AD Currie gets the last laugh after magical year at K-State
MAY 24, 2013 2:37p ET
The men's Big 12 triple crown, something only one other program — Texas — has pulled off. Conference championships in football, men's basketball and baseball, all in the same school year. Record revenues. Record donations. His first major hire, Bruce Weber, notching the program's first league basketball title since 1977.
Last April, Currie was the local piñata. His private squabbles with popular Kansas State basketball coach Frank Martin had gone public; after Jamar Samuels, Martin finally threw up his hands and walked away. You could hear the howling all the way to Dodge City.
Fast forward 11 months. Weber wins 27 games and gets tapped as Big 12 Coach of the Year. Who's howling now?
And still, Currie checks his swing. You can almost hear the tongue biting on the other end of the phone.
"Well, you know the bottom line," the Wildcats' athletic director says, "is the athletic director is only tolerated, never celebrated.
"And this is not a quote from me. I've got to attribute that to somebody else. But I mean, that's what the reality of it is. We're in charge of making decisions that are not always going to be fully understandable to the general public. But when we make a decision, we're going to try to make decisions that we truly believe are in the best interests of our student-athletes and are in the best interest of the integrity of our institutions. And some of those decisions are going to turn out to be successful decisions, and some of them are going to turn out to not be successful."
They're doing a hell of a lot more celebrating than tolerating in The Little Apple these days. Last weekend, the Wildcats' baseball team, a preseason afterthought, won a conference crown for the first time since 1933. Over the winter, Weber logged the most wins ever for a first-year men's basketball coach at K-State. Of all the seasons of Dumbledoresque wizardry on Bill Snyder's resume, this past fall's 11-2 bunch — a Baylor ambush away from a berth in the national title game — might have been the most magical of all.
Since 1998, four Football Bowl Subdivision programs have notched championships in the same academic year in the three most popular men's sports (football, men's basketball, baseball) offered by the NCAA. Texas is one. Stanford is another. Now you can add Louisville and K-State to the mix.
The Longhorns collected $163 million in revenues in 2011-12. The Wildcats took in $63 million.
Take that, Harry Potter.
"I was telling somebody that, in August, if you had told me that at the end of the year, we were going to win the championships in the three major men's sports in the same year, I would've laughed," K-State president Kirk Schulz says. "So we really have just had a spectacular year, and it's been a lot of fun to be a part of it."
And the hits just keep on coming. The Wildcats are putting the bow on the most successful year in athletic department history, the periods of cost-cutting, transition and rebuilds yielding the sweetest fruit imaginable. This after a fiscal 2012 that saw a record for gifts, with fan and alumni donations reportedly totaling $25.8 million.
Everything's bigger in Manhattan these days: The expectations. The coffers. The trophy cases. Heck, even the buildings. Just look at the new practice facility on the east side of Bramlage Coliseum. Or the giant erector set on the west side of Snyder Family Stadium, where a $75 million expansion is slated for completion in time for the football home opener August 30.
"Every day I drive by the west (side of the) stadium and see it and I remember thinking, 'It would be great if we would do something like this in my first 10 years as president,'" Schulz continues. "Not, 'This will be done by my fourth year.' I think it's remarkable what John and also what his coaches and staff have done in a short period of time."
The Wildcats' president and athletic director started work in The Little Apple within months of one another in 2009; when you ask the former about his first meeting with Currie, Schulz offers up this anecdote:
"I asked all the AD finalists, I say, 'You have a coaching search come up. How would you find the right coach?' And all the guys have the same answer: 'Well, I keep a list.' And everybody said the same thing.
"Well John says, 'And by the way, here's the list.' And he had it by sport, right there. He says, 'I think these would be the first five guys on my list.' I thought, 'This is somebody who isn't just saying what I want to hear. Here's somebody who really thought that through.'"
Currie is a details guy, a vision guy, a transparency guy. He famously made a set of laminated cards outlining his master plan and K-State's itemized athletic budget, kept one in his pocket at all times, and handed out the rest to just about everybody else he met. For a fan base ill at ease over the perceived instability of the Big 12 and recent revelations of large buyouts for ex-coaches, it proved to be a welcome change of pace.
"When President Schulz and I went out the first month, a lot of people told us we were going to face angry fans and distrustful fans, and all that kind of stuff," Currie recalls. "And what we found was our fans saying, 'Hey, we're sorry you inherited this mess. What can we do to help make it move forward, because this a great place, and we're excited about the future.'
"I think our people believe now. I think they really understand now, our fans, how important every single person is in an area. You know, everybody kind of does their part. We have people that have made seven-figure gifts. And we have people who buy a $99 season ticket or buy baseball season tickets or whatever and come be a part of the scene."
Currie shook a lot of hands and logged a lot of miles, always on the move, turning what was a $2.8 million deficit the year before he arrived into a reported net profit of $23 million by the 2010-11 fiscal year.
"I'm just amazed — I travel a lot, and he's all over the place," Weber says. "He almost likes to top me. I'll say, 'I was in four cities in four days,' and he'll say, 'I was just in Dallas for lunch.' And so he works at it very hard. And also the people around him also work at it very hard."
There were growing pains, too: Currie cut staff in his first season to help get the ledger on the right side of the black, and nipped and tucked where he could on the recruiting end. And some coaches took to the new boss' vision better than others; relations with Martin were allegedly strained behind the scenes, although both men publicly denied any rift after the coach bolted for South Carolina in March 2012.
"He's straightforward and to the point. There's no half-stepping with him, I'll tell you that much," Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Zac Diles, who played football at K-State from 2005-06, says of Currie. "But you need that, especially as the athletic director — somebody that's going to be straight to the point and say how it needs to be done, and then follow through with it."
Diles holds K-State close to his heart — literally, in this case, as he has the famous Powercat logo tattooed on his chest. He met Currie at the Cotton Bowl a few years back and walked away a convert.
"Just for the university in general, he's done a lot," the linebacker says. "You know, he's pretty much made us a household name. Now people are going, 'Oh, K-State. OK, they're doing something out there in The Little Apple.' "
Because whatever you think of Currie's methods, it's hard to argue with the resume. If a man can continually squeeze blood from a stone in rural Kansas, what might he do with so-called "greener" pastures, allied with deeper pockets?
"I'll tell you what: It is extremely pleasing," offers former Big Eight and Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas, who witnessed some of Manhattan's darker days firsthand. "Because I can remember when you could drive up to the football field at K-State a half-hour before the game and have no trouble finding a parking spot.
"I hope he stays for a while. But I'm sure that people are talking about him and probably already some have talked to him."
As for the question of love or money, Currie carefully points out, "This was a dream opportunity for me" — noting that he already has plenty of both. His current contract runs through 2018, with an annual salary of $450,000 for 2012-13 and a $25,000 escalator for each year after that. And when you suggest the bulk of his heavy lifting here is done, Currie's response is to dig his heels deeper into the back of the batter's box.
"What we want to do is build sustainable programs," he says. "And so we've tried to take advantage of this (recent) success, to continue to invest more and drive the structure … there are going to be ups and downs in college athletics, but over a long period of time, if you can firm your foundation, hopefully, you can make those peaks a little higher. And those valleys a little higher, too."
Raise the tide, raise all boats. For his next trick, K-State's top administrator wants video enhancements at all facilities and a new roof on venerable old Bramlage. There are more tennis courts to be built, more lots to be paved, more hands to be shaken, more glass ceilings to crack. When Currie swings, it's for the fences.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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