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Before Vince Gibson appeared among the limestone buildings on the campus of Kansas State University in Manhattan four years ago, alumni preferred to boast about the quality of the college of veterinary medicine rather than the football team. The Wildcats wore uniforms of rich purple, which, appropriately, is the traditional color of acute embarrassment. The team hadn't beaten Oklahoma in 34 years and arch-rival Kansas in 15. In fact, it hadn't beaten anyone. Only 12,000 spectators appeared in rustic, solemn Memorial Stadium to witness a losing streak that extended to 23 games. Not surprisingly, on Saturday afternoons students preferred to gather at Kite's, a tavern in the business section of Manhattan, drink beer and watch real football on the color television set.
Gibson was dismayed by this atmosphere and began to talk about something called "Purple Pride." He dressed himself in the school color from striped purple ties to ornate cowboy boots, and he drove a purple-and-white Buick across the state of Kansas stumping on behalf of Wildcat football. He talked to Lions, Rotarians, Kiwanians—anyone who would listen. At first, few did. He spoke to an alumni group in Wichita that numbered five people, but Gibson pressed on.
Back in Manhattan, he convinced the university to accelerate plans for a 40,000-seat stadium and an athletic dormitory which is, he says, "better than the Bear's." It includes a swimming pool, sauna bath, weight room and two dining rooms.
Enjoying their luxurious surroundings, the Wildcats won five games last year, including victories over Oklahoma and Kansas, and lost to Penn State, Missouri and Nebraska by just three points each. Business at Kite's suddenly dropped off. "Last fall I cut my staff to two when the Wildcats were at home," said Owner Terry Ray. "Everybody was going to the game."
Deserving nearly as much credit as Gibson for Kansas State's football transformation is Lynn Dickey, the quarterback who wears white football shoes just like you-know-who. In a season and a half he has broken every Big Eight passing record except the late Paul Christman's mark of 25 career touchdown passes. Dickey now has 22—and an entire season ahead.
Dickey grew up in Osawatomie, Kans., where his father works as a brakeman-conductor for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad. Osawatomie, a community of fewer than 5,000 residents, claims historic significance as the place where John Brown started out. There is a statue of him, a lookout north of town named after him and a restored cabin where he once lived. As a child Dickey played touch-tackle football in John Brown Park. "Sports was all there was to do in town," Dickey says. "I was the Joe Athlete type in high school. I never had a beer until after the season my senior year." Gibson drove over to Osawatomie in search of a star to transform his Purple Pride theme into reality. Dickey recalls: "The first thing I noticed about him was that he was so down to earth. I was impressed by that, and by his enthusiasm."
Once Gibson signed Dickey, the rest of his football team fell into place. "That first year we whipped Kansas pretty good in recruiting," Gibson says. "After Dickey decided to come to Kansas State the word got around to the other prospects. One kid called another and the whole thing mushroomed. Last year those kids put K-State on the map."
This fall they are seniors—26 in number, including 17 experienced starters. The crowds who will appear in Manhattan this fall expect to watch Dickey lead the Wildcats to their first conference championship since 1934. That may be expecting a little too much.
Vince Gibson sat in his office not long ago, contemplating that prospect. He leaned back in his chair, placed his purple boots on his desk and said, "No matter what happens, this season people ain't laughing at us no more."