Kansas football has tradition of throwing goal posts in Potter Lake

LAWRENCE, Kan. — From afar, Potter Lake can sound like some unkempt derelict of a lagoon maybe on the edge of the college town, what with all the goal posts hurled into it in all the news accounts across all the decades. Up close on a pretty fall day, it turns out to be — duh — smack amid the Kansas campus and pretty much right behind the football stadium, not to mention a picturesque pond for meditating or boosting meditation by hurling in a phone.

The old lake didn’t look nervous this week. The 113-year-old codger has seen some goal posts before.

In a strange country where goal post chunks sometimes take unwitting tours around college towns on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, Lake Potter has a chance at another visit from the hardware this weekend, and the fact it does tells much. Kansas State often has been good for a generation, but Kansas almost always hasn’t. Now, through the wonders of a mighty three-year building project at Kansas, No. 25 Kansas (7-3) vs. No. 21 Kansas State (7-3) rates among the delicacies of the Saturday ahead, even with Kansas perhaps hamstrung to a third-string quarterback. It even figures in the cramped Big 12 title hunt.

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This rivalry, close in its history (65-50-5 to Kansas) but not in its recent history (26-4 to Kansas State since 1993), has achieved relevance so that non-Kansans all around might even learn its rivalry name, the Sunflower Showdown, surely the most fragrant of rivalry names. It also has dredged up an old moral question: At what point in the happy trajectory of a budding program should college students stop upholding the tradition, more than a century old by now, of attacking goal posts?

Of all the schools with all the goal posts and all the potential giddiness and all the safety concerns, Kansas is perhaps the ripest for such gleeful vandalism. In the early-to-mid-1990s, when Coach Glen Mason’s Jayhawks won two Aloha Bowls, those became the first bowl wins since that 1961 Bluebonnet. In 1999, during a 5-7 season, when Kansas beat loathed Missouri, 21-0, two weeks after a 50-9 loss to Kansas State, Coach Terry Allen said, “I’m just glad to see something go into Potter Lake.” In the 11 seasons between 2010 and 2020, Kansas went 21-108, with only half the 18 home wins against Power Five opposition.

That gives each win that milestone feel, so that according to news accounts, the goal posts traveled to the lake after the 31-19 win over West Virginia in 2013, the 34-14 win over Iowa State in 2014 and the 24-21 overtime upset of Texas in 2016. For brains addled with college football, it could become a thing to read about Potter Lake and wonder as to the nature of this Potter Lake. Goal posts also made the trip last season after a 37-16 win over Oklahoma State and this year after a 38-33 win against previously unbeaten Oklahoma. (By the time the Sooners boarded their bus to leave Kansas, the Oklahoman reported, those fallen goal posts already had been replaced.)

According to the Kansas City Star, they even got a toppling in an empty stadium in 2015 — when the Royals won the World Series.

At the time of the last Kansas uptick, in the 2000s, while coach Mark Mangino and administrators warned aloud about safety, the thoughtful students at the University Daily Kansan gave the moral question a whirl. “Last season,” the editorial board wrote in preseason 2006, “the student body broke the record for most goal posts torn down in a season, making three trips to Potter Lake.” The board recommended that their fellow students cut it out and “act as if we’re supposed to win” because such goal post shenanigans, while visibly so much fun, exist “for teams with low expectations.”

Low expectations resumed, of course.

One coach after another turned up post-Mangino until their tally got to five with the hiring of Lance Leipold in April 2021, right after the school had to shoo Les Miles at an odd time of year (March) because of what an investigation at LSU, his previous employer, alleged about his behavior toward female students. Leipold came from the University at Buffalo, to which he had come from Wisconsin Whitewater.

When he and Kansas State Coach Chris Klieman convene in mutual admiration Saturday, it will shout for all the skillful coaches in lower divisions. For one thing, both men know also what it’s like to win where winning becomes viewed as entitlement rather than accomplishment. Liepold, 59, went 109-6 during eight seasons (2007-14) at Wisconsin Whitewater, a Division III dynasty. Klieman, 56, went 69-6 during five seasons (2014-18) at Football Championship Subdivision kingpin North Dakota State.

Just imagine the horror of those “6s.”

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Once in Manhattan, Kan., the native Iowan Klieman has gone 37-23 in five seasons with a 2022 Big 12 title. Once in Lawrence, the native Wisconsinite Leipold has gone from 2-10 with a storybook 57-56 overtime win at Texas in 2021 to 6-7 in 2022 to this 7-3. That means he’s at 15-20 and nudging toward the marvel of .500.

“For us to play them,” Leipold told reporters at his news conference Monday, “they’re the defending conference champions, and we’ll come in with the same records, and it’s a home game, and all those things — I think we should play loose in this game. You know? We’re just going to keep working on closing that gap, and we’re going to see where it’s going to turn out on Saturday. And that’s the way it should be.”

“To see what they’ve done in the last few years is really impressive,” Klieman said at his news conference. “Doesn’t surprise me, because I know what kind of coach Lance is and I know what kind of staff he has because I’m friends with a lot of those guys.”

“It was going to be our responsibility,” Leipold said, “to start making this rivalry a better game. And I think we’re taking our steps, but we have to go out and play that way.”

That means that 2023, in addition to the very concept of a surprise Kansas loss, which happened last weekend against Texas Tech, could get a second goal post parade to Potter Lake. University officials did not return messages seeking insight about the little lake, but university history notes it arrived in 1910 “as a water source in case of fire.” Human swimming there lasted from 1910 to 1927.

And as Courtney Bierman wrote in the University Daily Kansan in 2015: “Potter Lake has been drained twice in its history, once in 1957 and again in 2011. Items found at the bottom include a desk, a sewing machine, a time capsule, and a Model T Ford.” Potter Lake has been around. Its water lilies will not quiver at kickoff. And if Kansas can keep this up, it might even get left alone someday.

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