Former Kansas State men’s basketball coach Cotton Fitzsimmons recruited Jerry Venable after seeing him play in the NJCAA national tournament in Hutchinson in the spring of 1968.
Venable, a 6-foot-6 forward and two-time All-American at Ferrum (Va.) Junior College still owns the Staunton (Va.) High School single-game scoring record of 64 points. Venable had planned to attend Virginia Tech, but changed his mind in late summer.
One of my first assignments as Fitzsimmons’ new assistant coach was to meet Venable upon his arrival and take him to the newly-constructed athletic dormitory — now Edwards Hall at the north end of campus just off Denison.
The K-State athletic dorm was built almost overnight to attract quality athletes to help our new coach Vince Gibson rebuild the K-State football program. Athletic dorms were popular in the south as a recruiting tool, and “we gonna win” Gibson said he needed one to be successful here.
The recruiting brochure described the dorm as a place of luxury, much like a four-star hotel with air-conditioned rooms, color TV, an all-you-can-eat training table, lounge areas and a swimming pool. But there was no mention about the smell on a windy day with aroma coming from the dairy cattle living across the street.
The swimming pool was the size of a postage stamp, but you couldn’t tell by the pictures. The pool even had a spring diving board that could launch an unsuspecting diver to the opposite side of the pool.
The pool was so small that divers should have been required to wear helmets in case they landed on the concrete instead of the water. Some of the huge 285-pound football players would do cannonballs off of the board and about empty the pool.
Gibson initiated a girls program and selected the most attractive co-eds on campus to escort and greet the athletes upon their arrival at the dorm.
There were no “Gibson girls” present at the Manhattan bus station when I went to meet Venable at midnight. Yes, I said bus station. Back then it was located at the corner of 4th Street and Pierre. Can you imagine former K-State basketball coach Bob Huggins bringing in Michael Beasley by bus? Talent-wise, Venable was our Beasley in 1968.
The bus was about two hours late and Venable looked dazed as he stepped off with one suitcase.
I said, “Jerry, welcome to K-State.” It was too late to go to the dorm, so I took Venable to my house to get some sleep. My wife Kay fixed him a huge breakfast when he woke.
Venable returned in February of 2008 for a reunion and still had the vivid memory of that bus trip from Staunton, Va., to Manhattan on his mind when former Mercury sports editor Mark Janssen asked him about his first visit to K-State.
“I jumped on the bus for a two-day trip to Kansas State,” Venable said. “I got there at 2 or 3 in the morning and Larry Weigel was the first face I saw. I was scared out of my ever-living wits. I didn’t know a person and didn’t know where he was taking me.
“I hadn’t eaten in two days because I was afraid of getting diarrhea on the bus.”
As I recall, Venable ate about one pound of bacon that morning.
Venable became an All-Big Eight performer who led K-State to a second-place conference finish in Fitzsimmons’ first year. Venable helped the Wildcats win the conference title and earn a trip to the Sweet 16 during Fitzsimmons’ second and final season as head coach.
Philadelphia drafted Venable in the sixth round, but he didn’t play due to a sprained ankle. He was shipped to the Harlem Globe Trotters and never returned to pro basketball. Venable toured the world during his 19 years with the Globe Trotters and played in more than 5,000 games.
Halfway into his career with the Globe Trotters, Venable stopped to see me here in Manhattan prior to a Globe Trotters’ exhibition at Fort Riley. My son Nick was about age 13 at the time and was playing in an outdoor pickup basketball game at some a friend’s house after school.
I thought it would be fun to surprise Nick and his friends with a visit from a real Harlem Globe Trotter. Venable and I pulled up into the driveway where the kids were playing on an outdoor goal and I said, “Hey guys, would you mind playing with one of the Harlem Globe Trotters?” Their jaws dropped. The boys asked Venable if he could show them how to shoot Meadowlark Lemon’s famous hook shot. After some coaxing, Venable said, “All right, I’ll give it a try.”
Venable didn’t have Meadowlark’s touch and the hook shot flew above the rim and got stuck between the upper part of the wooden backboard and the roof of the garage. We had a good laugh that day, and then went to Fort Riley to watch Venable and the Globe Trotters do their magic.
Venable started a charity in 2005 called Learning Opportunities through Sports, and lives in Staunton, Va. He invited me to visit Staunton in 2009 to serve as Master of Ceremonies at Venable’s charity golf tournament and I followed Meadowlark Lemon around the golf course during the day, but that’s a story for another day.