By 1969, college campuses had undergone a sea change. The hope and pageantry of the post-war years had been replaced by loud and strident activism. Kansas State was no different. Students in Manhattan protested the war in VietNam and debated the right to choose, while also turning their minds to more mundane questions such as whether cigarettes should be sold on campus, and whether the mural at Waters Hall really made any artistic sense.
And then there was football. Between 1956 and 1968, the Kansas State Wildcats had exactly zero winning seasons, and exactly that number of wins over archival Kansas. But there was a sense that things were changing for the better. Before the 1967 season, after the team had tallied 21 straight losses, fiery Vince Gibson, who had been the defensive coordinator at Tennessee, was hired to be the new head coach. He promised the fans "We gonna win!" and coined the term "Purple Pride."
Source: Kansas State University 1969 Royal Purple
After going 1-9 that first year, Gibson began to deliver on his promise. The 1968 team had opened the season with a big win over Colorado State, which earned them a first-ever appearance in the AP poll, at #20. That team went on to win four games with Lynn Dickey at quarterback, including a 12-0 shutout of Nebraska in Lincoln.
The fans had another reason to be excited for the new season. In 1968, the Wildcats had a shiny, new home: KSU Stadium.
The 1969 season opened with huge wins for Kansas State on the road. The Wildcats rolled Baylor and Arizona, scoring 48 and 42 points and dwarfing their points total for the entire previous season. A close loss to #2 Penn State in Manhattan marred the perfect start, but the fans were more than ready for a win over Kansas, and were two touchdown favorites.
Kansas was coming off their best year in program history. In 1968, the Jayhawks had gone 9-1 and earned an Orange Bowl berth and had finished the season ranked #7 in the AP poll after a 1-point loss to Penn State in the bowl game. Pepper Rodgers had high hopes for the 1969 campaign, but unexpectedly, the Jayhawks had gone 1-2 in their first three games. But Kansas had the great John Riggins in the backfield. The two-time All-American had been the best player in the Big Eight the previous year, and the team had high hopes for a repeat campaign.
A new prize for the winning side was available that year: the Governor's Cup, courtesy of Gov. Robert Docking. He began a tradition of awarding the trophy to the winning team's head coach after each Sunflower Showdown, and in 1969, he wore a purple blazer and purple-and-white tie to the game.
Kansas State's explosive offense was led by Dickey, "the big man from Osawatomie," who was already the Big Eight's passing leader. By 1970, he was the all-time passing yards leader at Kansas State with 6,208 yards, a record that would be surpassed only in 2008 by Josh Freeman. Dickey was taken in the third round of the NFL draft in 1971 and would go on to a 15-year career as quarterback, first with the Houston Oilers and later with the Green Bay Packers.
Source: Kansas State University
The other big star at Kansas State was Mack Herron, a 5'5" bowling ball of a fullback who was one of Dickey's favorite targets. Herron, who was also a standout track star at Kansas State, would go on to finish second in scoring in the nation that year.
Source: Kansas State University 1969 Royal Purple
Herron was considered too small to play in the NFL was only drafted in the sixth round of the 1970 draft by the Atlanta Falcons. He decided to go to Canada instead, playing for a season for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers before being let go in 1972. In 1973, he began a three-year stint for the Patriots, and in 1974, he would set the NFL single-season record for all purpose yards. Since then, Herron's life has been mostly a cautionary tale, with multiple drug-related arrests, most recently in 2013 in Chicago.
In the week leading up to the game, Kansas coach Rodgers announced that practices would be closed, and Gibson followed suit in Manhattan. He also noted that he had no issues getting his players motivated for the game:
KU is a big game for us. We're really looking forward to it...They will be the biggest team we play all year.
The game opened to a sellout crowd of 51,000 in Lawrence. Kansas State scored on their opening drive, marching down the field for the score, which came on a 3-yard run by Herron. But Kansas would answer right back with a score of their own, and a tight contest was joined. The outcome would not be settled until Kansas quarterback Jim Ettinger's pass would fall incomplete in the endzone to give Kansas State a 26-22 win.
But never mind this description. You can just see all the action for yourself, with this highlight reel from the game:
The 1969 team would go on to win two more games that season, before dropping the last four to finish at 5-5. But those two wins included a blowout 59-21 win over #11 Oklahoma. The 1970 season would be even better, with the team in contention for a conference title and an Orange Bowl berth, and Gibson winning Coach of the Year honors. But the Wildcats would get rolled by Nebraska to close out the season on a disappointing note.
More disappointment followed, when Kansas State was placed on probation for three years for various recruiting violations. Gibson would later blame the problems on a personal squabble with Pepper Rodgers at Kansas, and claim that the sanctions destroyed the program. The program never really recovered, and with Gibson's departure before the 1975 season, the Wildcats began a streak of mediocrity probably unequalled by any other program in college football, ending only with the hiring of one Bill Snyder in 1989.
Note: Photographs from the Kansas State University are used under a Creative Commons license. The 1970 Royal Purple yearbook is available for download at Archive.org, as part of KSU Libraries' Open Access program. Details of the Kansas game were drawn from game reports in the Royal Purple and the Kansas State Collegian (Monday October 13, 1969).