LAWRENCE, Kansas -- The Kansas student known as Plunger Boy showed up to David Booth Memorial Stadium at 5:30 a.m. Saturday to make absolutely sure he would get his front row seat for the football game against Duke. He had waited overnight for basketball games at Allen Fieldhouse countless times. But getting to a football game early? Well, there is a first time for everything. So Plunger Boy, otherwise known as Noah Ginsberg, arrived with a group of friends, a handful of signs, the trademark plunger headband he wears on his head (a gag gift from his dad, he says), and waited.
Around two hours before kickoff, about 100 students had gathered, waiting for the gates to open, a giddy buzz filling the air as they wondered, "Are we really good at football?"
"Nothing gets a college fan base excited like a football team," Ginsberg says.
"Even here," he continues. "We've been begging for football to be back. I've been waiting for a long time. My cousins go to Clemson, so I have to hear about that. Football, it brings people together, and that's what we want KU football to be. I know it starts on the field, but it also starts with the fans. If we get fans back here, that's where it starts."
Getting fans to games has been tough sledding for Kansas football. Before this season, Kansas had gone 12 straight years with three wins or fewer -- tied with Kent State (1989-2000) for the longest streak by a FBS team since the FBS/FCS split in 1978. Over 122 seasons, Kansas has made 12 bowl games and has an all-time record that sits below .500.
Meanwhile, Kansas men's basketball has one of the best (the best, if you ask Kansas fans) home atmospheres in America at 16,300-seat Allen Fieldhouse -- with a sellout streak of 336 games dating back to 2001. Fans come because they know they will see an elite team -- Kansas is the defending national champions, with four total national championships. Last season, the Jayhawks passed Kentucky to become the winningest all-time Division I men's basketball program.
But there are hardcore football fans in Kansas, and they were proud to share their stories on Saturday. Ginsberg has been coming to games since he was 8. He went to the 2008 Orange Bowl when Kansas beat Virginia Tech 24-21 and finished with a 12-1 record. He has attended every game as a student. So has his friend, Alex Ailey, also a senior. On this particular day, Ailey is wearing a red and blue spiked wig and a shirt that says quite simply, "We are back," purchased three years ago in anticipation of this moment.
"You sit here and you say, 'I've watched us lose by 45 every week,'" Ailey said.
"I've watched us lose by 60," Ginsberg chimes in.
"But I fell in love with this team, my freshman year, when we lost to Nicholls State," Ailey says. "That was my first KU game. Even though we lost to an FCS team, I saw this was a team worth sticking behind. I knew one day we would get there."
Freshman Bryce Erickson chimes in next.
"There's something about getting behind a team that's trying to get over the hump, which makes it so special to be here," Erickson said. "You know KU basketball is going to be good, but you don't know KU football is going to be good every year."
On the other side of the stadium, Dave Couch and his son, Colin, take their usual spots to greet the football team on arrival. They have done this for so long, the Couch family has become Kansas family. Coach Lance Leipold, and before him Les Miles, and well before him, Charlie Weis, would always make sure to stop and say hello. So do players, administrators, the parents of the players and security guards. If you follow Kansas athletics, you know the Couches.
They got season tickets in 1996, the year Colin was born. Colin is in a wheelchair, the result of a traumatic birth. Dave explains doctors didn't know whether Colin would survive. But he did, and as he grew up, he connected with football in a way that made him the team's biggest fan. As Dave talks, Colin makes sure to high five players and assistants as they head to the field for pregame warmups. One assistant screams, "It's a great day to go 4-0!"
"Colin has got this mentality about being a warrior, because he's fought since the day he was born just to be here," Dave Couch says. "So he can relate to what it means to be pushed into a corner, but to not back down from it. Sports in general has that, but with football, you're fighting on every play to try and win. Whether Colin knows it or not, that's who he is, and that's who he's always been. I love the fact that this might have something to do with his love for football, too."
Just behind them, the large grassy hill that leads up to the landmark Campanile is dotted with white tailgating tents as far as the eye can see. Freshman Quin Wittenauer is standing with a group of friends and shouts, "We're a football school!"
Wait, Kansas a football school?
"It's a dream come true," he says. "I've been waiting for this since I was 5 years old. I've watched every KU game. It makes me want to cry. I'm in a KU uniform in my baby pictures."
His friends AJ McDonald, Drake Doser, Mason Johnston, Adrian Dimond and Cadynce Marlow all start shouting in unison, their voices indistinguishable as they try and top one another on their Kansas football predictions.
"We want Bama!" they yell.
"No, no we want Georgia!"
"No, no no ... Alabama wants US!"
Doser points out the white tent behind them. His parents and their friends decided to get a tailgating tent for this game around the time the season started, since it was parents weekend.
"We were supposed to have 10 people in the tent," Shannon Doser says. "I think we have 100."
At the top of the hill, on a bench that has a clear view of the stadium, Scott Johnson takes in the view. A Kansas graduate, class of 1970, he remembers going to games in the 1960s to watch Gale Sayers, Curtis McClinton and John Hadl.
"You know, they've had great football teams through history here," Johnson says. "But the last 10 years have been rough. Really rough."
Johnson drove 585 miles from his home in Colorado to come to the game, believing he could just get a ticket on game day like he always does. But when he arrived in town on Thursday, he learned the game was sold out -- the first sellout since 2019.
"I'm kind of amazed," he said.
So he decided he would sit on the bench to take it all in -- even with an obstructed view of the field, thanks to the scoreboard behind the end zone.
Had Johnson made it into the stadium, he would have been a part of a loud, raucous crowd, one that was on its feet throughout the game. With Kansas leading late, security guards stood in front of the Kansas student section holding a rope -- a signal they would not be allowed to come onto the field.
After Kansas made a defensive stop to seal the 35-27 victory and move to 4-0 for the first time since 2009, the crowd was at its loudest, waving white towels in the air to punctuate the moment. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, a will-they-or-won't-they dance ensued between security and the students.
After a few moments delay, one segment of the rope was let down, and students poured onto the field in a fairly orderly fashion, without pushing, shoving or trampling but rather pure elation and some disbelief, streaming for the players chanting, "4-0! 4-0!"
"That was crazy," receiver Luke Grimm said. "I was like, 'Oh my goodness, I guess we're doing this. You've got the announcer in the background, saying, 'We expect to win, don't run on the field,' and the students are just like, 'Whatever, we're running on the field.' So, you're with family at that point because you're just having fun and you just experienced something together."
About 10 minutes after the students made it onto the field, they were asked to leave. As they trudged for the exits after filling their cell phone camera rolls with pics, one student turned to her friend and screamed, "I can't believe we f---ing won!"