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Kansas State athletics, 1920-21: Mike Ahearn returns, hires Charlie Bachman

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The beloved Ahearn begins a 27-year tenure as K-State’s athletic director.

Charlie Bachman, one of the best coaches to never win a conference championship.
Charlie Bachman, one of the best coaches to never win a conference championship.
University of Florida Seminole, 1931

The sudden resignation of Zora Clevenger, and the departure of his chief lieutenant Germany Schulz, left a massive hole in the Kansas State Agricultural College athletic department. William Marion Jardine, then-President of the college about whom a small book could be written — he was Secretary of Agriculture under Calvin Coolidge, ambassador to Egypt under Herbert Hoover, president of Wichita State, and has a K-State campus apartment complex named in his honor — turned to the one man presently on campus who could put the pieces back together:

Michael Francis Ahearn.

Since his retirement from coaching, Ahearn had quietly gone about his business as a professor at KSAC, occasionally surfacing in the sports realm as a referee at various contests (some even including the Aggies). With his characteristic attention, Ahearn acceded to Jardine’s request, and would ultimately preside over the most successful long-term fortunes in the football program before Bill Snyder’s arrival.

Ahearn’s first order of business was to fill four of the five head coaching vacancies. He solved two of these problems with the man who had already solved the fifth: cross country coach Charles Bachman.

It was strange that Bachman was coaching cross country anyway. He had starred at Notre Dame in the immediate pre-war era before spending a season as an assistant at DePauw University. He was drafted into the Navy, and played alongside Paddy Driscoll and George Halas on the 1918 Great Lakes Naval Station team which beat Navy, Illinois, and Purdue and won the Rose Bowl.

After mustering out, Bachman took over the head coaching and athletic director reins at Northwestern, but his one season was forgettable and he departed mid-year, ending up in Manhattan.

So it was, with an experienced football man right under his nose, that Ahearn tabbed Bachman as the fourteenth head football coach in KSAC history, and promoted him to head the track program while he was at it. Ahearn also at this time officially returned the Aggie nickname to the KSAC teams; Clevenger’s preferred “Farmers” never really stuck, and newspapers continued to call them Aggies anyway.

Bachman’s first season wasn’t really an improvement over Clevenger’s last, however. The squad opened with a bang, beating Fort Hays State 14-0 and crushing Camp Funston 55-0. But a 7-7 tie with the Normals from Emporia exposed the Aggies. They followed with a 3-0 win at Creighton, which would be their last of the campaign.

Three losses followed. 14-0 at home to Kansas, 10-7 at Missouri, and a bitter 17-0 homecoming loss to Iowa State. But a week later the Aggies battled Oklahoma to a 7-7 draw, and ended the season in last place in the Valley at 3-3-3, 0-3-1 after a scoreless affair with Washburn.

Obviously, the problem was again offense, and solving that would be the key to the Aggie fortunes going forward.

Junior guard Dewey Huston repeated as first-team All-Valley, although a large part of this recognition was a result of his acknowledged excellence in the kicking game.

Running total: 92-70-15, 84-73-10 against colleges, 3-16-4 Missouri Valley

Ahearn solved his next problem with what would end up being a bandage. E.A. Knoth, an instructor in the physical education department, was handed the reins of the basketball program. It turned out to be a great decision on Ahearn’s part, but was undermined by another decision later.

The season began with home wins over Ottawa and, twice, Oklahoma. A trip to Iowa saw the Aggies split a pair in Ames before heading to Des Moines. They lost to Des Moines University, then beat Drake.

A single home game, a win over Bethany, preceded another trip to the east. The Aggies took both games in Lawrence, but lost both in Columbia. Returning home, Knoth’s boys again swept the Jayhawks, knocked off the Nickerson Club team, and then hosted Missouri.

For the third time in as many years, the Aggies and Tigers met with at least one team still unbeaten. On the first night of the set, Missouri easily turned aside the hosts. But the next night, for the second year in a row, KSAC became the first and only team to defeat the mighty Tigers — and did so easily in a 32-24 statement.

The Aggies finished third in the Valley, sporting a 14-6 overall record and 11-4 in league play. (The media guide incorrectly states 11-5, despite the schedule immediately below it contradicting that record.) For the second year in a row, forward and captain Holman Bunger and guard Everett Cowell earned All-Valley honors.

Not much is known about Bunger, but of Everett Cowell and his younger brother Brady, we have a ton of information. The brothers hailed from Clay Center, and both played all three major sports for the Aggies. Everett went on to serve as an assistant at Ottawa, and as head coach at Sterling for two years. He passed away early, dying at 33 in his hometown.

Warren C. “Brady” Cowell, on the other hand, becomes the first person in our narrative to have still been alive when Bill Snyder was hired by K-State, although he passed away in April 1989. Brady coached at Iola High School for a couple of years before moving to Gainesville and taking a job as the freshman football coach at Florida. He was also named head coach of the Gator basketball team, and took over baseball in 1927, going 61-65-2. In 1928, when Bachman was hired by Florida, he promoted his former star to assistant on the football team as well.

In 1933, after Bachman left for Michigan State, Brady left Florida as well. He resurfaced after a year in DeLand, Fla., as the athletic director and head football coach at Stetson; he compiled a 32-40-7 record in 14 years there. He also periodically took the helm of the basketball program, serving three separate tenures totaling four years. His total record as a basketball coach was 83-96, although the breakdown between Florida and Stetson is unknown. Cowell remained at Stetson as athletic director until he retired, at age 69, in 1968. Seven years later, he was inducted into the Stetson Hatters Hall of Fame.

For his part, Knoth resigned his position as head basketball coach following the season, and remains to this day the second-most successful basketball coach in school history by straight winning percentage. Why did he resign? Knoth was also in charge of the campus intramural program, and was especially devoted to trying to make swimming a varsity sport. The workload was simply too much.

Running total: 150-94, 137-87 against colleges, 69-39 Missouri Valley

Ahearn’s final hire was E.C. Curtiss, who was given charge of the baseball program. Records are very sketchy here; the media guide still credits Clevenger for 1921, and only lists eight games. In reality, Curtiss was the coach, and the season was fifteen games long.

Saint Mary’s managed a tie in Manhattan before thrashing the Aggies 11-1 on their home diamond. The Aggies then lost three straight at home, to Haskell and twice to Nebraska, before dropping two in Lawrence and splitting a pair with Missouri. A trip south saw the Aggies split with Oklahoma; a trip north resulted in another sweep at the hands of the Cornhuskers. Finally, in Manhattan, the Aggies and Jayhawks split a pair. The final tally: 3-11-1, 3-9 in the Valley.

Running total: 197-129-5, 175-119-5 against colleges, 23-28-3 Missouri Valley

For the track squad, the first season under Bachman was a disaster. He can be forgiven, though, because aside from two truly world-class athletes in Ray Watson and Cliff Gallagher, he had little with which to work. In dual meets, the Aggies fell to Haskell, Kansas, and Missouri; the Missouri Valley meet saw a seventh-place finish, with Ray Watson doing all the damage with a win in the mile and a second-place finish in the two-mile.

The cross country team lost a meet with Kansas, beat Nebraska, and then took third place in the Missouri Valley meet. The team may have performed more admirably had Watson participated, but he chose to focus his efforts on the cinders as opposed to the uneven terrain.