Tony Sands: What it Takes to Rebuild

No matter where I go, no matter how much time goes by, I can always count on running into Kansas football fans who associate me with the numbers 58 and 396. Those digits — the national record-breaking number of carries and rushing yards I notched on Nov. 23, 1991 in my final game in a Jayhawk uniform — are two of the biggest reasons why I always have a smile on my face when I visit Lawrence, and I expect my trip back for this weekend’s Homecoming game to be no different.

But there’s another, lesser-known reason why Homecoming holds a special place in my heart, and that’s just how close I came to no longer calling this special place home.

Let me add some context. I grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in the shadow of the University of Miami. In that era, “The U” was the gold standard for success in the sport. I attended their practices when I was in high school. I witnessed their historic clashes with Oklahoma. That was my perception of what college football teams were supposed to be. Imagine my disappointment, then, when my freshman season at KU ended with a 1-10 record. I knew what I was getting into when I committed here, but the adversity was more than I could’ve anticipated.

So what stopped me from saying goodbye? Truthfully, KU fans have one person to thank for that: my mom. I remember calling her sometimes and talking through the struggles, explaining that I was thinking about looking elsewhere, and her response was always the same: “You made a commitment. You made a promise to yourself, and you’ve got to see it through. Stay the course, stay strong and stay grounded in the convictions that you came in with.”

Growing pains

My second collegiate game was a disaster, but it actually could’ve been worse — much worse.

We lost 56-7 to Auburn, but the Tigers could’ve scored 100 points on us if they wanted. It didn’t get any better from there. The next week, we got blasted 52-21 at Cal. Nebraska came into our house and routed us 63-10 in Week 5. Oklahoma pushed our losing streak to eight with a 63-14 beatdown in Norman. Teams were just toying with us.

But I’ve always believed that you measure a man by the distance he’s traveled, and that perfectly describes the freshman class that came with me to Lawrence. Many of us were small in stature, but we had big hearts. From Tim Hill to Chris Perez to Paul Friday, we all realized early on that in order to get the program to where we wanted, we’d have to be relentless. When the other guys are working, we’ve got to work. When they’re sleeping, we’ve got to work. If we fought and clawed and stayed the course and outworked everybody in the other freshman classes across the Big Eight, we knew those guys would eventually have to see us when we became seniors.

Even though we finished 1-10, our freshman class felt like we’d accomplished something just by making it to the end of that 1988 season. It brought us closer together. We learned not to judge success by wins and losses but rather in our ability to overcome. And in 1989, it started clicking. The lines were finally gelling together. Smaller guys beefed themselves up in the weight room and became true Big Eight players. I eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards for the first time. We ended up with a 4-7 record, and that small step was all we needed to know we were onto something.

Coach Glen Mason often said the difference between 8-3 and 3-8 is the blink of an eye, and that proved itself out when we went 3-7-1 in my junior year. A couple of missed assignments can change the course of an entire season. We didn’t get discouraged, though. If anything, it reinforced our belief that we’d have to be perfect to get to where we wanted to go.

The 1991 season represented my final chance to be the kind of transformative figure I envisioned myself becoming during my recruitment. As the first game drew near, the seniors on the team all felt the same way: When it was all said and done, when the clock struck zero on our last game, we would be winners. What I didn’t know at that time was how that contest would change the course of the program — and my life.

Storybook ending

We entered that year’s season finale, a Border Showdown against Missouri, with a 5-5 record, an achievement none of us took for granted. Still, we were just three years removed from the 55-17 loss to the Tigers that concluded my freshman season, so we knew this game meant more than it already did even as a rivalry matchup. It was an opportunity to show just how far we’d come. It was a chance to leave KU better than we found it.

The day before the game, the seniors had an opportunity to address the team. I was one of the first to speak. I talked about the love we all had for each other. I mentioned that some of us would never see each other again, and that as a team, this contest represented our last dance. I expressed my gratitude for the way my teammates, coaches and the city received my family as if they were their own — I had a wife and two kids with me at the time. I wore my passion on my sleeve in expressing just how much it would mean to go out a winner.

I was laser focused on winning that game, so much that I truly didn’t understand the history I was making until the outcome was pretty much in the bag. It wasn’t for a lack of trying from our wide receivers coach John Jefferson, though. He told me when I got to 20 carries. At halftime, when our lead was still just three points, he made sure I knew I already had 24 carries and 156 yards. And as I approached the Big Eight single-game rushing record, it was Coach Jefferson contacting the press box to figure out exactly what that number was and put it in my ear.

When I broke that conference record, KU announced it on the video board, and that’s when my teammates first realized what was happening. Coach Mason was never one to let us focus on individual stats, but late in that contest, he huddled everyone up, both offense and defense, and said we were on the brink of something special: I was close to breaking Marshall Faulk’s single-game rushing record of 386 yards. Coach Mason said we should go for it. Dana Stubblefield said the defense would force three-and-outs so I could get the ball back in my hands quickly.

I don’t care how many players Missouri had in the box by that point in the game; it’s like they weren’t even there. At one point Chris Perez even told them which direction we were about to run, and when I got mad at him for ruining the element of surprise, he said he didn’t care what they knew because they couldn’t stop us either way. So we kept smashing, and eventually, I smashed the record.

I remember that final carry. I remember Keith Loneker carrying me off the field. I remember Coach Mason predicting that the media would “kill him” at the postgame news conference for leaving me in and letting me get those records; instead, the first question he got asked why he didn’t keep me in longer so I could crack 400. Beyond breaking those national records, that day brought tears to my eyes because I knew we were going out as winners. That was the biggest feat I could’ve ever accomplished.

I graduated, but of course, I kept a close eye on my Jayhawks. That 1992 team went 8-4, defeating BYU in the Aloha Bowl in Honolulu. It felt like when one of your children grows up, goes off and accomplishes great things. We set the foundation, but they took it to another level. Before that bowl game, Coach Mason called me and offered this thought: “Never think that what you did ended on that day”

I pass along that same message whenever I talk to the guys playing today. I tell them this: Don’t look at where you are now. Understand that some of you on this team now won’t be on that other side when this thing turns around, but you will be the seed that helps this place blossom in the future.

And the good news? History often finds a way to repeat itself.