Tough times for a Kansas hangout (When is basketball season again?)

Perched on a hill not far from the University of Kansas campus is a Neoclassical Craftsman-style cottage built in 1906 as a bookstore. The building is painted red and blue and has been known for 60 years as the Wagon Wheel, although no one calls it that.

The place is simply the Wheel, and its owner, a jovial 49-year-old Kansas alumnus whose full name is Robert Farha, is known around town as Knobbie. The Wheel serves $3 cans of Coors and $5 wang burgers (basically bacon cheeseburgers with a fried egg on top).

The Wheel has 15 televisions mounted above walls of sports memorabilia, making it a hopping place to hang out shoulder to shoulder before, during and after Jayhawks basketball games. Kansas football games, however, are a different story.

This is not good news for Farha’s business. Farha practically blanched when word reached Lawrence that an Orlando bar, the Basement, would offer free beer until Central Florida, which lost its first six games, won a game.

“I’d go broke,” Farha said, smiling.

The Jayhawks are as inept in football as they are talented in basketball. Their 66-7 home loss to Baylor a week ago dropped them to 0-5. Their 38-13 loss the previous Saturday at Iowa State was their 35th straight defeat away from home — and that game had been thought to give the Jayhawks their best chance of winning this year.

This weekend, the Jayhawks narrowly lost at home, 30-20, against Texas Tech, leaving them 0-6 for the first time since 1988.

Nevertheless, Knobbie, who graduated in 1988, stays true blue (and red) to KU. He planned to open three hours before Saturday’s home game against Texas Tech, a four-touchdown favorite. About 50 people had dropped by the Wheel before the Baylor game, but most were alumni who cleared out before halftime. The students were on fall break. Many went to Las Vegas.

“If we were a good team that won games, there’d be a lot of people in here,” Calvin Handy, a senior journalism and communications major from Leawood, Kan., said as he surveyed the Wheel during the Iowa State game.

There were five people inside the Wheel at kickoff, including Farha’s 12-year-old son, Colin, who was more interested in his new phone.

Five of the 14 booths were filled at halftime, mostly because it was also lunchtime. Then the place virtually emptied.

One person clapped and another yelled when Kansas scored its first touchdown. But soon the Jayhawks were losing, 31-6, and the jukebox was being fed.

“We’re watching,” one fan said of the game, “but we just don’t want to listen to it.”

Adam Smith, a senior economics and finance major from Tribune, Kan., who works at the Wheel, said: “At the end of the day, we’re still Jayhawks. You’ve got to be supportive in the tough times.”

He said everyone “tries to be hopeful” about the football team. Asked if students watched the games to make fun of the team, Smith said earnestly, “It’s not like we’re embarrassed to watch, most of the times.”

There was a time, not long ago, when the Wheel was also a football hangout. Farha, who bought the Wheel in 1997, said his best year was 2008. Kansas won the men’s basketball title that spring, and the football team was coming off a 12-1 season.

“Even the nonconference games were packed in here because we thought we should do it again,” Farha said.

The Jayhawks lost five games in 2008, and coach Mark Mangino resigned after the 2009 season amid reports of mistreatment of players. Turner Gill and Charlie Weis came and went.

With Kansas thin on scholarships and player experience, the new coach, David Beaty, an assistant under Mangino, has taken on what Farha sees as an impossible job.

But Farha is pleased to note that Beaty has not gone into hiding. He stops by the Wheel on Thursdays for lunch.

Farha said the former owner, John Wooden, known as Dr. Woo, did 25 percent of his annual business on home football Saturdays. Maybe those days are long gone, but Knobbie hopes THESE days will be over soon.

“I’m hoping for two or three wins next season,” Farha said. “By Year 4, maybe six wins and a minor bowl game.”