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Kansas State athletics 1916-1917: Enter Zora Clevenger

Basketball wins the Valley just before America finally becomes engulfed in World War I.

Zora Clevenger, suited up for Indiana in 1901.
Zora Clevenger, suited up for Indiana in 1901.
IU Libraries/PD

The complete house-cleaning in the athletic department at Kansas State Agricultural College in the aftermath of the disastrous 1915-16 school year resulted in the hiring of the school’s first titled athletic director.

Former coach John Bender left for Tennessee; it was basically a trade as the man he replaced there, Zora Clevenger, came to Manhattan to fill the vacancy. Clevenger had been a star halfback for the Indiana Hoosiers at the turn of the century, talented enough that we would be elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1968 based on his playing career. He was a three-sport star, captaining all three major Indiana squads; as a baseball player, he ended the Hoosiers’ 1902 season by jacking a walk-off three-run homer, down by two with two outs in the ninth against Minnesota.

He wasn’t a terrible coach, either.

He helmed the Hoosier basketball and baseball programs for two years after graduation before heading west to Nebraska Wesleyan, spending four years there, adding football to his dossier after one year. He then took the Tennessee job, lasting five years and posting a perfect 9-0 mark in 1914 to share the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association title with a 5-0 conference mark. (That title was shared with 8-0-1 Auburn, who’d gone 4-0-1 in SIAA play; obviously, the “shared” nature of the title is a bit absurd.) That team has retroactively been awarded the 1914 national championship by at least one organization, though it’s largely unrecognized; most selectors picked Army, Illinois, or Texas, and only Illinois lays claim to the title.

His first task was to get the football program on the right track after three years of ineptitude. In his first season, he was partially successful. The overall record was 6-1-1, a success in most respects. But conference excellence remained elusive.

The season began with a pair of big shutout wins at home over Baker and Southwestern, but the re-christened Farmers fell 14-0 at Nebraska in week three. Back home 10 days later, Emporia Normal fell 13-3, and on the road a week later KSAC fought the Jayhawks to a 0-0 deadlock in Lawrence.

After a week off, conference play concluded with a thrilling come-from-behind 7-6 homecoming win over Missouri, the first-ever Valley victory for the Farmers. A week later, another big first happened in non-conference play as KSAC traveled to Norman and battled for a 14-13 win. The season concluded with a 47-0 rout of Washburn on home turf.

The level conference record resulted in a fourth-place finish. Halfback Eddie Wells and end Lee Randels received all-conference recognition; it was the second consecutive honor for Randels.

Running total: 80-63-11, 74-63-6 against colleges, 1-8-2 Missouri Valley

If the improvement on the gridiron was qualified, the recovery on the hardwood was undeniable. Granted, the final year under Carl Merner hadn’t been a bad season, but 1917 was probably not a predictable event, especially after the first two weeks of play.

Washburn and Bethany were easily handled at home, 71-5 and 75-11. But the Farmers dropped a pair to Kansas in Lawrence the following weekend, and the situation immediately appeared dire.

The Farmers would not lose again.

The third night of that road trip saw another big win at Washburn, and the Jayhawks followed KSAC to Manhattan for the return pair. In the first game, the Farmers dominated Kansas in a 38-9 win. The second game was much closer, but the Jayhawks still fell 32-29. Suddenly, the good guys had completely erased KU’s advantage, and destiny was in their own hands.

The Farmers stayed home for the entire month of February, posting pairs of wins over Washington (MO) and Nebraska, brutalizing the Cornhuskers to avenge the previous season’s one- and two-point losses, and single victories against Emporia Normal and Saint Mary’s. A critical road trip now loomed.

In Saint Louis, the Farmers trounced Washington twice before heading to Columbia to decide the conference championships. Both KSAC and Missouri entered the weekend pair with two losses, although Missouri already had 10 conference wins to 8 for the Farmers. A split would mathematically give the crown to the Tigers. KSAC needed to win both.

On March 5, the Farmers managed a four-point win over their hosts to officially take over first place in the conference. They’d need to repeat to retain that hold, and the following night they did just that. A 32-27 win over the Tigers crowned Kansas State Agricultural College with their very first Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship.

For some time, your fearless researcher has believed that there was no Missouri Valley all-conference team selected for 1917. But no more. In the process of preparing this installment, this nugget was discovered:

The 1917 Missouri Valley basketball all-conference team, according to Mizzou coach John Miller
The 1917 Missouri Valley basketball all-conference team, according to Mizzou coach John Miller
Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, March 12, 1917

This, of course, is just the ballot of Missouri head coach John Miller. The actual all-conference team is still unknown, unfortunately, although Frank Reynolds was certainly honored. In 1936, the Helms Foundation retroactively recognized Reynolds as an All-American, and those selections are now deemed the authoritative selections for the pre-Depression era.

Running total: 97-73, 89-66 against colleges, 30-20 Missouri Valley

The 1918 Royal Purple lacks retrospective looks at the spring 1917 sports, so we’re forced to rely on the media guides and what we can grab from newspapers for the details. Sadly, there’s an important reason for this; America had officially entered World War I on April 9, 1917, and universities across the nation began immediately losing athletes to enlistment.

The media guide states that the baseball coach for 1917 is “unknown”, but it was in fact Clevenger, as evidenced by several newspaper reports from March regarding tryouts for the team.

The season was abbreviated due to the war; specifically, four games against Kansas in May were cancelled, as were others. In the nine games the Farmers did contest, they were victorious in six. The three losses were all to Missouri, twice at home and once away, though KSAC did beat the Tigers once in Columbia.

There was no conference championship, and after the season it was ruled that no conference games would be counted.

Running total: 175-112-3, 156-102-3 against colleges, 8-15-1 Missouri Valley

In track, the Farmers (also coached by Clevenger, with assistance) lost a March dual meet with Kansas 71-14; there was a triangular meet in Lawrence a few days later between the Aggies, Jayhawks, and Normals for which no results are available. In May, Kansas again defeated KSAC in a dual meet, 73-36. The track season quickly collapsed at that point for all parties, however, as the rush to enlist stripped the teams of their athletes.