Wefald’s passion leads to Wildcats’ athletic turnaround

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    To understand just how many problems K-State sports had less than a quarter-century ago, and how much those problems affected the entire university, it might be helpful to flash back to life as a K-State student or employee in 1986.
    Enrollment was approximately 15,500 students and rapidly declining. The athletic department at “Futility U,” a nickname given to the university by Sports Illustrated’s Doug Looney, was the laughing stock of the Big 8 Conference.
    The football program, arguably the worst in the country, had managed just one winning season in the last 15 years. In fact, university administrators were considering removing the program entirely.
    That was all before Jon Wefald arrived in Manhattan. To see the difference he’s made, observers and fans need only look at the state of Wildcat athletics in 2008.
    Enrollment has reached record numbers, and K-State, now a member of the Big 12 Conference, has teams who contend annually in a variety of sports.
    “When I got here in 1986, I found out that the former administration was thinking that enrollment would fall to around 11,000,” Wefald, who will retire following the spring 2009 semester, said.
    “They didn’t know what to do, so they couldn’t do anything about it.”
    Wefald said many university officials thought the football team, which had won a total of 21 games since 1980, was something K-State would have been better off without.
    “Just as a reminder, Kansas State played Wichita State in 1985 and lost. In 1986, Wichita State dropped their football program,” he said.
    “People were saying Kansas State would be next because we couldn’t win any games.
    “So rather than read about that week in and week out, it’s kind of like, ‘Let’s just get it out of here entirely, because who wants to lose every Saturday?'”
    Fortunately for current K-Staters, Wefald arrived before that decision was made. Had K-State removed football, it would have been dropped from the Big 8 by default, since the conference had a rule stating that all of its schools had to play football and basketball.
    Wefald said he believes that decision would have likely led to a larger drop in enrollment.
    “We would have automatically been dropped from the Big 8, which means now we’re not a football school,” he said.
    “Then, you have no marching band, and you might end up with 11,000 students. In 2008, how would you like to be a student here if the university has 11,000 students, no football and no marching band? You might not even be at Kansas State.”
    One crisis was averted as enrollment reached a high of 20,000 students by 1989.
    To continue the restoration of K-State’s athletic success, Wefald hired Steve Miller as the university’s athletic director in 1988. In December of that year, Wefald and Miller hired an offensive coordinator by the name of Bill Snyder to take over as the head football coach, and the rest comprises a sizable chunk of Wildcat lore.
    Wefald played a large role in the formation of the Big 12 Conference, saying that, because of its location and size, K-State would have likely been the first school dropped if the Big 8 disbanded.
    “K-State had the most to lose. If the Big 8 would have fallen apart, we would have been the biggest loser,” he said.
    Bob Krause, K-State’s current athletic director, said that without Wefald’s efforts, it’s likely the athletic department never would have improved.
    “There was no shred of evidence that, unless we made an intentional decision, that we would find a way to improve,” Krause said.
    “A question was posed: Do we want to focus on increasing performance in football, or do we want to focus on other things and become a smaller institution? We decided that we needed to be in a major athletic conference.”
    Krause, who has worked with Wefald for 32 years and came to K-State with him in 1986, said they knew the decision was risky and had potential for failure.
    “We knew it was a calculated risk,” he said. “We had to find a coach and a way to get ticket sales up. We needed to sell 20,000 season tickets each year after selling about 8,000 in previous years.”
    That proved to be surprisingly easy as Snyder orchestrated his famous turn-around, and K-State sold out several home games during the 1990s. Attendance still averages around 45,000 fans per game today.
    Krause said it was Wefald’s work ethic and determination that made the program’s resurrection possible.
    “Jon brought a vision to Kansas State, and his type of leadership was very important to the institution,” he said. “There was a very good fit between the school’s needs and his leadership and energy. He’s always had the philosophy that you’re either moving forward or backward. There’s nothing in between.”
    Not only has Wefald shown a great passion for the school’s athletics, but he has shown the same kind of support for many other university organizations as well.
    “The profound impact he’s had hasn’t just been limited to athletics. He’s done a great job of utilizing athletics to promote academic priorities of the university,” Krause said.
    “He was relentless in promoting sports while doing the same thing for groups like debate and marching band. From going to away games to entertaining potential donors to just being there for students, everything he’s done is simply extraordinary. I don’t know another president that does all of that.”
     By making athletics a priority, Wefald has affected the lives of all Wildcat faithful for more than two decades, and Krause said that his colleague’s impact on K-State, particularly its athletic department, is one that will likely be remembered for a long time.
    “From individual students to coaches to fans, his passion and leadership has impacted each of them significantly,” Krause said.
    “In the overall analysis, you don’t need all the resources in the world if you have good people, and he is a good person.”

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