MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) There are times when Kansas State president Kirk Schulz is traveling on business – could be to drum up support for the biology program, or perhaps to discuss serious issues affecting other land-grant schools – and his conversations drift toward sports.
Given the year the Wildcats have had, it’s only natural.
Maybe even inevitable.
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Led by Bill Snyder, their chronically underrated and overlooked football program won its second Big 12 championship last fall, and if not for a miserable night against Baylor, might have play for the first national title in school history.
Fast-forward a few months, and with new coach Bruce Weber in charge, the Wildcats thumbed their noses at prognosticators who picked them to finish in the bottom half of the league. The men’s basketball team instead tied Kansas for its first conference title in 36 years.
Only Oklahoma and Texas have won Big 12 football and basketball titles in the same year.
Throw in an Olympic silver medalist in high jumper Erik Kynard, a volleyball program that qualified for the NCAA tournament, a new basketball training facility and a $75 million expansion to the football stadium, and it’s been a banner year for Kansas State sports.
“When I’m particularly on the east and west coast,” Schulz said, “one of the first things people talk about is football, and now our success in basketball. I hear from colleagues and people I run into, and it still ends up being the No. 1 thing that opens up conversation.”
The 11th-ranked Wildcats enter the Big 12 tournament this week at the Sprint Center as the No. 2 seed. And if things fall right for them in seeding for the NCAA tournament, Kansas State could play the first two games of that tournament in Kansas City, too.
It’s heady stuff for a school that less than two years ago was wondering whether it would be shuffled out of the Big 12, or all major conferences, during a period of realignment. Nebraska and Colorado departed, followed by Texas A&M and Missouri. But with the addition of TCU and West Virginia this season, and the new leadership of commissioner Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12 has stabilized – and in some ways, become one of the strongest leagues around.
“Sports do a great job of letting people feel good about your institution,” Schulz said.
It’s hard to decide which was the bigger surprise this year, the football program reaching the Fiesta Bowl or the basketball team going 25-6 overall and 14-4 in the conference.
Most people close to the program would choose hoops.
The football team had most of its key pieces coming back from a team that went to the Cotton Bowl, but the basketball program lost a couple of important seniors and was under the direction of a new coach who had been recently fired by Illinois.
The reception to Weber was so lukewarm that some fans even organized a protest outside of Bramlage Coliseum the day he was introduced, and the most cynical of fans still believe that his intro was made during Final Four weekend so that it wouldn’t receive much attention.
But Weber managed to win over his players, even a couple of them who were trying to decide whether to transfer. And then he slowly got them to play his style, and the results have been impressive: a nonconference win over Florida, wins over Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Baylor during the Big 12 meat-grinder, and now a share of the conference championship.
“They deserve it,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, who’s led the Jayhawks to at least a share of nine straight. “They had a great year, and they won some big games away from home, too.”
The Big 12 trophy was only the start of the rewards.
On Monday, Weber was a near-unanimous choice for AP’s Big 12 coach of the year, Rodney McGruder was first-team all-league and fellow guard Angel Rodriguez made the second team.
“There’s only like, a dozen or so schools in the country in the last so many years in major power conferences that won football and basketball in the same year,” Weber said. “It’s a rare instance, you know? And it’s great for K-State and the university.”
The only other teams in Division I this year to have accomplished the feat are Louisville in the Big East and Arkansas State in the Sun Belt, and the combined 36 wins between football and men’s basketball is trumped only by the Cardinals’ 37 wins in the two sports.
So it’s little surprise that Schulz, the Kansas State president, has been spending about as much time talking about sports as academics lately, no matter where he’s traveling.
“I’m enjoying every minute of it,” he said. “We all like to think when you’re winning and everything is going well, it’ll be that way forever, but everyone has down years. I say, `Hey, let’s enjoy the ride right now, and take a little pride in it.’ I take great pride in it.”