Everyone should shake hands with Ernie Barrett once in their life.
Seriously. If you haven’t met him before, you’re missing out.
The 89-year old former Kansas State basketball player, athletic director and fundraiser who long ago earned the nickname “Mr. K-State” makes a lasting impression every time he extends his right hand.
The greeting begins with a squeeze. And not just any squeeze. One of the tightest on this planet. It can be painful. Then he pulls you close and stares deep into your eyes while he says hello. If he really likes you, he will finish off the exchange by wrapping his left arm around your neck and putting you in a head lock.
“That’s when I knew I made it as the K-State basketball coach,” former KSU coach Frank Martin says now. “His handshakes are legendary, but when he grabs you in a headlock, that is a sign of love.”
More like tough love.
Another former Wildcats coach, Lon Kruger, has watched friends duck out of the room when they see Barrett coming.
Current men’s basketball coach Bruce Weber can relate. He had to beg for mercy when Barrett embraced him following a Sweet 16 upset of longtime nemesis Kentucky last year.
“I didn’t think he was ever going to let me out of that headlock,” Weber said. “But it was awesome. He couldn’t have been more excited. He told me it was one of his greatest moments. He had been waiting (67) years for us to finally beat Kentucky.”
One might think Barrett is ready to loosen his grip ... on his handshake, on his incredibly active daily routine or on his passion for K-State basketball. He will turn 90 in August, after all.
But that is not the case.
He still drives himself around Manhattan in a Lincoln Town Car with the letters “MR KST” emblazoned on the license plate. He still works out for an hour and a half each morning, jogging and lifting weights alongside current K-State student-athletes in hopes of dipping below 200 pounds. He still drinks his favorite cocktail (rum and coke) every weekend.
And his handshake remains strong as ever.
The only thing better than Barrett’s handshake is the story behind it.
His mind requires time to recall certain memories, but this one remains vivid.
It all began when he was a high school basketball player in Wellington, Kansas more than 70 years ago. He had just made a game-winning free throw (granny-style, off the backboard, he sheepishly admits) against a team from Wichita and the opposing coach wanted to offer his congratulations. When they met in the handshake line, the coach squeezed Barrett so tightly that he yelled out in pain.
“He damn near broke it,” Barrett says now.
That handshake made a lasting impression. So much so, that Barrett wanted revenge as he grew bigger and stronger. He had to wait a few years, but he got it when they met again on a Wichita street corner. Barrett was riding in a car with friends at the time, and there was heavy traffic, but that didn’t stop him. He jumped out into the street and said hello.
Barrett reminded the coach of their game and his free throw. It was a friendly exchange. Eventually the coach smiled and said it was nice to see Barrett again. Then they shook hands.
Things were different this time.
“I broke his hand,” Barrett said, pumping his fist as if it just happened. “I didn’t let go until I had him on the ground. Then I told him, ‘Sir, this is what you did to me in high school and I just wanted to say hello.’ Then I walked away.”
Barrett enjoyed the interaction so much that he made the physical handshake his own.
It is now his calling card.
Few strangers ask Barrett for a selfie, but someone is always asking for a handshake. They want to know if it’s as strong as the legend indicates.
“I never warn anyone about it, because I want them to get the full experience,” said former K-State baseball coach and current fundraiser Mike Clark, one of Barrett’s best friends. “That is part of what makes Ernie unique and special. That’s not just his calling card, but the first thing people bring up about him, even more than basketball.”
That’s saying something. Barrett was one of the best basketball players in K-State history.
But it’s true.
Everyone seems to have a story to tell about Barrett, and they all tend to start with a handshake.
For Martin, now the head coach at South Carolina, it was the day he arrived in Manhattan as an assistant coach under Bob Huggins. As he entered Bramlage Coliseum for the first time, he winced all the way to his office after shaking hands with Barrett on the concourse. When he complained to Huggins that “an elderly man just sucked the life out of my hand,” Huggins told Martin not to worry. The same thing happened to him.
For Kruger, who is now at Oklahoma, every handshake with Barrett feels special.
“It’s always a surprise, regardless of how many times you shake hands with him,” Kruger said. “It’s kind of his signature and it represents the strength and passion he has for his university.”
Be true to your school
Ernie Barrett was the mayor of Manhattan before Bill Snyder came to town.
There’s a reason people call him “Mr. K-State.” For starters, he was a heck of a basketball player. He led the Wildcats to the national championship game in 1951 and still thinks they would have won the title if not for a shoulder injury he suffered in the semifinals against Oklahoma State.
Kentucky beat K-State in the finals 68-58 with a hobbled Barrett playing only a few minutes. He was unable to lift his left arm, but he still started the game and made some open shots until Kentucky realized that’s all he could do.
He went on to play for the Boston Celtics in the NBA but returned to K-State to coach under Tex Winter. The Wildcats later named him athletic director and then he settled into a fundraising role before turning into K-State’s biggest basketball cheerleader in retirement.
Clark says the athletic department now employs seven staffers to duplicate Barrett’s productivity. He got a lot done driving (never flying) across the state and meeting with donors.
Barrett still casts a shadow. A local restaurant, where he talked for this story, is named Mr. K’s in his honor. He helped raise money for countless athletic facilities that are still in use. And his statue, which depicts him extending his right arm for a physical handshake, greets fans outside the basketball arena.
Barrett was recruited by legendary coaches like Phog Allen and Henry Iba, but he chose K-State to play for Jack Gardner and Tex Winter in 1947. He’s bled purple ever since.
“He is an icon,” Weber said. “It’s unbelievable to think about all the different things he has done for K-State. Everybody knows him. When you think of K-State basketball, you think of Tex Winter and Jack Hartman but you think of Ernie, too. You couldn’t have a person who loves this university more or who has done more for it.”
Sometimes, it feels like K-State is trying to repay him on the basketball court.
When Martin guided K-State to the Elite Eight in 2010, he wanted to win NCAA Tournament games for Barrett. He was touched when he witnessed Barrett crying after the Wildcats advanced to the Sweet 16, but he felt crushed when they fell short of the Final Four.
“One of the biggest empty feelings I ever had was when we lost to Butler,” Martin said. “I wanted to give Ernie that opportunity of going to a Final Four. I wanted him to feel vindicated that K-State got back to that platform. When we didn’t make it, it was a real empty feeling.”
The Wildcats came close again in 2018 under Weber. But that team gave Barrett a gift along the way.
He badly wanted revenge against Kentucky, and K-State played UK in the Sweet 16. The game was in Atlanta, and Barrett had been showing signs of fatigue in previous weeks. Some thought it best he watch from home. But Weber insisted he attend the game, saying the team plane wasn’t going to take off without him.
Barrett ended up making the trip and K-State won in dramatic fashion. Then players dedicated the victory to him and invited him into the locker room to celebrate when it was over.
That was a watershed moment for Barrett. It meant so much that he’s not quite sure about his next goal for K-State basketball.
At this moment, he seems more concerned that a car in the Mr. K’s parking lot lacks a novelty K-State license plate.
So, after he finishes up a lunch of soup and bread, he approaches the owner of the vehicle and offers him one. This is what happens when you’ve supported the same school passionately for 72 years.
The stranger isn’t sure what to say as Barrett pops open his trunk and reveals a box of Powercat license plates.
“I want to see this on the front of your car next time you’re here,” Barrett said as he presented the gift.
The man nodded and extended his right hand. Then, like he has so many times before, Barrett startled him with a crushing handshake.
As the man walked away, Barrett grinned ear to ear.
He appears to have plenty more handshakes left in him.