On this day in 1977, Kansas State was getting ready to play a Sweet 16 game against Marquette in the NCAA basketball tournament. The Cats had beaten Providence (the college, not the Biblical variety) in the tournament’s first round, and the world looked pretty rosy:
— K-State that year had won the Big Eight regular-season conference championship, the Big Eight tournament title, and was in the Top 10 in the polls. It was K-State’s fourth conference championship in eight years, under two different coaches.
— Ahearn Fieldhouse was rocking, averaging 11,032 in attendance that year, near an all-time high; the Cats went 12-1 in the old barn that year. The team had lost a total of six games at Ahearn over the previous six years — sometimes it seemed the guys in white and purple were invincible there. They hadn’t lost to KU at home is seven years.
— Jack Hartman, who was in his seventh year as head coach, was in his early 50s and seemed a perfect fit.
— The team’s two leading scorers — Mike Evans and Curtis Redding — were set to return the next year, as was starter Scott Langton and backup post player Steve Soldner.
I was 9 years old that season, sitting near the top at center court with my dad, and I can still see it. I can see the team emerging onto the court, snaking in a line from the locker room to do the pregame layup drill. I can hear the deafening roar and that odd rumble of the metal stands. I can smell the hot dogs and popcorn and cigarette smoke.
I thought it would go on forever.
If you had told me it would be 36 years until my Wildcats won another basketball conference championship, I would have told you that you were dumber even than Ted Owens.
That’s exactly what happened, of course.
Maybe I should have felt some foreboding when the refs disallowed a tip-in by Darryl Winston at the buzzer, and Marquette beat my guys 67-66 in that Sweet 16 game. Marquette went on to win the NCAA Tournament that year; I still wonder what would have happened if we had slipped by them that day. A bit later after that season, Hartman pulled his Going-To-Oklahoma-State-Err-No-I’m-Not dipsy-do, and maybe that should have warned me of darker horizons.
It’s not that the Cats immediately went in the tank, although they did slip badly to 7-7 in the conference the next season, evidently missing Winston and Larry Dassie more than anybody figured.
They were second in the conference the following two years, and made the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1981 by knocking off top-seeded Oregon State in the second round. They beat KU at home four of the next 6 years. After slipping in the last few years of Hartman’s era, they came roaring back and made the Elite Eight in 1988.
But then they really did become bad, for two solid decades. And, more to the point, for all those 36 years, there were no more conference trophies. No more banners.
Until this week. I went to the last home game this season at a different arena with my wife, our youngest son and our nephew. An entire generation. The youngest is two years older than I was in ‘77.
It would have been impossible to fathom, sitting in Ahearn that season. Just as impossible as it would have been to imagine that the football team would ever win two conference titles in a decade — the Cats were in the middle of a four-year streak in which they won precisely one conference game, and of course, I don’t need to remind you of the historic ineptitude of that program, or what’s happened since the arrival of The Great Man Himself. But at that moment? Forget it. Couldn’t have imagined it.
I can’t tell you exactly why basketball declined — certainly, the explosion of money in college sports has something to do with it, leaving K-State at a comparative disadvantage to its competition. The morphing of the Big Eight into the Big 12 has something to do with it.
The rise of KU into a national powerhouse since Larry Brown has something to do with it. And, more than anything else, the failure of the K-State coaches and administrators involved in the interim to navigate those challenges had something to do with it.
And why has it turned around? Well, you’d have to set aside everything else and give credit to the coaches involved, including Bob Huggins, Frank Martin and Bruce Weber.
And you’d have to credit Jon Wefald, Tim Weiser and Bob Krause for bringing in Huggins and Martin; you obviously have to give big props to John Currie and Kirk Schulz for bringing in Weber and giving him what he needs.
And you have to credit the individual players. If Rodney McGruder doesn’t make that shot at Baylor, I’m not writing this column.
In 2049, if I’m still kicking, I’ll be able to tell you what happened in the next 36 years. Given the way the last evolved, I have no idea — maybe there’ll be no more titles until then, and maybe there’ll be a bunch.
One thing I would guess: Nobody will be able to fathom it.