To be sure, the particular Manhattan (pop. 23,000) where Kansas State University is located has an atmosphere of bucolic prairie contentment that is positively 19th century compared to that other Manhattan (pop. 1,500,000) and, admittedly, the majority of K-State's 12,000 students would agree with the campus leader who said, "Most of us here are farm kids, and we don't go off on many toots."
But the Swinging Sixties have by no means bypassed K-State. Now and then, when there is an ROTC review, 30 or 40 campus angries will picket about Vietnam. Medium miniskirts are plentiful, and it is possible to find kids who say they enjoy smoking marijuana, which grows all over the campus. And the toots they go off on at K-State? Well, they can be absolutely pseudopsychedelic.
Take the night of Sept. 23, 1967. In pink flashing arcs from state police car dome lights, 8,000 people—most of them wearing garments colored an outlandish purple—raced onto the runway of the Manhattan Municipal Airport. The crowd was howling in unison: "Purple Power. Purple Power." Most wore big white buttons stamped with a single purple word: "Pride." A plane landed and the crowd surged up to it almost before the wheels stopped rolling and yelled: "We got pride! We got pride!" Out into the sea of purple people stepped the Kansas State football team and its coach, Vince Gibson, who only beamed modestly when somebody shrieked: "Vince walks on water!"
The scene was pure electric grape.
The stimulant behind this was one that will never be isolated in a lab or sold as trip juice. All that had happened was Kansas State had beaten Colorado State University 17-7 in Fort Collins that afternoon, thereby qualifying as this year's example of new coach, new attitude, new-mood football madness—and never mind if the team never wins again.
For years K-State football has been too dim to believe. In the late '40s the team lost 28 straight, won one from Arkansas State College, lost seven, beat that well-known gridiron power Fort Hays State, lost eight, won from Baker University, then played 19 without a win. After a respectable 7-3 season in 1954, 13 years were spent compiling a 21-94-2 record—which bottomed out in 1966 in the bowels of a winless trench 21 games deep. The last coach to preside over this shambles was Doug Weaver, a scholarly gentleman who quit last year after seven humbling seasons to enroll as a student in the University of Kansas law school.
Then last winter came Vince Gibson, 33, an Alabama-born fireball shaped like a fireplug, who decided—if reluctantly—to try K-State's head coaching job after seven years of assistant coaching at Florida State and Tennessee. Gibson has a reputation for being a sound football coach. He also has the guts of a steeplejack, the shameless flamboyance of a P. T. Barnum and the pow'fulest drawl this side of Pappy Yokum. "Ah tole 'em Ah wouldn't come to Kainsas 'less they gimme the he'p Ah hadda have. Ah said, 'We gonna win, we gonna win games'—but Ah hadda have what Ah asked foah."
Among other things, Gibson asked foah an $800,000 athletic dormitory (with pool, sauna and a phone in every room) and a new stadium. The dormitory was finished in less than five months ("Man, they started diggin' befoah the blueprints were even done"). And bulldozers are already scraping ground for the long-discussed $1.6 million stadium. Gibson also renovated the locker room, which quite understandably had the aura and appearance of a dungeon after witnessing so much futility. It is now freshly painted, piped with stereo and carpeted purple wall to wall. It is also papered with signs—a basic Gibson gimmick. There are be-nasty signs ("Gang tackling is the trademark of the Wildcats"), philosophical signs ("Luck is when preparation meets opportunity") and folksy-coach signs ("Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser").
The sign Gibson likes best is just plain "Pride." He put it in foot-high letters over the practice field and he had hundreds of buttons made. "They didn't have prahd," he says. "Not the team, not kids, not alums, not anyone. How could they aftah what they had been through? Ah jes tole 'em alla time—have prahd and we gonna win some games."
Gibson saturated Kansas with the message. He wangled three weekly television shows, and he made dozens of speeches, 54 of them in one month alone.
"They'd come out in good crowds to see me talk an' Ah asked a man once in some little place in the tail end of Kansas how come so many come. He told me, 'They wanna git a look at the nut who thinks K-State evah gonna win.' "
Purple pride has blossomed all over Kansas, but it flourishes best in Manhattan, of course. Department stores there feature purple dresses in window displays. One dry cleaner began returning freshly cleaned suits with a purple-and-white handkerchief in the breast pocket. Gibson even convinced one haberdasher to risk $4,000 by ordering 20 dozen incredibly purple blazers with a KSU emblem on the pocket. Since purple sport coats are not big with most men and since it is a color notorious for fading to odd hues, the clothier had to get bolts especially dyed and cut to order. So far he has sold more than 200 blazers at $30 apiece.
In trying to eradicate the "defeatist attitude" on K-State's campus, Gibson went to more uncommon extremes. When K-State's sports publicist, Dev Nelson, prepared the team brochure, he listed one position as "weak-side line backer," a familiar enough term. Gibson censored it on the grounds that "weak" was no word for Wildcats; the position is now called "backside linebacker," a perhaps questionable improvement. Gibson also demanded a redesign of the oversized head worn by Willie Wildcat, K-State's sideline mascot. For years it had resembled a moronic Mickey Mouse; now it has fangs.
Of course, this was all so much grape juice until September 23 and the Colorado State victory. But since then the magnificent purple fog spun by Vince Gibson has hung on and on. K-State lost its next game to a good VPI team 15-3, but the Wildcats played well and there was pride aplenty. Next came Nebraska, a team ranked in the Top Ten. Incredibly, valiant underdog Kansas State held a 14-13 lead on a muddy, wind-swept field until, with just 71 seconds to play, the Nebraska kicker, who had missed twice before that day, lofted a desperate field-goal try into the wind from the 31-yard line. Gibson swears the ball was sailing a foot outside the goal posts when a gust caught it and blew it in for a 16-14 Cornhusker victory. The K-State campus was ecstatic in defeat, and the next week, against Iowa State, K-State was favored to win a game—for the first time in almost anybody's memory. Instead, the Wildcats pussyfooted to a 17-0 defeat, but that still was no reason to hang up the purple coat, even though the catty word in some faculty circles was "Pride has died."
Last Saturday in its homecoming game against Oklahoma, the new K-State spirit faced its severest test. If the Wildcats could lose to Oklahoma by just a little the season would be a success, for of all the sorry statistics in K-State football volumes, none comes close to matching the lopsided tragedy of the Oklahoma-Kansas State series.
It was as if Ethiopia went to war against Italy once a year. Before last week's game K-State had not won since 1934, the year Lynn Waldorf was the Wildcat coach, Alf Landon was still a rising Republican politician and Vince Gibson was born. There was a tie in 1936, but since then K-State had lost 30 in a row—and if those games had been played end to end the score would have been Oklahoma 1,081, Kansas State 90.
Nevertheless many K-Staters were in a water-walking mood before last Saturday's game. In the glow of a pep-rally bonfire, they listened eagerly to a cautious Vince Gibson. "Now, Ah said we gonna win some. Ah also said we gonna lose some." The crowd roared back at him, "We gonna win! We gonna win!"
In the dressing room before the kick-off Gibson had the team kneel on the purple carpeting while he prayed aloud. Then, in a hoarse whisper, he said, "Prahd can win. Let's show 'em that." The players leaped to the door with cries of "Pride, baby. Pride."
Unfortunately this was a day when pride precedeth a fall. Oklahoma has not been touted a great deal this year, even though it soundly whipped Washington State and Maryland before losing, but barely, to a good Texas team. All along, the Sooners have shown surprising strength, particularly considering the death from a heart attack last May of their popular young (38) coach, Jim Mackenzie. Assistant Coach Chuck Fairbanks took over at that difficult time, and just how well he has done was all too apparent against K-State.
K-State kicked off, and its defense, which had performed well in the first four games, looked stubborn enough to cramp Oklahoma's rugged offense. It took Oklahoma 15 plays and nearly eight minutes to score. But the Sooners never did give up the ball on that grinding drive, and even a grim K-State goal-line stand that forced Oklahoma to use four plays from the three-yard line for the touchdown proved to be no more than temporary heroism. Indeed, Fairbanks' team looked suspiciously like the legendary Sooner teams of the '50s. Quarterback Bob Warmack, a lanky junior, displayed a mastery at faking that left the K-State defense groping helplessly again and again. He passed well and ran well, too, when not giving the ball to two classy tailbacks, senior Ron Shotts and sophomore Steve Owens. Vince Gibson's kids could salvage only a scintilla of pride by putting on one 80-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter as K-State lost 46-7.
So now the 33-year Oklahoma-Kansas State total is 1,127 to 97. This may not seem a great improvement over the situation a year ago, but the thing to remember as you buy your purple blazer is that Vince Gibson has wrought some remarkable changes in a very short time. And who knows? Where there is one electric grape there just may be a bunch someday.
NOW EVEN WILLIE WILDCAT LOOKS WILD