The Narrative Inconvenience of Kansas Football

And the case for getting a little more creative with basketball storylines

Kansas Football occupies a prominent spot in the national imagination. Some of the biggest publications in the U.S. cover Kansas football doggedly in recent seasons. For many members of the national media—who often gild their pieces with good will—“why isn’t Kansas good at football?” is one of the most interesting thought experiments in the sport. It would be pretty cool, is the general consensus. In the recent past, I tended to agree with the premise here.

But it’s gotten to a point where we’re just spinning.

On Saturday night, Kansas lost to Coastal Carolina, a FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) team that had never beaten a team from a Power 5 conference. The Les Miles era—that of the 18-part ESPN+ documentary series—is compromised, thanks to a couple of insane late-game decisions that, well, woof. KU spends a fortune on football, in the futile hopes that they’ll one day have a broadcasting asset that cable companies will throw the bag at. At this point it seems very unlikely, but it’s natural to wonder what happens next, and how that might affect the beleaguered athletic department at large.

Could KU basketball catch some of the inevitable splashback?

The community of fans surrounding Kansas football one of the most fascinating fanbases in sport. Many Jayhawk die-hards I know connect more emotionally to football than to hoops. While Kansas basketball has been arguably the most dominant college team since 2000, a good portion of Kansas Athletics fans would rather football make noise—such is the narrative scale and dramatic tension of meaningful college football. The fact that Kansas has struck out on four straight hires (Gill, Weis, Beaty, Miles) is essentially irrelevant. There’s always a chance for rebirth, and I can understand why that might be more fun to think about than the more rigid expectations placed on Kansas basketball.

Compared to football, basketball’s storylines are stagnant. The midseason conference slate can feel like a little bit of a slog. There’s relatively little drama in Kansas basketball, something that ends up making an NCAA tournament loss feel mortifying. To compare football and basketball isn’t fair to anyone involved—they’re different sports with vastly different revenue goals. (Around fifteen guys are on the basketball team; the football team can carry as many as 105.) That Bill Self’s success gets taken for granted is an unfortunate side effect of his steadiness; basketball will never have the volume of moving pieces that football does. That’s not basketball’s fault. Modern sports—its growth, its crossover potential, its accessibility to casual fans—revolves around the narrative hook.

The squad showed up red carpet ready 😎📸
September 9, 2019

So in light of Kansas football’s grim outing on Saturday—and a +21.5 line @ Boston College Friday night suggests it’s not going to get any better—I’m hoping to lift a few new narratives, and get a little more creative with some old ones.

This year’s Kansas team is likely going to be a good one, a team that, thanks to a pretty intriguing group of players, will play a lot of different styles. Going small at Kansas has been such a boon in recent years it’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when they struggled with it; they’ll also have a huge front court that makes you wonder if Self will return to some of the two-man concepts of yore. They shoot a ton of threes. They’ll probably try a lot of stuff out as they figure out which groups on the floor thrive together. While NBA fans haven’t had a ton of reasons to tune into a random college hoops game lately, KU pushing their system closer to the modern pro game is a fascinating comment on where big budget college hoops is going. Also: following Kansas this year will be like following two or three teams. That beats following one team right?

I’m no Landen Lucas, by all my chips are on this year’s story being a pretty intriguing one, especially after the sustained bummer of last season. The tournament is extremely hard to win, and the best team in March very rarely wins it all. Why fixate on that as the only possible happy outcome? There’s a lot more to be parsed.

At this point in time, I’m happy to take a nice passing sequence in a loss in Ames over a a doomed end-around on fourth and one against a subdivision team with a Chaucer mascot. The promise of Kansas football is that there’s always next year. But I think we won’t have to wait that long for some awesome Jayhawk storylines.