By Mark Janssen
MANHATTAN, Kan. - Being an old-timer, at times I wonder whether the semi-olden times weren't just as good as we have it today.
This came to mind over last weekend when K-State staged a "Legends Weekend" for nearly 50 former Wildcat basketball players and coaches.
I was one of those students who stood in line for hours for every K-State home game during the late-1960s in order to make that mad dash for a bleacher seat six to eight rows up somewhere in between the free throw circles of Ahearn Field House.
Those memories came dashing back last week when I ran into Gene Robbins, who served as an assistant to Cotton Fitzsimmons during the 1968-69 and 1969-70 seasons.
"Oh, those were good years," said the 79-year-old Robbins, who now lives just outside of Durant, Okla. "Cotton was such a great person. He was the same person every time you saw him. He could get along with anybody. He was a great basketball coach, but even a greater person."
When I say that Robbins was Fitzsimmons assistant, he was Fitzsimmons' assistant. Oh, Larry Weigel was on board as a graduate assistant, but throw in trainer Porky Morgan, that was K-State's on-bench basketball family.
That's quite a difference from today where it's a parade of the head coach, an associate head coach, two assistant coaches, a director of basketball operations, a strength coach, a director of student-athlete development, a trainer, a video coordinator, plus a cast of student managers who join the 12 or 13 players on the bench.
"I get a kick out of how teams huddle up these days," Robbins said. "They talk amongst themselves, and then say a few words to the team. I wanted all that time to talk to the players. Isn't that what timeouts are for?"
And then Robbins is amused over the new trend of flashy facilities, practice gyms and isolated practice times.
Giving a hearty laugh, Robbins said, "Ahearn was such a wonderful facility for us, but while we were practicing basketball, there was the starting gun firing all the time during track practice and the sounds of baseballs being hit because it was also where they practiced. (Laughing) I remember one year just two or three days before we were to play Kansas, Jeff Webb (K-State guard) was hit square in the back by a 16-pound shot put."
Robbins added, "Remember, we had a dirt floor at the time, and while they tried to keep it watered down, with all that commotion going on around us there was always dust in the air. It was a zoo, but we survived, and we won."
Win K-State did, going 19-9 in Big 8 games, which included placing second in 1969 and being crowned champions in 1970.
Rivaling Fitzsimmons' charismatic personality was that of Vince "We Gonna Win" Gibson, who came in as the Wildcats new football coach at the same time.
"Vince was getting a lot of ink, which bothered Cotton at times, but the school was giving us everything we asked for, so there really wasn't a conflict," said Robbins.
Calling himself an educator first, Robbins was an early graduate from high school and had collected over 70 hours of college credits by the time he was 18. It was at that youthful age that he started his teaching career at Lonestar School, which included 27 or 28 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and basketball was played on a dirt court.
A product of Southeastern State College, Robbins coached six seasons at Tuskahoma High School before going to Murray State Junior College in Tishomingo, Okla., where he led three of his six teams to the National Junior College Tournament in Hutchinson.
It's at Murray State where Tex Winter would recruit, and where he collided on the court with Fitzsimmons' Moberly Junior College teams.
When Fitzsimmons replaced Winter as K-State's head coach, Robbins got the call to be his assistant.
"I made one really big mistake when I took the job," Robbins says today. "I wanted people to believe that it wasn't because of players that he was hired, so I declined to bring Dale Blaut and Danny Hester from my Murray State team.
"Those two kids ended up in the NBA," said Robbins, who is a member of the National Junior College Basketball Hall of Fame. "Had I brought them with me, no question we would have gone to the Final Four. I really believe that."
When Fitzsimmons was hired by the Phoenix Suns and Jack Hartman hired as his Kansas State replacement, Robbins said he had the opportunity to stay, but opted to go to Louisiana Tech as an assistant for one year, and later moved to North Texas State as head coach for four seasons from 1972-75
Robbins returned to the academic world as an administrator at Southeastern State before moving to the high school ranks where he coached until five years ago along with mingling with his cattle on his farm through the age of 74.
"The wins I had in high school mean just as much as any of the wins in college," said Robbins, "and the losses hurt just as much. I coached the same way no matter whether I was at the college level or high school level."