From the moment he arrived at Kansas State in February 2009, university president Kirk Schulz has taken a heavy interest in athletics — most universities’ biggest window for the public.
Football provides the biggest part of the window, and more and more people are starting to look through it thanks to K-State’s recent success. A year ago, coach Bill Snyder guided the Wildcats to a 10-win season that ended with a trip to the Cotton Bowl. This year, behind Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein, they won 11 games and the program’s first Big 12 championship since 2003.
K-State regularly played on national TV during that stretch, and Snyder Family Stadium is currently undergoing a $75 million expansion.
Schulz is proud of that exposure and success. But how has it helped the university as a whole? With K-State preparing to play Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl, he talked about football’s success, and several other topics, during an interview with The Eagle last week.
Eagle: How has Kansas State’s success on the football field helped the university?
Schulz: When I go out coast-to-coast meeting alumni, one of the first questions people ask is, ‘How are things going with K-State football and how much longer is Coach Snyder going to be our head coach?’ It doesn’t make any difference if I’m talking to corporate CEOs or what walk of life they are from, that is the biggest conversation opener, because we have been on TV so much. Especially people living outside the state of Kansas, they tend to know a bunch of other K-Staters, regardless of where they are. I think athletics has given them a point of pride this year. With the success we’ve had the last two years, people are getting used to seeing us in the polls and at the top of the conference. That has been exciting across the board, and a great conversation starter that leads into other things at the university.
Q: How important are athletics at a university?
Schulz: It depends on the institution, but at Kansas State and a lot of other land-grant institutions people have always had a little bit of a chip on their shoulder because there is another school in that state that might be a little bit more prestigious or have more money or things like that. It really helps people stay connected with the institution. I think given the struggles that Kansas State University has historically had in football definitely gives people a lot more pride. A lot of our senior alums, when I talk to them, they will say, ‘Oh, I was there for four years and we won one game.’ I think because we were so bad people take a great deal of pride now that we are so good.
Q: Have you seen any benefits in terms of donations or enrollment in the last two years that could be connected to the football team’s success?
Schulz: Everybody always feels that if you are winning at football and you are winning at basketball donations are going to be up, and if you are losing at football and basketball nobody is going to give you anything. There is actually no data to support that. We find that people tend to give regardless of whether we are winning or losing. I talked to Mark Emmert, who (is) the president of the NCAA, recently. When he was the president at Washington, the best fundraising year he ever had was the year they didn’t win a football game. Obviously fans and alumni are excited when you’re winning and doing well, but people are interested in the long-term future of the university. There isn’t really a direct correlation between success in athletics and fundraising for the institution.
In terms of enrollment, I think we certainly have more students taking a look. The University of Kansas received a bounce in their enrollment when it won its men’s basketball championship (2008). I think we have more kids, particularly out of state, that are taking a look at us than normal because football is a window into the university. They like what they see. Now, I don’t think we will see anything sustained. It will be a one-year bump with enrollment.
Q: You talk about your vision of K-State 2025 a lot. Is athletics an important part of those goals? Are there any specific areas you want to address with athletics in the next decade?
Schulz: We purposely included athletics, because it is a general part of our university and an integral part of the student experience. What we want to do is continue to invest in facilities. Under John Currie’s leadership we are going to continue to see progress. We hope to improve our Olympic sports facilities. We have talked about a rowing tank and facility; we are building tennis courts so that our tennis team can play its home matches in Manhattan. We are talking about other progress we might want to make in the next stages of the expansion to Bill Snyder Family Stadium or the field. When I look at 2025, we really want to make sure we are taking care of business in men’s and women’s basketball and football, and that we are upgrading our facilities across the board. It’s the same thing on the academic side. We are trying to build a brand-new business building, expand our engineering footprint, upgrade and refurbish the student union. What I like to do is take our donors into the basketball practice facility. They look at it and see it and say, ‘Wow, this is fantastic. This is first-rate.’ Then I say, ‘You know what, we need to have the same facilities for our business school and our engineering school and our architecture school.’ Those athletic projects are helping us to set a high bar with facilities and quality of space that we have across the campus.
Q: What is the next step for K-State’s football program? Do you have specific goals in mind on the field or with facilities?
Schulz: I think we want to continue to enhance our facilities. Our video board is certainly one of the things that if you look at with our West stadium expansion, we are going to go, ‘Boy, that really looks like it needs some work.’ But we really want to make sure that whatever we do with the video board is sustainable in the long run. We have to look at the different phases that John has talked about, kind of showing you the end zones and what the Vanier Complex will look like in the future, what are we going to do with the weight room? We want to keep enhancing our student-athlete experience for our football players. I want to continue to see them be competitive in the Big 12 and competitive nationally. One of the things I particularly like about our coaches is we just bring in young men that really represent the university incredibly well on and off the field. That is an important thing we want to continue.
Q: How do you think the stadium renovations will help maintain the momentum the program has right now?
Schulz: If you look at it in terms of people being members of the Ahearn Fund, being regular contributors to athletics, what is happening is we have some additional premium seating options for our fans. Not all of them want to sit outside. They want the club-level experience or some other things. What I think it is going to do is ensure the financial viability of our football program. If you look at the salaries of coaches, look at those kinds of things we need to make sure Kansas State remains in the top 50 athletic programs in the country. We can’t get out-paced. What the facility is going to do is show that we are serious about football and serious about big projects and that we are laying the financial foundation of athletics well into the future so we can be in a really sound position for hiring and retaining outstanding coaches and coaching staffs, giving student-athletes the type of experience we expect them to see at Kansas State. Are you going to get everything you could get at Texas at Kansas State? No, but we don’t have to have everything the same as Texas. We need to make sure our facilities are the kind that will allow them to attract the kind of student-athlete that really defines our athletic program.
Q: You mentioned that alums are regularly asking you how much longer Bill Snyder will be the coach at K-State. Knowing that he might not be the coach for the next 15 years, how do you approach that transition to a new coach?
Schulz: He’s our coach. He’s doing a great job for us. Right now, I have decided that I’m not going to worry about it. When it is time and he decides that he is done coaching we will sit down and decide on the next step. But until that time, frankly, I just have not worried about it.
Q: How much energy and passion have you seen him put into the job?
Schulz: He is still the first guy into work and the last one to leave. As the president of the university, it makes me tired just thinking about his schedule and everything he does for the football program. He has got a lot of energy and vitality. What I think is truly remarkable is seeing a person of his age continue to relate so effectively to 18-year-olds. It’s something we should all watch and try to emulate.
Q: How pleased are you with where the Big 12 ended up with so many teams switching conferences the past few years?
Schulz: I’m very pleased. Now, I’m sure you will say, ‘Kirk, I expect you to say that,’ but I think if you look at these other conferences that have continued to expand and are now struggling with scheduling and divisional rivalries they used to have being pushed aside, I still believe one of the cool things about our 10-member conference in basketball and football is everybody plays everybody. You play everyone twice in basketball. You alternate sites each year in football. When we were football champions this year, we could say we won it on the field. That is something other conferences are going to look at with envy. The key thing in my opinion is, what is the financial impact? What does each team get from its conference? People think if you have 14 or 16 teams that’s good for your conference, but if you divide it by 16, you have to split the pie a lot more ways. If we look ahead to the Sugar Bowl, putting the Big 12 champion against the SEC champion, and the new media deals we signed the money per school in a 10-member league is fantastic. We are going to be at the top of the country. I think that in itself means, why add more teams? You are already financially secure. Everyone has signed a grant of rights, so I feel very, very good about where we are with the members we have. We are all working together and the unity amongst the schools is stronger than I have ever seen. I feel really good about the future.
Q: So you don’t think a lack of a conference championship game hurts the conference?
Schulz: The thing we have to ask ourselves with a championship game is, yes, you get to play one more time. But you also have one more time before the playoff is in place that you can lose. If you have a championship game, you’ve still got another game to play. But right now the next game you have to play is a national semifinal. I think that is actually going to put our conference in an advantageous position, because that takes away a game where our guys can get hurt or lose and some teams have the advantage because they have more depth.
Q: What is the status of the Big 12’s expansion committee?
Schulz: We probably talk once every several months, just to make sure we are watching what is going on around the country. With the expansion of the Big Ten adding Rutgers and Maryland, we certainly had some conversations. We want to make sure everyone in the conference is comfortable with the membership. We are continuing to monitor the conference landscape. The Big East is still trying to figure out where they are going to go and what they are going to be. There could be some additional shifting. We will have to wait and see. It could be very interesting.
Q: So what is your stance on expansion?
Schulz: We are comfortable with 10 schools, but we are continuing to monitor the conference landscape so we can react quickly if we choose to.
Q: What are your thoughts on the upcoming college football playoff? Is four teams a good number?
Schulz: I like the setup, one of the things that I wanted to do, along with several other presidents, was shorten up the postseason a little bit. It is a lot easier for people to travel between Christmas and New Year’s just based on being off of school. The championship game has gotten pushed way out into January. I like that we are going back to playing most of the key games earlier. I think it is going to help television. I think those things are going to be very positive. I like a four-team playoff but I will say (to) people in the sports world, the most interesting thing for anyone to write about will be that fifth-place team that should have been in there. The thought that now, with a four-team playoff, all this debate will be over — I don’t think that’s fair. But I like the fact that each team will have a couple games you have to win. Sometimes teams really get hot at the end of the season and I think it is going to give teams an opportunity to go win a national championship they didn’t have before because they lost a game at the wrong time. I like our opportunities in a playoff this year. We are healthy, really focused; I would love for K-State to be in a four-team playoff. I like our chances.
Q: What was your favorite memory from this year or last year?
Schulz: Maybe it’s obvious, but winning the Big 12 having a championship trophy on the last game of the season before dropping the press box. … I mean, it’s hard to envision a more perfect scenario. We won the Big 12 and did it with 50,000 fans here in Manhattan. That was the highlight. I also enjoyed watching us manhandle Miami. I know it was early in the season, but that really showed a national audience that we have a pretty talented group of guys. The only other one that stands out in the last two years was the overtime win in Manhattan over Texas A&M. That was an exciting game to watch.
Q: You are involved with Twitter and social media. You do a good job with it. How did you get involved in that, and why do you view it as an important part of your job?
Schulz: When I was at Mississippi State and Twitter was just starting, I remember a media person at Mississippi State said, ‘Kirk, you ought to think about using this when you move to Kansas.’ I got the @kstate_pres setup on Twitter and jumped into the pool. I didn’t talk to 20 people about how to do it. The thing I like about it is it keeps me really close to our fans, students and alumni all across the country. People don’t like corporate tweeting, just a link and all that stuff, they like a little personality to it. I still get questions from people asking if I ever got my luggage from Australia. I get questions about the university, too. It keeps me engaged. It also means that people who aren’t happy with me about a tuition increase or a change of a basketball coach or any of those kind of things they have a more direct way to express their dissatisfaction. With the good comes the bad. I think that is just part of what I want to do is be open as president and that really helps with that.