PHOENIX – The Kansas football program won its first bowl game in 15 years on Tuesday night in the desert, a thrilling and explosive, 49-36 win over UNLV at the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.
Every player on the KU roster was in elementary school the last time Kansas football celebrated like this, with signs and trophies and cigars and smiles that wouldn’t quit.
So, it’s not as if any of them could reflect back on the past as a way to put the present into perspective.
Not even KU running back Devin Neal, who grew up in Lawrence, and therefore saw up close the struggles the program endured throughout his childhood could take his knowledge of the program’s lean past and wash it clean with Tuesday’s victory.
This was new. All of it. To all of them. But one needed only to follow the celebration on the field for 30 minutes or so to see how vastly different the experience was for the Jayhawks young and old.
More from Tuesday's Guaranteed Rate Bowl victory:
For the old veterans, like Luke Grimm and Kenny Logan Jr. and Mason Fairchild and more, winning in December was an entire career in the making, the culmination of all of that work and sweat and heartache that used to lead to winless seasons and on Tuesday led to the team hoisting a trophy and dumping blue Gatorade on head coach Lance Leipold.
Fairchild was noticeably emotional while walking around aimlessly on the field to celebrate the win with whomever crossed in front of him. Tears welled in his eyes and were only held off by the power of his smile.
Logan leapt into the stands to celebrate with fans and then stopped by the stage to pick up his defensive MVP trophy, a fitting way for the face of that side of the ball all these years to call it a career.
For the other KU veterans who came to Kansas from Buffalo with Leipold, the celebration of Tuesday’s win was the ultimate expression of satisfaction.
It was these guys, the Mike Novitskys and Rich Millers, Michael Fords and Trevor Wilsons, who insisted when they arrived in Lawrence that the Jayhawks new head coach knew how to win and would get it done at Kansas, too. And it was their leadership, along with their talent, that inspired the buy-in that delivered the turnaround.
As they walked the field and celebrated with their teammates following Tuesday’s victory, they carried plenty of joy and excitement of their own but also the look of a proud big brother.
Then there were the other key transfers, guys like Jason Bean, Craig Young, Marvin Grant and Kalon Gervin, players who inherited KU’s culture of losing and were determined to do something about it. That, they said all along, was the whole reason they came to Kansas — for a fresh opportunity and to be a part of building something special.
No one was more special than Bean on Tuesday night, as he set a KU bowl record with 6 touchdown passes and amassed 470 yards of total offense. And, yeah, quarterbacks always get the attention, so there was nothing that unusual about his teammates coming up to Bean after the game to deliver a hug or a high-five.
But this wasn’t just his teammates. This was everybody. Coaches. Staff members. Staff members’ families. Teammates’ families. Everybody.
Bean had time for all of them, as long as they didn’t mind hugging or taking a photo with his MVP trophy, too.
The others bounced around the field with a similar look of satisfaction as those Buffalo transfers and also with a short and sweet message that summed up exactly how they felt in the moment and about their Kansas careers.
“Jayhawk for life,” was the gist of their emotions.
And, finally, there was the youngest batch of Jayhawks, some who played and several who didn’t. They had the least context of anyone on that field Tuesday night. For all they know, this is just what happens at Kansas.
You win a bunch of games, you go to a bowl every year and you win one, too.
The look of joy on the faces of guys like Keaton Kubecka and Logan Brantley and Calvin Clements and more matched the joy on the faces of their older teammates but without the extra layer of appreciation, satisfaction and relief.
This was the definition of youthful exuberance and also the main reason why it’s not hard to think that this Kansas program will keep coming to these games year after year well into the future.
Winning them is all about matchups and the health of the roster and catching a couple of breaks on that one night a month or so after you last played a real game.
So, as much as everyone in that Kansas locker room would love to recreate the same exact feeling that was seen and felt and heard at Chase Field on Tuesday night, the win/loss nature of it all will never ultimately be what it’s about.
Getting there is the grind and if you do it enough times and do it with some regularity, the wins are going to come.
When they do, you won’t care what the name of the bowl is or even who the opponent is. You’ll celebrate it like it was the biggest damn thing you’ve ever done, because, in a lot of ways, it just might be.
All of that came through loud and clear on Tuesday night, from different groups of players in very different positions and points in their lives. And the joy on that field was every bit as meaningful and real and wonderful as the joy on that Miami field back in 2008 when Kansas knocked off Virginia Tech to claim its first BCS bowl victory at the Orange Bowl.
This is the new standard for Kansas football. And as long as they keep having days like these, the bar is just going to keep being raised.
— For tickets to all KU athletic events, visit kutickets.com