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Wildcats who struggled through awful years appreciate today’s success

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, at 12:02 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, August 25, 2013, at 9:02 a.m.

— If you’re a Kansas State fan under the age of 20, one of the things your parents should have done long ago is sit you down and explain where this K-State football program came from.

What it used to be before the man under the wizard’s hat, Bill Snyder.

From 1940 through 1988, under 13 coaches who probably all lost their hair while at K-State, the Wildcats were 129-372-11. In conference play – from the Big Six to the Big Eight – the Wildcats were 57-252-5.

That horrible stretch included eight winless seasons, nine with one win, 10 with two victories and 10 more with three.

From 1940 through 1952, K-State was 16-102-6. From 1955 through 1967, a 24-103-3 record. And from 1983 through 1988, the years directly preceding Snyder, K-State was 9-55-2.

Whenever there was a perceived uptick in the football program, it was always a false alarm.

There were good players in those terrible years, just not enough of them. Coaches with solid reputations were helpless to create a turnaround. K-State was stuck in a round-a-bout.

One of the worst teams was in 1965: 0-10 and 43 points all season. One player, wide receiver Rick Balducci, said he never experienced losing a football game at Christian Brothers High School near St. Louis.

“And I almost never played in a winning game at K-State,’’ said Balducci, a restaurant owner who lives near St. Louis. “We won against Colorado State my senior year (1967) and that was the only win.’’

Dan Lankas was a tremendous linebacker on some of the worst teams to play college football. He went on to become a successful high school coach in Kansas and still lives in his hometown of Atwood. Some of Lankas’ former K-State teammates still marvel at what a good player he was from 1965-67.

But Lankas measured himself in wins and losses. And as the losses mounted, so did his frustration.

“We won one and tied one my three years there,’’ he said. “I hate to say it, but I always thought about how fun it would have been to play on a winning team. But I still enjoyed K-State and I learned an awful lot.’’

Nobody in the K-State administration seemed to take football all that seriously back in the bad old days. Facilities were rotten and the stadium was small. Recruiting budgets were slim and hope was fleeting.

But in 1953, Bill Meek guided K-State to a 6-3-1 record. The Cats were 4-2 in the Big Seven, just one year after finishing 1-9 and 0-6. In 1954, K-State was 7-3 and 3-3. Something seemed to be happening. Finally, something good.

But Meek left Manhattan for Houston, where he coached the Cougars for two seasons before moving on to SMU, where he struggled. Bus Mertes replaced Meek at K-State and endured five long years before another change was made, this time to Doug Weaver.

The 38-year-old Weaver had been an assistant coach at Missouri, and before that at Michigan State, where he was a standout center during his playing days. Though undersized, the book on Weaver as a player was that he was tough and feisty and able to handle bigger defenders because of sheer determination.

Weaver was zooming up the coaching ranks as he arrived in Manhattan in 1960. He left after seven seasons, with a record of 8-60-1. He and his team endured losing streaks of 10, 18 and 17 games, the last broken unceremoniously in a 3-3 tie against Kansas in 1966, a game that typified the state of both programs.

Those who have spoken to Weaver in the years since his time at K-State comment about what a warm man he is. But there is one thing he won’t talk about – his years at K-State.

“I thought he was a great coach,’’ Balducci said of Weaver. “He was extremely smart, really an intellectual. He was an English major and he had a real gift for the language. And all of the players respected him, even though it seemed like the people in the athletic department were always wanting to get rid of him. He just went into a situation at K-State where he didn’t have the backing he needed.’’

After Weaver’s unceremonious departure, Vince Gibson provided a spark. The dynamic coach came to Manhattan after two seasons as defensive coordinator at Tennessee and he was adamant about improving facilities and support. Gibson’s teams were much more talented than those of previous years and there was significant improvement.

But it went only so far.

K-State was 6-5 in Gibson’s third season. But it was the coach’s only winning season and he ultimately became frustrated and departed for Louisville after the 1974 season. And the Wildcats went right back into the tank under Ellis Rainsberger before Jim Dickey provided a little more hope that was short-lived.

It was that way for decades around K-State football. Hope was like a rabbit sticking its head out of a hole; it quickly retreated.

“I would say the losing while I was there beat us down,’’ Lankas said. “I know a lot of players who couldn’t wait for a season to be over. I was always a motivated kind of player and I did my best to get the other players motivated.’’

But as Lankas and so many others around the program learned, motivation and losing don’t go hand in hand.

Rod Nicholson was an All-State player at Maize who said he turned down offers, including one from Oklahoma, to play football at K-State in the mid-1960s because he wanted to study engineering. He still has four season tickets to K-State games and is in Arizona for the Fiesta Bowl.

“I think back to my time as a player and what we could have achieved if we had had the money and the facilities to match what others were doing,’’ said Nicholson, who lives in Newton. “Our coaches were good coaches, but we didn’t have very many of them. There were only three or four.’’

Losing hurt.

But those who suffered through the difficult times as players might appreciate Snyder and K-State’s accomplishments over the past 24 years the most.

“He’s a miracle worker,’’ Balducci said. “Plain and simple. I have a friend who is a season-ticket holder and he often says that if you listen to Snyder and his interviews, you’d wonder how in the world he motivates these young men to do what they do. Apparently, the guy is a football genius.’’

Balducci says he still bleeds purple and that he’s proud to be a former K-State football player, even with the heavy baggage of defeats.

“We were always in survival mode there,’’ he said. “I remember hanging up my cleats after my final game there and how me and the other seniors were proud that we had stuck it out. We got through it and we didn’t quit.’’

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