KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It was about nine games into the Big 12 season when Kansas State baseball coach Brad Hill started to hear murmuring in the clubhouse.
The football team had won a conference championship. So had the men’s basketball team.
“So they started to ask, ‘Why can’t we?’” Hill recalled in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “All of a sudden, they started to think about the idea. They started throwing it out there and they started believing. And then they started building.”
Fast-forward a couple months. The Wildcats have set a school record for victories, captured that elusive conference title and are off to Oregon State this weekend for a best-of-three series that could land them in the College World Series.
It would be a fitting capstone to the most memorable season in school history.
“This program is two wins away from playing in Omaha, and that’s every kid’s dream,” said Hill on Wednesday, as the Wildcats prepared to depart for Corvallis, Ore., where they will face Oregon State on Saturday night at 6 on ESPNU.
“And at Kansas State, that hasn’t been much of a reality.”
Might as well dream big at K-State this year, though.
All of those dreams are coming true.
Take the perennially underrated football program, picked to finish sixth in the conference, which went 11-2 and won its third ever conference title. If not for a lousy night at Baylor, the Wildcats and 73-year-old Bill Snyder would have likely been playing for a national championship.
Still, the Wildcats landed in a BCS bowl game, and Snyder was rewarded with a new five year-deal in January that includes base compensation of $14.75 million and rolls over each season.
Already, season tickets for next season are sold out, as are two home games, and school officials believe the rest of the tickets remaining could be snapped up before this week is out.
Then basketball season rolled around, and prognosticators again picked the Wildcats to finish in the bottom half of the league. But under new coach Bruce Weber, that plucky bunch went 27-8 and tied with Kansas for its first regular-season conference championship in 36 years.
The only other schools to win football and basketball crowns in the same year? Oklahoma and Texas, two schools with far more financial resources at their disposal.
The success hasn’t been limited to high-profile, high-revenue sports, either.
Tennis player Petra Niedermayerova reached the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament, along the way becoming the school’s career leader for singles wins in a season and a career. The women’s hoops team overcame a slew of injuries to reach the semifinals of the NIT. The volleyball team went 21-9 and again reached the NCAA tournament, and will be part of Team USA at the World University Games this summer.
This weekend, the Wildcats have several athletes competing in Oregon at the track and field national championships. One of them, Olympic high jump silver medalist Erik Kynard, heads into the meet ranked No. 2 in the world with a school-record and season-best jump of 7 feet, 8¾ inches.
Kynard will be trying to win his third national championship — the only others to accomplish that feat are Ken Wiesner of Marquette in the 1940s and Dave Albritton of Ohio State in the ’30s.
“We haven’t talked about it, so I don’t know how significant it is to him. I just know he wants to win every meet he is in,” Kansas State coach Cliff Rovelto said. “It doesn’t make a difference if it’s the Wildcat Invitational or whatever, he just wants to win.”
Kansas State these days.
Naturally, all of that on-field success has spilled over into other areas.
In an era in which many Division I athletic departments are drowning in red ink, Kansas State is firmly in the black. In fact, it’s among the most fiscally sound departments in the country, setting records for total gifts, revenues and profits over the past few years.
Kansas State athletic director John Currie likens the success to an illustration in Jim Collins’ best-selling book, “Good to Great,” in which a flywheel starts moving faster and faster once it gets going.
“Or it’s kind of like riding a bicycle,” Currie said. “Instead of being in first gear going up a hill, all of a sudden you’re able to go up the hill in fifth gear.”
The momentum has manifested itself in a myriad of building projects.
The school recently opened an $18 million basketball training facility and is putting the final touches on a $2 million renovation of the recreation complex that will feature new courts for the tennis program. It’s also broken ground on a $2.7 million rowing center near Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
But the most striking renovation is to the football stadium.
The old press box has been demolished, and the school is in the midst of a $75 million expansion that will create premium seating, improved concessions, better broadcast and media facilities, work space for department staffers and other areas that can be used by the school’s sports programs.
The construction should be finished by the start of football season.
Just in time for the Wildcats to start trying to top this unforgettable year.
“We went a long time without winning championships in some sports, even though we had winning teams,” Currie said in explaining the Wildcats’ dream year. “You have to have a lot of things in place, the coaching and the athletes and support — and then you have to get lucky, too.”
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