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Kansas State Athletics, 1915-16: John Bender and Wildcats for a season

New traditions, some maintained and others delayed.

John Bender, whose K-State legacy overpowers his one-year coaching career.
John Bender, whose K-State legacy overpowers his one-year coaching career.

With Guy Lowman stepping aside, a new face arrived in Manhattan. John “Chief” Bender, a burly Nebraskan who’d starred at halfback for the Huskers at the start of the century, took over the reins of the football and baseball squads. Bender should not be confused with the major league baseball player of the same nickname, whose given name was William.

Bender was the most experienced coach to have yet set foot on the KSAC campus. He spent two years at Washington State, two at Haskell, and two at Saint Louis before returning to Washington State for three years. He had also coached the Cougars basketball team during the second year of his first stint in Pullman, and coached their baseball team each year he was there.

Bender left his mark wherever he went, it seems. He is responsible for Saint Louis teams being known as the Billikens, and for Houston’s teams being the Cougars (more on this later). But most importantly, it was Bender who first insisted on calling the KSAC football team the “Wildcats”. The appellation would only last one season this time around, but the memory would take root. Bender also instituted homecoming at KSAC, a tradition which would not be interrupted by his departure.

Unfortunately, the one thing Bender failed to do was record KSAC’s first Missouri Valley Conference win. The first five weekends of the season were not fundamentally different than they had been in 1914 under Lowman: a win over Southwestern, shutout losses at Nebraska and Emporia Normal, a homecoming loss to Kansas, and a scoreless tie against Missouri — the first Missouri Valley conference game that was anything other than a loss for KSAC.

The next two weeks saw shutout wins for the Wildcats, but they were over Friends and Washburn, and thus of little value. The season ended with a 21-7 loss to Oklahoma, not yet a member of the conference. The wins over the in-state schools at least improved the record to 3-4-1; the tie over Missouri allowed the Wildcats to post an 0-2-1 conference record.

Junior end Lee Randels was named to the Missouri Valley all-conference team.

Running total: 74-62-10, 68-62-5 against colleges, 0-7-1 Missouri Valley

Carl Merner’s longer-than-you-thought career would come to an end with a big rebound. After the disastrous 1915 campaign, Merner managed to guide the Aggies to a 13-3 mark.

Two of those losses, unfortunately, came by a combined total of only three points against the Cornhuskers, who would run the table and claim the Valley championship. The third loss was a critical defeat to Missouri on February 26 which effectively condemned the Aggies to third place; indeed, they would finish one game behind the Tigers in the final tally.

On the bright side, all three minor state foes were vanquished along with Central Missouri, and the Aggies swept all four games from both Washington (MO) and -- most importantly — Kansas. The two January contests in Lawrence were humiliating blowout wins for the Aggies, 31-18 and 26-12.

There was no official Missouri Valley all-conference team in 1916, apparently. The yearbook references a selection including three Aggies, but the voters were KU’s W.O. Hamilton, Missouri’s Chester Brewer, a referee of note, and... Merner and Lowman. Obviously, that does not an all-conference team make.

Merner, along with Bender and Lowman, would resign at the end of the year. His final record in three years as KSAC head basketball coach was 29-22.

Running total: 82-71, 74-64 against colleges, 20-18 Missouri Valley

The media guide lists the head coach in 1916 as “unknown”, but the 1917 Royal Purple has a team photo identifying “Coach Bender”. Unfortunately, that’s the only additional information available via that source, and newspaper delving was of no real assistance either. As such, with that one exception we’re forced to rely solely on the media guide for 1916.

Twelve games are known to have been played. The Aggies defeated Kansas Wesleyan, Saint Mary’s, and Emporia Normal; they lost the other nine. Those losses included setbacks against Baker and Haskell, the fourth (and thankfully final) loss to the fraudulent Chinese University of Honolulu barnstorming team, a pair of losses to Missouri, and being swept twice in two-game sets with the Jayhawks. 3-9 was bad enough; 0-6 in the Valley was unthinkable.

As with football, this would be Bender’s only season at the helm. He decamped to Tennessee, which would be the final stop in his coaching career. That move was effectively a trade, as Tennessee’s head coach would land in Manhattan the following year.

Bender would spend five years in Knoxville in charge of the football program, three non-consecutive years as basketball coach, and a pair of non-consecutive seasons coaching baseball. Lowman left for Indiana, as we noted in the last installment, and Merner departed for Columbia University in New York, where he would coach the Lions in basketball for one year and go on to a career as their track coach which spanned four decades.

Running total: 169-109-3, 150-99-3 against colleges, 8-15-1 Missouri Valley

The Missouri Valley track meet, the only event about which we have information for 1916, was basically a disaster. KSAC finished seventh out of ten teams (Simpson College of Iowa was invited, despite not being a Valley member). Although he had to settle for a tie, Herbert Frizzell of KSAC repeated as high jump champion; his points would be the only ones earned by the Aggies on the day. Just as in 1915, Mizzou’s Robert Simpson set a new world record in the 120-yard high hurdles, breaking the 15-second barrier and posting a time of 14.6 seconds.

Tennis existed, as evidenced by a yearbook photo in the “minor sports” section depicting KSAC and Nebraska players. Alas, there’s no information extant.