Futility U KANSAS STATE, WINLESS SINCE 1986, HAS ONE CLAIM TO FAME: IT IS AMERICA'S MOST HAPLESS TEAM
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.
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
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
-- 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
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 outspent 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.