Matt Wallerstedt loves Kansas State.
But unlike many former Wildcat greats, his experience playing and coaching at K-State was marred with something he hates more than anything — losing.
Wallerstedt, who grew up in Manhattan and was a star linebacker at Manhattan High, played for K-State at a time when victories came at a premium — only six wins from 1984-87, including a winless 1987 season that turned into another winless 1988 season.
Though many would like to forget those lean years — a stretch in which K-State had only one winning season in the 18 years prior to coach Bill Snyder’s arrival in 1989 — Wallerstedt had individual success that was anything but forgettable.
Now in his first year as the defensive coordinator at Texas Tech, Wallerstedt recorded the fifth-most tackles in a single season at K-State — 165 in 1987 — and earned honorable mention All-America honors from the Associated Press. His numbers still stand up today, as he’s ninth in school history with 338 career stops.
But Wallerstedt would trade in all his personal accomplishments on the football field for a chance to win more games.
“Because I wanted to win — I was built that way and grew up that way under my dad’s leadership in our household and then the Manhattan High program playing for Lew Lane and Butch Albright,” he said during a phone interview this week.
“The losing part ate at me more than anything. I’d rather have won games and not have the accolades. I would have traded in the postseason accolades my senior year for a lot more wins. The losing bled into your school work and your daily life on campus.”
Wallerstedt, who coached the linebackers at Texas A&M last year, had a chance to re-write his place in K-State history when he took an assistant coach position on Ron Prince’s staff in 2006. It was his chance to be part of the program Snyder had worked tirelessly to turnaround, one that was only two seasons removed from a conference championship and BCS bowl game, a feat that would have seemed impossible when Wallerstedt suited up for the Wildcats.
“It was unbelievable to see how much had changed — the expectations for winning and the fans,” Wallerstedt said. “I hadn’t seen that in person because I was coaching, but you would hear about what Coach Snyder had done and I’d watch from afar. It didn’t matter who was wearing the logo for them, they’d find a way to win a lot of games each year.
“And then going back in there with Ron in 2006 and 2007, having been removed for so long and knowing what the attitude was, how poor it was and the lack of expectations that were there when I played, to seeing what Coach Snyder did was amazing. That place was rock bottom when he got to campus in December of 1988… It truly was a miracle in Manhattan.”
But the homecoming Wallerstedt had hoped for quickly turned into another nightmare situation at K-State.
The Wildcats were 7-6 in Prince’s first season and played in the Texas Bowl. A year later, however, Wallerstedt was gone, along with a handful of other assistant coaches after K-State fell to 5-7.
K-State was taking on water again and Wallerstedt didn’t see an end in sight, not as long as Prince was still running the show. He was right. Prince was fired after another disappointing 5-7 season in 2008, prompting Snyder to leave retirement behind and return to the sidelines in an attempt to fix the program he had worked so hard to build.
“I left after two years because I didn’t believe in the leadership, and that obviously came back to get Ron in the end,” Wallerstedt said. “I think the support was there. Everyone who was there — President (Jon) Wefald and Bob Krause and everyone who had been behind Coach Snyder, gave Ron every opportunity to be successful.
“I know internally there were a lot of guys leaving because of the leadership we had at that time, Ron’s leadership. That’s what made it a tough three years for people.”
Wallerstedt was one of several assistant coaches to leave K-State in Prince’s first two seasons — many of which have gone on to big things in coaching.
Running backs coach Tim Horton left K-State after one year to go to Arkansas. He’s now at Auburn. Offensive coordinator James Franklin left following the 2007 season for a position at Maryland. He’s now in his third season as Vanderbilt’s head coach. Raheem Morris lasted one year in Manhattan before returning to the NFL and later becoming the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ head coach. Receivers coach Pat Washington left after a year for the same job at Mississippi State. He’s now at Missouri. Tight ends coach James Jones quit after one season to go to Northern Colorado. He’s now at San Jose State.
“We did have a good staff, but everyone’s got to be on the same page, and that starts at the top,” Wallerstedt said. “I think had the leadership been different, then the results would have been different. If I don’t believe in something, instead of bitching about it, I’m going to do something about it. And in this profession you want to be with the right people. K-State and Manhattan was the right place, but with the wrong person.”
It was still a very difficult decision to leave, Wallerstedt said. After all, this was his hometown, his team — a dream come true to be able to return.
“Here’s a guy from Manhattan, from Kansas State, and I left,” he said. “I didn’t want to make it into a big thing, but the people who needed to know what happened and why I was leaving — I expressed my opinion on certain things when I left.
“We thought it was a good chance for me and my family to come home. I wouldn’t turn that down for the world, right? It was just the wrong time and with the wrong person, unfortunately.”