As he made his way through a cocktail party at the University of Kansas last Sunday, Jayhawk football Coach Glen Mason stopped to answer, for the umpteenth time, the question he had been asked all week:
"So, are you going to UCLA?"
And for the umpteenth time, Mason gave the same answer.
"That's ridiculous," he said. "I haven't even talked to anyone there."
That was true, but what happened over the next 48 hours was really ridiculous.
When he returned home, Mason's daughter, Chris, told him that Vince Dooley, athletic director at Georgia, had called.
Mason returned the call and was offered the vacant job at Georgia.
He insists he accepted it on the spot, saying it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
"It was a snap decision," he said. "The people at Kansas are great. For anybody who thinks this was an easy decision, no it was not. The last thing I wanted to do was to offend anybody."
Perhaps, but it is easy to see why many would be offended by the timing of the move.
The Jayhawks were scheduled to practice Monday for their appearance in the Aloha Bowl on Christmas Day against UCLA. They practiced while their coach, making an early-morning departure, flew to Georgia aboard a jet sent by the school for the news conference announcing his acceptance of the job after eight years as coach of the Jayhawks.
By going to Georgia, Mason will receive nearly double the $225,000 annual salary he was paid by Kansas. He was also known to be tired of coaching at a school where football always played second fiddle to basketball.
It was left to Kansas offensive coordinator Pat Ruel to tell the players that the head Jayhawk had flown the coop.
Not an ideal situation, Mason concedes.
"I told Pat to tell them it was not anything they should take personally," Mason said. "I would rather have been there myself than to have sent a messenger."
For Mason, the whirlwind didn't stop with his announcement. Because of bad weather in Athens, Ga., he had to drive 2 1/2 hours to Augusta to catch a flight home. Mason didn't return until 2:30 a.m., slept for 2 1/2 hours, addressed the team at 7 a.m. and was on a plane for Hawaii with his players several hours later.
"We were shocked to learn he was leaving," sophomore linebacker Jason Thoren said. "We came here under him, and we wanted to stay under him. We had never heard anything about it. We were upset. It wasn't a great day for us.
"But when an opportunity like that comes along, you have to take it. You have to do what you can to help your family."
Now that the shock has worn off, the players seem resolved to sending their coach out a winner. After all, he made them a winner when few thought they would be. The Jayhawks, coming off a 6-5 season, were thought to be better than Iowa State and Oklahoma State in the Big Eight and maybe the equal of Missouri, but that was about it.
The biggest problem was the defense, which had finished sixth among the eight conference teams in 1994.
So the first thing Mason did was hire a defensive coordinator, bringing Mike Hankwitz from Colorado. And the first thing Hankwitz did was change the defensive alignment, from a 5-2 to a 3-4, to take advantage of the talent at linebacker and minimize any disadvantage Kansas had because of a lack of size up front.
"When you see us walking through the lobby, we are not impressive looking," Mason said.
But they were impressive looking on the field. With a mobile quarterback in Mark Williams, two solid running backs in L.T. Levine and June Henley, and a defense that played surprisingly well at times, the Jayhawks won their first seven games and finished 9-2, 5-2 in the conference.
Williams completed 61.7% of his passes for 1,957 yards and 14 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. Between them, Levine and Henley rushed for 1,607 yards, with Levine accounting for 841. The two main receivers were Isaac Byrd (48 catches for 604 yards and five touchdowns) and Ashaundai Smith (41 catches for 550 yards and four touchdowns).
Although the defense, led by Thoren (119 tackles), free safety Maurice Gaddie (93 tackles) and cornerback Dorian Brew (four interceptions), again finished sixth in the conference in total defense, the Jayhawks gave up only 21 points a game, third-best in the Big Eight behind Kansas State and Nebraska, the two teams that defeated the Jayhawks.
Between them, Nebraska and Kansas State scored 82 points against Kansas. Nobody else scored more than 24 against the Jayhawks. Mason has left Kansas with a solid foundation. Thirteen of the 22 starters and kicker Jeff McCord will be back.
But first, there is the matter of the Aloha Bowl. Mason, 42-47-1 with the Jayhawks, may have said his goodbyes in Kansas, but his farewell will come in Honolulu.
"I told the players that I'm still the head coach of the University of Kansas," Mason said. "I'm still running this game."
And he'd like nothing better than to run out the door with one last victory.
UCLA vs. KANSAS
Monday, 12:30 p.m.