Editor's note: This is the second of three columns from Mercury sports editor/Kansas State beat writer Ryan Black looking back on the Wildcats' first regular season under new head coach Chris Klieman. The first column ran Thursday and the third will come later this month.
Kansas entered this year with hope that a newer, more positive chapter might be at hand in the Sunflower Showdown.
The Jayhawks welcomed a new, national championship-winning coach in Les Miles. Every bit as importantly, their longtime tormentor, Bill Snyder, finally left his perch at Kansas State. (Snyder didn’t lose to KU a single time during his second stint at K-State from 2009 to 2018.) That optimism for the Jayhawks — both the team and the fan base — only grew once results started coming in this fall.
No, KU wasn’t a powerhouse, not that anyone expected a program that has been one of the worst in the Power 5 over the last decade to undergo a transformation in just one season. But the Jayhawks were more competitive. Respectable. (Just blot out the 12-7 home loss to Coastal Carolina.) They entered last month’s home matchup with K-State off a narrow, 50-48 setback at Texas, followed by a 37-34 win over Texas Tech. Their improved level of play, especially offensively after the midseason firing of coordinator Les Koenning and subsequent promotion of Brent Dearmon, seemed to signal to all those who have closely followed the in-state rivalry that this year, just maybe, might be the Jayhawks’ opportunity to turn the tide against the Wildcats.
The Wildcats waltzed into Memorial Stadium and tarred and feathered the Jayhawks, 38-10.
K-State permitted just 240 yards of total offense, KU’s second-fewest of the season. (Of note: It was the worst performance for the Jayhawks’ offense under Dearmon’s leadership.) The Wildcats did whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. They sat leading rusher James Gilbert. They only let their No. 2 rusher, Jordon Brown, carry twice — on their first two offensive plays — before taking him out and telling him he had the rest of the day off. Then No. 3 tailback Harry Trotter, a Kansas native, had the game of his career, rushing 20 times for 92 yards and a touchdown, pairing with quarterback Skylar Thompson’s 127 yards and three scores on the ground.
It was domination. Just like old times.
Though K-State players said all the right things in the week leading up to the game, it bothered them that so many outsiders viewed Snyder’s retirement, coupled with Miles taking over at KU, as a sliver of hope for the Jayhawks.
“I’m not going to say I didn’t hear about it,” linebacker Elijah Sullivan said after the 28-point win, “but I tried to stay away from social media, just because I know about the rivalry. Everybody is going to say things.”
One phrase that did make its way to Sullivan: seeing people say KU was going to start making K-State “the little brother” again.
“I did hear that,” he said with a laugh.
Trey Dishon reacted even more strongly.
“Ever since (head) Coach (Chris) Klieman came in in January, we never, for one moment, felt that we were going to lose to KU,” said Dishon, a senior defensive tackle who hails from Horton and had a day to remember in his final face-off with the Jayhawks, tying for the team high in tackles (four) and recording team bests in tackles for loss (two) and sacks (two). “We never felt for one moment that we weren’t going to be successful during this season. Coach Klieman means so much to us. We believe in him, he believes in us and we had no doubt how he was going to prepare us for the Sunflower Showdown. And everything worked out. I’m blessed to play for him.”
It’s easy to see why some thought a window of opportunity existed for the Jayhawks, though. The last time KU had a foothold of any sort in the rivalry came during the three seasons between Snyder’s two tenures. The Jayhawks won three straight meetings, 2006 to 2008, during the ill-fated Ron Prince era at K-State.
Know this: KU will get better under Miles’ leadership. (Insert joke here about how “things couldn’t get any worse.”) This is true despite the fact the Jayhawks ended the year with the exact same record as it did in 2018 under former coach David Beaty: 3-9 overall, 1-8 in the Big 12. And don’t focus on the fact the last image people have of KU in 2019 is how Baylor plastered it 61-6 last week in Lawrence.
The Jayhawks’ improvement will come because Miles, antics and made-up words and all, knows how to coach. He propped up Oklahoma State in the Bedlam rivalry against Oklahoma, and then, regardless of what his detractors might say, excelled at LSU — heck, he’s the winningest coach in Tigers’ history in terms of winning percentage (.770) among those who held the post for more than 25 games. (By comparison, Nick Saban left LSU with a .750 winning clip.)
Miles also knows how to recruit. That national title ring he won with the Tigers in 2007 will get the Jayhawks into the minds, and the homes, of recruits it never has before.
The bad news for him and KU: Klieman didn’t miss a beat taking over for Snyder. He’s got the Wildcats in a bowl in Year 1. He’s already set a record for most victories by a K-State coach in his debut season — eight wins, with a chance for nine. Anyone who watched last month's game saw the chasm that exists between the two programs.
So yes, gains are in store for Kansas.
It just might not be evident when it takes on K-State, where the characters in the rivalry may have changed, but the results, for the foreseeable future, likely will remain the same.