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Sunflower Showdown: 1953

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In 1953, a pioneering-but-struggling Kansas State program finally put together a winning season, including a big win over Kansas.

The 1940s were not kind to Kansas State football. The Wildcats of the 1930s fought hard and generally finished in the top half of the conference, but the departure of long-time coach Wes Fry, and more importantly, the advent of the Second World War, put paid to any notions of long-term success.

By 1953, the Wildcats were in the doldrums, laying the foundations for what later came to be known as Futility U. From 1945 to 1949, the team won only two games and lost a record 28 games in a row before the streak was broken. The Wildcats had also finished in last place in the Big 6/7 a record eight consecutive times.

Bill Meek, a former assistant at the University of Maryland, was hired to be the head coach in 1951. He'd been offered the job despite referring to the program as "a huge mess" during his interview. Writing for the Football Digest, Bill Schroeder would later describe Meek's efforts with these words:

Oregon's Len Casanova did the mostest with the leastest. Notre Dame's Frank Leahy did the mostest with the mostest. Kansas State's Bill Meek did the mostest, period.

meek-staff-1953

(Meek is third from left)

Source: Kansas State University 1954 Royal Purple

In his first season, the team actually had mild success, beating Missouri and playing Nebraska to a tie. But Meek, who had a reputation for personal integrity, self-reported an ineligible player to the NCAA and the school voluntarily forfeited the win and the tie. But the rules governing transfers were less stringent, and at the end of the 1952 season, Meek signed several former Army players who had left West Point after violating the honor code in 1951. Meek also had another weapon in his backfield, a halfback named Veryl "Joe" Switzer.

Source: Kansas State University

Switzer was described as "doing just about everything a football player could do," He would go on to set the career punt return record at Kansas State. In 1953, he would lead the team in rushing with 558 yards along with eight catches for 211 yards. For his efforts, he would be named a first team All-American by both the Associated Press and the United Press, and the Green Bay Packers would take Switzer with the fourth pick overall, still the highest draft day honor for a Kansas State player ever.

Switzer's success might not have been possible (at least at Kansas State) if not for an even that had happened a few years earlier. In 1949, Harold Robinson officially broke the Big 7 color barrier* when he played football on scholarship at Kansas State. Robinson, a Manhattan native, had been warned about possible discrimination, but would later describe his time at Kansas State as a positive experience.

The whole team, they all protected me.… At the time I didn't realize how important it was. All I wanted to do was play ball.

Kansas State's struggles in the early 1950s were magnified by their lack of success against Kansas. The Wildcats had lost 11 of 12 contests against their in-state rival heading into 1953, and those Kansas teams had been nearly as moribund as Kansas State. Things had become deeply contentious between the two fan bases, with fans tearing down goalposts and brawling after the games. To avoid further violence, the schools had agreed to exchange a trophy after the game, the Peace Pact Trophy, a tiny set of bronzed goalposts that would be delivered to the winning team by the wife of the home team's president after the game. By 1953, that trophy had become defunct and the teams were back to hating each other with impotent rage.

Coming into the Kansas game, the Wildcats had shocked the world by having an unusually successful season. They'd already beaten Iowa State and Colorado and shut out Nebraska, despite opening the season with a narrow loss to Colorado A&M. The week before the Kansas game, however, was dark. Welcoming the Sooners to Manhattan for Homecoming had been a bad idea, and Kansas State was blown out 34-0. Still, confidence was high and helped by Kansas being unexpectedly terrible that year. The Jayhawks had won only two games coming into the game and had just been shut out by Nebraska 9-0. But they were playing at home, and somewhat confident of victory.

The roads were seriously clogged that weekend, as nearly 3500 fans from Manhattan made the trek to Lawrence for the game. The Kansas State student council had already requested an official school holiday from the administration should the Wildcats win. Meanwhile, Kansas fans had left "calling cards" in the form of funeral announcements in all the sorority and fraternity houses in Manhattan:

The Jayhawkers and the Mt. Oread Funeral Home cordially invite you to pay your last respects to Mr. K. State Wildcat at Memorial Stadium, Saturday, November 7, 1953. Hours from 2 pm until 5 pm.

The Kansas fans also left "Wreck Silo Tech" signs all over campus before returning to Lawrence.

The game was not nearly as much fun for the Kansas fans though. The Wildcats ran all over Kansas to the tune of 349 yards, although they had trouble finding the end zone. The defense stood tall too, holding the Jayhawks to their own end of the field and just 108 yards total on the day.  On one of their only three sustained drives of the day, Kansas found themselves at the Kansas State 1,  but the Jayhawks were unable to capitalize, and a penalty moved the ball back. On the next play, Kansas State's Ken Gowdy broke through the Kansas line to grab a fumble, and that pattern repeated itself through much of the game. Kansas State managed only one score themselves in a 7-0 game (on a Bernie Dudley 11-yard scamper), but on a day when Switzer ran for 167 yards and averaged over 10 yards a carry, it was more than enough for the win.

After the game, the Kansas State fans uprooted the north goal post, and a melee broke out, where the two fanbases pelted each other with snowballs and up to fifteen people ended up with injuries of the bloody-nose-black-eye variety. On their way back home after the big win, Wildcats fans let the air out of the tires of several cars in the western part of Lawrence. Kansas State University president James McCain subsequently declared Monday a holiday to celebrate the victory over Kansas (although disgruntled Collegian staffers had to work anyway, to honor their advertising commitments).

The 1953 game against Kansas was a milestone for Kansas State. It was the first nationally televised game for the team, as part of NBC's panorama of college football coverage in the early 1950s. It was the first win in a 3-game streak against Kansas, and it was the first road game for the live mascot, Touchdown IV (who would be stolen by the Jayhawks before the 1955 game).

The 1953 team was the first Wildcats team to ever be ranked in a national poll, making their way to #18 in the Coaches Poll that year. The next season, when the Wildcats nearly qualified for the Orange Bowl before losing to Colorado, was the last winning season for the team until 1969, and the team would win only two more games against Kansas before the Governor's Cup was instituted in 1969. Bill Meek left the team after the 1954 season when the administration refused to raise the salaries of his assistants.

*Several African-American players had played at conference schools prior to 1949, including the Haney brothers at Kansas (1888 to 1893), and George Flippin (1891) and Clinton Ross (1911) at Nebraska. But race relations deteriorated considerably in the early 20th century, and players of color disappeared almost entirely from the conference. The lone exception was Iowa State, where Jack Trice (1923) and Holloway Smith (1926 and 1927) played. Robinson is considered the first African-American player in the modern history of the conference.

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Note: Photographs from the Kansas State University are used under a Creative Commons license. The 1954 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 November 9, 1953).