Kansas State football: No Disney for old men

“Is that what you’re asking me? Is there something wrong with anything?” – Anton Chigurh

The Disney screenplay would have made this the season for the Kansas State Wildcats.No Disney for old men

A legendary coach battles cancer in the offseason and overcomes it in time to be on the sideline. His team is experienced and talented by all accounts — in a perfect position to take advantage of some cracks in the Big 12’s best teams and march up the polls into the national semifinal (provided a few things go right). It would have been so perfect.

As it is, there is no Disney for old men.

Kansas State should be 5-1 at this point, and there is plenty of specific blame to go around for this team sitting at 3-3. Add in a hurt Jesse Ertz and the disappointment that came with watching just how one-dimensional Alex Delton still is, and it leaves one to wonder: Injuries stink, sure, but what were we all thinking? Did we simply overvalue what Bill Snyder, Dana Dimel, and the rest of the offensive coaching staff bring to the table at this point? It’s not like this offense was humming along before Ertz’s health issues.

On the other hand, c’mon, it wasn’t that farfetched to think 2017 should have been a big season, was it?

An experienced defense was going to anchor and support an offense that didn’t have any superstars but was generally loaded (supposedly) at the skill positions. Those two units would have the safety net of all-world special teams and a staff led by Bill Snyder. And, consider this:

According to sportsreference.com, K-State has never had a weaker strength of schedule under Bill Snyder, which is saying something. (In fact, in 106 years, the 2017 slate currently stands as the 13th-worst KSU SOS ever.) This season was set, complete with a gradual increase in competition leading up to home games against TCU, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.

This team, which was positioned to be one of K-State’s most successful since 2012, instead has lurched and stalled like Axel Foley stuck a banana stuck in its offensive tailpipe. The Wildcats are eighth in the Big 12 in scoring offense (31.7 ppg – only Baylor and Kansas are worse), and dead last in total offense (373.8 ypg) and passing offense (186.2 ypg).

Some of that is Ertz getting injured, and some is TCU’s stellar defense. But, when the expectation for K-State overall was to win 10 or even 11 games counting a bowl, the floor shouldn’t be that low. This offense should be better. Period.

But here things are in mid-October where fans and media now pause as they work through the rest of the KSU schedule to find three wins. They pause because any guarantees of six wins and making a bowl are now not certain. The Wildcats will beat Kansas, but past that, while there are some likely wins, there are no 100-percent locks.

Nobody saw this kind of season coming, and the last month’s results have made it feel all sorts of unfair and wrong for those who banked on that Disney ending. For them, it feels as strikingly absurd as someone asking: Is that what you’re asking me? Is there something wrong with anything?

And knowing the answer is a deflating … yes.

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K-State football: Having to adjust expectations

If you were looking for some kind of restorative “make me feel better” performance from the Kansas State Wildcats against Baylor, how do you feel after?

Wins are good, obviously, but I don’t know that I feel that much better — not after a second-half performance delivered with the intensity of a stale Werther’s Original.

There were too many dropped passes by wide receivers again.* And, I admit I was surprised at how key defensive back Cre Moore apparently is to the defense. His absence was noticeable after he was ejected for targeting — especially on the long, gashing pass plays through the middle of the Wildcats defense.

*Holy self-confidence issues, Batman. There have been many past individual receiving talents much better than anyone on this roster, but this group as a whole was supposed to be, perhaps, one of the best ever assembled. Maybe the group still can be by season’s end, but Byron Pringle and crew have to figure out how to, simply, catch the damn ball.

Overall, this team is 3-1, 1-0, which beats anything less. Still, however, I’m struggling with the first four games’ evidence, dropped passes included, and reconciling that it is the base of my growing dread that I badly, optimistically misjudged what the 2017 Wildcats will accomplish.

If anything else, I don’t want to be wrong because, well, being wrong sucks. But, in this case, it also means a letdown. That’s not fun either. I want to believe this team will finish 10-2 and make it to the Big 12 Championship. I want to believe that making such a run — especially now — would mean an outside shot at a national semifinal.

Here’s the evidence I think I’m seeing that will keep that from happening.

Offensive plays. On the surface, this seems like an easy potshot at Dana Dimel, but it isn’t…not totally anyways. He’s trying, or appears to be. He continues to call passes despite receivers’ catching problems. He has dialed down the obvious “give it to Winston inside the 20” stuff from last year. But, there have been head-scratching moments when Dimel seems to go right despite the left working just fine (throwing against Vanderbilt in the second half when the run was effective).

And there is the curious lack of regular use of Justin Silmon. Alex Barnes is a stud, but Silmon has looked pretty darn good in his own right when he gets touches. There should be plenty of room for both of them, especially in an offense that values the run as much as K-State’s does.

Jesse Ertz has to forget about tomorrow. The heart of Bill Snyder’s offense drums to the beat of the quarterback’s bravado. Ertz is a capable leader, he understands the offense, and he’s better every game in terms of reading his running lanes. But, reading open lanes and fully exploiting them are different things. In fact, the past two games it seems when Ertz runs, he’s anxious to get on the ground once he gets into the open. Down the road, when one cut or one broken tackle could mean a first down or score? Hitting the ground after gaining eight yards won’t cut it – not for a team trying to fight its way into a Championship picture.

(By the way, did you happen to notice the difference in spark level with Alex Delton behind center at the end of the Baylor game? If you say no, you’re either lying or didn’t see it.)

The Do-it-all-defense isn’t all that deepK-State leads the Big 12 in total defense, scoring defense, and pass defense, but the way it was gashed in the middle by Baylor for big plays after Moore left makes me wonder if the secondary can withstand any missing pieces over the next eight weeks. It will probably show well against Texas. After that, TCU and especially Oklahoma are going to be a challenge.

That said, is it impossible for all starters to be available all year? Of course not. But, it’s a precarious spot.

The Commodores clue. I’m not usually a fan of basing one team’s potential on how an opponent fares, but I think there’s some value in it here. Vanderbilt is in that same Top 25’ish soup K-State is in. So, considering how evenly the two teams played each other, I’ve paid attention to Vanderbilt as it took on other ranked foes. In watching No. 1 Alabama destroy the Commodores, 59-0, and No. 21 Florida following up with a 38-24 win, it left me really unimpressed with K-State’s ability to score just seven points against Vandy.

If I believe K-State is Big 12 Championship quality after those results, then it means Vanderbilt is good enough to win the Big 12. I don’t believe that. So, the other side is K-State isn’t good enough to win the Big 12. That, unfortunately, feels more correct.

Teamrankings.com currently projects K-State to finish 7-5. I don’t think it’s that dire, but I’m thinking I should prepare myself for eight or nine wins as the ceiling for this team, as opposed to the 10 or 11 I thought was on the table at the beginning of the season.

K-State football: We have a duty to keep focus on the field

If you’ve been to Bill Snyder Family Stadium during pregame in the past nearly three decades, you’ve heard it (minus the Ron Prince years, of course) …

Right now! Hey! It’s your tomorrow!”

More than at any other time, this Kansas State Wildcats football season feels that way.

An experienced, talented quarterback, a stout defense, overall depth, good special teams, and a stack of skill position players with speed coming out of their wherever. All of that was rewarded with a preseason Top 20 ranking (which has proven to be a terrific place to start for teams willing to play their way into the national picture by season’s end).

And Bill Snyder is leading it all after waging a war on his cancer during the offseason.

I see this, and I’m inspired and appreciative.

On Saturday, I caught myself watching a game* that doesn’t matter in any other year with a different sense of enjoyment. Big plays and a high score helped, I’m sure, but I noticed me appreciating how much of a treat it is to watch a Kansas State team coached by Bill Snyder.

*ESPN3 … what an overwhelming failure. It wasn’t first time I’ve watched a game via the platform, and it won’t be the last because sometimes it is the only option. But, as I tweeted Saturday, massive issues like these did nothing to ease my distrust in streamable broadcasting. I love the long-term upside, but while there also are broadcast issues at times with traditional channels, that route is far more reliable at this point.

But, while watching the Wildcats roll, I also saw K-State’s transcendent, windbreaker-wearing icon, a legend built out of limestone, looking as if a stiff Kansas wind gust could knock him over.

I saw him, and I worry. I don’t want to worry, but I do. I say this as the person who wondered why the national media couldn’t just let Bill Snyder be Bill back in April. I worry because we’re now nearing five months since that column, and Snyder looks almost exactly like he did at that point. And, I don’t know why. And, I don’t know if anyone else knows why. And, it’s unsettling even if I don’t want it to be. And, the season is now underway. And, and, and …

*Breathe* …

His postgame analysis was sharp. So, too, was his resolve to correct his team’s mistakes before next week. All of it felt like football Saturdays in Manhattan are supposed to feel.

That normalcy is a credit to Snyder (and everyone on his staff stepping up where needed) in keeping focus on the field. That effort is why they deserve for us to do the same for now. (Yes, I know how that sounds considering I’ve just written a column about it.)

Regardless, I will. I will keep my mind on the team. I’ll keep watching as it battles for wins, for a Big 12 championship, and for its coach.

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K-State’s Gene Taylor needs to lead Aggieville out of Averageville

His predecessor raised buildings and got a little lucky in winning while doing so, but new K-State Director of Athletics Gene Taylor needs to figure out how to get KSU to consistently and legitimately compete.

New Kansas State Director of Athletics Gene Taylor (right) is welcomed by K-State President Richard Myers.

It was only four years ago that Kansas State University planted its flag atop the Big 12 mountain. “Titletown USA is right here in Manhattan, Kansas, isn’t it?” John Currie rhetorically asked during a celebration in March 2013.

Since then, however, K-State has had more new athletic directors than Big 12 championships in football, men’s basketball, and baseball – the three sports that formed the foundation of Currie’s statement. The three winning percentages in that time: .615 (football); .549 (men’s basketball); .473 (baseball).

Sort of quietly — outside of the constant roar surrounding Bruce Weber anyways — Aggieville has rebranded from Titletown to Averageville.

Despite that, the football machine, for now, is untouchable of course and should be until Bill Snyder is no longer the head coach. That said, Taylor was asked on a Kansas City-area sports radio show whether Snyder worked for him, or he worked for Snyder. To paraphrase, Taylor’s response was that the two would work “together.”

What will be interesting to watch unfold is what “together” means for both parties. With Currie, Snyder publicly was as rigid as he was civil — whether in his long-standing disdain for made-for-TV schedules (as Currie pushed for greater fan experiences) or in his weird public campaign for Sean Snyder to become the next K-State head coach.*

*I’ve not felt this was a 100-percent honest campaign from Snyder – not when coaches like Jim Leavitt randomly have contract clauses paving for an easy return to K-State. I mean, life is sometimes stranger than fiction but to think a calculated someone like Leavitt put a clause like that in just because he has feelings for KSU? You can buy it and I won’t blame you, but I’m going to pass.

And while this season appears to have some national/Top 25 potential, it doesn’t mask the fact that K-State has appeared in the national rankings in only one of the past four seasons. Taylor has some time to work together with Snyder, make sure he listens to the legend, and get his plan in place. Nowhere in there should it be about maintaining the status quo because the past several years haven’t actually been all that amazing.

Meanwhile, over in Bramlage Coliseum, Taylor has a much more immediate concern. In the same sports radio interview, Taylor avoided committing for or against an extension for Bruce Weber. He’s wise in doing so. While fans and some sites are hot on firing Weber, Taylor appeared to show he will not be pressured into quick decisions without fully surveying the landscape. That landscape includes K-State President Richard Myers, who alluded to an extension with Weber in his opening comments welcoming Taylor.

Barring an unforeseen miracle, KSU will not win a Big 12 Championship in the next two years or longer, and every year that streak extends will be an increasingly uncomfortable feeling not just for whomever the coach is, but their boss as well. K-State fans have made it clear they do not appreciate basketball mediocrity. There’s no reason to believe that attitude will change, and Taylor needs to answer that call if he wants to successfully cultivate and maintain a good relationship with that sector of the fanbase.

And finally, in the shadows is the K-State baseball program, which has taken perhaps the biggest fall among the three programs. Since winning the Big 12 in 2013, Brad Hill’s program has meandered along a downhill path; its best conference winning percentage the past four seasons is .417 (2015). Its overall record is 99-110 in that time.

This year, an early-season victory against Top 25 South Carolina gave great reason for hope, but not much came of it before the Bat Cats took two out of three against No. 25 West Virginia this past weekend.

Hill did wonders in rebuilding what Mike Clark handed him, but history has shown a rebuild, a peak, and a regression. It is on Taylor, probably sooner than later, to determine if Hill is the one to rebuild things a second time.

The great news is Taylor can focus on these things and be the people person he’s been billed as. And, he can do so with an amenities ace in his sleeve. Like never before, K-State has the facilities to compete … right now. Pay attention to them throughout the “Day in the Life” video. K-State has never looked better.

It all means it boils down to one thing for Taylor: He doesn’t have many, if any, excuses at this point. He has new, shiny walls. He needs to develop his department’s culture so that it brings new banners to hang on them.

 

Kansas State names Gene Taylor as new Director of Athletics

A sect of Kansas State fans have toyed with the thought for years that one of their next hires could/should/would come out of the North Dakota State University pipeline.

Instead of Craig Bohl coming to coach football, however, K-State found its next director of athletics as it announced Friday afternoon that Gene Taylor, who will leave the University of Iowa as Deputy Athletics Director, will assume the position.

Taylor joined the Iowa athletic department after 13 years at North Dakota St., where he helped guide the program through a jump from Division II to Division I.

“Throughout the process, Gene’s experience as an athletics director and his national reputation as a respected leader and someone who has built and maintained tremendous relationships with his staff, coaches, student-athletes and donors stood out in what was an extremely talented pool of candidates,” K-State President Richard Myers said.

While Taylor’s name wasn’t at the front of any speculative lists – at least not those floated or discussed publicly – the hire feels grounded in that it was well-researched, thought out, and executed with a person who appears capable and willing to understand Wildcats culture, both from an administration and fan perspective.

Taylor is someone familiar with running an athletic department built with football as its anchor revenue driver, and he has a resume that seems to indicate he knows how to convince donors to write checks. The NDSU athletics budget tripled from $5 million in Taylor’s first year to $15 million, while the scholarship endowment grew to $11.2 million, and Team Makers booster club support tripled from $750,000 to $2.8 million, all according to the K-State press release issued Friday.

Taylor’s K-State predecessor knew how to raise money as well. The question will be whether the new AD knows how to manage relationships with his coaches and supervise them much better than John Currie did. And, of course, how he’ll handle the current unrest a sizable portion of fans has with men’s basketball coach Bruce Weber.

“Gene Taylor is one of the most respected athletic administrators in the country,” said Gary Barta, University of Iowa Director of Athletics. “He has such a great combination of passion, experience, and the ability to lead by bringing people together toward a common goal.”

Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz also was quoted as saying K-State made a good choice.

“Kansas State has hired a very talented administrator, and a professional who works well with others on all levels to achieve the desired results,” Ferentz said.

It’s hard to believe Taylor, though qualified, was K-State’s first choice. And in fact, one source said Texas Tech AD Kirby Hocutt turned down the position and will remain at the department he’s run in Lubbock since 2011.

Still, if Taylor proves to be what his resume indicates, K-State may have a winner on its hands.

K-State will officially introduce Taylor on Monday at 10:30 a.m.

Why can’t the national media just let K-State’s Bill Snyder be Bill Snyder?

Earlier this week, CBSSports.com decided to check in on Bill Snyder.

The story was warranted as the Kansas State Wildcats football coach was back in front of the media for the first time since it was announced this past winter that the 77-year-old coach was undergoing treatment for throat cancer.

However, veteran reporter Dennis Dodd took a bizarre angle on the story.

With some random praise attempts sprinkled throughout, Dodd’s piece mostly had the voice of someone who pities a coach too old to understand the weight of his situation and in need of someone to gently remind him he needs to eat his beets before a recliner nap; let alone prepare for a college football season.

‘The truth is, most folks can now see an end to Snyder’s career. It has been glorious and great and long-lasting, but it is coming to a close soon. Isn’t it?” the piece said. “The 2017 Wildcats have a returning quarterback (Jesse Ertz), should be picked no lower than third in the Big 12 and are a borderline top-25 team.

“The question is, can Snyder see the end? On one hand, he is eight years away from Joe Paterno’s age (85) when the Penn State coach was forced to retire in 2011. On the other, what he is going through is cancer.”

First, the Paterno reference/comparison is gross. Both coaches are/were old, and that’s where the comparison ends. Period. Flippantly painting Paterno’s Penn State situation as a “forced to retire” example is awful enough on its own. But to then use it as some sort of illustration of how Snyder perhaps doesn’t know when it is time to step away because he’s coaching after cancer treatment? Pepsi’s recent diversity ad with Kylie Jenner was closer to hitting the intended mark. (Spoiler: It also badly missed.)

And second, why is it that Dodd this time, or *insert national media person* now or ever, can’t or won’t simply allow Bill Snyder to just be Bill Snyder? And let that be enough?*

*Thinking too hard about or reading too much into Snyder’s approach and demeanor has always plagued those in the media who have tried to unlock the “magic whatever” Snyder used to build his program. They think it has to be magic because the straightforward, hard-work, no-frills, no-thrills, saw-wood, 16-goals, anti-Jim Harbaugh approach is just too damn boring to be as effective as it has proven to be.

Also as evidence of things having changed drastically for Snyder, Dodd threw in the coach’s having a bottle of water instead of coffee. I mean, if there’s a sign a coach is headed straight into the ground, as Dodd seemed eager to portray, drinking water surely signals the end, doesn’t it? (I guess when you’re trying very hard to frame your point that a 77-year-old cancer survivor might be thinking retirement sooner than later as edgy and groundbreaking, you’ll use whatever you can get.)

Sigh …

Isn’t it time, finally, that Bill Snyder just be left to do what he does? Let him tackle the rest of his cancer recovery like he has done his coaching tenure. Let him be unyielding in his approach; tough in his execution; and honest in his brief statements about things. Let him then again pass those traits to his team and see what happens.

But most of all, stop questioning Snyder’s ability to fight, whether in his recovery or in his ability to lead the K-State program.

Anyone who knows him or his teams knows there is no question about that at all.

Surprised by Frank Martin and South Carolina? You shouldn’t be

When a team makes a Final Four for the first time ever – heck, when it wins an NCAA Tournament game for the first time ever – surprise is part of the expected reaction.

So it has been for the South Carolina Gamecocks and their head coach, Frank Martin, who have become a Tournament darling, especially after dismantling love-to-hate Duke and beating up Baylor along the way. (The darling label also was helped when Martin honored a Sports Illustrated for Kids child reporter’s perfect question and another time commented about today’s adults being the problem in society instead of kids.)

The extended run has even provided enough time for national reporter Bill Reiter to dive (again) into why Frank Martin isn’t at Kansas State anymore and opine (again) that the University of Tennessee is riding John Currie’s ego into administrative hell, probably.

Indeed, from wins to the podium to media good feels, Martin has had a perfect tournament. He has basked in its stature-building spotlight and only kind of had to share it with Gonzaga and Oregon. (Nobody has really even mentioned Final Four old-hat North Carolina, which might be scary.) Nope, this week has deservedly mostly belonged to Martin, who has appeared more ready than ever to, as he has said in the past he tells his players, “live in the moment.”

Having covered Martin’s tenure up close at Kansas State from start to finish, it’s intriguing to watch the man now and think he was this close to this year perhaps being his second Final Four.

In the 2009-10 season, Martin coached the fastest point guard in America in Denis Clemente and had him paired with K-State’s future all-time leading scorer, Jacob Pullen. Curtis Kelly was silky smooth and sneakily tough on the glass, while Dominique Sutton was the kind of guy a 15-year-old Sindarius Thornwell should have been dreaming to play like some day. Luis Colon provided some anchor toughness in the post, while Jamar Samuels was a pogo stick around the rim on both ends of the floor. The third senior in the three-man class with Clemente and Colon, Chris Merriewether averaged less than 1 point per game and 1.4 rebounds, but he appeared in 33 games because he poured his life into his eight minutes per game.

In that vein, every one of them (and several others) played exactly the kind of intensity and defense people are now losing their minds over with the Gamecocks. And, just like South Carolina now, it served K-State well. After handling North Texas, the Wildcats saw Pullen outduel Jimmer Fredette and No. 7 seed BYU. Then, in one of the greatest Tournament games ever played, K-State outlasted Jordan Crawford and No. 6 Xavier, 101-96, in double overtime. Just two days later, No. 5 Butler upended K-State’s run in a game where it was impossible not to wonder about fatigue.

“I’m sure we would of had a better chance [of making the Final Four]. We played a lot of basketball against Xavier,” Curtis Kelly told me this week. “As the [Butler] game went on, though, I can tell the overtime took a toll more then I gave it credit for.

“Butler was a great team, with a really good pro player in Gordon Hayward. So I’m glad we lost that year to a team that made it all the way.”

It’s impossible to say, of course, whether the double OT really was the ultimate factor that kept Martin and K-State out of the Final Four. But, considering K-State had beaten Xavier earlier by 15 that season in Manhattan, it’s hard not to seriously consider.

Back to the present, though, and Martin’s core fire is just as hot now as it was then. The love for his players also is there just the same. However, the same coach who once said in postgame about that 2010 KSU squad (following a Big 12 Conference win over Texas), “If they don’t come in ready to work tomorrow, I will destroy them,” now appears to have settled into understanding the fire doesn’t have to be an earth-scorching inferno all the time.

Tiredness aside, it makes you wonder if that added maturity is the last little something that might have been missing seven years ago in Manhattan but will be enough to propel Martin and his current group all the way. After all, the overall approach has gotten this team, a No. 7 seed that hasn’t been ranked in the AP Poll since Feb. 13, this far.

South Carolina is talented. It is tough. It is battle-tested. It offensive rebounds you into submission, and it can shoot the 3. And the defense, of course, is ferocious. Most of that is the result of its head coach believing in his guys and refusing to allow them to believe less. (Even if people like me believe far less – as recently as earlier this year.)

That’s a really scary, proven-winner combination if you’re the on the other side, and if it so happens that the Gamecocks make the National Final, nobody should be all that surprised. Not if they have been paying attention.