With the Spring Game coming up this Saturday, I wanted to take a look at what I consider to be the end of one era and the beginning of another. With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selecting Josh Freeman with the seventeenth pick of the NFL Draft, the poster boy of the "Ron Prince Era" has now moved on, and in a symbolic way, we can close the book on a very tumultuous chapter in Kansas State football history.
Now, I want to start out by saying that I like Josh Freeman. He's been a good representative of Kansas State, and he's never said or done anything that would make me dislike him as a fan. Sure, he's a little cocky, and yeah, he's said a thing or two that most people have the good sense not to mention out loud. But a lot of players do that. When I played sports, I did that. It's the sign of a healthy ego, and Josh just had one that matched his mammoth frame. In the end, though, when Kansas State fans remember Freeman, they won't remember the records or the big wins (as few and far between as they were), but they'll remember his bravado, his comments, and his connection to a very unpopular football coach.
I remember the day Josh committed to Kansas State. It was a Tuesday morning, and I was driving my usual thirty-five minute commute across the Kansas City metro area. As a frequent listener of "The Border Patrol" on Sports Radio 810 WHB, I was listening to Steven St. John rattle off the days headlines, and I had just made my turn onto Highway 350 when St. John mentioned the biggest news of the day...four-star quarterback and U.S. Army All-American, Josh Freeman, switched his commitment from Nebraska to Kansas State. I was shocked, ecstatic, and I remember shouting and almost driving my car into a ditch. Ron Prince, the new head coach at Kansas State, just locked up the biggest recruit in the Kansas City area, and he stole him from a division rival. Amazing.
At that point in time, Ron Prince had yet to coach a game. He was schmoozing with the fan base and tantalizing us with talk of tough, fast, and disciplined teams that would compete for championships. His smooth talk and impressive persona were quickly winning over the fans, and this commitment put him over the top. Prince was no longer an unknown commodity to Kansas State fans; he was now a football coach capable of recruiting elite talent.
It was, at that moment, the point in time where the careers of Ron Prince and Josh Freeman became inexorably linked and their Wildcat legacies dependent upon the success of the other.
After Freeman stepped off of the field at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in the moments following last season's finale against Iowa State, he did so as the most prolific passer in the history of Kansas State football. His 680 completions, 8,078 yards, and 44 touchdowns eclipse the career statistics of every other quarterback that's donned the purple and white, and given our unimpressive history, it's still an impressive list: Steve Grogan (NFL veteran), Lynn Dickey (NFL veteran), Michael Bishop (Davey O'Brien Award winner), and Ell Roberson (dual-threat dynamo) are just a few of the great quarterbacks in K-State history. Each of those quarterbacks holds a special place in the heart of every K-Stater, and if we ever created a Mt. Rushmore of football legends, each one of them would be included in the discussion...but Josh Freeman never will be.
Regardless of the records and the hype, the potential and the promise, and the unbelievable examples of professional-level athleticism, Josh Freeman was never able to capture the hearts of Kansas State fans. Even though he threw for nearly a mile and a half over three seasons, the only number that matters to Wildcat fans is this: Fourteen. During his two and a half seasons as a starter, Freeman was only able to lead the Wildcats to a 14-18 record, and even more damning, he was 0-9 against Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri (which to some Kansas State fans is the ultimate measure of your worth). No bowl wins, no rivalry victories, no all-conference honors, and no Governor's Cup serve as a giant asterisk on an otherwise exceptional career.
To be honest, the question to ask is, truthfully, how much of that was Freeman's fault? He obviously held up his part of the bargain from a statistical standpoint. It was his arm that lead Kansas State to two unlikely wins against Texas, and his 22-26 performance in Boulder during the 2006 season is still the second best passing performance in school history. For every game that you point the finger at Josh for the loss (@ Kansas in 2006 where he turned the ball over six times), you can point to another example where his play elevated the team to new heights. Even though he was a bit of a turnover machine at times (thirty-four career interceptions), was that all bad decision making, or was it because of bad blocking, sub-par running backs, and coaching that progressively got worse over his three year career? All worthy questions, but the truth is that no one will care to go back and look. No one, including me, has any interest to go back in time and dive back into the Prince years for in depth analysis. Which, in the end, is why no one will ever really analyze or chronicle Freeman; it reminds them of who was coaching here and the horrible product he put on the field.
It isn't all that bad for Freeman, though. Ron Prince gave Josh the opportunity that he desired; he allowed Freeman to start as a true freshman. However, in doing so, he damned Josh, and himself, with unrealistic expectations. After Freeman's first start, where he lead a dramatic comeback against Oklahoma State, and following wins against Colorado, Texas, and Iowa State, he set the bar high for Prince and his staff. While Freeman was propped up and presented to the nation, seemingly forced onto the fans as a poster boy for the new regime, he provided hope for a bright future in the wake of Bill Snyder's disappointing final seasons.
During the first few games of the 2007 season, Freeman played well. K-State almost stole a game from Auburn on the road, and he lead the team to a victory on the road at Texas. By the time Kansas came to town, KSU was ranked for the first time since the 2004 season, and it appeared that Prince was on his way to righting the ship...
Then it all went to Hell.
Kansas beat KSU in Manhattan for the first time since I was in grade school, and Freeman played poorly in the effort (3 INT's). After that game, every single week for the next year and a half became an exercise in futility. Even though Josh kept putting up big numbers, the defense slid more and more until the only thing that could stop the opposing team was the endzone. No matter what Josh did, or how Herculean some of his efforts were, he couldn't lead this team to victory amidst the implosion of Prince's program. How could he when the defense was giving up thirty-five points a game?
In that futility came cries from the fans. "Josh Freeman isn't a leader! He doesn't make his team better! He's overrated!" Josh Freeman, his potential and his hype, both of which were forced onto the fans by the ringmaster of the "Greatest Show on the Podium", became the on-the-field focus of fans angry at the coach who promised them championships. Because he wasn't able to deliver, for his coach or the fans, he became the object of disappointment. Truthfully, the disappointment was never angry or vitriolic, but more melancholy and deflated. The fans felt like they had been deceived, and the quarterback Prince said would deliver us to the promised land never did. He just racked up a bunch of stats and left school before his eligibility expired.
Honestly, I don't want to give the impression that I don't support Josh's decision. I really do. If I were in his position, I would have done the same thing. If first-round guaranteed millions sat there in front of me, I would rather go after that than learn a new playbook for free (even if the playbook is legendary). I also don't want to make it seem like I hold some sort of anger or disappointment towards Freeman. It's not his fault that Prince couldn't run a football program, and any kid with a healthy ego will gladly accept all of the media hype and attention that being the face of the program comes along with. In all reality, it probably was a good experience to have because once he gets to the NFL, he's going to have to deal with negative media pressure and unapologetic fans.
But, in the end, that's what Josh Freeman's legacy at Kansas State is...preparation. Preparation to be a starting college quarterback, and preparation to be the face of the program/franchise. This past season, he was being prepped by Prince to be an NFL quarterback. However, for Kansas State fans, we will always wonder what may have been had Prince spent more time preparing his football team for gameday than Josh Freeman for greatness. Greatness he never seemed to achieve as a Wildcat, and will never be remembered for because of the failures of the man that helped him get to where he is today.
It seems fitting, and ironic, that Josh's most iconic and defining moment came in his first start. Good luck, Josh. I sincerely hope that you become the player we all know you can be in Tampa Bay.
A Legend is Born - Kansas State Football (via KSUPoetWarrior)