I think if you look at higher education in Kansas, Jon Wefald, it’s fair to say, was a historic figure and he was a historic president,” Fred Logan, former chairman of the Kansas Board of Regents.
Former Kansas State University President Jon Wefald died of a heart attack on Saturday at the age of 84. Wefald served as President of Kansas State for 23 years, from 1986 to 2009, which is the second-longest tenure in school history. He was the President during my entire time in school at K-State and is most heralded for presiding over the Bill Snyder era, the turnaround of K-State football, and the formation of the original Big 12 Conference.
Wefald was a very popular President. If he could have been the President of the University forever, it would have been fine with me and many, many others. He understood the importance of athletics success, especially football, to the overall success of the University. Despite all of his successes, he made a few mistakes along the way. The hiring of Ron Prince comes to mind. That hire was a mistake he quickly remedied by bringing back Bill Snyder as head football coach.
The tributes to Wefald came in fast and furious after his death was announced. It was an opportunity to reminisce and take a look back at the impact that Jon Wefald had on not only Kansas State University but on college sports in general. Here is my tribute to Jon Wefald.
“We can turn this (football) program around.” This was a comment from Jon Wefald in an article in Sports Illustrated in 1989, and it was quite prophetic. In 1989, making the cover of Sports Illustrated was a big deal. K-State made the cover in 1989 for all the wrong reasons. They were dubbed the worst football program in America with the headline “Futility U.” Despite Sports Illustrated dropping this moniker on K-State, Wefald had a vision and remained optimistic. Bill Snyder rightly deserves the credit for making K-State football one of the top programs in the country, but he had the full support and endorsement of Jon Wefald along the way.
Wefald was hired at K-State in 1986. Enrollment was at 17,500, down from 19,500 in 1980. There was talk at the time of the Big 8 kicking K-State out of the league and even more talk about the University dropping the football program altogether. Wefald understood that the free-falling football program was contributing to K-State’s decline in enrollment. Sports Illustrated did a follow-up article in 1992 and found out that as the football team improved, so did enrollment at the University. Enrollment in 1992 had increased to 19,775. It was clear that football plays a huge role in the public perception of a University. Also, football usually isn’t a success if the President of the University doesn’t care about it. Wefald cared a lot and it created a trickle-down effect from him to the athletic director, to the head coach, to the coaching staff, to the players, the students, and the alumni.
When I attended K-State in the early 90s, I remember that Jon Wefald would host highly-ranked football recruits at his home for dinner. When word got out that a blue-chipper was on campus and was going over to the Wefald residence for dinner, it was a good sign. More often than not, Wefald was going to close the deal and get the recruit to sign with K-State. There’s a line in the movie “Glengary Glen Ross” delivered by Alec Baldwin’s character who said “Coffee’s for closers.” Jon Wefald was the “closer.” He was always selling and closing recruits to come to K-State.
Wefald’s legacy is not only in sports. Under his leadership, K-State was always near the top of the country in the number of Rhodes Scholars, Truman Scholars, and Goldwater Scholars. While he was President, K-State added around 2.2 million square feet of new buildings, including a new library, art museum, and science building. When Wefald retired, enrollment was around 23,000 students.
Wefald was so instrumental to the success of K-State athletics that the University inducted him into the K-State Athletics Hall of Fame in 2008. He was not only influential in Manhattan. As Chairman of the Association of Big 8 schools, Wefald was one of the leaders that saw a changing landscape in college football in the 90s, and his vision and insight helped lead to the formation of the Big 12 Conference. Had it not been for Wefald, a website like Heartland College Sports that covers the Big 12 may not exist because the Big 12 Conference may not exist had it not been for the group led by Wefald. He was very proactive and aggressive in forming the new conference. The deal forming the first “super conference” got done and the rest is history. Unfortunately, the Big 12 hasn’t had a proactive commissioner since.
I love this quote from Wefald, obviously someone who understood the correlation between athletic success and the overall success of a University.
“Face it, sports are the window through which the university is viewed.” Jon Wefald, Sports Illustrated, November 9, 1998
Jon Wefald has been and will be missed. My condolences to all of his friends and family.