It's one of the most interesting, yet under-discussed questions in football. How does a coach balance praise and correction on a losing team? In a zero-sum business, how does a coach measure and celebrate progress that may not appear in the win column? How does a team avoid the trap of celebrating moral victories when they're the only type of victories you're likely to get?
At Kansas, they've had that conversation, and they've found an answer.
"We understand and we emphasize, as well, we're not in the moral victory business, and we understand that completely," Lance Leipold said at Big 12 media days. "But we're always looking at, whether it be individual improvement in certain things, how we've gone about our daily business and really how we've connected dots with our players about becoming better holistically, whether it be weight room or academically and better leadership, better teammates, that these things are going to stack upon themselves and help us on game day."
In truth, they've been having that conversation at Kansas for more than a decade now, but 2021 was the first year Leipold and his staff took a crack at it.
The Jayhawks memorably pulled off their 57-56 overtime win at Texas last November -- their first Big 12 road win since Oct. 4, 2008 -- but the biggest sign of progress came in the next two weeks. Contrary to the reaction following that win in Austin, KU has won Big 12 games before, but any momentum from those victories was consistently erased the following week.
In 2019, Kansas beat Texas Tech, then lost to K-State 38-10 the following week. A 2018 win over TCU was followed by a 27-3 smothering by Iowa State.
In fact, the last time Kansas won a Big 12 game and then followed that up with a 1-score loss the following week was in 2014, when KU answered a 34-14 win over Iowa State with a 34-30 loss to TCU. Until last season, that counted as progress.
Kansas 1-Score Big 12 Games By Season
After winning at Texas, Kansas followed it up with not one but two competitive games: a 31-28 loss to TCU in Fort Worth, then a 34-28 loss to West Virginia in Lawrence.
Before that stretch, to find the last time Kansas played three consecutive Big 12 opponents within one score in the same season, you'd have to go all the way back to Nov. 10-24, 2007. That's the year Mark Mangino's Jayhawk team went 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl, coming an 8-point loss to Missouri (and a subsequent win over Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship, which the Mizzou loss kept them out of) from playing in the BCS National Championship. It's been a swift and long descent since then -- until, perhaps, the end of the 2021 season.
So how does Kansas celebrate that progress without acting like they actually defeated the Horned Frogs and Mountaineers?
As Leipold said, you tally up all the ways in which you're improving -- every single one, on the field and off -- and you stack them on top of each other, faithful that enough chips will flip the win-loss see-saw your way.
"I think the proof of that is when a 1-8 football team goes on the road and finds a way to win and plays even some better football maybe the next two weeks and start showing the signs of closing gaps that we have to do," Leipold said.
The progress from the encouraging close to 2021 manifested in a more communicative, more trusting team to begin 2022.
"I think to me one of the most apparent things was our first spring practice. The volume and confidence of communication, especially on the defensive side of the ball, was night and day from the fall. And to me it was, hey, we understand it more, we're confident, this is what we do," Leipold said.