Last season before the Missouri game the players of Kansas University asked their effervescent rookie head coach, Pepper Rodgers, to lead them onto the field. He agreed, saying, "You watch. I'll give you something to shoot for." And as he trotted out ahead of the team, Rodgers suddenly flung himself into a spectacular somersault. "It ties in with my philosophy of football," he explained later. "I like to do the unexpected."
And so it was all last year. Whereas KU had figured to act as an uncomplaining doormat for almost every team it played, the Jayhawks proved to be astonishingly adept at the Philosophy of the Unexpected. They won five of their seven Big Eight Conference games, barely lost to Big Ten co-champion Indiana 18-15 and forced Oklahoma into a last-minute desperation pass to salvage a 14-10 win. Kansas' 5-5 record brought no Top Ten votes, and its tie for second in the Big Eight is hardly epic news. But for a first-year job at a school that had lost 15 of its last 20, it was nothing short of brilliant.
This year, says Pepper Rodgers, "we'll be better." Already there is enthusiasm in a student body that usually turns moribund at football time. More than 1,000 student tickets have been purchased in advance, and Quarterback Bob Douglass announced with pleased surprise recently: "A lot of students have actually talked to me about football this year." One reason is the bold and open personality of the somersaulting Rodgers, who also delighted the KU undergraduates a couple of times last fall by crossing the field to make impassioned postvictory pep talks to the kids in the stands.
Quarterback Douglass is another stirring reason for optimism in Lawrence. Now a senior, he had been recruited by KU as a wondrous high school performer, then proceeded to give a so-so performance as a freshman and an out-and-out flop show as a sophomore. When Rodgers arrived last year, straight from assistant-coaching jobs in which he had polished the quarterbacking talents of Steve Spurrier and Gary Beban, he saw some films of Douglass in operation and decided the raw material was there. Rodgers and his staff went to work on Douglass, teaching him to get out from under the center quicker, to vary the velocity of his passes and to use his 6'3" height to spot linebackers on short patterns.
The making of Douglass was critical to KU success, for as Rodgers says: "Our offense is basically a quarterback offense. He has a chance to run or throw like a single-wing tailback. In virtually every case he has only one receiver, and if that man isn't open, the quarterback takes off and runs as fast and as hard and as far as he can." Douglass mastered his lessons. He completed 82 of 173 passes for 1,326 yards and he rushed 175 times for 415 yards, giving him the top Big Eight total-offense figure with 1,741 yards and winning him the conference Back of the Year award.
The rest of the Kansas backfield may include a brother combo from tiny Centralia, Kans. John Riggins, a 225-pound sophomore fullback, was not only a strong runner as a freshman but has been clocked doing the 100 in 9.8. He dislocated a shoulder in spring practice but seems in top shape now and should be one of the best rookies in the Big Eight. His brother, Junior, was the starting tailback for Rodgers last fall when he gained 279 yards rushing, caught eight passes for 161 yards and returned 14 kickoffs for 285 yards. Talented as the Rig-gins Bros, are, Fullback Mike Reeves, a junior, and Tailback Don Autry, a 6'2", 215-pound sophomore, could press the pair for starting jobs.
The interior offensive line is not so deep with talent. The major weakness is at tackle, where Larry Brown, a sophomore, and Grant Dahl, a converted defensive tackle, must overcome their inexperience, although 260-pound senior Keith Christensen and sophomore Kevin O'Malley will add some needed depth.
At split end, Rodgers expects much from George McGowan, a rangy junior-college transfer who managed to impress pro scouts during spring workouts more than any other KU player. He caught 12 Douglass passes for 141 yards and a TD in a spring game. Rodgers says, "George has what you call 'quick feet,' always moving at 90 miles an hour. You can't teach a good receiver how and when to cut; he's born with it. Just like McGowan was." At tight end is John Mosier, a junior who broke KU records last year by catching 37 passes for 495 yards and four touchdowns. The McGowan-Mosier axis will allow no room for double-teaming of receivers, and at wingback Rodgers has John Jackson, a track sprinter. At tailback is versatile veteran Don Shanklin, who caught 10 passes last year and returned 25 punts for 271 yards.
The Kansas offense looks sound, but no more so than the defense. The front five are all returning starters. Tackles Orville Turgeon and Bill Greene are good. End Vernon Vanoy, 6'8" and 250 pounds, is often spectacular, although he occasionally gets faked out of his position spectacularly. At the other end is senior John Zook, a reformed sky diver now totally dedicated to the ground game of football, who made 15 tackles against Nebraska last season, causing Coach Bob Devaney to moan, "We never blocked him once last year. We never blocked him once today. We've only got one more chance." The middle guard is Emery Hicks, who is also outstanding. A 5'11", 230-pound junior, he made 17 tackles in his first game as a sophomore and Rodgers ranks him in a class with Oklahoma's graduated All-America, Granville Liggins. At linebacker, Rodgers has Mickey Doyle, who made 114 tackles last year, and Pat Hutchens, who weighs a mere 174 pounds in mud cleats. Backing them up is Levi Lee, a Vietnam Navy veteran who reenrolled at KU this fall and, as Rodgers says, "has a reputation like Jesse James" for his savage play as a Topeka high schooler. The secondary has two sophomores, Skip James and Dale Holt, joining veterans Tommy Ball and Billy Hunt.
As with many major college teams, Kansas could face some racial strain, but the outlook right now, thanks to administration and athletic department efforts, is good. In the spring 15 black players boycotted a practice session because the university had not picked a Negro for the eight-girl pompon cheerleading team. Subsequently one was given a spot, and Rodgers now says of the incident, "I think it may have brought us all closer together."
It looks as if the Kansas pompon girls should get a lot of chances to show off their acrobatic victory antics this year—but Pepper Rodgers, of course, may upstage them with his somersaults.