There is only one school in the nation that has lost 500 games," says Bill Snyder, Kansas State's new football coach. "This is it, and I get to coach it. "Snyder smiles. Sort of. He is the fourth coach in five years to be given the opportunity, the previous three having been bloodied beyond recognition. Since World War II not one of K-State's 11 coaches has gone on to a better coaching job. "This has been a real career stopper," says the school's athletic director, Steve Miller.
This is an article from the Sept. 4, 1989 issue
Last November, when Miller hired Snyder away from Iowa, where he was the offensive coordinator, Miller told him, "Kansas State is flat on its back. You may have heard it's one of the toughest jobs in the country. It's not. It's the toughest." How tough? Well, not a single Wildcat was drafted this year by the NFL. When it comes to college football, nobody does it worse than Kansas State. After 93 years of trying to play the game, the Wildcats' record is 299-509-41, dead last among the 106 schools in Division I-A. Next worst is Wake Forest, which has won 308 games and lost 451 over six fewer years of trying. State has been looking for its 300th win since Oct. 18, 1986; the Wildcats have failed 27 straight times, the longest nonwinning streak in the land (they forged a 17-17 tie with Kansas in 1987). K-State publicist Kenny Mossman says, "We may not win many games but we are fun to watch." Actually, the word is funny.
For example, after State went 0-10-1 in 1987, then coach Stan Parrish promised, "I will not let it happen again. That wasn't me." It didn't, and it wasn't. In '88 the team was 0-11. The Wildcats' best 10-year stretch ever was 1905-14, when they went 56-27-3. Since World War II their most successful decade has been 1968-77; their record during that time was 38-70. Mindful of that, Snyder told his battered players soon after he arrived last winter at the Manhattan campus, "Any loss is not the end of the world. If it was, you guys would have been pushing up daisies with your toes a long time ago." Privately Snyder says, "These kids expect so little of themselves now. They came here hoping for so much, and they have gotten so little. That's bad, because if you don't succeed at what you think is important, then it becomes less important."
And so it is that, according to an NCAA statistical study for the period between 1946 and the present, Kansas State ranks last in the nation in scoring offense and last in scoring defense, and since 1954, last in total offense. Perhaps as a result, it is also last in the hearts of most of its students (in 1988 only 2,700 of an enrollment of 19,301 bought season tickets) and, worst of all, last in the minds of the Wildcats. "Maybe," says junior defensive back Danny Needham, "the desire has been lost."
With good reason. In the 44 years since World War II, Kansas State has had exactly four winning seasons; its only conference championship came in 1934, when it won what was then the Big Six. Says former linebacker Will Cokeley, who played for State from 1980 to '82, "The problem is, every time we think we are good, we remember we are Kansas State."
At which time the team folds up like a cheap paper fan. Last season, the Wildcats found themselves ahead of Louisiana Tech 28-7 at the half. They lost, 31-28. The week before, against Tulane, State was ahead 16-13 with 1:47 to play. But Tulane scored and won the game 20-16, thanks to successive penalties against Kansas State for: 1) having 12 men on the field, 2) a face-mask violation and 3) pass interference.
The worst moment in K-State's woeful football history came on Oct. 29, 1966. The Wildcats were ahead of heavily favored Kansas 3-0 and had the ball on first down on their own 32-yard line with only 1:38 remaining in the game. A lock. Two plays gained six yards, and a delay of game penalty left the Cats with third and nine, at which point quarterback Bill Nossek fumbled. Kansas recovered on the State 30. With four seconds left, Jayhawk Thermus Butler—who had never kicked a college field goal—booted a 38-yarder to tie the game. After the season, both State coach Doug Weaver and Kansas coach Jack Mitchell were fired. Butler lives in K-State infamy.
Of course, it was also humiliating in 1987 to lose to Oklahoma 59-10, to Nebraska the next week 56-3, and to Oklahoma State the third week 56-7. The games were not as close as the scores might indicate. Worse was the 26-22 loss to Division I-AA Austin Peay in the opener of the '87 season. After that game, Parrish said. "I came to the realization that we're not very good." What Kansas State dreams about is a year like 1969. That season the Wildcats were 5-5, and Lynn Dickey, the biggest State star ever, played quarterback.
Asked how so much misfortune could have befallen one school, Miller says, "I hate to think it has been 93 years of bad luck." Actually, it has taken some real doing at K-State to be so awful. Vince Gibson, who coached the Cats from 1967 to '74 and is now in the sports travel business in New Orleans, says, "They have no players, and they have no money. Still, I have such good memories of being at K-State—and I'm so glad I'm not still there. I tell you, every day there is a catastrophe." There are those who say the problem is that State is the smallest school in the Big Eight; those same people do not point out that Oklahoma is the second-smallest. The real reasons for the woeful Wildcats:
•Timing. When World War II ended, almost all the schools now playing at the I-A level plunged into football in a white heat. K-State did not. "We just never got started, while everybody else was expanding." says Dev Nelson, the radio voice of the Wildcats from 1954 to '79. "Suddenly it was too late to catch up." From 1946 through '52, Kansas State was 5-63-1, the worst streak in its miserable history.
•Tradition. Dickey, who had a 15-year pro career with the Oilers and the Packers, says, "The thing about tradition at Kansas State is, there is none." That is crucial, because teams often win and lose by remembering what they have been.
•Location. Manhattan, which fancies itself The Little Apple, is located somewhere to the west of Topeka and north of Wichita. Wildcat quarterback Paul Watson says players from outside the state think of Kansas as "flat and nothing." Players from inside the state are mostly hoping to leave. In truth, Manhattan is a wonderful little town in which cars still angle-park on Poyntz Ave., the main thoroughfare. And, yes, they have electricity and talking movies. In fact, for charm and personality, Manhattan has it all over places like State College, Stillwater, Columbia, Tuscaloosa, and South Bend. Says former coach Gibson, "The one thing Kansas has got is great people, but it's hard to sell people."
•Recruiting. For reasons known only to the gods, Weaver, the coach from 1960 through '66, had the quaint philosophy that recruiting wasn't all that necessary. Apparently, he had enormous faith in his ability to will fine performances from his athletes, no matter who played for him. This not only earned Weaver a seven-year record of 8-60-1 but also enabled the Wildcats to go through his first six games against archrival Kansas without scoring a single point; the Jayhawks scored 188. Parrish once began a season with a recruiting class of 15 junior college players and only five high school seniors. The feeling was that the J.C. players would be able to step right in and start for two years; only one did, and an entire class was lost.
Damian Johnson, who played at K-State in the early '80s and is now a guard for the Giants, hits the nail on the head when he says: "The problem is, they don't get good players." Former kicker Steve Willis, who played with Johnson, says, "I was like all the other guys who came here. This was our last resort." The only player on the current team who received a genuine offer from another big-time school that truly wanted him is Watson. He was on Florida State's wish list. "People thought I was crazy to come here," Watson confesses.
Snyder says he will win with Kansas players, but among Kansans who never even considered K-State are Wichita's Barry Sanders, who won the Heisman Trophy last year at Oklahoma State; Rodney Peete from Shawnee Mission, who quarterbacked USC into the Rose Bowl; and Keith DeLong from Lawrence, who played linebacker at Tennessee and was picked in the first round by San Francisco in last April's NFL draft.
•Fan interest. There are 13,000 K-State grads living in the Kansas City area; 200 of them contributed to football last season. Twice in recent years, students have voted down a $15-per-semester fee earmarked substantially for football. Still, Snyder travels around the state saying, "If you fill the stadium, these kids will play so hard it will make you cry." There won't be a moist eye in the house this season. Last year, average attendance at 42,000-seat KSU Stadium was a horrendous 18,200 (next-worst in the Big Eight: Kansas, at 31,950). Season-ticket sales were 7,200.
•Patience. Snyder is State's 32nd coach in 93 years, making for an average tenure of less than three years per coach. Jim Dickey, who led the Wildcats to their only bowl game (Independence, in 1982, a 14-3 loss to Wisconsin) and was canned 24 games later, laughs and says: "A coach should never forget The Alumni Prayer: I pray for patience. I want it right now.' "
•Coaching. Too often, it has been inept. Last season, en route to a 56-14 loss to Colorado, State's defensive line simply stood up on a Buffalo extra-point try, making no apparent effort to block the kick. Senior guard Chad Faulkner admits, "We were starting to give up before Coach Snyder arrived. Our psychological stuff was all messed up." Faulkner is now playing for his fourth head coach. The Wildcats were so disheveled that in one spring Parrish used only 17 of the 20 days of practice allowed by the NCAA. Parrish refuses to discuss his three years at K-State—or his 2-30-1 record there. Boston College coach Jack Bicknell says, "I don't think the players think they can win. If true, that's always the coach's fault."
In 1967 Gibson came in like a tornado, proclaiming his love for purple and hollering from the rooftops: "We gonna win." And they did. a little, with the 5-5 record in '69 and 6-5 in '70. Then the Cats were put on probation for violations that included a bogus standardized test score, and Gibson was soon history. Ellis Rainsberger was the next coach; State was ticketed by the NCAA for playing two varsity players under assumed names in a jayvee game in 1977 and, in the same year, for awarding 43 scholarships when the limit was 30.
•Money. When Jim Dickey was fired two games into 1985—another horrible mistake, because he was easily the best coach K-State has had since World War II—he had a recruiting budget of $100,000. Miller says that should have been $200,000. The school has always been dead last in the conference in money spent on all sports. For example, in the fiscal year 1987-88 K-State spent $5,511,700 on athletics; Oklahoma shelled out $12,521,000. For football alone, Oklahoma out-spent K-State by half a million dollars.
Ironically, there are two reasons why the Wildcats just might develop a snarl—and one major reason they might not. For openers, Parrish made about $90,000 a year; Snyder will make around $200,000—and a bunch more in incentives if he's a winner. Assistant coaches were earning between $29,000 and $47,000 in 1988; now they are making between $34,000 and $62,000, close behind their colleagues at Oklahoma and Nebraska. The recruiting budget has been increased from $175,000 in 1988 to $300,000. Overall, the football budget has gone from $2.3 million last year to $2.95 million this year. Included in there is $100,000 for Snyder to spend any way he sees fit.
Miller, who was assured of greater support from the university when he became AD in Manhattan a year ago, is spending $625,000 to expand and remodel the football offices, $200,000 to enlarge the indoor workout facility, $600,000 for new artificial turf and $2 million for a new press box to replace the temporary one that was built in 1967 and is still in use. "You either call all this a deficit," says Miller, "or an investment in the future. I say it's an investment in the future."
Another good sign is that the whining has stopped in Manhattan. Miller, who will tolerate no negativism, says, "What we have said for all these years was that it was O.K. to be bad. Well, it's not O.K. anymore." University president Jon Wefald says, "We can turn this program around," and points to Lee Iacocca for inspiration. (Of course, Chrysler still had wheels on it when Iacocca arrived.) The players seem to be picking up on this cautious optimism. Defensive back Marcus Miller says, "Hopefully, we will pull off some miracles and go to the Orange Bowl." Safety Erick Harper says, "I look at Oklahoma and I only see three major differences—they look bigger, they look faster, and they look better."
One bad omen is that Kansas simply doesn't have enough talented football bodies. There are 19 four-year, football-playing colleges in the state, plus nine junior colleges. But according to a 1981 NCAA study, only 570 Kansas high school graduates who have played football are available each season to the 30 teams. This is the lowest ratio in the nation. Conversely, talent- and population-rich Florida has 3,992 players available for the state's seven football schools. And the growth of national recruiting by the major powers means that Kansas hotshots are easily wooed to schools that play on national TV and go to bowl games.
What more's to be done? Michigan's Bo Schembechler says, charitably, "They just need one spark." Oklahoma State's Pat Jones says, "They just have to hammer away." And Jim Dickey, now an assistant coach at Florida, says, "It will be very, very difficult, but if they are very, very lucky, then possibly they will have a chance." Glen Stone, a former K-State publicist who's now at TCU, says of the Wildcats' plight, "I don't think there is a solution. But just because there are no answers is no reason to quit trying."
Of course, it is exasperating to Wefald and others that losing football has made K-State famous. Wefald points out that in the last 15 years the school has had five Rhodes scholars, which puts Kansas State in the top 1% of all universities in the U.S. in that regard; and since 1979 it has had 14 Truman scholars, more than any other state university, and trailing only Harvard, Stanford and Yale. Last year, the College Football Association found that Kansas State was one of only 13 major Division I-A schools with a graduation rate of more than 70% for its football players; the average was 49.8%. And the school's debate team ranks third in the country. But then you knew that. Says Wefald, "We're on a roll. We're doing fine in everything—except football."
Which prompts one question: Why bother? Why send fine young men onto the field every Saturday in autumn to be humiliated? The answer is simple: "I don't think the Big Eight would want us if we didn't play football," says AD Miller, and though KSU could appeal its banishment, it is generally agreed that if Kansas State were to drop football, the Big Eight would just as quickly drop K-State. That would be a shame for both the school and the league: The K-State men's basketball team has won the conference championship 10 times, more than any other school, and ranks sixth nationally in the number of NCAA tournament appearances; the women's basketball program has had one losing season in 21 years, and its six league titles are tops in the Big Eight.
In other words, the football team is sacrificed for those who cannot imagine Big Eight basketball without the Wildcats. Snyder, predicting the future, says. "We will be as good as we can be, and we will not be 0-11." Stay tuned.