SE: K-State Through The Decades | Part One
Earlier this fall, K-State Athletics established a new way to engage former student-athletes from around the state, region, nation and world with the launch of the Varsity K Club. Since the first K-State football team took the field in 1896, over 10,000 men and women have represented 20 sports programs by wearing K-State uniform. The Varsity K Club provides an exclusive opportunity for former student-athletes to reconnect with former teammates and stay up to date with recent K-State Athletics news and events.
Leading up to the Varsity K Club’s inaugural All-Sport Reunion Weekend taking place Nov. 20-22, K-State Sports Extra will give its readers a quick look back at K-State Athletics’ past 119 years.
Through this three-part, weekly series, K-State Sports Extra will hit on key events, spotlight former student-athletes and recognize major K-State Athletics moments from throughout the years.
A look at the early years | 1896-1950
1863-1899: Though Kansas State Agricultural College began in 1863, it wasn’t until 1896 that the first football team was fielded. On Thanksgiving Day 1896, the KSAC Aggies, clad in Royal Purple, traveled to Ft. Riley, Kansas, for the program’s first game. The following spring, KSAC added a baseball team to its new athletics department. KSAC baseball played its first game, also on Ft. Riley, on April 10, 1897.
1900-1909: Though in the early 1900’s, football and baseball were Kansas State Agricultural College’s only two sports until the first basketball game is was played on Jan. 16, 1903, at the campus YMCA stock judging room’s barn. Men’s track and field began in 1906 and earned a state crown in 1909. Among the most notable Aggies in this era is Mike Ahearn, who led the football team to a combined 39-12 record over six seasons, including a stellar 1909 season where it outscored competition 320-11. He also coached men’s basketball in 1906 and served as the baseball coach from 1904-1910. Teams played in the Kansas Athletics Conference.
1910-1919: Mike Ahearn’s 1910 football team served up one of the best years in school history by going 10-1 with seven shutouts along the way. Following that exciting year, Ahearn stepped away from his duties as a coach in 1911. It was around this time Nichols Hall was built as the new home for KSAC Athletics. In 1915, KSAC first used the nickname “Wildcats,” however, it wouldn’t become the official name until after the 1919 football season.
1920-1929: After officially naming K-State teams the Wildcats, KSAC alumni donated a live wildcat named Touchdown I to serve as the team mascot at all home Wildcat sporting events. In 1922, Mike Ahearn returned to K-State as the Athletics Director and Wildcat football saw its first All-American honor in offensive lineman Ray Hahn. In an effort to honor the 45 students who lost their lives in World War I, work began on Memorial Stadium in 1922. However, because of the cost of the project and the impact of the Great Depression, work was stopped in 1929, and the south bowl was never completed.
1930-1940: With the new decade came a new conference for the Wildcats. In 1930, K-State joined KU, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa State and Missouri to start the Big 6 Conference. K-State football would win its first conference title in 1934 after Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf took over as head coach and went 7-2-1, and a perfect 5-0 in league play. At the end of the decade, in the fall of 1939, K-State hired future Basketball Hall of Famer Jack Gardner. The hiring marked the beginning of an exciting era for Wildcat hoops.
1940-1950: In 1940, track and field’s Elmer Hackney won his third-consecutive Big 6 shot put title and second straight NCAA Championship before earning a spot on the USA Olympic team. K-State placed second in the Big 6 in wrestling, swimming and baseball in 1940. However, due to World War II, K-State cut competition down to just three sports – football, basketball and track and field – from 1942 to 1946.
In 1947, Jack Gardner returned as the men’s basketball coach after spending time serving in WWII. He kicked off the historic success of K-State basketball with a 22-6 campaign. Howard Shannon and Rick Harman, K-State basketball’s earliest All-Americans, led the Wildcats to win the Big 7 and a berth into the program’s first Final Four. Also in 1947, Ahearn Field House came under construction and would be completed in just two years.
1950-59 - The 1950s were a historic era for K-State athletics. Harold Robinson, the first African-American student-athlete at K-State, capped off his career in 1950 by becoming the first African-American student-athlete to earn an athletic scholarship in the history of the Big 7. Earl Woods, the father of Tiger Woods, broke the color barrier in Big 7 baseball history in 1952, playing two seasons with the Wildcats.
In track and field, one of the greatest athletes in K-State history, Thane Baker, won 10 Big 7 titles and a NCAA Championship from 1951-53. He also earned four medals in two Olympics during this decade, including silver in the two hundred twenty yard dash at the 1952 Olympics and a gold medal as part of the 400-meter relay team in 1956.
On the football field, the Wildcats were led by three-time All-American Veryl Switzer and went a combined 13-6-1 from 1953-54.
Along with the opening of Ahearn Field House in 1950, men’s basketball took off under Hall of Fame coaches Jack Gardner and Tex Winter. The Wildcats were led by All-American Ernie Barrett and advanced to the school’s second Final Four and the National Championship game, falling to the Kentucky Wildcats. Winter took over as head coach in 1953 and would later lead the 1957-58 team, featuring two-time All-American Bob Boozer, to the Final Four. A year later, Winter’s 1958-59 team finished the season 25 and 2 and ranked number-1 in the nation.
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Dr. Russell Hardin, Football 1944-45
Moving away from home in Lebanon, Indiana, was never the plan for Dr. Russell Hardin, but when the U.S. Army came calling in 1943, he didn’t have a choice.
Hardin, who at 95 is among the oldest living former Wildcat football players, was sent to Little Rock, Arkansas, for basic training before boarding a train and heading to Manhattan, Kansas.
“One morning, our corporal came out and said, ‘Hardin, the General wants to see you,’” said Hardin during a recent visit back to Manhattan. “I thought ‘Oh what have I done now?’ so I went up, saluted him and he told me that the next morning I’d be on a train going to Manhattan, Kansas, to study veterinary medicine.”
The military was in need of veterinarians that year, and Hardin had already had a year of veterinary medicine schooling under his belt from Purdue, so off to K-State he went.
“I went to Manhattan on a train with 73 other soldiers and we marched every night and every morning,” explained Hardin. “We were supposed to cram five years of vet medicine schooling into 27 months! So it was lights out at 10:30, and when we went away on trips for football, I had to take my books with me to study.”
Hardin was a lineman for the Wildcats in the mid-1940s and captained the team in 1945.
“We had no face guard when I played; I had a broken nose three times,” Hardin said as he motioned at his nose, “but that was just part of it.”
While the Wildcat football team only won three games in Hardin’s two years with the program (“We didn’t have an All-American at all,” he explained), his time as a student-athlete at K-State made for a lot of good times and great memories.
“Well, it was an honor in anything that they respected me and took my judgment to do what I thought was right,” said Hardin about captaining the 1945 K-State football team. “They believed in me with what plays should we run today; what plays should we run this time? Is it working to go off tackles, is it working to go off guard? Of course we’d always get advice from the coaches, but it was sort of an honor to get that.”
Following his graduation from K-State, Hardin moved back to his hometown in Indiana and began a veterinary practice. He retired after nearly 40 years and sold his practice in 1980.
Though he doesn’t make it to Manhattan often, Hardin rarely misses an opportunity to watch and cheer for K-State.
“I have bad eyes so we have a big, 70-inch screen TV at home,” he laughed. “I can get up close and see when the guards fall out or the tackles fall out or when an end misses a block, and that’s really important. One of the things that’s really important, as far as I’m concerned, is having a good defensive end, but then again, I’m not a coach. I’m just an observer.”
Hardin was recently honored as the Grand Marshal for the Kansas State University Homecoming parade on Friday, October 16. It was his first visit back to his alma mater in quite some time, and being back meant a great deal to the old Cat.
“All the things that have happened to me, this climaxes the whole deal to be the parade chairman,” he said with a smile. “I’ve been treated so nice by all the alumni and the administration, and to see things grow like they have grown here, it is just remarkable. Coming from where we had to shower with no hot water and change down in the old stadium, now you’ve got everything you need. If you want to come to a place where you’ve got it all, it’s A-1 here. The AD and the administration have done a great job.”
Stay tuned next for next week’s K-State Sports Extra story looking at the Wildcats’ success from 1960-80. For more information on the Varsity K Club and to learn how you can get involved, please click here. For information on the upcoming Inaugural Varsity K Club Weekend, please contact Matt Giller at firstname.lastname@example.org.