Sam Mellinger

The day the Kansas-Kansas State rivalry changed forever

Are K-State and KU fans cheering for each other's teams? We asked some to find out.

Fans shopping for NCAA tournament shirts at Rally House in Mission, Kan., expressed their feeling about rooting for the "other" Kansas team on Wednesday, March 21, 2018.
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Fans shopping for NCAA tournament shirts at Rally House in Mission, Kan., expressed their feeling about rooting for the "other" Kansas team on Wednesday, March 21, 2018.

The last moment Kansas and Kansas State were athletically similar looks like a time capsule. The video lives on YouTube, which of course didn't exist 30 years ago, and neither did the Internet connection you need to watch it.

You have to be a certain age to remember this far back. If you're not, you probably wouldn't believe this time existed, when K-State basketball did not have to stand on its toes to see up to KU's level, when K-State football did not need binoculars to see down to KU.

The moment came 30 years ago this month, in a building that's since been demolished, with short shorts and no names on the backs of jerseys. Some of the men who played that day are now grandfathers.

Kansas and Kansas State met at the Silverdome in suburban Detroit, a spot in the Final Four in Kansas City on the line, the most consequential basketball game ever involving two local schools. Wasn't just the chance at a national championship, either.

These were peer programs. K-State had won 11 Big Eight titles, KU seven. K-State had made 15 NCAA Tournaments in the 30 years of the Big Eight, KU 13. A win would've given K-State its fifth Final Four. Kansas was going for its eighth. The 1952 NCAA championship gave KU an edge, but the programs played on relatively even ground: terrific basketball, wretched football.

Mitch Richmond was an electrifying presence on the floor for K-State who would go on to enjoy a successful career in the NBA. Star file photo

These were universities separated by an hour or so of interstate, that saw their place in the national scope similarly. A few months after a blocked kick preserved a tie in a football game labeled the Toilet Bowl, KU and K-State played on college basketball's grandest stage.

Nobody could have known the schools' athletic identities would change so drastically, and so quickly, starting with this moment.

"I try not to go down that road, even after 30 years," said Mark Dobbins, then a K-State junior forward.

"I just had a really good feeling," said Larry Brown, KU's men's basketball coach back then.

Kansas won the national championship that year, and in the three decades since, one more title and six more Final Fours. The Jayhawks have played in the last 29 NCAA Tournaments. But KU football has made just six bowl games, and is on its sixth coach, not counting interim coaches.

Kansas State basketball coach Bruce Weber gives an update on the health of forward Dean Wade, and whether or not he will play against Kentucky.

K-State football has left KU in the dust, Bill Snyder dragging the school to national relevance and 19 bowl games in his last 22 seasons. This week, basketball is in the NCAA tournament's second weekend for just the second time since 1988. The future is impossible to predict, but K-State basketball has just one conference title since 1988. KU is no longer a peer.

These athletic programs once shared more than a state. They shared a common identity. That all began to change when they met one step from the 1988 Final Four.

K-State made the Elite Eight with one of the tournament's great upsets. Purdue was ranked third nationally, and had beaten K-State by 29 in December. But in that Sweet 16 game Mitch Richmond was the best player on the floor, as he often was, with 27 points and 11 rebounds. The Wildcats won by three.

"K-State leads this season's series two games to one," Verne Lundquist said as the Elite Eight game with KU tipped off. "And they ousted Kansas in the Big Eight semifinals by 15 points."

Coaches matter. We know this. Everyone knows this, and the story of the peculiar Sunflower State rivalry is full of evidence. The trick is figuring out exactly how much coaches matter — where their influence ends, and the fit with a particular school begins.

Larry Brown was in Lawrence long enough to bring the Jayhawks college basketball's most coveted prize. Star file photo

Thirty years ago, K-State basketball didn't need to think much about this. The coaches were the culture. Lon Kruger was just 35 but was already a prominent figure in the school's, and state's, history.

Kruger is the most famous man to come from Silver Lake, Kan., the point guard on back-to-back Big Eight champions for K-State coach Jack Hartman and a two-time conference player of the year.

Hartman's last four years were disappointing, his retirement perhaps sped up by a heart attack. But when Kruger was hired to succeed his old coach, there was no real reason to believe the program was vulnerable.

Going all the way back to World War II, every K-State coach had reason for pride: Jack Gardner and Tex Winter made two Final Fours each, Cotton Fitzsimmons won a conference title before leaving for the NBA, and Hartman finished first or second in the Big Eight in 10 of his 16 seasons.

Kruger may have been the best coach of them all. He recruited four new starters for his first team, beating out Kansas for Richmond and Steve Henson, and coached K-State back into the NCAA Tournament, where the Wildcats lost to top-ranked UNLV.

That 1988 team was Kruger's best. The Cats won their first seven conference games, including a win over Oklahoma and wrecking KU's 55-game win streak at Allen Fieldhouse.

"We were a basketball school, all the way," said Rob Goode, a senior offensive lineman at the time. "I played football, and I knew that."

Kansas State coach Bruce Weber talks about his team's upcoming Sweet 16 matchup against Kentucky.

So, beating Purdue in the Sweet 16 was nice. Unexpected, even. But it wasn't a shock, wasn't an outlier for the program, wasn't much more than an important step on the way to a goal that the team talked about all year.

"We knew we were good," Dobbins said. "Losing was not even on the radar. That was the hardest part, sitting there in the locker room, like, 'What the hell just happened?' We were going to win it all."

The problem at K-State, everyone knew, was football. They hired the right basketball coaches, and if Kruger left they could find someone else. In football, the last 14 coaches had combined for four winning seasons in 54 years.

Bill Snyder, left, with son Sean, has taken K-State football to another level. Star file photo

Yes, Purdue was confident going into that weekend. Some of the Boilermakers' fans swarmed Kansas' hotel, telling Jayhawks fans they wanted to buy their tickets for the regional final if KU lost its Sweet 16 game.

"Well," Brown said, "they lost to K-State and we beat Vanderbilt, so our fans ended up buying their tickets."

That 1988 team was not Kansas' best. Not by a long shot. It dealt with injuries, academic problems and a five-game losing streak, and they brought two football players on just to have full practices.

But they also had Danny Manning, an otherworldly talent who might've been the top pick in the NBA Draft had he entered the year before. They listed him at 6 foot 10, and even if that was an inch or two generous, he was so much smoother and skilled than anyone his size. He may have been KU's best ball handler. He was certainly best at everything else. He knew how to use angles and the value of a decisive and quick move to shoot before the double-team came.

The winner advanced to the Final Four at Kemper Arena, and Kansas would go on to capture the 1988 national title. Star archives

Richmond, K-State's star, was a physical freak. If he jumped for a rebound the same time as the guy next to him, he always landed a beat later. He shot a true jump shot, his feet kicking a bit in the back, the ball released over his head with a clean look every time.

Brown was in the meat of a Hall of Fame coaching career, and he deployed a swarm of guards that limited Richmond to 11 points on 14 shots. Manning went for 20 and Scooter Barry had a career game for KU.

The Star's Jesse Newell and Sam Mellinger break down the KU Jayhawks' 83-79 victory over Seton Hall in the NCAA Tournament second round on March 17, 2018 in Wichita, Kansas.

Keith Harris gave KU its first lead of the second half with a steal and dunk with 14 minutes left, but K-State was within arm's reach until the final minute or two. Kansas hit shots but did not unlock an obvious advantage in talent or strategy. K-State was right there but could not get enough stops. KU erased a halftime deficit and won by 13.

That was the first of three straight wins for Kansas in its blue jerseys, worn as the lower-seeded team, but even before the parade back in Lawrence to celebrate the national championship, the program met a crossroads.

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Bill Self hasn't missed a beat at KU, winning outright or sharing the last 14 Big 12 men's basketball titles. Rich Sugg

Brown, a notorious job-hopper, had tentatively accepted the head-coaching position at UCLA. He reconsidered, but before the end of the summer he left to coach the NBA's San Antonio Spurs. Kansas' search for a replacement started immediately, and was complicated.

Candidates came in. They interviewed. KU reached out to Gary Williams, then at Ohio State, and Charlie Spoonhour, then at Missouri State. At some point during each interview, athletic director Bob Frederick would find a quiet, private moment.

"We have a letter of inquiry from the NCAA," he would say. "We think it's going to be bad, and I don't want you to be surprised if you take the job."

This was a coaching search perhaps unlike any in the sport's history: a so-called blueblood, coming off a national championship, but NCAA penalties on the way. That scared off some good candidates.

Kansas' tradition paid off, though. Frederick called his friend Dean Smith, a Kansas grad and by then a legendary coach at North Carolina. Smith recommended his top assistant. It would be a difficult sell.

"There was a feeling that we deserved to have a sitting head coach," said Del Brinkman, the faculty rep on the search committee. "An assistant would not be the thing that KU basketball stood for."

Williams changed minds. The first question of the interview was a softball — "tell us a little about yourself," in Brinkman's memory — and Williams talked for 45 minutes. He told them everything, from his personal background to his scheduling philosophy to practice schedules to offensive sets.

When Frederick told Williams about the investigation, the coach didn't blink. If the investigation limited the pool of candidates, well, Kansas still found its man.

"Most fabulous interview I've ever been a part of," said Richard Konzem, then a KU official. "There was nothing left to say."

Danny Manning, right, was inducted into the Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008, 20 years after KU's national championship. Star file photo

Williams had Kansas in the Final Four in his third year, and back three more times, before leaving for North Carolina. Self has only pushed the program forward since, with the 2008 national championship and at least a share of 14 consecutive conference titles.

Meanwhile, football is essentially stuck exactly where it was 30 years ago, as one of the nation's worst programs. Momentary fits of success have been buried by poor financial support, bad coaching hires and worse administrative management.

K-State won eight football games last year. You have to go back five years and 58 games to find five KU football wins.

The standard for major college football has never been higher. The money required. The stakes. The distance from the bottom to the top. In the last few years, officials at both schools have wondered if the steps required to improve Kansas football now are as or even more difficult than what Snyder did at K-State.

In the fall of 1988, K-State football went winless for the second year in a row and then went looking for another coach. The program was so bad people talked seriously of dropping it altogether. Steve Miller, then the AD, remembers one candidate suggesting the team travel by train. Another wanted an inflatable roof over the stadium, and the irony of a circus top for college football's worst program was not lost on Miller.

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KU coach David Beaty was fired Sunday, but he will finish out the final three games of the season. Shane Keyser

"People laughed at us," he said.

"There were, quite frankly, maybe four fans in the world who ever thought we could field a good football team," president Jon Wefald said. "And I was one of the four."

Bill Snyder likes to say he came to K-State for the people and he came back to K-State for the people. He means this literally, too, and occasionally tells the story of his interview in December 1988.

It was bitterly cold that day, and he stood in the middle of campus, randomly stopping strangers just to talk. This went on for an hour, Snyder says. Maybe 40 or 50 people total. They were all nice to him, without knowing who he was, so he took the job.

"No one," Wefald wrote, "can underestimate the importance of good luck."

Wefald and the administration supported Snyder and the football program with money they didn't have. It was an enormous financial risk, but sometimes desperation is a valuable tool. Snyder was able to attract and keep talented assistants, their facilities improving all the time — a new press box, a new indoor facility, new practice fields, new weight room.

And they won. By gosh, somehow, they won. In Snyder's first season, they won their first game in three years. By his fifth year, Snyder only lost twice. Twice!

By then, Kruger had left the basketball program, replaced by his assistant Dana Altman, and fans were growing restless. Altman missed the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years, felt what was coming, and took the job at Creighton.

Wefald said Tubby Smith, then at Tulsa, agreed to replace Altman but later backed out. Tom Asbury was hired, recruiting suffered, Jim Wooldridge was brought in and by then the basketball program was stuck in mediocrity.

But also by then, Snyder had been to 11 straight bowl games, won a Big 12 championship and pushed K-State into perennial national relevance.

"I just think the focus went to football," Dobbins said. "Hell, I was a former (basketball) player and my focus was on football."

This brings up a point of contention among K-State alumni and fans. Snyder was so good, after K-State football had been so bad, that it changed the university's gravitational pull.

"I don't know what happened (to basketball)," Goode said. "Bad hires? I don't know. I find it hard to believe a fan base can't be passionate about both."

But if nothing else, the pressure on basketball lessened. K-State's situation flipped. Football became the point of pride. Basketball the bonus. You can measure that in finances, or institutional energy, or as a source of identity.

It's not that basketball wasn't important. But it was no longer the priority. That's a theory, anyway.

For years now, K-State fans have openly talked of how Snyder repeatedly blows out Kansas. Many with the means and inclination have, um, invested in the outcome. This has often been a sound strategy. Snyder has coached against Kansas 26 times, winning 22 by an average of 29 points.

Kansas has won 66 of the 76 basketball games since that Elite Eight game in 1988. Two years ago, coach Bill Self was annoyed at something K-State coach Bruce Weber said after the teams' first game, so before the second — in Manhattan — Self encouraged his players to tell the crowd to shut up if they had the game in hand.

The first thing you might notice watching the most important game in any sport in the 117-year history of Kansas and Kansas State is that the teams are so evenly matched. They had different strengths, and different weaknesses, but you get the feeling they could've played 100 times and neither side would win more than 51.

The state of Kansas felt like the center of the sports world that day. That doesn't happen often. Really, it hasn't happened since, has it?

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Bruce Weber has K-State basketball back in the national spotlight this week as the Cats prepare to take on Kentucky in the Sweet 16. Rich Sugg

K-State football has become a perennial winner, consistent factor in the conference and occasional player on the national stage. But KU football, somehow, is in even worse shape than 30 years ago. David Beaty was a position coach at a historical underachiever when hired, some combination of KU's sorry state and diminished salary available because of previous coaches' buyouts limiting the candidates.

He's won three games in three years and promoted an assistant for securing verbal commitments that didn't hold. KU football fans would metaphorically kill to have the success of Weber's basketball program.

"We have to get it fixed," one KU official said recently. "God forbid we have an off-year in basketball."

This is an interesting moment in time, then. Weber has K-State in the Sweet 16 for just the second time since 1988. Two more wins for the first Final Four since 1964. Maybe this is a blip, but the roster should be even better next year.

The gap between KU and K-State is roughly the same in both sports, just at different levels. K-State has made all but two of the last nine NCAA tournaments, but Bill Self has won more of those games in 15 years at KU than K-State has in its history. K-State football isn't a fixture at the top of national polls, but KU football is dreadfully inept with fading hope of closing the difference.

Kansas won the basketball game that Sunday afternoon in 1988, then twice more the next week, the beginning of the most successful stretch in program history. K-State fixed football, but made a series of bad coaching hires in basketball and only in the last 10 years or so has begun to find traction.

What was once one of the country's great rivalries is now one of the most lopsided, in both major sports, two schools equally desperate to maintain their advantage in one and to close the gap in the other.

Decades after the schools began to take different paths, K-State is closer to its side of the needed improvement. But this is now a large chunk of each school's history, a rivalry now largely defined by a split that began 30 years ago this month.

KU guard Malik Newman scored 28 points in the Jayhawks' NCAA Tournament second-round win over Seton Hall on March 17, 2018. Newman said he was happy to pick up senior Devonte' Graham, who struggled.