Kansas football is at a crossroads. Ok, maybe it’s not a crossroads, maybe it’s a “Y” interchange.
As we’ve discussed on multiple posts on this fine site, the program has never been in worse shape, and that’s saying something when you consider the late 1980s. KU is currently in the worst three-year stretch in school history.
1940-42: 7-21 (0.250)
1924-26: 6-16-2 (0.250)
1977-79: 7-25-1 (0.212)
1953-55: 5-24-1 (0.172)
2010-12: 6-30 (0.167)
1986-88: 5-26-1 (0.156)
2015-17: 3-33 (0.083)
Sheahon Zenger is gone and David Beaty is likely right behind him (and hopefully Matt Baty as well). Since KU cannot go the way of Wichita State football and just quit - the TV money that football brings in as part of the Big 12 is just too great - they’ve got a choice. Do we get better, or do we stay awful?
I’ve reached out to our, um, friends, at Bring on the Cats and asked Jon Morse some questions comparing and contrasting 1988 K-State and 2018 KU.
Jon, let’s just start at the beginning. SI released the now infamous article “Futility U” prior to the 1989 season. A lot of things in that article sound familiar to present day KU fans - sagging attendance, limited donations, low student interest, and a pile of losses on the field. For comparison’s sake to the numbers above, KSU was coming off a three year stretch of 2-30-1 (0.061) under Stan Parrish. How bad was it, REALLY?
JM: It was bad. You reference the SI article; the statements that eliminating football was under consideration are accurate, and there was a very real chance K-State was on the verge of returning to the Missouri Valley. That probably would have meant the 20-year basketball desert walk wouldn’t have happened, but that would have been a poor recompense for losing football.
Apparently nobody knew much of anything about Bill Snyder when he got to Manhattan. On paper, year 1 (1989) of Bill Snyder looked like more of the same, with just one win (North Texas), losses to Northern Iowa and Northern Illinois, and blowouts by the usual suspects in Nebraska, Colorado, and Oklahoma. What was the feeling headed into year 2 (1990)? Was there anything in year 1 that made you think it would get better?
JM: I don’t recall a great deal of optimism heading into 1990, although there was a definite impression that the team was slowly getting better. But it really wasn’t until the Cats got into the 1990 season and actually started winning some games that people started feeling like there was a real change in the air. Of course, when your team goes 5-6 and it’s only the second time since 1973 they’ve even performed that well, people are going to get excited.
In year 2 (1990), K-State put up 5 wins and came oh-so-close in two other games. How did that happen? Was Snyder doing something differently from the rest of the conference that differentiated the Wildcats, i.e., some kind of offensive innovation, or was it simply a matter of coaching, or was it even more abstract concepts like toughness, pride, etc?
JM: It sort of gets lost in the shuffle with people talking about Snyder building the program and being a “build boys into men” guy, but he was a pretty crafty innovator too. He didn’t invent the spread, but he did play a big part in refining it and developing a lot of the concepts that went into it.
But he also recruited well early; the overall talent on that 1990 team was better than K-State had put on the field since the Vince Gibson days (1967-74). And of course, there was the whole culture thing. Talk to guys who were already around when Snyder arrived and they’ll tell you how he made them believe they could actually win.
In year 3 (1991) K-State won seven times and was competitive in every game save one (at #4 Washington). Now you know you’ve got something going, right?
JM: 1991 was the real sea change. Bear in mind that whereas 1990 had been the best season save one in the lifetimes of the freshmen on that team, 1991 was K-State’s best season since 1954. That they accomplished that in year three of the Snyder era is honestly sort of absurd.
Yeah. We knew something was happening then.
Did K-State get lucky in the sense that Bill Snyder didn’t have his eye on a “bigger job” somewhere else? No doubt he could have left after the 1991 season, or for sure the 1993 season, right?
JM: Yeah, 1991 was when the annual panic started setting in. His name was all over the place that winter. After the small backslide in 1992, it sort of eased off until 1995 or so, but I don’t think most K-State fans were really convinced he wasn’t going anywhere until he stuck around after the 1998 season.
Ok, bear with me here, two-part question: Part 1, were any improvements done to the K-State’s stadium prior to the 1989 or 1990 seasons (or at any time during the 1980s)?
JM: In 1988, the south end of the stadium was enclosed -- as a side effect of the construction of Bramlage Coliseum rather than any intentional effort to improve the football stadium. Other than that, certainly nothing major was happening. The donor money just wasn’t there, and one of the biggest issues K-State faced back then was that the school itself wasn’t concerned enough with such frippery to fund it internally.
They spent the money to keep what was there in good repair, but there were no projects to improve the facility. (To be fair, this was also true of a lot of other schools -- both good and bad -- as well. The stadium race really didn’t start until the middle of the decade.)
Part 2, obviously the money involved in college athletics is much different now than it was 30 years ago, and KU even has some decent facilities despite the looks of the Memorial Stadium. Correct me if I’m wrong, but most schools, K-State included, win football games first and then improve the facilities, right? (Do you see where I’m going with this?) Can you take us through some of the major improvements to the stadium over the years?
JM: Absolutely. The first major renovations were simply on the field itself; the turf was in pretty sorry shape when Snyder arrived, and the Wagners ponied up the cash to replace it in 1991. In 1993, they added the big press box and suites on the west side (which were basically replaced with the 2013 renovations). They added the upper deck on the east side in 1998, new turf again in 2003, and a new locker room complex (another component which has already been overhauled again) in 2006. Finally, there was the West Stadium project in 2013 I referenced, and the new locker rooms in 2015, and the enclosure of the north end zone last year.
You may notice something about some of those dates, though. The first bowl game followed the first turf replacement. The BCS title game near-miss in 1998 followed the upper deck addition, although that itself was very much spurred on by the Fiesta Bowl appearance the year before. The next Fiesta Bowl trip followed the second turf replacement.
That said, those projects wouldn’t have happened without tangible progress being made and a concrete sense of hope.
Tomorrow, we’ll dive a little bit deeper into Bill Snyder’s methods, some of the changes in college football in general that contributed to K-State’s rise, and what could be next for KU.