MANHATTAN — Before Mike Clark applied to become Kansas State’s baseball coach in 1987, he asked two close friends for permission to list them as references.
One was a scout with the Cincinnati Reds. The other worked for the Kansas City Royals. With their help, Clark was confident he could convince K-State officials to take a chance on an up-and-coming coach from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M Community College.
His friends agreed, but they also issued a warning.
“They both told me, ‘Don’t do it,’ ” Clark says now. “I had things rolling where I was. They said, ‘They are going to drop the program. You’re better off where you are now. Don’t take a chance on this job.’ ”
Clark ignored them, accepting the position weeks later and winning a program-record 435 games before stepping down in 2003. Still, Clark admits there was wisdom in the warnings.
K-State was a perennial loser back then, paying its coach $22,000 a year – $4,000 less than Clark was making at the junior-college level – and the job came with a second title: baseball coach/football parking lot supervisor.
He was allowed to hire one assistant with a salary of $12,000 and had a recruiting budget of $2,000. His office was located inside a trailer, his players didn’t have a locker room and the stadium was homemade bleachers and portable toilets surrounding a baseball field.
“Our budget was horrible,” Clark says. “When we went out recruiting, we slept at truck stops. People always laughed when they’d ask where our recruiting base was. It was wherever we had relatives or friends and we had a place to say. That’s what we had to do.”
Clark probably was better off as a junior-college coach in Oklahoma, but the Wildcats offered something his old job never could. At K-State, he saw the potential for greatness.
Even though the program was on life support, he envisioned the winning culture that exists today.
“Everything was there to have a great facility and a great program,” Clark says. “Maybe I was naïve, but I never thought they were going to cut the program. When you are young, you aim high and I could see Kansas State winning conference championships and playing in regionals. We almost won the Big Eight with what we had. We just had to get certain things in line before we could compete at a national level.”
The Wildcats are now doing exactly that, preparing to host their first NCAA regional two weeks after winning their first Big 12 championship. Under Brad Hill, in his 10th season following Clark, they have become one of the nation’s top hitting teams and are making their fourth NCAA Tournament appearance in five years.
That success eluded Clark. Though he coached teams that won 34 games and finished second in the conference standings, he never led the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament. But he did help lay the foundation for the program’s current achievements by helping raise funds to expand Tointon Family Stadium, increase coaching salaries and keep the team alive when it was an afterthought.
In other words, he started the turnaround.
“He is the one who had to battle,” Hill says. “He is the one who didn’t have a stadium. He is the one who didn’t have funding. He is the one who was putting up fences and bleachers and Porta Pottys around the stadium. That is a chore and that is a battle, particularly against the people they were having to play against.
“I was at Kansas (as an assistant) when he was here, and obviously we had much more at Kansas than they had here. But he kept this thing going and he persevered. He saw the stadium being built. We are just fortunate he did.”
Clark fights back tears when he hears those words.
He is proud of what he accomplished and now serves as senior director for development with K-State’s Ahearn Fund. But he is quick to deflect praise throughout the athletic department.
He credits former athletic director Tim Weiser for hiring Hill. He credits Hill for taking the program to new heights. He credits football coach Bill Snyder for boosting the school’s reputation. He credits athletic director John Currie for improving facilities. And, most of all, he credits the baseball players who have won 41 games this season.
Still, their success brings back memories of how different times were for Clark. He remembers one athletic director telling him it didn’t matter if the baseball team won or lost. Finishing the year under budget was more important. The worst tongue-lashing he ever received came after an expensive water bill.
Things started to improve when Snyder turned around the football program. The athletic department’s budget increased, and Clark was given more freedom.
The true turning point might have come when K-State secured the funding for its latest expansion. Ironically, that also led to a low point for Clark. While the stadium was being built in 1999, the team went an entire season without playing at home. The Wildcats hosted games in Salina, Hutchinson, Wichita and St. Joseph, Mo., in addition to a full slate of road games.
Clark was pleased with that team’s 26-29 record. But the experience was so tiring he came close to quitting.
“The stadium was our first major step toward competing at a national level, but there was no timetable,” Clark says. “We were a long way from even thinking about a regional, hosting a regional or anything like that. Back in ’99, we were just trying to survive. That was unimaginable for our players.”
You can guess what Clark’s emotions were this season. Ten years after retiring from the job his friends warned him about, he watched K-State win a conference championship and Tointon Family Stadium get selected to host a NCAA regional.
His vision became reality.
“It’s a memory I will take with me to heaven,” Clark says. “We were doing it for this. We were doing it for somewhere in the future when this team is playing in the College World Series. It will happen. It is difficult, and it is tough, but when you start hosting regionals you can start thinking about that.
“The program we have now is the program I dreamed about when I was hired.”