Publish date:

The Power Of Positive Thinking

A charismatic coach and a savvy school president joined forces to resurrect Kansas State

We've made football larger than life. The hold of football on the American mind is nothing short of monumental. It should be simply a diversion for students to take their minds off studies. That's all it should be. After all, we are trying to produce people who can change the world, think critically, solve problems. But increasingly, the football tail wags the academic dog, and it's almost unconscionable."
President, Kansas State

So, is what we have here yet another high-minded, ivory-tower, head-in-the-clouds academician who doesn't know a safety blitz from a safety latch? Well, yes. But Jon Wefald also is a realist, which is why he is clutching football to his chest, not out of passion but out of necessity.

"When I came here in 1986," says Wefald, "this university was in free-fall. It had gone from 19,500 students in 1980 to 17,500." What Wefald discovered sometime during his first 15 minutes on the job as president is that Kansas State's football record—which at the time was 296-468-41 over 90 years, by far the alltime worst among the 106 Division I-A football teams—was contributing to the institution's decline in enrollment. Indeed, says provost James Coffman, "the perception that football was in disarray created the assumption that the university was in disarray."

What was happening was that ineptitude on the gridiron was clouding the future of a major university. Now, only six autumns later, a miracle is occurring in Manhattan. This football program has—long drum roll, please—gotten downright acceptable. Last season the Wildcats were 7-4, and this year they may well get invited to a bowl.

The renaissance began with the hiring in November 1989 of a little-known Iowa assistant, Bill Snyder, as the coach. Snyder got the job mostly because nobody of stature would even consider taking it. Snyder inherited a streak in which the Wildcats had gone 0-26-1. The first thing he did was meet with the 25 players who had used up their final year of college eligibility. "They were so tamped down by losing," says Snyder. "I was very concerned that if we didn't do something quickly, all the players would leave here damaged. They had been humiliated so much for such an extended period of their lives that they had become reclusive."

The year before Snyder took over, the Wildcats finished 0-11, which focused attention on how truly untalented they were and, generally speaking, always had been (SI, Sept. 4, 1989). In their first season under Snyder they went 1-10. But in '90 Kansas State wound up 5-6, and last year's astonishing record was the best for a Wildcat team in 37 years. This is the most impressive reversal of fortune for any football team in the land.

Says tight end Russ Campbell, who graduated in May, "When I came here, it was an impossible situation and a terrible tradition. There was low attendance and no facilities and nobody cared. But I came here because I wanted to be a part of the biggest turnaround in college football history. Wasn't that an outrageous thing to think? What happened is Coach Snyder walked by faith and not by sight."

Before Missouri was to play Kansas State last fall, Tiger coach Bob Stull, a little sick of all the hype surrounding the Wildcats, said, "We'll find out how much improvement they've made when we play them." Kansas State won 32-0.

And as the football team has improved, so has the rest of the university. It is a symbiotic relationship. Enrollment last spring was 19,775. Since Wefald became president, five Kansas State students have been awarded Rhodes scholarships. Rival Kansas, which has about 5,000 more students, has had none over the same span. Indeed, only five schools in the country have produced more Rhodes Scholars since '86. In addition, Kansas State was one of only three schools to have four finalists (including one winner) for the prestigious Truman scholarships last year and ranks first in the nation since '86 in producing winners, with 10. Kansas State has had 11 Goldwater scholars, second best in the country among public universities. The debate team won the national championship last year, beating UCLA for the title. Says Rich McCollum, a member of the debate team, "We want to be at a place that's fun. Winning football games makes things fun." All this success has spirits soaring.

How the football program has been turned around is a study in the harsh realities of big-time college sports. For openers, football usually doesn't get turned around if the president doesn't care. Wefald is the first Kansas State president since Milton Eisenhower, who was in charge from 1943 to '50, to care about football—or, to be more precise, to understand the enormous role that the sport plays in the public perception of a university. Invariably when the boss turns his attention to something, the trickle-down is similarly positive. Peter Nichols, dean of the college of arts and sciences, says that alumni "have a great love for this institution. Some of it is academic; a great deal is athletics. Everything seems easier when the football team has won the game."

Remarkably, says provost Coffman, there seems to be "damn near no antagonism" from the faculty concerning football. That's because almost everyone appears to understand that football is important—nearly as important as the new $27 million library, the new $5 million art center and the five-year fund-raising drive, dubbed Essential Edge, which began in 1989 and hit its target of $125 million in two years. Football is not superior to the other pursuits of the university, and these pursuits aren't superior to football. There's a lesson there for reasonable people. Says Wefald, "It was good timing to start Essential Edge just as our football program began to win some games."

So with improvement in football having been blessed—yea, decreed—by Wefald, Snyder issued his first order three years ago: We have to spend our brains out. In Kansas, with a population of less than 2.5 million, that's a problem. But Snyder isn't into problems, he's into solutions. Essential Edge provided $4.5 million in new funds for the football program, and $2 million has been spent to upgrade the team building, which houses most football activities, including the locker rooms and the weight room. An additional $2 million is being spent on a new indoor practice facility, and $3 million is going for a new press box and luxury boxes at the 42,000-seat stadium.

Snyder has had salaries for his assistant coaches raised to about $60,000 a year. (Full professors on campus make $45,000 to $65,000.) Oh, and luck counts, too. The stadium was badly in need of new artificial turf, and as university officials fretted about where the money would come from, Dave Wagner, of Dodge City and the class of '69, won the $35 million Kansas Lotto America in 1990. He donated $796,000 to his alma mater, the full cost for a new rug. The total cost, so far, for happier Saturday afternoons in Manhattan: more than $8 million.

The only part of the football program that has not been improved is Snyder's office. The walls have holes. The indoor-outdoor carpeting is thin from wear. Too many big bodies have ruined the chairs, which were pretty cheap in the first place. Snyder still uses the desk that former coach Vince Gibson bought in 1967. But Snyder, a sly fox, wants to underscore his priorities—i.e., everything will be done for the players first, then for boosters and the press, then for his staff and lastly for the boss.

Next, Snyder is willing his team to be better. He refuses to allow excuses, throws positives at everything and bristles at talk of the past. Snyder's 13 victories are the most for a Wildcat coach in his first three seasons since Charles Bachman was coaching the Wildcats in the early 1920s. "When I came," says Snyder, "I never promised anything would happen. I said things can happen."

And they have. In Snyder's first game as coach, Arizona State mangled the Wildcats 31-0. Afterward Snyder told his players, "The most important thing is how badly we are pained by this defeat. If you aren't pained, it would show it didn't mean enough."

These days Snyder admits he didn't really know how bad his players felt—but it was the only thing he could think of to turn a disaster into a positive experience. The next week the Wildcats lost 10-8 to Northern Iowa, a Division I-AA team. That's when Snyder knew that future opponents like Florida and Ohio State had to come off the schedule, and that the likes of Idaho State and Montana had to come on it. "Look, we got beat by Northern Iowa, so don't tell me we need to play Notre Dame," said Snyder.

Seldom does a coach win by sheer force of personality. Snyder does. Guys like Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes and Bear Bryant were all helped by their dominating personalities, but they were helped even more by superb players. Snyder is not blessed with the latter.

Snyder understands that while people won't always live up to expectations, they will always live down to them. So he expects to win the Big Eight, the national title and have every player drafted by an NFL team. When he first arrived at K-State, Snyder was so mortified that the only football trophy in the Wildcat trophy case said INDEPENDENCE BOWL RUNNER-UP that he gave it to his secretary, Joan Friederich, to hide in her home.

In truth, beyond ordaining victory, Snyder does nothing that every other quality coach doesn't do. He talks about hard work, commitment, fundamentals, goals, character, speed, size, strength. His most significant work has been on his players' minds. Says junior center Quentin Neujahr, "What happened is that suddenly we realized we were capable of winning. And the main thing is that the giving up is over at Kansas State." Good, because for many years that was the main category that the Wildcats led the league in.

Just as the university supports football—Wefald, for example, has all recruits come to his house for brunch on a number of winter weekends—Snyder gives back to the university. He has been to two year-end banquets for the band and has sent 70 handwritten notes to music award winners. When Jean Sonnenfield won a Truman scholarship, she received a congratulatory letter from Snyder. He sends a quarterly newsletter about the team to the faculty during the season. Donald Mrozek, chairman of the history department, says that it is important to understand "the role of sport as social glue."

And Kansas State is sticking together, for the greater good of all. Says Jack Flouer, chairman of the music department, "What we have done is put together something in which the whole is greater than the parts."

That had better be the case this fall, because the Wildcats will have new starters at all six offensive skill positions, and star running back Eric Gallon is recovering from knee surgery. Says Joe Boone, a linebacker who has completed his eligibility, "Last year wasn't a fluke, and we're just scratchin' the surface."

It looks as if he just might be right.



Leon Edwards (opposite) left Grambling to savor hot times on the plains.



The players' despair was matched by an apparent lack of fan interest.



Snyder has attracted solid (performers like Gallon, who is recovering from a knee injury.



[See caption above.]