Lessons learned after missing the brass ring

On Oct. 6, 1998, Douglas S. Looney profiled Kansas State University and its successful blend of athletics and scholarship. This week, he checks back in on K-State, which almost won the football national championship but now must learn how to bounce back from disappointment.

Jon Wefald, Kansas State University's irrepressibly optimistic president, has just driven his car into the driveway of his home on campus. During a short drive, he has raved about the glorious spring day, about the spectacular work his wife, Ruth Ann, has done with a new art museum, about the K-State marching band, about the terrific young woman his son, Skipp, will marry later in the day.

He has just made an upbeat speech at the unveiling of a statue of Mr. K-State, Ernie Barrett, the school's best-ever basketball player and fund-raiser extraordinary. He has hugged everyone he met.

Mr. Wefald, who has propelled Kansas State from academic and athletic mediocrity into that rare public institution that excels in both, has never decided against making an optimistic assessment of anything. In Wefald's World, good resides within all evil, success lies just beyond failure, all tears give way to laughter.

Yet, when talk turns to last year's football season, he turns somber and subdued: "We could not get over that defeat." He stares at the steering wheel.

Ah, yes, That Defeat. K-State, which over the years had become known for having the worst college football team historically in America, found itself in 1998 having a blazingly brilliant season. The Wildcats were undefeated going into the Big 12 championship game last December against Texas A&M. Win that game, a given, and K-State would be in the national championship contest against Tennessee.

Going into the fourth quarter, the Cats were leading 27-12. They lost, in double overtime, 36-33. The cataclysmic event gave new meaning to stunned. "We've never been one play away from a national championship before," says Wefald, gripping the steering wheel. Well, that's not quite right. But the Cats were one play away from playing for the national championship.

Wefald's view is that getting into the title game meant winning the title game. That's how he thinks.

The raging disappointment swept across the Great Plains like a winter wind. Coach Bill Snyder says there was an indescribable "disappointment, agony, just sheer pain, and anger."

"Pain is proportionate," says Bob Krause, vice president for institutional advancement, "to the level of expectation."

Athletic director Max Urich confesses the scope of the disappointment was broad "because you never know how close you'll get to a national championship again." Never previously had the Wildcats even been within roaring distance.

Yet, these days, everyone at Kansas State insists the disappointment is in the rearview mirror. Wefald says it ended in February when "we got the best recruiting class we've ever had." That's optimistic and hyperbolic. It will be three years before anyone knows if that's true.

But, in typical K-State can-do fashion, everyone is trying to push forward with fervor and to learn from That Defeat. Urich says, "This is amateur sport. It's not life and death. The great thing about amateur sports is they're amateur."

Snyder, en route to the spring intrasquad game Saturday, is his stoic self: "We learned we can't take anything for granted." He learned about how to move his team "beyond a setback." Wefald says he learned about "putting things in perspective." He's right. In a world in which the likes of Oklahoma City, Littleton, and Kosovo are too much with us, a loss to A&M doesn't figure in the discussion.

But the value of sport is in the enjoyment and competition. Ultimately, winning definitely is more fun than losing. Yet, more lessons come from losing. Marty Vanier, a graduate of the K-State veterinary medicine school, says, "Good comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment." K-State made plenty of bad judgments in the Big 12 championship game.

The fans do seem to be recovering. Urich says almost all the 40,000 season tickets have been sold for this year. "The system is deep, the program is solid, and we learned some things," Krause says. "The building goes on and we have a plan for every brick."

In the real world, however, the Cats look to be several notches down from last season. The spring game revealed that nobody is even close to replacing star quarterback Michael Bishop, who departed for the pros. The offensive line needs enormous work.

Regardless, the best news for K-State is that disappointment in sport is not a concrete structure designed to last but a prairie tumbleweed just blowing past.

*Send comments to looneyd@csps.com

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