EDITOR’S NOTE— Much of the following first appeared in this space March 26, 2014. Some portions were in need of updates and those have been made.
Cleaning off my desk is a chore I engage in, well, not often enough. But when I do, I usually come across some notes I’ve written myself about story possibilities.
One such item, that hadn’t had time to be buried very deep, was a story I saw last week in a Topeka, Kan., newspaper concerning an NCAA matchup between Kentucky and Kansas State.
The story focused on Ernie Barrett, who has been known for many years around much of Kansas as Mr. K-State or something along those lines.
He earned that title from many years as a fundraiser for the K-State Athletic Department, and he knew almost every K-State fan in the state — or at least those who would be likely to pledge a few bucks to whichever project he was selling. Barrett was a member of the 1951 K-State team that lost to Kentucky in the NCAA National Championship game. That loss has stuck in his craw for years. He came to that game after being injured in the semifinals, against Oklahoma A&M, no less. Barrett had stood his ground when an A&M player came driving to the basket and had taken a charge. His shoulder was injured on the play and he was not up to par for the championship game against Kentucky. His shoulder pained him so much, he was just a shadow of his normal self, and K-State lost 68-58 to Kentucky. Barrett normally was the leading scorer for the Wildcats (K-State Wildcats, that is) and he honestly believes that had he been able to contribute more his team would have been the national champion.
I had a good friend, somewhat older than I, who was a student at K-State in 1951. He also believed that Kansas State had the better team and was cheated by fate out of being able to win it all. In fact, he developed such a keen dislike for Kentucky that every chance he gets, he loudly cheers for whomever it was playing. K-State has played Kentucky eight times since the 1951 title game, with the result always the same. Kentucky has won all nine, the last happening (in the 2014 NCAA Tournament). The Kentucky dominance over the Wildcats from Manhattan has inspired my friend’s intense dislike.
He often spoke to me about his K-State experiences, and one time he showed me his college yearbooks that told the story about the late 1940s and the 1950s, which really are the years when K-State basketball became a big deal. Jack Gardner was the coach of the purple Wildcats in 1951. He had two tenures in Manhattan, one from 1939 to 1942. After the end of World War II, he came back and coached from 1946 until he left in 1953.
During his second tenure he had two teams reach the Final Four, the 1948 squad and the one Barrett was a part of in 1951.
My friend used to tell tales about how Gardner’s team played their games in old Nichols Gym on the Manhattan campus. The gym had very little seating space for fans, and students would scramble to find a precarious perch in the rafters to see the Wildcats play. He told about one game in which a couple of students fell from their perches, an occurrence that was instrumental in getting the State Legislature to consider appropriating money to build Ahearn Fieldhouse with a seating capacity to accommodate 12,500 fans.
Since I’ve been in Ponca City I’ve had a couple other people tell me about their experiences seeing games in Nichols Gym. One suggested that the student-falling incident was actually staged to call attention to the need for a new fieldhouse.
Regardless, Gardner’s 1948 team was pretty good, as it compiled a 22-6 record overall and won the Big Seven championship before making it all the way to the Final Four.
Members of that team included Howie Shannon, who was an assistant coach at Kansas State when I was a student there. Later he became the head coach at Virginia Tech. Shannon was good enough to play pro basketball as a member of the Providence Steamrollers.
Also on the team was Clarence Brannum and Rick Harman, who were All-Americans. Brannum came from Winfield, Kan., and later played professionally for the Sheboygan Red Skins. His older brother, Bob, was a star for Kentucky and Michigan State in college and played professionally for Sheboygan and the Boston Celtics.
The 1951 team was the second K-State team to make it as far as the Final Four. Besides Barrett, team members included Jack Stone, Dick Knostman, Ed Head, John Gibson, Lew Hitch, Bob Rousey and Jim Iverson.
It was a well-balanced team with Barrett leading the scoring with an average of 10.9 points per game. Not very much by today’s standards.
But there were eight players who averaged at least six points per contest, indicating that the Wildcats had good depth.
K-State again reached the Final Four in 1958 and the first-round opponent was Seattle. K-State had a terrific team that included Bob Boozer and Jack Parr, but Seattle had the incomparable Elgin Baylor and Seattle won easily. K-State’s nemesis, Kentucky, went on to win the championship that year. Johnny Cox and Vern Hatton were the Kentucky stars.
The only other time Kansas State earned a spot in the Final Four was 1964, when an Oklahoman, Willie Murrell, was the big star. The Wildcats lost in the first round to eventual champion UCLA.
Another note I recovered concerned the Iditarod dog sled race across Alaska. In case you aren’t familiar with the Iditarod, it is an annual long-distance sled dog race run in early March from Anchorage to Nome.
The mushers and their dog teams cover the distance in 9 to 15 days or more. My note said that an informant told me musher Allen Moore has connections to Ponca City. The reason for the visit was that Moore had just won the Yukon Quest dog-sled race and was a favorite to place well in the Iditarod.
My informant also told me that Moore is married to Aliy Zirkle, who also was one of the leading contenders to win the Iditarod. As it turned out, Moore finished 27th in the Iditarod, while Zirkle was runner up to Dallas Seavey who covered the course in eight days, 13 hours and four minutes. Zirkle was just two minutes behind Seavey. The Ponca City connection is that Moore is a nephew of the late Herman Alexander, who lived here. A first cousin, Gwen Ready, lives in Ponca City, another cousin, Paula Aldrich, lives in Lamont, and a third cousin, Todd Alexander, lives in Dallas.
Moore was born and raised in Northwest Arkansas and was a carpenter and taxidermist in Arkansas before he moved to Alaska 20 years ago. He credits Arkansas’ heat with driving him to live in Alaska. He has been running in the Iditarod since 2007.
Zirkle is from New Hampshire and has been in Alaska since 1990.
I know absolutely nothing about racing dog sleds, except to know that I know I would be terrible at it. For one thing, the older I get, the less I appreciate being outside in the cold. I have a healthy admiration for anyone who can do anything that takes endurance, and it goes without saying, the Iditarod requires tons of endurance.
In an article about Moore and Zirkle, she credits the dogs for their success. “We know it takes individual stars like Wayne Gretzky or LeBron James and (the dogs) are it.”
The all-stars to which she refers include lead dog Quito, Quito’s brother, Nacho, and sister, Chica.
UPDATE—Ally Zirkle was a victim of drunken stalker who attacked her by driving a snowmobile into her team during the Iditarod last year. There was an Associated Press story last week before this year’s Iditarod began on Saturday in which she discussed the incident. She admitted to panic attacks and serious distress throughout the year, but she planned on running in the 2017 Iditarod. She admitted to living in fear that such an incident might be repeated, but felt that the best way to cope was to compete with her dog team.
She was quoted in The Associated Press article saying that she has no problems being outside in minus 55 degree temperatures or going on a two-week camping trip in a blizzard with only two dogs to accompany her in the Alaska wilderness.
“I’m kind of that hard-core, tough musher gal,” she said.
What’s more difficult after the attack is reassuring another part of herself.
“It’s hard to convince this other, this ‘Protective Ally’ that exists, that it’s not going to happen again, cause she’s ready to kick some fanny if it does, and she’s a little sensitive,” said Zirkle.
Good luck to her as she goes the route in the 2017 Iditarod.
A final note: someone called to ask me how many times Oklahoma or Oklahoma State has won the Big 12 Tournament. I had to look it up, but here is the answer. Oklahoma has won three Big 12 Tournaments since the conference was formed in 1997. The Sooners were tournament winners in 2001, 2002 and 2003. Oklahoma State won back to back titles in 2004 and 2005.
Kansas has won the most (9), with Iowa State having won three and Missouri two.
In the old Big Eight Conference, the Sooners won four conference tournaments between 1977 and 1996 (1979, 1985, 1988 and 1990). OSU won two Big Eight postseason tournaments in 1983 and 1995.
Before 1977, the Big Eight had a preseason tournament during Christmas break. Oklahoma won twice, in 1948 and in 1969. Oklahoma State joined the conference in 1956, but didn’t win a holiday tournament in those years.
UPDATE—Since this was written in 2014, Iowa State and Kansas each have added one victory to their totals.
JACK PARR of Kansas State, left, defends against Kansas' Wilt Chamberlain in a 1958 game in Manhattan, Kan. Parr was a member of the 1958 Kansas State team that went to the Final Four. KU and Chamberlain stayed home during the postseason that year.
ERNIE BARRETT, known by some as "Mr. K-State" for his many years of contributions to that university, greets his statue on the K-State campus. Barrett was a member of the 1951 K-State basketball team that lost to Kentucky in the NCAA Finals.