country's big-name programs. Heck, the Jayhawks haven't had a single player selected in the NFL Draft the past two seasons.
KANSAS 24, VIRGINIA TECH 21
Offensive player of the game
Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing bounced back from a subpar game against Missouri and threw for 227 yards and a touchdown against the country's second-ranked defense. Reesing also scored on a two-yard plunge. He was sacked four times but kept bouncing back. "I (had) pads on," Reesing said. "So it didn't hurt too bad."
Defensive player of the game
Aqib Talib garnered Orange Bowl MVP honors because of his 60-yard interception return for a touchdown. But we'll get kooky and give the award to KU defensive coordinator Bill Young, who came up with some brilliant blitz schemes that led to five sacks.
Play of the game
Trailing Virginia Tech seemed poised to tie the game when kicker Jud Dunlevy lined up for a 25-yard field goal in the third quarter. Kansas, though, came up big when Joe Mortensen came around the left end and blocked the kick. Mortensen, a linebacker, also had 5.5 tackles and a sack.
KU receiver Marcus Henry finished the season with 1,014 receiving yards, becoming just the third player in school history to surpass the 1,000-yard barrier in a single season … Talib, Justin Thornton and Chris Harris all had interceptions for the Jayhawks … Former KU players Justin Hartwig and Adrian Jones – both of whom are on NFL rosters – attended the game … KU's 17 first-half points were the second most first-half points scored on Virginia Tech this season. LSU had 24 … Gale Sayers (Kansas) and Bruce Smith (Virginia Tech) served as honorary captains … ZZ Top provided the halftime entertainment.
Kansas defeated Virginia Tech Thursday with a 5-foot-9 quarterback (Todd Reesing) who picked the Jayhawks over Duke. The game's MVP, cornerback Aqib Talib, would've likely ended up at Wyoming if not for Mangino's eye for talent.
"I'll tell you the truth: I'm not surprised," Mangino said. "I'd have been a fool to tell you before the season that I thought we had a chance to be ranked in the top five at the end of the year and win the Orange Bowl.
"But there is something special about this team. I knew something good was going to happen. I didn't know how good or how far we'd go. Let's just call it instincts. You get a feel for kids, and I felt pretty good about this group."
Kansas players have the same type of respect for their head coach.
"Some people either got it or they don't," Talib said. "Either you're a winner or you're not. Mangino is a winner. He's won everywhere he's been. He's going to find some way to win.
"It's like if you put Deion Sanders on the sorriest team in the league. He's still going to be Deion Sanders. (Mangino) is a good coach and he's going to find a way to win, regardless of the situation."
It's not as if Mangino hasn't had his share of setbacks. His alleged tirade against a referee at one of his son's high school football games garnered some negative publicity in 2002. He accused a Big 12 official of cheating when a pass interference call cost KU a victory over Texas in 2004.
Two summers ago the NCAA deemed that Kansas' athletic department operated with a lack of institutional control during a period that included Mangino's first 18 months on the job. Mangino was cleared of any intentional wrongdoing.
Even during the tough times, Mangino never wavered in his belief that Kansas could be more than just a basketball school. He knew he'd get things turned eventually, as long as he and his players "kept sawing wood."
"I never set these ridiculously long-term goals," Mangino said. "I hear coaches talk a lot at clinics about when they take over a program, they have a two-year plan, a five-year plan, a seven-year plan.
"I said, 'Boy, those guys are a little bit smarter than me, because I didn't do that.' I said, 'Let's take care of the present. Let's work hard every day. Let's take each task as it comes and get better all the time. If we do that, the by-product will be bowl games and championships and things of that sort.'"
Mangino might not own any national title rings like former bosses Bob Stoops and Jim Tressel. And the turnaround he's orchestrating at Kansas needs to become consistent before it can be compared to the one he helped engineer as an assistant under Bill Snyder at Kansas State.
Still, after this season, there's nothing to suggest that Mangino can't achieve feats as great as the ones accomplished by his mentors.