Turnaround Team

Kansas State comes from behind with a winning blend of learning and football

To understand Kansas State University, you must understand The Desk - as in President Jon Wefald's desk. It has nothing on it, save three small leadership awards. In the drawers, there is nothing. This is a desk without purpose.

But it is a desk with inestimable significance. "It is symbolic of getting things done, finishing the job every day," Dr. Wefald says. "By the end of the day, I've returned all calls and done all the work." The desk is clean. Tomorrow awaits a clean start.

And that's how Wefald has led, cajoled, and sometimes horsewhipped Kansas State into - implausible as it seems - being one of the land's finest all-around universities. That's because it's one of the very few that has figured a way to get academics and athletics to coexist rather than live at swords point. the greatness of Kansas State lies in not one - football - or the other - academics - but in their symbiotic relationship.

"Symbiotic," muses John Burtis, associate professor of speech communication. "That's a good word. We all do better when one of us succeeds."

When the school's debate team, which Dr. Burtis directs, was honored for a national championship several years ago, one who showed up to offer congratulations was Bill Snyder, head football coach.

Wefald says his philosophy is, "Let's do it. Let's solve problems. We are can-do people."

The great, good spirit of the students and faculty is palpable. "We never," says provost Jim Coffman, "stop doing the doable." And at K-State, everything is considered doable.

"We are," says Wefald, "one of the academic miracles of all times. [See story, below.] Our student scholarship is more impressive than even our football team."

Well, it's close.

Seldom, for example, did the football team make the pages of Sports Illustrated. But in 1989, it did. The headline: "Futility U." The story said, "When it comes to college football, nobody does it worse than Kansas State." The Wildcats, a.k.a. Mildcats, had the worst overall record in the game's history.

Wefald would have none of this national ridicule, largely because the ineptitude in football was creating the misimpression that it was also a place that couldn't teach straight. This shall end, he decreed.

So noncompetitive were the Cats that it was starting to look as if they might be kicked out of the football-proud Big 8, now the Big 12. "That," Wefald says, "would have meant we had no marching band, either." The ragtag band had 125 forlorn members. Wefald asked what it would take to upgrade the band, and promptly sent $200,000 its way. Today, the 300-member organization turns people away and is looking good.

Today, thanks to Wefald who wants it so, and to Coach Snyder who makes it so, the Wildcat football team is at 4-0 and ranked fifth in the nation by the Associated Press. "And to think," says Bob Krause, one of only three vice presidents at lean K-State, "all we wanted was to be able to hold our heads up and be competitive."

It gets better. These very Wildcats just could end up No. 1 in the nation. The other day, the Cats pummeled proud Texas 48-7 in a game not as close as the score indicates. Conceded losing coach Mack Brown, "Those guys are really good."

High above packed KSU stadium, Wefald watches the game, high-fiving friends, including both US senators from Kansas, Sam Brownback (R) and Pat Roberts (R). "Is this great or what?" he hollers.

Yes, it is very great. But the greatness lies in the fact that football and academics go together.

Amy Button Renz, alumni association president, says her members "want to hear about both." Wefald says that for many other university presidents, football is "a matter of tolerating it." But he loves football and all sports and claims to have thrown 33 touchdown passes to break the intramural record when he was an undergraduate at Pacific Lutheran College in Tacoma, Wash.

Yet, that he loves football - "It provides an opportunity, a diversion to look forward to six or seven weekends each fall when the trees are turning and the crops are being harvested" - doesn't keep him from responding candidly when asked if football is too important at universities: "It's the tail that wags the dog. It's far too important."

But it also is what is.

Provost Jim Coffman says Wefald always has felt that academic learning and athletics go "hand in glove. It has never been either/or. Jon Wefald proves that we can walk and chew gum at the same time." No wonder head fund-raiser Gary Hellebust says the school is "hitting on all cylinders."

So how does Wefald do it?

* His leadership style. "I empower people," he says. For example, all actions taken by the student senate are subject to his veto "but I never veto anything they do. Therefore, they act responsibly. It's almost stunning." Wefald attends few meetings. Rather, he is around his office.

Wefald leans back - not at The Desk, of course - and says, "I don't have to solve every problem at Kansas State. That's why I'm in my 13th year and I'm anything but burned out. I've got hundreds of people making decisions. They don't have to check with me. But if people want something from me, I can give it to them before noon."

* He has this perfect sense of balance. As the school built a $3.5 million press box at the stadium, it also was building and renovating a $29.5 million state-of-the-art library; as it built a $3.2 million indoor practice facility for the football team, it was building a $7 million art museum with the enthusiastic support of Wefald's wife, Ruth Ann. "There is good balance here," says Tom Rawson, vice president of administration and finance.

Always at the tip of Wefald's can-do tongue are numbers: Since he arrived, 1.3 million square feet of facilities have been added - 1.1 million square feet, or 85.3 percent, related to academic learning; almost 192,000 square feet, or 14.7 percent, athletic.

Wefald meets with most football and basketball recruits when they are brought to campus in hopes they'll pick K-State. This is unheard of. "Athletics are our window to the world," he explains.

* Wefald is not into glitz. His dad was a grain inspector. Young Jon grew up in small-town Minnesota and in the Dakotas, and in the 1970s was Minnesota's commissioner of agriculture. That makes him perfect for Kansas, where flash and dash are considered bad form. Kansans like steady.

Indeed, Wefald is all about basics. Sure, he's an intellectual and he can drive a listener nuts talking about Genghis Khan and the Mongolian horde. Yet the educational philosophy he imparts to students is dead simple: "Never miss a class, take good notes, sit in the first two rows, and study 2-1/2 hours a day." He sits back and smiles.

That's it? "That's it."

* He wants everything to excel. That's why the school routinely is at the top or near it among all schools for its newspaper, yearbook, student government, forensics (11 national speech champs in 11 years, five individual or team-debate national champs), percentage of alumni contributing, percentage of alumni members to graduates (tops in Big 12), senior livestock judging (four straight national titles), professor of the year in Kansas six of the last 13 years, and once national professor of the year. Oh, yeah, and academics and football. "Is this great or what?" Wefald blurts outs.

* Wefald and Snyder are simpatico. Snyder appreciates the president's unflagging support: "He cares about athletics and supports us philosophically." And somehow, Snyder (income: about $750,000 a year) and Wefald (salary: about $175,000) are able to maintain not only the good will but the support of the faculty (average salary of a full professor: $64,000). Says Wefald, "That's just the way things are."

Among the 50 land-grant universities, however, K-State is 42nd in faculty salaries. Wefald's plan calling for increases for each of the next three years for staff and faculty of 7.6 percent is on the legislative table.

Snyder and the football team adopted the library. The spring football game netted $19,000 in revenue; it was given to the library. Snyder has faculty members on his television show. He gives them seats in the press box. "This is just great," he smiles.

Wefald has broad-based faculty support. According to Pete Cooper, a civil engineering professor at K-State for 33 years, Wefald is "well-regarded by the faculty and there is an appreciation of his efforts, including drawing favorable attention to the university." While good professors are hired away, many choose to stay, and Dr. Cooper says, "I have to conclude they like it here."

Dr. Burtis, communications professor, agrees. "I just don't hear people complaining." He says even the student paper praised Wefald when he passed 10 years as president. "That," Burtis says, "is pretty weird."

There's a starry gathering on campus announcing a $50 million drive for academic-scholarship money. There is music and fireworks and, of course, Wefald. He cannot contain himself: "Is this a magical night for Kansas State or what?" The crowd cheers.

Indeed, on this magical night, it's obvious that Kansas State succeeds because it's a place where the power is in the passion. And The Desk is clean.

* Send e-mail comments to: looneyd@csps.com

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