Kevin Donnelly has tended to a crop of winning K-State students for the last 14 years.
Donnelly, 71, retired from being head coach in May after having led the K-State Crops Team since 2008. But he is still an assistant coach for the team, which won or shared a national championship 19 times in 24 years. In his 14 years, the team won 10 and shared one.
He said he believes activities like this outside of the classroom help students find their niche.
“The stuff we teach is important, but…we have to offer students the opportunity to do something other than sit in class that helps them grow,” Donnelly said.
Donnelly also retired as a professor of agronomy and has been around agriculture his whole life, since his childhood on a farm in Dickinson County. He participated in 4-H and did agriculture-related projects.
“My 4-H projects were very much what I do today,” he said. “Most of the rest of my friends did animals. I did crops. I would take wheat and sorghum and corn to the fair.”
He also grew up listening to K-State basketball games on the radio with his father, fostering an early interest in the Wildcats.
“I had my own score sheets, and I’d keep records of how many points each player scored every game,” Donnelly said. “I would be very upset if I had some event and had to miss the basketball game.”
He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from K-State and then taught at Hutchinson Community College and Colorado State, where he received his doctorate. He then taught at Oklahoma State for 15 years, including coaching the crops team there. Donnelly returned to K-State in 1998 and worked in administration as an assistant dean until 2008.
When his predecessor, Gerry Posler, retired, Donnelly was offered a teaching position. He said while many college teaching positions have a significant research component, his position is focused more strictly on the classroom, especially on teaching introductory courses. He was interested in getting back into the classroom as well as working more directly in agronomy again.
“I couldn’t play with plants and seeds as much as I wanted to,” he said.
Posler had already established the team as a dynasty, having won the national championship six years in a row and seven times in nine years. Donnelly said the idea of taking over such a successful program was daunting.
“I was a little bit intimidated,” he said. “At Oklahoma State they were our competition, and I never had my team up to quite that level.”
The competitions consist of skills like identifying seeds, grains and plants, grading grains according to USDA standards, and judge the purity of a sample that has other seeds or grains mixed with it. They compete in a nationwide competition each fall and each spring. Some team members also compete in a weeds contest during the summer.
Donnelly learned early that regular focused practice was key to creating a successful team. The crops team practices weekly in a classroom lined with small jars of seeds and grains. They also have previous examples of competition samples for practice material.
“If you put in good practice time, then the results are related,” he said.
Donnelly said recruitment is important for the crops team, just like a sports team. Donnelly has coordinated the state FFA program and sometimes speaks with those students about participating. He also recruits students who are doing well in his agronomy classes about joining the team.
“They will say I twisted their arm,” Donnelly joked.
He said connecting with students, keeping them interested in their education and making them feel like a part of the community can make them better citizens and provide them lifelong skills outside of simply their major.
“If we can get them here and keep them here, most of them mature into much more responsible citizens by the time they’re done,” Donnelly said. “So in the end, that’s probably our main function, is to enhance the opportunity for students to be better professionals, better people, better contributors to society.”