Pride Rises from Ashes of Kansas State Football

By Berry Tramel
Staff Writer
Daily Oklahoman
October 15, 1998

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Jack Goldstein hit town in 1933. He was 17 years old, and Kansas State football tickets cost a buck fifty.

Under coach Lynn "Pappy" Waldorf, K-State won the Big Six Conference in '34, and Goldstein figured he had landed in a college football hotbed. Sorry. Over the next 60 years, Goldstein became the richest man in town. Owner of Manhattan Steel & Pipe Supply. Leader in the community. And big booster of the worst college football program the world has yet seen.

"I've been with them all those years," said Goldstein.

All those years when KSU had more winless seasons than winning seasons. All those years when K-State was dubbed Futility U. All those years when 14 football coaches came and went.

Which is why you feel good about Jack Goldstein having lived long enough to see the Manhattan Miracle.

Futility U. is 5-0 and ranked fourth in the AP poll. Futility U. has gone 48-11-1 in the previous five seasons, which equals its victory total in the '50s and '60s combined. Futility U. is the most prized school in the bowl business. Futility U. is no more.

"It's a great joy to win," said Goldstein. "It's always wonderful to feel like a winner. I feel like a billionaire."

Let's meet the men who made the miracle. Jim Epps hit town in 1979. He was an academic counselor, and his first three years, the football players he tutored won all of three Big Eight games.

"You couldn't help but have a sense of pessimism, a sense of futility," said Epps. "I thought our only chance to have success in football would be get out of the Big Eight."

Epps became assistant athletic director. When football coach Stan Parrish was fired in 1988, Epps and AD Steve Miller sought replacements. Boston College coach Jack Bicknell turned down the Wildcats. Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jim Donnan and UTEP coach Bob Stull declined interviews.

Epps and Miller took to the road, interviewing head coaches Jerry Pettibone of Northern Illinois, Mike Price of Weber State, Corky Nelson of North Texas and several assistants.

None clicked.

"I got to thinking, what's a program that was lousy and got fixed?" Epps wondered. He thought of Iowa, which endured 17 straight losing seasons until Hayden Fry's 1979 arrival.

Epps changed the landscape of college football by grabbing an Iowa press guide. His eyes settled on offensive coordinator Bill Snyder. "I thought, 'Gee whiz. That's somebody we might want to talk to.' "

Epps called Iowa City and told Snyder of K-State's grand aspirations. "I didn't tell him we didn't have any money."

The conversation led to an interview, then a meeting in Manhattan with the search committee. He offered a comprehensive plan and "knocked them sideways," Epps said.

Snyder took the job; only then were Epps and Miller brave enough to show him KSU's facilities.

Erick Harper hit town in 1986. He came from Denison, Texas, where his high school team won two state titles and 29 straight games. By the time he was a K-State senior, he was on a 30-game winless streak.

"It was real tough," said Harper, now KSU's director of athletic compliance. "The game starts, the opponent gets up two touchdowns, one touchdown, and you say, 'Oh, no, here it goes again.' All of a sudden, you don't know how to win."

Harper arrived with Parrish, who went 2-30-2 in three years as the KSU coach. Harper remembers those Wildcats as valiant; guys played bleeding, with busted knees and busted shoulders.

"It was heartbreaking," Harper said. "I've never been a quitter, but I almost didn't come back after my freshman year. We just didn't know how to win."

Pride in the program was gone. When it rained, the locker-room entrance flooded. The indoor practice facility was too small. The training room was putrid.

Bill Snyder replaced Parrish after Harper's junior year. "One of his first statements, I'll never forget it," Harper said. "'You guys are not bad football players. I want to give you the chance to win in the fourth quarter.'"

Snyder's first team won only once, beating North Texas State. But it played teams tough. Northern Iowa, Oklahoma State, Missouri and Kansas, all within a touchdown or so. Things had changed. B ill Snyder hit town in 1988. His new program hadn't won in 27 games and would win only once in the next 11. His first order of business?

Cleaning up.

Snyder placed signs on the football office doors: Please Wipe Feet Before Entering. A custodian works hard to keep the place clean; Snyder figures that effort should be respected.

Snyder has been known to follow muddy tracks through K-State's Vanier Complex. He wants to know who is disrespecting someone's work.

Ask 100 K-Staters why Snyder is the miracle man, and 90 will mention attention to detail. Nothing is left to chance. Nothing falls through the cracks. He's a perfectionist.

"It's oversimplified, but it's his work ethic," said KSU president Jon Wefald. "He thinks about football constantly. His determination is unquenchable.

"We don't interfere with his operation. When it comes to football, he is both captain and general."

When KSU realized a week before the game that it would face a Texas rookie quarterback in Major Applewhite, Snyder's staff scrambled and assembled high school tape of Applewhite.

When Snyder recruited current star quarterback Michael Bishop, his staff spliced together on one tape every pass Bishop threw over two years at Blinn Junior College.

When the Vanier Complex got a roof replacement, a sudden rainstorm showered Snyder's office and soaked months of work. He had been producing individual game plans for the upcoming season. It was June.

When someone set a can of Pepsi on the floor of the Vanier Complex this week, Snyder interrupted an interview to retrieve the can and place it on the table.

Do all you can to prepare for Texas. Do all you can to keep the carpet clean. Do things right, always.

"It all boils down to the same thing," said Snyder. "You lose pride in your performance, lose pride in your capacity to do things right. When that goes, discipline is right behind."

KSU president Jon Wefald hit town in 1986. A historian by trade; an administrator by experience; a dreamer by spirit.

His vision: Turn a nondescript land- grant university on the Kansas plains into one of the nation's most reputable institutions. Wefald figured if a debate team was worth having, it should be a good debate team. Same with the band. Same with the library. Same with the football team.

Then, K-State's enrollment was about 16,000. Today it's 21,000. Then, K-State was a distant second academically in the state to rival Kansas. Today it's second nationally in Rhodes scholars among public schools, trailing only North Carolina.

Since '86, 1.3 million square feet of facilities have been added to the KSU campus, and 1.1 million of those feet are non- athletic.

Wefald adopted the marching band as a pet project; it was a rag-tag outfit of some 125 in 1986. Today it's more than 300 strong and worthy of the football team it plays for.

The president calls the academic success at KSU "even more of a miracle than turning our football team around. I realize nobody's going to believe that."

Wefald grew up in Minnesota and in the '70s was that state's agricultural commissioner, so he's well-suited for no-frills Manhattan. He went to Pacific Lutheran College, where he claims to have thrown an intramural-record 33 touchdown passes, and is an unabashed supporter of athletics.

"We're here to educate future generations, not to have a good football team," Wefald said. "But sports is the tail that wags the dog.

"You can have a Nobel prize winner, a national champion debate team, the professor of the year. But people don't know it or it isn't very high on their radar screen. You lose five or six football games, it does not please the alums."

Wefald wears a Cotton Bowl watch. He chats about OU football with visitors from Oklahoma. He welcomes the press to stop by and talk about the Manhattan Miracle, even to the point of offering his parking space.

"Here's what I would say to anyone in the Big 12," Wefald said. "If we can do what we've done, there isn't anything in the world anybody can't do. We have shown you can reach for the stars. You can accomplish the impossible.

"We had nothing. No tradition, no history, no body of believers, no money to have good facilities. It took a lot of hard work, team effort and luck."

The luck came from finding Snyder, who provided the hard work. The team effort came from administrators. In the athletic department, Miller and Epps hatched a plan to give the new coach a fighting chance. Improved facilities; bigger budget.

Wefald approved the risk, which would sink the athletic department into immediate debt. In Snyder's first year, KSU spent $1.575 million for new football offices, new artificial turf, expansion of the indoor practice facility and doubling of the recruiting budget. In less than 10 years since Snyder's arrival, KSU has spent $15 million on football facilities, and $12.8 million more is planned to increase KSU Stadium's capacity from 43,000 to 50,000 before next season.

"Upgraded facilities helps with esteem and pride," said current AD Max Urick. "We don't have the best facilities; that's an unwinnable race. But we have good facilities."

Why did a president trying to turn Kansas State into the Duke of the Plains agree to open the vault for a football program that was 30 years beyond hopeless?

"You've got to put this in perspective," Wefald said. "We were the worst. We could not beat Austin Peay. To say we were in a vast state of disrepair would be an understatement."

But remember Wefald's theme; if you have a football team, have a good one. And K-State fans were ready to have a good one.

Steve Ballard owns Ballard's Sporting Goods in Aggieville, the campus strip where the color purple is sold by the truck load. Time was, Ballard once couldn't get a major company to produce K-State apparel. Now KSU ranks 18th nationally in collegiate sales and Aggieville is overrun on game days.

And bowl games are completely out of control. Snyder's first bowl was the 1993 Copper, and 15,000 hungry KSU fans invaded Tucson, Ariz. The swarm exploded for the 1997 Cotton Bowl (40,000) and 1998 Fiesta Bowl (50,000).

Said Fiesta Bowl executive director John Junker: "In the last eight to ten years, I can think of two things that have lived up to their billing. They are Kansas State football fans and Michael Jordan."

Wefald recalls a Copper Bowl rally in Tucson, when half the crowd of 4,000 had tears in their eyes. He was tapped on the shoulder last week and thanked by a couple of fans for his role in the miracle. Their eyes were tearing up.

"K-State people still pinch themselves," said Epps. "There's still an element of wonderment and mystery."

Added Wefald: "The zeal has been unprecedented. The joy they feel is contagious. People are so overwhelmed, they just can't get enough of it. It is in the realm of Biblical miracles."

Sean Snyder hit town in 1990. It wasn't the first time. In 1988, he was an Iowa punter when the Hawkeyes played at KSU Stadium.

"All I can remember is, what a dump," he said. "This place is abandoned. No one cares here."

The next thing Sean knew, his dad was taking the K-State job and soon son transferred too.

They hadn't always been together.

Bill Snyder is a workaholic. No, Bill Snyder goes beyond workaholic. He works 18-hour days. He eats one meal a day, and that around 1 a.m. because food makes him tired, and he can't afford to get tired before bedtime.

He claims golf as a hobby, but he hasn't hit the links in two or three years.

As a graduate assistant coach at Southern Cal more than 30 years ago, he visited a hypnotist to see how he could cram more hours into the day.

He demands equal commitment from his staff, including Sean, an All- American punter for KSU in 1992 and now its director of football operations.

Snyder says his work ethic came from his mother, who raised him alone on a clerk's salary in St. Joseph, Mo., where mother and son lived in a one-room apartment.

He often cut class, and he flunked 13 hours his first semester at the University of Missouri. But Snyder found his way at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., and his coaching odyssey began.

By 1973, the year Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne each turned 36 and became head coaches at big-time powers, Bill Snyder was a prep coach in Santa Ana, Calif. He turned 34 that year and was 16 seasons away from KSU.

"Bill became a head coach later in his career," said Urick. "Bill is not experimenting. He knows what works. He was well-prepared to take on any challenge."

In 1974, Snyder moved to Sherman, Texas, to become swimming coach and offensive coordinator at Austin College -- in that order. He demanded the same things from those Austin swimmers that he today demands from the nation's fourth-ranked football team. Be better today than you were yesterday. Do things right. Preparation leads to performance.

But such work commands a price. Snyder's first marriage ended in divorce more than 20 years ago; his three children from that marriage stayed in Texas with their mother when he went to Iowa in 1979. He remarried in Iowa City and has two more children.

Snyder is immensely private. His daughter Meredith is overcoming a spinal injury, and Snyder speaks proudly about her effort and courage. Yet he declined to include Meredith in the book written this year about his leadership.

He does say that the years he coached Sean at K-State "were the best coaching days of my life. I'd never seen Sean play in high school." Devane Robinson hit town in 1996. He doesn't remember the old days. He was a little kid in Midwest City when K-State was losing to Austin Peay.

All he knew was that KSU had a coach everybody said was a genius, a lights-out defense he wanted to play and a president who invited him over to the house for pizza and burgers.

"That was a big deal," Robinson said of the recruiting trip dinner at Wefald's home. "It showed they cared about us. He talked to us about what he expects from students. Study, work hard."

Aaron Lockett, a redshirt freshman from Tulsa Washington, followed his brother, Kevin, who at KSU became the leading receiver in Big Eight history.

Aaron said Kevin sold him on Snyder: "He said if you're good to him, he'll be good to you. Treat him like a father, and he'll treat you like a son. He's definitely more than a football coach."

KSU professor Susan Scott co-wrote a book last spring, Leadership Lessons from Bill Snyder. She got the idea during a high school leadership conference at which Snyder spoke. He received a standing ovation when introduced, and even more impressive, the kids quieted down and listened.

"I wasn't suspicious of coach Snyder," Scott said. "But I certainly didn't enter into this believing he was superhuman or even a hero of some sort. I am pleased to say he is for real. More real than I could ever have imagined."

She has been teaching leadership for 20 years and was surprised that Snyder had fresh ideas on the subject. Like equity. He treats equally everyone involved with his program. When Snyder got the job, walk-ons had a separate locker room. No more. And everyone from Wefald to the custodians are invited to football functions.

Snyder's players practice hard. Much is expected of them.

"That leads to success," Robinson said. "The way he makes us prepared, we know everything they're gonna do. He makes us think we can win any game."

Win any game. For almost 60 years, the opposite was true. The Wildcats thought they could and would lose any game. That's still amazing to Jack Goldstein, who lived long enough to see the Manhattan Miracle.

"There's no way you could have brought winning football to Kansas State at the level we have, unless you have geniuses like Bill Snyder and Jon Wefald," Goldstein said. "Wefald's priceless. Snyder's priceless. We've got the best in the business on those two men."

The Oklahoma State Cowboys hit town Saturday. Be prepared, Cowboys, because K-State will be. And watch where you put your Pepsi.

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