Remember Social Distortion? In the mid-’90s, the post-punk band had a monster hit with “I Was Wrong,” a muscular, grunge anthem about the sheer, cathartic joy of admitting your mistakes. After seeing what happened with Kansas football this year, it’s time for me to sing about mine.
Last year, yours truly wrote that KU didn’t care about football—that they didn’t actually want to win. “Winning in the age of FBS means ruthless recruiting, shimmering new stadiums and gyms that look like a billionaire’s playpen,” and the Jayhawks, I argued, simply weren’t committed to making those kinds of upgrades.
Kansas is getting all of that. This fall, in the midst of the team’s best season in years, including a dreamt-of visit by ESPN’s College GameDay, the university announced a gigantic slate of facility upgrades. That includes modernizing, at long last, century-old David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. They will also build a new north gateway to campus, transforming the area around 11th and Mississippi into a multi-use concourse replete with entertainment and retail space. They’ll be upgrading the Anderson Family Football Complex, too, which is huge for recruiting. That’s all on top of a newly announced, comprehensive initiative to boost student athletes, including programs for everything from wellness to name, image and likeness (NIL).
Granted, you can’t buy tradition, nor can you buy the sorts of long-term relationships with high school coaches that more established football programs have. Still, this is huge. It represents an absolutely fundamental sea change in how Kansas football competes on the national stage. Simply consider that you are reading an entire column about KU athletics with absolutely zero discussion of jumpshots.
Football fans can expect new everything when the work is complete: concessions, bathrooms, luxury seating—the whole panoply of modern stadium amenities. They can also expect more winning, especially if this innovative coach sticks around for a few years, a prospect these renovations make far more likely.
Great, right? Everybody likes victory, and there’s no doubt the project will pay off economically for the university, Lawrence and beyond. But we can still take time to think about what we’re about to leave behind.
This football glow-up feels a little like seeing your favorite indie band find mainstream success. Of course you’re happy for them. But you still lament the loss of intimacy and access that comes when they jump from cheap dives to overpriced arenas.
With a few notable exceptions, KU football of recent decades has always been sort of quaint, with the charm of a lovable loser. Tickets were cheap, if you had to pay at all. The stadium, and the entire gameday experience, had a kind of rickety appeal. On a crisp, fall Saturday afternoon, you could meet at The Crossing (which no longer exists), walk down to Memorial and sit in almost any seat or just goof around on the hill, drink beer, throw frisbees and barely pay attention to the game. It was idyllic. The scene was completely slack and chill. Like Lawrence itself.
All of that is likely gone. The new football experience will no doubt be more exciting. And obviously, nobody gets mad about a stadium with better bathrooms and more comfortable seating. But what good are comfortable seats if you can’t afford to sit there?
Game day of the future is going to be slicker, louder, more crowded and more corporate. Expect the requisite overpriced merch and concessions. Expect guys who wear jackets and ties to the stadium so they can network in luxury suites instead of watching the game. Expect KU Karens behind you, complaining when you stand up for a big third down.
Progress is great. Winning beats losing, and these changes are long overdue. We can and should celebrate the dawn of a new era of Kansas football. I’m genuinely psyched, believe it or not. But it’s still okay to think about what we’ll lose along the way. Lawrence is a unique, famously chill and funky spot. On Saturdays, it’s about to get a little less idiosyncratic—a little less craft beer-and-weed and a little more corporate wine-and-cheese. There’s not much to celebrate in that.