From The Couch – A Tribute To Jon Wefald

From The Couch – A Tribute To Jon Wefald

Former Kansas State University President Jon Wefald died of a heart attack on Saturday at the age of 84. Wefald served as President of Kansas State for 23 years, from 1986 to 2009, which is the second-longest tenure in school history. He was the President during my entire time in school at K-State and is most heralded for presiding over the Bill Snyder era, the turnaround of K-State football and the formation of the original Big 12 Conference.

The tributes to Wefald came in fast and furious today and I was also able to find some great quotes from past interviews to put together this piece. Hope you enjoy my tribute to Jon Wefald.

JM: Many dignitaries offered their condolences on the death of Jon Wefald. I am still waiting on a public comment from Bill Snyder, but as of this posting I have yet to see one.

“We can turn this (football) program around.”…Jon Wefald, Sports Illustrated, September 4, 1989

JM: This was a comment from the “Futility U” article in Sports Illustrated in 1989 and it was quite prophetic. Bill Snyder rightly deserves the credit for making K-State football one of the top programs in the country, but he had the full support and endorsement of Jon Wefald along the way.

“When I came here in 1986,” says Wefald, “this university was in free-fall. It had gone from 19,500 students in 1980 to 17,500.” What Wefald discovered sometime during his first 15 minutes on the job as president is that Kansas State’s football record—which at the time was 296-468-41 over 90 years, by far the alltime worst among the 106 Division I-A football teams—was contributing to the institution’s decline in enrollment. Indeed, says provost James Coffman, “the perception that football was in disarray created the assumption that the university was in disarray.”…Sports Illustrated, August 31, 1992

JM: Upon his arrival, Wefald instantly increased a declining enrollment at K-State…

“And as the football team has improved, so has the rest of the university. It is a symbiotic relationship. Enrollment last spring was 19,775. Since Wefald became president, five Kansas State students have been awarded Rhodes scholarships. Rival Kansas, which has about 5,000 more students, has had none over the same span. Indeed, only five schools in the country have produced more Rhodes Scholars since ’86. In addition, Kansas State was one of only three schools to have four finalists (including one winner) for the prestigious Truman scholarships last year and ranks first in the nation since ’86 in producing winners, with 10. Kansas State has had 11 Goldwater scholars, second best in the country among public universities.”…Sports Illustrated, August 31, 1992

JM: Wefald was always proud of K-State’s Rhodes Scholar recipients and for good reason.

“How the football program has been turned around is a study in the harsh realities of big-time college sports. For openers, football usually doesn’t get turned around if the president doesn’t care. Wefald is the first Kansas State president since Milton Eisenhower, who was in charge from 1943 to ’50, to care about football—or, to be more precise, to understand the enormous role that the sport plays in the public perception of a university. Invariably when the boss turns his attention to something, the trickle-down is similarly positive.”…Sports Illustrated, August 31, 1992

JM: The trickle-down effect here is what was important. Wefald knew what having a winning football program meant for the University and I recall him saying it often.

“Just as the university supports football—Wefald, for example, has all recruits come to his house for brunch on a number of winter weekends….”…Sports Illustrated, August 31, 1992

JM: I remember Wefald hosting recruits at his home to do a final sales pitch and close. You always knew when recruits went to Wefald’s home for dinner that they would probably end up committing to K-State.

“Under his leadership, K-State has added about 2.2 million square feet of new university buildings, including a new library, a new art museum, and a nationally acclaimed science building. In addition, during the Wefald years, enrollment has increased from about 13,500 to more than 23,000 and K-State has built a healthy endowment program and established a national presence in athletics.”…

JM: Wefald was a 2008 inductee into the K-State Athletics Hall of Fame due to his contributions over the years. A well-deserved honor.

K-State President Jon Wefald said of the Big 12: “It is certainly the equal of the Pac-10 and the Big Ten and”—note the emphasis—“clearly the equal of the Southeastern Conference.”…The Ringer, September 3rd, 2021

JM: Although this article is from 2021, Wefald’s quote is from 1996, right after the formation of the original Big 12 Conference.

“Face it, sports are the window through which the university is viewed,” says Wefald.”…Sports Illustrated, November 9, 1998

JM: This is a true statement, and it was refreshing that Wefald understood the importance of sports to the overall success of a University such as Kansas State.

“Regent Fred Logan said, “I think if you look at higher education in Kansas, Jon Wefald, it’s fair to say, was an historic figure and he was an historic president.”…Emporia Gazette, July 10, 2014

JM: Hard to argue with that.

“That’s when I started thinking to myself, ‘OK, I’m the Chair here and I know there are two or three other Big Eight presidents that feel we have to get aggressive,'” Wefald said. “Otherwise what I was worried about was Texas would join the Pac-10 in 1990, kind of like the same thing we found last year and now. They’d be leaving the Southwest Conference and that would be a powerful force to maybe trigger Oklahoma into joining the Southeast Conference.

“And then Colorado, going all the way back to the late 80s and early 90s — there were people at the University of Colorado that wanted to join the Pac-10. They had that kind of vision for two decades.”

So a group of Big Eight presidents, led by Wefald, became proactive.

“We felt we had to get aggressive because if we don’t, there’s a good chance the Big Eight takes a big hit. It would create a real disturbance.”
…Manhattan Mercury, September, 2011, on the formation of the Big 12 Conference

JM: Wefald saw the changing landscape of college athletics way back in the mid-1990s and was proactive in leading the formation of the Big 12. The Big 12 hasn’t had a proactive commissioner since.

Wefald, Budig and Jischke began to look at a partnership with the Southwest Conference, which consisted of eight schools after Arkansas’ departure: Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Baylor, TCU, SMU, Rice and Houston.

“It was something we were willing to consider, and it was something we thought we could talk the other Big Eight presidents into,” Wefald said.

Fast forward to 2011, a time when 16-team super conferences are talked about daily, and this is where the Big Eight actually appeared to be well ahead of the game approximately 20 years earlier.

The Big Eight’s goal was to form a 16-team conference, with all eight of the remaining schools from the Southwest Conference merging with the original Big Eight of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, K-State, KU, Missouri, Iowa State, Colorado and Nebraska.

“We actually were pushing that very hard,” Wefald said
“….Manhattan Mercury, September, 2011, on the formation of the Big 12 Conference

JM: The University of Texas nixed the formation of the first 16-school super conference, because, of course they did.

Meanwhile, members of the Big Eight faced their own set of concerns about television market size and the viability of their conference. Wefald was especially concerned, and at a 1990 National Association of Land Grant Schools meeting, he initiated a conversation between the Big Eight and SWC. As the chairman of the Association of Big Eight Universities, Wefald felt his title gave him the power bring up a potential merger, but he lacked clout due to Kansas State’s subpar athletics.

Wefald: Geez, this guy from Kansas State trying to get all of us to join the Big Eight. They probably viewed me as kind of a humorous figure. In 1990, I don’t think too many other ADs were really thinking of this kind of merger.”…Sports Illustrated, August 16, 2016

JM: While people may have been laughing at him at the time, in the end, Wefald pulled off his vision.

JM: Jon Wefald loved K-State and he was K-State’s number one salesman. He has been and will be missed. My condolences to all of his friends and family.

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