From The Couch – Ernie Barrett

From The Couch – Ernie Barrett

There’s not much going on right now in the sports world so I’m trying to find some unique topics to write about.  I’ve always wanted to do a series about the individuals who have had their jerseys retired by Kansas State University.  I was a freshman at K-State in 1991 so I have a good feel about the sports programs from that time going forward, but have never really done a deep dive into the tradition of K-State sports, especially the basketball program.  I figured I would start with the man they call “Mr. K-State,” Ernie Barrett.  I had a lot of fun putting this together and as a result this column is a bit long, so grab a cup of coffee or your favorite drink and enjoy learning a little bit about Ernie.

“His basketball career at K-State is storied.  He captained the 1950-51 team that opened one of America’s most spectacular basketball arenas — fabled Ahearn Field House.  Barrett earned All-America honors for the 1951 team that posted a 25-4 record and advanced all the way to the NCAA championship game under coach Jack Gardner.  His legendary “radar shot” described his ability as a long-range shooter which propelled the Wildcats into the title game where they lost to Kentucky, 68-58.  He was named the most valuable player at the East/West All-Star game in Chicago following his senior year.”…Kansas Sports Hall of Fame website

JM:  Ernie was inducted into the Kansas sports hall of fame in 1996, which happens to be the year I graduated from K-State. 

“A first-round draft pick of the Boston Celtics, he played two seasons in the National Basketball Association.”…Kansas Sports Hall of Fame website

JM:  Not only did Ernie play for legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach, they ended up becoming good friends. 

“Following his NBA career, he returned to K-State as assistant basketball coach under “Tex” Winter.  In 1961, joined the athletic staff as assistant athletic director and in 1969 was named athletic director, the first Kansas-born athlete to lead K-State’s athletic program.  Well-known for his firm handshake, Barrett was the man who hired Hall of Fame basketball coach Jack Hartman.  He later spearheaded fundraising campaigns for KSU Stadium, the athletic dormitory, synthetic turf on the football stadium and the R.V. Christian Track and Field Complex.”…Kansas Sports Hall of Fame website

JM:  Quite the resume!

‘“That’s when I knew I made it as the K-State basketball coach,’ former KSU coach Frank Martin says now. ‘His handshakes are legendary, but when he grabs you in a headlock, that is a sign of love.”’Wichita Eagle, July 5, 2019

JM:  It’s fun to see the reverence that current and former K-State coaches show for Ernie. 

“’I didn’t think he was ever going to let me out of that headlock,’ Weber said. ‘But it was awesome. He couldn’t have been more excited. He told me it was one of his greatest moments. He had been waiting (67) years for us to finally beat Kentucky.’”Wichita Eagle, July 5, 2019

JM:  Weber is referring to the moment captured in this video:

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“He still drives himself around Manhattan in a Lincoln Town Car with the letters “MR KST” emblazoned on the license plate. He still works out for an hour and a half each morning, jogging and lifting weights alongside current K-State student-athletes in hopes of dipping below 200 pounds. He still drinks his favorite cocktail (rum and coke) every weekend. And his handshake remains strong as ever.”Wichita Eagle, July 5, 2019

JM:  I haven’t worked out for an hour and a half since….uh….a long time.

“It all began when he was a high school basketball player in Wellington, Kansas more than 70 years ago. He had just made a game-winning free throw (granny-style, off the backboard, he sheepishly admits) against a team from Wichita and the opposing coach wanted to offer his congratulations. When they met in the handshake line, the coach squeezed Barrett so tightly that he yelled out in pain.”Wichita Eagle, July 5, 2019

JM:  Read on for the revenge story and what became the legend behind the handshake. 

‘“He damn near broke it,’ Barrett says now.  That handshake made a lasting impression. So much so, that Barrett wanted revenge as he grew bigger and stronger. He had to wait a few years, but he got it when they met again on a Wichita street corner. Barrett was riding in a car with friends at the time, and there was heavy traffic, but that didn’t stop him. He jumped out into the street and said hello. Barrett reminded the coach of their game and his free throw. It was a friendly exchange. Eventually the coach smiled and said it was nice to see Barrett again. Then they shook hands. Things were different this time. ‘I broke his hand,’ Barrett said, pumping his fist as if it just happened. ‘I didn’t let go until I had him on the ground. Then I told him, ‘Sir, this is what you did to me in high school and I just wanted to say hello.’ Then I walked away.’ Barrett enjoyed the interaction so much that he made the physical handshake his own. It is now his calling card.”Wichita Eagle, July 5, 2019

JM:  What a great story!  I’d love to shake hands with Ernie sometime to see how I’d hold up! This story is Ernie’s “mic drop” moment! 

“’I never warn anyone about it, because I want them to get the full experience,’ said former K-State baseball coach and current fundraiser Mike Clark, one of Barrett’s best friends. ‘That is part of what makes Ernie unique and special. That’s not just his calling card, but the first thing people bring up about him, even more than basketball.’”Wichita Eagle, July 5, 2019

JM:  The man with the iron handshake! 

“For Martin, now the head coach at South Carolina, it was the day he arrived in Manhattan as an assistant coach under Bob Huggins. As he entered Bramlage Coliseum for the first time, he winced all the way to his office after shaking hands with Barrett on the concourse. When he complained to Huggins that ‘an elderly man just sucked the life out of my hand,’ Huggins told Martin not to worry. The same thing happened to him.”Wichita Eagle, July 5, 2019

JM:  The man that made Frank Martin wince in pain?  Ernie Barrett! Love it! 

“’It’s always a surprise, regardless of how many times you shake hands with him,’ Kruger said. ‘It’s kind of his signature and it represents the strength and passion he has for his university.’”

JM:  Well said, Lon Kruger.

“He led the Wildcats to the national championship game in 1951 and still thinks they would have won the title if not for a shoulder injury he suffered in the semifinals against Oklahoma State.
Kentucky beat K-State in the finals 68-58 with a hobbled Barrett playing only a few minutes. He was unable to lift his left arm, but he still started the game and made some open shots until Kentucky realized that’s all he could do.”Wichita Eagle, July 5, 2019

JM:  Man, what could have been.  If Ernie hadn’t been injured, this might have been K-State’s only national championship. 

“When Martin guided K-State to the Elite Eight in 2010, he wanted to win NCAA Tournament games for Barrett. He was touched when he witnessed Barrett crying after the Wildcats advanced to the Sweet 16, but he felt crushed when they fell short of the Final Four. ‘One of the biggest empty feelings I ever had was when we lost to Butler,’ Martin said. ‘I wanted to give Ernie that opportunity of going to a Final Four. I wanted him to feel vindicated that K-State got back to that platform. When we didn’t make it, it was a real empty feeling.'”Wichita Eagle, July 5, 2019

JM:  Ernie was crying when K-State made the Sweet 16.  Now THAT’S passion!

“At this moment, he seems more concerned that a car in the Mr. K’s parking lot lacks a novelty K-State license plate. So, after he finishes up a lunch of soup and bread, he approaches the owner of the vehicle and offers him one. This is what happens when you’ve supported the same school passionately for 72 years. The stranger isn’t sure what to say as Barrett pops open his trunk and reveals a box of Powercat license plates. ‘I want to see this on the front of your car next time you’re here,’ Barrett said as he presented the gift.”Wichita Eagle, July 5, 2019

JM:  I still think one of Bill Snyder’s best ideas was to give a Powercat license tag to anyone who bought season tickets.  I had one on every vehicle I owned and you saw them all over the city and state on every road.  Great marketing.  The fact that Ernie keeps a box of these in his trunk and gives them out to people that don’t have one is simply spectacular!

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Here’s a pic of my and my buddy Tracey at the Ernie Barrett statue

“When Ahearn Fieldhouse opened on December 9th, 1950, it was the second largest facility of its kind behind Jenison Fieldhouse on the Michigan State campus.  It was a multipurpose facility, designed for basketball and other sports such as indoor track, volleyball and various intramurals.  It had an original seating capacity of 11,700, but there were always 12,500 fans packed into the stands for our home games [laughs].  Every game was a sellout.  It was extremely noisy, which gave us a great homecourt advantage.”…Ernie Barrett, Celtic Nation

JM: I never knew Ahearn was the second largest facility of its kind in the country when it was built.  My freshman year at K-State I had a couple classes in Ahearn and remember thinking what a dump is was! 

“I remember going up against Long Island University.  LIU was a powerhouse, and had players like Ray Felix and Sherman White on the team.  Felix was a 6’-11” center who would go on to play in the NBA.  White was a 6’-8” All-American, and The Sporting News Player of the Year.  LIU was favored by eleven points, but the game was much closer than that.  I vividly remember coming down the court and hearing [LIU head coach] Clair Bee screaming at his players to play better, and warning them that they were going to throw the game away by playing so poorly.  He didn’t know the fix was on, of course, only that his team was playing horribly. LIU could have won the national championship that year, but White, LeRoy Smith and [Adolph] Bigos were arrested for taking bribes to throw games.  LIU dropped its basketball program and Bee retired from coaching, so those things definitely stand out.”.…Ernie Barrett, Celtic Nation

JM:  I was not aware of this point shaving scandal.  It’s a pretty interesting story if you want to check it out. 

“Unfortunately I injured my shoulder against Oklahoma State in the West Regional Final in Kansas City – there were only two Regionals then – and wasn’t able to play to my fullest against Kentucky.  We beat BYU 64-54 in the semifinals and then defeated Oklahoma State to advance to the championship game.  It was the worst defeat Coach Iba had ever suffered at Oklahoma State.  I took a charge in that game and ended up with a deep muscle bruise.  We were going to shoot it up with Novocain but Coach Gardner was against it – he thought it might be injurious to my health, and he didn’t want to cause any long-term damage to the shoulder.”…Ernie Barrett, Celtic Nation

JM:  Someone please take a time machine back in time and talk these guys into taking the Novocain!

“It was a great honor to be the first round selection of the Boston Celtics.  I had a two-year military obligation, so I didn’t get to play for them immediately.  I had to wait until I was out of the service to go to Boston, so my “rookie” year was actually two years later (1953-54).  Red started me every game during the exhibition season, opposite Bob Cousy, for what amounted to 15-20 games over a three week period.  We basically barnstormed all over New England. Things changed once the regular season started.  I didn’t get into a single game during the first 35 games, at which point [Celtic owner] Walter Brown went to Red and wanted to know why I wasn’t playing.  He [Brown] looked at me as the team’s first round selection in 1951 and figured I should be seeing some action.  Needless to say, I was on Walter Brown’s side [laughs].  So I ended up playing more during the second half of the season, sharing time with the great Bill Sharman.”…Ernie Barrett, Celtic Nation

JM: Ernie played with Bob Cousy.  Just let that sink in.

“I wanted to play – I’m a competitor.  Red could tell you about the fights [laughs].  After my rookie season I went back to K-State and took a job, but after one season away the NBA instituted the 24-second shot clock.  Red thought that this change suited my style of play, so he asked me to come back.  I said that I would, but only if I got a chance to play.  Red was true to his word – I played in every game that season.  I really wanted to stay on, but the next season the Celtics got Heinsohn and Russell.  Tex Winter was the head coach at K-State at the time, and he offered me a position as assistant coach.  I jumped at the opportunity, and went to work at my alma mater.”…Ernie Barrett, Celtic Nation

JM:  What a different world back then.  Ernie gets drafted in the first round, goes into the military for two years, then plays a season for the Celtics, gets a job opportunity at K-State so leaves after a year only to return because of the 24 second clock rule when Red Auerbach calls and asks him to come back. Crazy! 

“Coach Auerbach approached me after I went back to Kansas, and said that he was interested in the University of South Carolina job, which was open at the time.  Red and I had a great relationship, and I had the good fortune to work with him while I was young.  He had great people skills.  He really knew how to treat people and how to work with them, which is what made him such a great coach.  Red offered me an assistant coaching position if he decided to take the South Carolina job, but he ended up staying in Boston.  That was in the 1954-54 timeframe.  It might have happened, had he accepted, but I stayed on at K-State.  It proved to be the right decision for me – I became assistant athletic director in 1961, and was named athletic director in 1969.”…Ernie Barrett, Celtic Nation

JM: How would history have changed if Red Auerbach had taken a job at South Carolina and quit the Celtics?  I can’t even comprehend it! 

“Fred Schaus, who later coached Purdue University, checked off on me one night because his coach wanted him to guard the little man.  We went at each other pretty good, and he said to me, “Hell, you’re not very little.”  I got in a fight that night with one of the Fort Wayne guards, and official Sid Borgia called a technical and threw me out of the game.  There were always fights in games back then.  You knew they were going to happen.  Red always said, “Listen, just make sure you get the first punch in.” [Laughs].”…Ernie Barrett, Celtic Nation

JM:  This era of fighting in the NBA lasted into the 1980s.  The “make sure you get the first punch in” is sound advice! 

“We went to Philly for a road game, and we’re rooming together.  I’m asleep in my hotel room and Bob is out on the town.  The phone rings, wakes me up.  It’s him.  He says, ‘Rook, what are you doing?’  I say, ‘Sleeping!’  Then Bob says, ‘Get out of bed and come get me.’  I say, ‘This is Philadelphia.  How do I know where you are?’  Then Bob looks at the flashing signpost on the corner and says, ‘I’m at the corner of Walk and Don’t Walk!’ [Laughs].”…Ernie Barrett, Celtic Nation

JM:  The “Bob” that Ernie is referring to in this story is Bob Cousy.  What a night that must have been!

“Success is determined by personality, loyalty, and dedication.  Anyone who adheres to these positives will be successful.”…Ernie Barrett, Celtic Nation

JM: Great advice here by Ernie. 

Here’s a mic’d up segment of Ernie Barrett watching a K-State basketball game.  I enjoyed it so I thought I’d share it here.  Hope you enjoyed the column.

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