Bob Lutz: Shocker football's inglorious final days
11/25/2011 12:00 AM
11/25/2011 6:39 AM
David Smith scored Wichita State's final touchdown. It was on a nine-yard run with 3:09 remaining in the first quarter at Arizona State on Nov. 15, 1986, and it pulled WSU to within 7-6 of the then-unbeaten Sun Devils.
Kicker Brad Fleeman's PAT was wide.
And that, folks, was the end. None of the Shockers — players or coaches — knew it at the time. But Wichita State hasn't scored a point since and there's no indication any points will be coming soon.
The Shockers went on to lose to Arizona State, which a few weeks later would beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl, by a score of 52-6. It was an ugly way to end an ugly 3-8 season that included a 59-3 loss at Florida State and a 36-35 home defeat at the hands of Morehead State, a game which the Shockers led 35-3.
Just 17 days after the Arizona State loss, Wichita State president Warren Armstrong and athletic director Lew Perkins grimly announced the football program was being shut down. The financial strain and the apathy of Shocker fans were finally too much to overcome, they said. And just like that, it was over.
That was 25 years ago. And there is still no Shocker football in Cessna Stadium, a facility that still stands but has no companion.
The punch in the gut knocked the wind out of all the WSU players. Those with eligibility remaining were sent scrambling to other universities to continue their football careers.
Wichita State coach Ron Chismar, three years into a rebuilding program but without much rebuilding to show, went to Rice to be an assistant.
To this day, many associated with that team will tell you, adamantly, that the program was on the right track. That Chismar, a proven coach, was improving the team. That the WSU administration should have never, ever, dropped football.
Just a year previously, Barbara Wiedenkeller, in honor of her late husband, Don, made a sizable financial contribution to the program, allowing WSU to renovate the team's locker room.
Their son, Kurt, from Shawnee Mission South in Overland Park, was a sophomore linebacker on the 1986 squad.
You can imagine his reaction to football being dropped.
"We had a ceremony before one of the home games that season,'' said Wiedenkeller, who works as a strategic sourcing manager for Cargill in Wichita. "They presented my mother with a plaque and took a picture with myself, my mother and Lew Perkins. I was definitely upset when the program was dropped and on several levels, not just that we had the locker room.''
Wiedenkeller wasn't on the trip to Tempe for the Arizona State game; he was injured. But when the team returned to Wichita there was no hint that the end was near. The Shockers did what all teams do at the end of the season — they checked in uniforms and equipment and started to prepare for the 1987 season.
The coaching staff hit the recruiting trail. They had no idea they were wooing players to come to what would soon be a college football wasteland.
Mike Chismar, Ron's oldest son, was Arizona State's equipment manager at the time of the WSU-ASU game. Ron Chismar had coached at ASU from 1980-83 before taking the Wichita State job in 1984.
It was a strange situation for Mike, who is now in his 32nd year at Arizona State, where he is a senior associate athletic director.
"Although I wasn't participating as a player or a coach, it was interesting to line up across the field from my father,'' Mike said. "He was out there lining up against the Pac-10 champions and trying to win a game.''
It wasn't close. Arizona State led 24-6 at halftime, then put the game away with a three-touchdown barrage in the third quarter, pleasing a crowed of 65,333 on a mild night in the desert.
After some time at Rice, Ron Chismar coached at Temple and at Fort Scott Community College before retiring. He died in 1998. He felt unfulfilled from his experience at Wichita State, Mike said.
"My dad went to Wichita with the idea of building a strong foundation,'' he said. "One that was going to stand for a long time. He was building it the right way and in three short seasons it was gone.''
Some would argue that eight wins in three seasons wasn't anything close to a foundation. Others would say Chismar didn't get enough time, that the WSU administration was too impatient and that the Shockers were on the verge of turning a corner.
In fairness, there is little from the 1986 season to indicate that was true.
The Shockers' three wins were against San Francisco State, Tulane and Central Florida, the latter two by a total of four points. Three of five home games produced crowds of fewer than 10,000 in a 31,000-seat stadium and the final home game, against Illinois State, was seen by 4,233.
Apathy had set in.
"That was my father's first head coaching job in college,'' Mike Chismar said. "He gave it everything and we were just upset that he couldn't finish the job. We knew, given the right amount of time, that he could take them where they needed to be.''
Three games into the 1986 season, Wichita State running back Valasco Smith was one of the top rushers in the country. Then he missed three games with an ankle injury, coming back in time to return home to Tallahassee, Fla., for a game against Florida State.
He came back too early, he recognizes now, but he had to be on the field for that game, with so many family and friends in the stands.
"It seemed like every play those Florida State guys came after my ankle,'' Smith said.
He was ineffective. The Shockers were in over their heads, lucky to get out alive.
Smith, a senior on that WSU team, finished the season with 808 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns after gaining 757 yards as a junior. He was one of the most successful running backs in Shocker history.
But for what? What does it mean now?
"We were all devastated when the program was dropped,'' said Smith, who works as a personal trainer in Atlanta. "I was shocked, just like the rest of the Shockers. When I heard the news, I still didn't believe it.''
It's the way the players heard the news that still bothers them.
They didn't hear it from Armstrong or Perkins. Or from their coaches, who were blindsided with the news shortly before a news conference.
The players heard it by happenstance. Some heard it from friends. Some heard it from media reports.
"I had two friends who were cops in Wichita,'' Smith said. "They asked me whether I had heard the news. I didn't know what had happened. I thought they were playing with me. Then I contacted our coaches and found out that it was true. What happened? What was the problem? Why? Nobody could give me an answer.''
Mark Duckens, who played at Wichita North, is one of two players from the 1986 Shockers to reach the NFL (Kevin Robbins, a sophomore offensive lineman in '86, played in eight games with Cleveland and the Los Angeles Rams). But Duckens' route to the NFL, where he spent parts of three seasons with the New York Giants, Detroit and Tampa Bay, detoured through Arizona State, where he transferred to play one season after Wichita State dropped football.
Now a car salesman in San Bernardino, Calif., Duckens vividly remembers how much he loved the atmosphere in Sun Devil Stadium during what turned out to be last Shocker game.
"I remember all those fans rooting against us,'' he said. "That got me fired up. It was a great place to play football.''
Little did he know that he would end up playing a lot more football there for a coach, John Cooper, he admired. That Arizona State coaching staff in 1986, led by Cooper, also included Larry Marmie, Bill Young, Mike Martz and Wichita native Kirk Doll.
Young, now defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, ran the defense for Kansas' Orange Bowl team in 2008. And Martz went on to become one of the most innovative offensive coaches in the NFL.
Duckens was happy to have a place to finish his college career, but has always regretted it didn't finish at Wichita State, where it started.
"We cried like babies in the locker room after they told us,'' he said. "I did not have an inkling that was going to happen. I remember President Armstrong told us that as long as he was there, they would have football at Wichita State. I just took him at his word. That's all I could do.''
About Bob Lutz
Bob Lutz has been The Eagle's sports columnist since 1996. A native of Derby, he has worked for the newspaper since 1974 and covered a variety of beats, from high schools to Wichita State to pro sports. If you want to get in good with him, mention the St. Louis Cardinals. Provided they're winning, of course.
Contact Bob at 316-268-6597 or firstname.lastname@example.org