John Currie might be the busiest man in the Big 12 these days, doing all the things many athletic directors might only hope to do someday.
In the past nine months, if Kansas State’s athletic director wasn’t drumming up support for multi-million dollar stadium projects, Currie was busy celebrating Big 12 championships in football, men’s basketball and baseball.
That can take some time, but it’s a good problem to have, especially considering where K-State was just three years ago. In the wake of widespread conference realignment, K-State’s future seemed in doubt. Nebraska and Colorado left the Big 12 for perceived greener pastures, and then a year later Texas A&M and Missouri bailed on the conference to join the SEC. K-State, like many schools in the old Big 12, was seemingly on life support within a quickly fading power conference.
Something had to change if K-State was going to survive in the new college sports landscape. Improvements had to be made, and so Currie went to work. With a new TV deal and pledges from the remaining Big 12 schools — including the addition of West Virginia and TCU this past year — K-State began a new, nearly campus-wide athletic facility renovation.
The first was the nearly $18 million Basketball Training Facility, followed by field upgrades at Tointon Family Stadium, renovations to the K-State Tennis Center, the construction of the new $75 million West Stadium Center at the football stadium and then the addition of the $2.7 million Intercollegiate Rowing Center.
“We’ve been very fortunate in (the football) project that even though there was some uncertainty around college athletics and the Big 12 during the whole time we were working on it, the contributors and our staff kept focused on where we wanted to be,” Currie said recently. “If you think back, the spring of 2010 is when we were taking our initial site visits, looking at facilities around the country, and that was also the same time Nebraska and Colorado were fixing to leave the conference.
“We continued to drive forward with the master plan throughout 2010 because, regardless of what the conference had evolved into, we were going to grow. We were going to build.”
It had been more than a decade since K-State’s last major athletic facility upgrade — the baseball stadium that opened in 2002 and the construction of the football stadium’s deck and sky suites following the 1998 season.
“We have made some significant investments in our programs,” Currie said. “We have almost $125 million in facility improvements going on right now. And we’ve been able to do that because we’ve nearly tripled what giving was the year before we came — already raised $30 million this year in private giving.
“We’ve invested those resources back into our student-athlete experience — which includes making sure we have a top-flight coaching staff, quality assistant coaches, athletic trainers and academic advisors.”
So far, so good too, as K-State became one of only four schools in the BCS era to win league championships in football, men’s basketball and baseball in the same academic year — joining Texas (2005-06), Stanford (1999-00) and Louisville (2012-13). Those team titles, coupled with postseason appearances for the volleyball and women’s basketball teams, as well as the individual successes of Olympic high jumper Erik Kynard, three-time NCAA tennis qualifier Petra Niedermayerova, and Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein, have given K-State fans a pretty ride.
“The process for those things started before we won the championships, just like the planning process for that (baseball) stadium started long before I got here with the vision of what we might become,” Currie said.
“Don’t get me wrong, championships are hard to win. You have to do a lot of things to win a championship. You have to have a few breaks here and there, but if you don’t start out preparing to put yourself in that position to win, then you never will.”
The banner year included K-State’s first Big 12 football title since 2003, the first men’s basketball championship since 1977 and the first baseball title since 1933. It’s also worth noting K-State won league championships in football, volleyball and women’s basketball during the 2003-04 seasons.
“You look at our coaches here at Kansas State — we have terrific coaches across the board and we have very experienced coaches across the board,” Currie said. “We have coaches who have won championships in other sports as well, so I think the coaching continuity we have at Kansas State is critical. Those coaches have built a culture of accountability among our student-athletes. Our faculty and our fan base have helped build that culture.
“The components to enable athletic success at the highest levels exists in Manhattan. And we have to have the courage to recognize that and support those strengths we have, and that’s what we’ve done.”
Though K-State has spent a lot of money on facility upgrades in recent years, we’re still talking about an overall budget and spending practices that fall considerably short of the Big 12 mega-budgets of Texas and Oklahoma. If anything, it could be argued that K-State gets more bang for its buck than most other universities.
“In K-State’s history there have been a lot of excellent decisions made in prioritizing our resources,” Currie said. “We still have to have the courage to make priority decisions about the allocation of resources. We also have to utilize this time to invest in our programs, particularly from the facility standpoint. There was a period where we were pretty far behind in our facilities — solid, but lots of gaps. We’ve tried to address that with a comprehensive plan and we’ve been able to get that underway in less than two years.”
For example, Currie points to the decision to build a new baseball stadium a little more than 10 years ago, when the Wildcats weren’t contending for Big 12 titles or hosting an NCAA Regional or advancing to a Super Regional.
“Investing in a baseball stadium 10 years ago when Betty Tointon and a lot of other people got involved in raising money for that facility… then 10 years later K-State wins a baseball championship,” he said. “That’s an example of making a very concentrated investment around a program, but it does represent a bit of a leap of faith.
“We have to continue to invest and right now is a great time to make sure that we’re investing to the point where we can stay as one of the upper entities of college athletics. If we chose not to invest, we will get left behind.”
Currie also knows K-State won’t win Big 12 championships every year, but believes the effort to do so has to continue to exist going forward — especially now.
“We aren’t going to rest,” he said. “Now is the time when we should work even harder to continue what we’ve started, because we’ve seen what is possible. Now, this has only been done four times in the BCS era. We need to be realistic and not get sucked into entitlement. But it’s OK to continue to build that foundation for the future.”