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The Gambler

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

Last week, my wife and I took a trip to Las Vegas.  It was the second time that I've visited "Sin City", so this time, instead of getting wrapped up in the gambling and glitz and glamor, I decided to take some time and enjoy one of my favorite activities - people watching.

Needless to say, Las Vegas is an interesting place filled with all different kinds of people.  You've got rich folks, attractive people, middle-class families, strippers, young parents (some with children in tow), and some folks that most likely had just enough money to sit at the $5 blackjack table.

However, what fascinated me were the people at the gaming tables.  When walking past the countless number of people playing blackjack, you could always tell who the serious gamblers were, and the novices that accompanied them.  The serious gamblers knew when to split, double down, and hit or stand.  They knew how to maximize their chances and minimize the house's odds. The novice, probably fueled by slot machine winnings and an overpriced margarita, just threw money down again and again with no rhyme or reason.  Even though the odds were stacked against them, the novices still got lucky even though they played the most asinine hands.  There was no strategy...just dumb, stupid luck.

I mention this anecdotal observation because while I was in Vegas, our own resident "novice" Athletic Director, Jon Wefald, saw the few remaining shreds of his athletic legacy go down the tubes when it became public that his most trusted lieutenant, Bob Krause, decided that Ron Prince's contract extension and increased buyout wasn't quite enough...without telling anyone else. As Wefald broke the news the Board of Regents, in tears, he did so like a poor soul who limped home from Vegas to tell his wife of twenty years that they can't pay the mortgage this month because he got cold at the blackjack table on his last day, and he faces the sobering reality that maybe, just maybe, he wasn't quite as lucky or skilled as he thought he was.

Now, Jon Wefald will be the first to tell you that the "Greatest Turnaround in College Football History" was not solely due to the genius and tireless dedication of a coaching legend. No, he'd be more than happy to let you know how significant his role was. In fact, on page 185 of Bill Snyder's biography "They Said It Couldn't Be Done", in a chapter entitled The Wefald Factor, author Mark Janssen was able to capture the essence of Wefald's narcissism:

But Wefald will openly announce, "There would have been no Bill Snyder at Kansas State if Jon Wefald doesn't come to Manhattan, Kansas"

It's true that in 1985 Wichita State defeated Kansas State in football, 16-10, and promptly dropped the sport prior to the next season.

"Under the former administration, it is very possible that there would have been an attitude of 'Why fight it?' Let's just follow the model that Wichita State had set," Wefald said.

Pausing, he continued, "It really is serendipity that I came here."

I've said, numerous times, that from an academic standpoint, Kansas State was very fortunate to have Jon Wefald as it's University President. Enrollment increased, giving increased, new facilities were built, and the Manhattan community has grown and flourished around the thriving economy that continues to expand due to the contributions of Wefald's pursuits in making Kansas State a great instituion of higher learning. My problem with his leadership, and I believe it to be true with most other K-Staters, is that he fancied himself an athletics guru based on the capital gained from Bill Snyder's resurgent football program, when in reality, he was nothing more than a novice gambler who scored big on a couple of hands he had no business winning, and he just couldn't walk away when he was ahead.

Of course, those of you familiar with Kansas State and the history of Bill Snyder's hiring probably already know that he wasn't the first choice to be the Head Football Coach. Nope, prior to Bill Snyder ever being interviewed, over eighteen different coaches had discussions with then-Athletic Director Steve Miller about the job. Three of them even had an on-campus interview according to Janssen's book. It was only after an intense search that Jim Epps happened to thumb through an Iowa media guide he had lying around his office that they even decided, on a whim, to contact Bill Snyder.

Serendipity indeed.

When a skilled gambler walks up to the table, they have a set of rules that they follow to reduce the chances of the house taking them for all they're worth. In blackjack, even when not counting cards, you can still ultimately find ways to increase your chances based on probability. If you're sitting on sixteen, and the dealer has a six, you can stand and hope he busts. If you're sitting on a pair of aces, you split them. They are just simple, basic rules that you can follow to increase your chances of success. Sure, there is a level of luck involved, but you should never rely on luck or your gut instincts if you plan on sitting at the table for a long period of time because, ultimately the house will always get you.

If you're a university president that relies on luck and serendipity when you hire coaches and athletic directors, your luck will run out as well.

So, Wefald wins big with Bill Snyder up front, and that wave of good luck keeps on going for seventeen years. In the meantime, a series of awful basketball hires takes a once proud and prestigious basketball program from the national spotlight to the gutter of the Big 12 conference. The trio of Dana Altman, Tom Asbury, and Jim Wooldridge literally beat down the basketball legacy like Joe Pesci getting bludgeoned at the end of Casino. However, Bill Snyder is winning eleven games a year, and he's got his teams ranked in the top ten. Who cares that Kansas State basketball is dying on the vine? Jon Wefald right?

In 2005, after Jim Wooldridge finished yet another mediocre year, Tim Weiser was ready to pull the trigger and hire a new basketball coach. However, after discussions with Jon Wefald regarding Wooldridge's future, Weiser elected to keep the embattled coach yet another season to the chorus of 'Eh...who cares?' coming from the few thousand fans that still attended the games. It wasn't until Wooldridge's sixth consecutive year without a post-season berth that Weiser was allowed to hire a new basketball coach.

Of course, when Bob Huggins was hired, some Kansas State fans said, "Well, if Wefald didn't force Tim Weiser to keep Wooldridge for a sixth season, we never would have had Huggins," as if it was a part of some sort of masterplan Wefald had been brewing for years. He simply knew that one of the most successful coaches in college basketball would get dismissed from his job the same year that he decided to retain and extend one of the most mediocre. It was his machinations that caused Huggins to get dismissed from Cincinnati, Missouri to pass on him and hire Anderson instead, and essentially rebuild the program in one season due to the fact that a young assistant coach in Charlotte was in tight with a kid named Michael Beasley, and an assistant coach named Frank Martin would rather follow Huggins to Manhattan instead of Andy Kennedy to Oxford, Mississippi.

That, my friends, is the definition of serendipity.

So, when you think about it, Jon Wefald was the recipient of some of the best luck in the history of BCS schools. He had two of the best coaches in their respective sports simply fall into his lap, bringing a level of prosperity to Kansas State athletics that we had never seen.

Which was true until Ron Prince came to town, Weiser was forced out of his job so Wefald's right-hand man could be promoted to Athletic Director to give Prince an extension he really didn't need and a secret compensation agreement and a bankrupted athletic department that will most likely be a case study in a Sports Management ethics class somewhere down the road.

The house caught up to him over time.  It always does.

And, at the end of his tenure, when I look at Wefald's athletic legacy, I will remember him as that simple gambler, sitting at the table for too long, betting with money that he didn't really have in hopes of hitting it big one more time. It doesn't matter that he's not really qualified to make the kinds of bets and gambles he's made; he got lucky a couple of times, and to him, it's more than that. It's a touch a destiny...serendipity...and his last great bet, the re-hiring of Bill Snyder, now sits on the table as he limps home to take the emotional beating he so honestly deserves.