December 17, 2013
By Mark Janssen
I think we can all agree that dwelling on the distant past of Kansas State's football program doesn't accomplish a great deal.
Or, does it?
To truly appreciate the heroics of Bill Snyder during his two-time 22-year tenure, maybe it's good to occasionally turn back the pages in Wildcat gridiron history.
I mean, if you're reading this and in your 30s and even early-40s, you've honestly only known winning and there is no way that you could totally "get it" when the terms "Futility U" and "Mildcats" are mentioned.
And for those of us in our 50s, 60s and beyond, even today one truly does give a shake of the head in amazement on this "greatest turnaround in college football history" orchestrated by Mr. Snyder starting in 1989, and re-starting in 2009.
Over the last 15 years, Kansas State has been a perennial top-20 program. A program where 8, 9, 10, 11 wins are expected. It's a program where fans now make their holiday plans around a postseason bowl experience.
But worth remembering is the history prior to Snyder when Kansas State actually was, statistically speaking, the poorest program in the history - that's history - of intercollegiate football. Yup, the 'Cats ranked "No. 1" when it came to worst teams in America as recently as the late-1980s.
In the 54-year period prior to Snyder's arrival in 1989, six coaches - Bus Mertes, Doug Weaver, Vince Gibson, Ellis Rainsberger, Jim Dickey and Stan Parrish - collected an average of just three wins per year, had a total of just four plus-.500 years (6-3-1 in 1953 and 7-3 in 1954 under Bill Meek, plus a 6-5 1970 team coached by Vince Gibson, and a 6-5-1 unit tutored by Jim Dickey), and attended a total - that's total - of one bowl game, the 1982 Independence Bowl which resulted in a 14-3 loss to Wisconsin.
You remember the jokes.
The guy who left two football tickets on the windshield of his car when he parked it on Poyntz Avenue only to have four additional tickets when he got back from shopping.
In the midst of its ineptness in the mid-1980s, I scribbled out a few stories trying to answer the question as to "why" K-State football was so dang bad.
Some coaches hired were offensive gurus - Mertes, Rainsberger and Parrish - while others were more defensive minded - Gibson and Dickey.
However, the one thing in common prior to landing Parrish, who was coming from the I-AA ranks, was the fact that each was a first-time head coach.
Or was football never a priority at K-State?
Track coach Ward Haylett said the football job "was thrust" upon him in 1942. He immediately hired Henley Haymaker as his freshman coach. Haymaker was the head of the botany department. Following Haylett was Lud Fiser, who made the move from Manhattan High School and wasn't hired until mid-August, or less than 30 days prior to the season opener.
Or did K-State settle on just being a basketball school?
"It added to the struggle," admitted Mertes.
But at the age of 90, Haylett would add with a hearty laugh, "Lord pity what the athletic department would have been like had it not been for basketball."
Or, was it just the geography of being in the center of the United States and in a non-populated area of the country?
"To the north you have Nebraska, there's Colorado to the west, Oklahoma to the south and Missouri to the east," said Rainsberger. "That made recruiting very tough."
Thomas Edward was a noted sports sociologist at the time, and said, "Nothing hurts recruiting like a reputation of being a loser."
In other words, at that time one could say, "See Kansas State," to Edward's comment.
In the 1940s, Haylett said of recruiting, "We had no budget, so we took who showed up or who the alumni sent."
Even when K-State did have success, it was a tad flukish by nature.
When Mertes posted consecutive winning seasons in 1953 and 1954, it came when he picked up six linemen from the Army football team who were part of 84 Cadets released from the Academy.
And when Dickey took the Wildcats to the Independence Bowl, it came a year after the daring plan of redshirting eight potential senior starters the year before.
But outside of that, as Haylett said, "If I had quality, I never had the depth. If I had the depth, the quality wasn't good enough."
All of the above was true then, and for the most part remain as the obstacles of today with the exception of the Bill Snyder-factor.
As former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer once said, "Bill's not the coach of the year, or coach of the decade, he's the coach of the century."
*** On Thursday, enter Bill Snyder ***