Joe Dineen finally let his guard down.
Every reporter had left the Chancellor’s Lounge at the Anderson Family Football complex on Saturday night, but the Kansas linebacker — nearly a minute later — remained stationed at his interview seat. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket for a quick glance, leaned forward, then slowly dropped his forehead to both hands, looking down while grabbing two fistfuls of disheveled hair.
Dineen, a senior captain from Lawrence, had just said all the right things to reporters following KU’s 26-23 overtime loss to FCS opponent Nicholls State. This was only one game. The Jayhawks would correct their mistakes. The upperclassmen wouldn’t let this team lose focus.
His true feelings came a few minutes after. The fifth-year player, staring down into a red tablecloth, worked to process this latest disappointment.
It was likely difficult to know what to think about first.
Remember, Dineen and teammate Daniel Wise had passed up a chance at the NFL in the offseason for nights like Saturday. They’d grinded through an awful run of college football together — going 3-33 in the last three seasons — with the hopes that their final year might provide a bit of reward at the end.
That, no doubt, was supposed to include a season-opening win over Nicholls State. Sure, the Colonels were a top-20 FCS team, but these are the type of games you have to win if you’re Kansas, especially with jaded fans giving each new football team only a quick look before moving their full thoughts to Late Night in the Phog.
“We still believe,” Wise said after the game. “We’re still moving forward. I know this probably sounds repetitive, but we’re still taking steps.”
It’s going to be awfully hard to convince fans of that now.
The outcry on social media following the loss was swift and merciless. A vocal portion of KU supporters appear to be ready to move on from coach David Beaty following a 3-34 mark in his first four seasons. That now includes a 2-2 record against FCS foes.
Beaty was asked about the state of his program following Saturday’s defeat.
“I’ll tell you this: The sun’s going to come up tomorrow,” Beaty said, “and this team is going to continue to work toward the goals they have set.”
KU’s coaches have no shortage of areas where they’ll be second-guessed after this one.
Beaty still showed numerous moments of game-day indecisiveness. That included two timeouts before fourth-down decisions and another on the first play of a possession.
Once again, KU couldn’t settle on a quarterback either. Starter Peyton Bender had some early success before he was replaced for a series by Miles Kendrick, which seemed to disrupt his rhythm. Beaty stuck with Bender the rest of the way ... until the game’s most important play, when he put in a cold Kendrick on third-and-6 in overtime to run a draw; it went for a loss of 3.
“We got into a set where we knew we could possibly crease them on a little run play in there with him,” Beaty said. “As we look back at it, we felt like we were in pretty good shape. They twisted on us a little bit. We should have been able to pick it up.”
There was disorganization on defense. Too often, KU’s defensive linemen were standing as the ball was snapped while trying to quickly process the play-call from the sideline, leaving them little chance of getting the leverage needed to outmuscle the person in front of them.
Wise took full responsibility for the misalignments, even if it was difficult to believe that part of the game should be his fault.
“They definitely took advantage,” Wise said, “of what we messed up.”
What happens next remains a mystery. New athletic director Jeff Long — officially on the job one month as of Saturday — was brought in primarily to fix football, and the Jayhawks losing to a lower-level school isn’t likely to resonate as a good first impression.
KU’s players said what they needed to after the game — “If you’re going to lay down week 1, then you’re not a football team,” linebacker Keith Loneker said — but the truth remains that the Jayhawks have already blown their best chance at a victory all season.
“There’s a thing called maturity and understanding the game that we have to possess as players and coaches. We’ve got to find ways to get ourselves excited,” Beaty said. “I’ve been on teams that have won eight games, and it’s hard to get them fired up for the next game. Sometimes I’ve been on teams where you’re a .500 team, and man, they come to work every Monday.
“Just knowing these guys and this team, they won’t react like the world probably expects them to. They’re going to come back, and Monday’ll look good, Tuesday’ll look better, and Wednesday will look even better.”
The pain should linger this week, though. It was evident when Dineen sat by himself in an empty conference room Saturday night, and also in the moment after he couldn’t bring down Nicholls State quarterback Chase Fourcade following his game-winning touchdown run in overtime.
Look closely on the replay, and you’ll see Dineen’s helmet falls to the ground. He slowly pulls up his hands, then pounds both fists into the turf below.
There was no reason for Dineen to hide his real emotion.
This one hurt.