MANHATTAN — It was a great year for Kansas State athletics, maybe the best.
It was also a special year for John Currie, undoubtedly the most satisfying of his career.
The Wildcats won Big 12 championships in football, men’s basketball and baseball. Collin Klein was a Heisman Trophy finalist. Erik Kynard finished a magical amateur high-jumping career. And the university broke ground on nearly $100 million in facility enhancements.
Currie gave victory speeches every step of the way. K-State fans cheered. Together, they have never had more to celebrate.
“Everyone I meet with is very excited and proud,” Currie said. “They should be proud. We accomplished something at K-State that hasn’t happened very often, only once before in the Big 12 and three times nationally in a BCS conference.”
Of course, K-State fans and Currie haven’t always been on such friendly terms. In many ways, the Wildcats’ recent accomplishments couldn’t have come at a better time for the fourth-year athletic director.
Last year, he came under fire following the departure of former basketball coach Frank Martin. When the popular coach left to take what was viewed as a less-prestigious job at South Carolina, most blamed Currie. Some called for his dismissal.
The negative blowback was so strong that K-State president Kirk Schulz showed Currie a public sign of support at a news conference explaining the school’s next move.
K-State held another news conference the following week to introduce Bruce Weber, but the hiring was met with mixed reviews. A small group was so displeased that they gathered at Bramlage Coliseum and carried homemade signs that read “Fire Currie.”
His approval rating was at an all-time low.
Nearly a year later, Weber won Big 12 Coach of the Year after guiding K-State to a share of its first conference title since 1977. Suddenly, Currie’s choice seemed logical and his stock was on the rise.
Still, it was a difficult transition.
“I don’t think there is anybody who doesn’t want to be liked,” Currie said. “But at the end of the day I am focused on the fundamentals of our program, our vision of being a model intercollegiate athletics program and our five core goals.
“Sometimes there are going to be decisions we have to make that can’t be explained publicly because of personal privacy laws or are hard to understand. I understand that sometimes I am going to make decisions people aren’t going to agree with. If they were easy decisions, you wouldn’t need someone to make them. Easy decisions aren’t really decisions, are they?
“Criticism is just part of the job. The AD is not celebrated. The AD is tolerated.”
A special leader
Tolerance is obvious during Catbacker events. While football coach Bill Snyder and his players receive wild applause, Currie is met with golf claps. Even after K-State’s remarkable year, Currie detractors remain on social media.
Their numbers, though, have dissipated. It’s impossible to downplay what K-State has accomplished under his guidance.
The athletic department is coming off an academic year in which it experienced across-the-board success, matching Texas as the only Big 12 school to win conference championships in football, men’s basketball and baseball. Brad Hill, Snyder and Weber all won Big 12 Coach of the Year honors. Under Armour named Currie an Athletic Director of the Year.
The basketball team has a new training facility, the rowing team is getting a new building and the football stadium will debut a $75 million renovation that will transform its west side and create a new gameday atmosphere this season.
Those cold, hard results suggest Currie is one of the top athletic directors in the Big 12, if not the nation.
“It takes a special leader to get all of that done,” said K-State booster Rand Berney, who, along with his wife Patti, donated $5 million for the basketball training facility and also contributed to the football stadium’s renovation. “People are willing to give, but they want to make sure they are giving to a purpose.
“John can clearly translate his vision and show how you can help make the athletic department a better place, even when you are looking at something simple like a piece of dirt. Here is how we can recruit better players, recruit better coaches and win more games. He acts with transparency and is accountable. He wants to win, but win or lose he wants to do things the right way. It’s easy to put money behind someone like that.”
Before the Berneys supplied the lead gift in K-State’s facilities push, Currie took them to the unused space where K-State’s basketball training facility would stand. Currie described what it could become with artist renderings and examples of how a new structure could help the university.
He also told them if they acted quickly and gave generously, they would see immediate results.
“Within two years of when we stood there looking at nothing, it is done and being used,” Berney said. “It is pretty amazing. It’s the same thing with the football stadium. The old stadium was still there last year. Now it is new. We were able to get in there fast and get things done. We now have premier facilities. It’s nice to be on the front edge and have the very best of things.”
Berney is convinced the new training facility played a key role in K-State’s basketball success last season. The men’s and women’s teams benefited from an all-access practice area, and coaches used it as a recruiting tool.
Years like this will only help convince Berney and others to contribute in the future.
“Maybe we will never do again what we did this year with all the championships,” Berney said. “But I know what will be repeated: the fan support, the leadership, the coaching, the players working their tails off for success. That is all established. That’s what makes me proud to be associated with Kansas State.”
Ask Currie for the secret to K-State’s success, and he will not point to himself.
Instead, he praises Schulz, his staff and K-State’s coaches and student-athletes. He offered support, they did the heavy lifting.
“All three teams had great leadership from their seniors and their veteran players,” Currie said. “That’s the common denominator. They were also led by incredible coaches who have won championships before. The experience of those coaches in high-level games when the pressure is on is something that served those teams very well.
“They are the ones that manage their budgets exceptionally well, and they are the ones who understand they can’t have everything they want in one sport, because we have a team atmosphere with all the sports. They want every sport to succeed.”
Currie helps fuel that camaraderie by holding all-staff meetings and gets to know student-athletes at a personal level.
Hill told him the baseball team needed a new artificial field in order to play more home games in early spring. Currie delivered a $950,000 playing surface, the Wildcats canceled fewer games and went on to host an NCAA regional and play in their first super regional.
Currie also welcomes input from student-athletes. Many football players say they regularly talk with their athletic director. Some send him text messages.
That familiarity helps promote a family atmosphere, with players from one team supporting those from others.
“We are a true family,” said junior center B.J. Finney. “The titles add bragging rights, but around here we are as proud after we win championships as we are before. It’s cool that we were able to do that this year, but we have always been proud of our family.”
No one is prouder of K-State’s accomplishments than Currie. He joyfully refers to Manhattan as “Title Town” and the past 12 months as “The Year of the Wildcat.”
Still, he doesn’t seem interested in self-promotion.
“I can guarantee you that Bill Snyder and Bruce Weber and Brad Hill are not sitting around, puffing out their chests,” Currie said. “They are working their tails off, recruiting, organizing, planning, you name it. Internally we are pretty doggone focused on finishing out the year and are well under way in the planning stages of next year.”
In other words, he is ready for an encore. He is looking forward to unveiling the new look of Snyder Family Stadium. He is optimistic about the future of K-State basketball and baseball.
“People ask, ‘How do you maintain this success when you are sitting a little bit higher in the saddle?’” Currie said. “You can’t plan this year. You can’t say we are going to win these three championships. What we can plan for is continuing to operate with the same level of urgency, continuing to be disciplined and remembering our fundamentals.
“Coach Snyder talks about getting better every single day. We have to continue having a sense of urgency. Operating with a sense of urgency is what got us here. We are on our way. So far, I think we are grinding even harder than we did last summer. We’ve done a lot, but we have a lot more to do.”
When Currie came to K-State from Tennessee, some thought he viewed it as a stepping-stone job, a place where he could experience success and jump to a larger school, maybe back to the SEC.
Today, he describes Manhattan as “a great place to live” and calls K-State a “destination job.” He says he could retire here.
After a year like this, why not?