Originally posted on Fox Sports Kansas City  |  Last updated 6/7/13
KANSAS CITY, Mo. They used to throw rock concerts after the baseball games at Kansas State. No, really. They did. Players only. Only instead of lighters, they brought buckets.And, truth be told, the "concert" bit didn't have anything to do with a concert at all. That was the sarcastic term Wildcat baseballers used for the annual post-contest ritual of walking around Frank Myers Field, and picking up rocks, one by one."Yeah, 'Here's the loaf of bread and bologna and cheese, and your little packet of mayo,' " Jim Donohue chuckles. Donohue played third base at K-State from 1985-88; the dude was a doubles machine in his salad days. "No, it was fine. It really built character."We didn't fly anywhere. You're not staying the finest hotels, you're staying in the Motel 6s and the Red Roof Inns. And we didn't know any better. That's all we knew. We came out of high school programs into the Big Eight, and at that time, most of us were 17-18 years old, and we thought, 'Hell, ride on the team bus and stay in the Red Roof Inn, that's like staying at the Ritz and chartered flights.' But it really developed who we were."They were The Little Program That Could, Sometimes, Sort Of, When The Stars Aligned. If Oklahoma State and Oklahoma and (later) Texas were the Macy's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's of the Big Eight-turned-Big 12, Kansas State was Uncle Charlie's Toaster Repair Shop.From 1983-86, the Wildcats chewed up and spit out three different baseball coaches. In 1987, the recruiting budget was a whopping 2,000. On the road, they sometimes slept five to a room.Players dressed on the bus, or in nearby buildings, or anything else with walls and roof. Myers Field was free of rocks, but it was also free of locker facilities and public restrooms.When Mike Clark signed on and at least two major league scouts advised strongly against it at K-State some 36 years ago, he took a 4,000 pay cut from his previous gig. And he technically had two jobs: Baseball Coach and Supervisor of Football Parking. This was pre-Bill Snyder football parking, when the cars were few and the victories fewer."I never asked which one paid more," Clark says now, laughing.An athletic director once told him he didn't care about wins or losses: Clark would be retained as long as he kept the baseball program under budget every year."It was a Big Eight job and it was in the Midwest," says Clark, who would coach from 1987-2003 and is now a senior director for development with K-State's Ahearn Fund. "I believed in the culture and the people and I just thought, We can do this.' It took a heck of a lot longer than I ever thought it would."From 1976-2003, a span of 28 seasons, the Wildcats posted a winning record in league play just three times; Clark managed to pull it off just once, in 1990. They've done it three times over the past five years. Since 2009, they've qualified for the NCAA Tournament four times.And don't look now, but Uncle Charlie is two victories away from the College World Series.When Brad Hill checked his smart phone Sunday night, there were more than 40 text messages waiting. The Wildcats had outlasted Arkansas, 4-3, to advance to the Super Regionals for the first time in school history. He stopped counting the emails a while ago."I was sitting the other night with my wife I'm a big 'Criminal Minds' fan, I'm watching 'Criminal Minds,' " says K-State's baseball coach, whose 44-17 squad will visit Oregon State (48-10) this weekend in a best-of-three series. "The show got over, and I sit there for about 15 seconds. And I said, 'We are playing in the freaking Super Regionals. We're going to Corvallis this weekend and playing in the freaking Super Regionals.' "Hill, who succeeded Clark in 2003, is your classic scrapper, the steel that courses up and down the program's veins. The more you knock them down, the angrier they get. The Wildcats are 19-9 this season in contests in which their opponents have scored first, and basically clawed their way to the program's first league title in 80 years."This coaching staff is tremendous, and I love the way they're doing it," Clark gushes. "I love the aggressiveness."The last time the Wildcats swung this kind of stick on the diamond, you have to go back to '07. And by that, we mean 1907 when the baseball program notched what was believed to be K-State's first varsity championship in any sport.Earl Woods, better known as the father of Tiger, was a catcher here, and in 1952 became the first African-American baseball player in the old Big Seven conference. So there's history there, in crumbs. You'd need carbon-14 dating to find the good stuff."Somebody had to keep this program going, and coach Clark kept it going, and those players had kept it going," says Hill, who sports a 334-241-3 record over 10 seasons in Manhattan. "He had to want to be here and be a part of that because there could have been, again, at K-State, I don't know, just enough feeling there of not caring that they could have let this thing go away."Colorado dropped baseball in 1980. Iowa State did the same in 2001. The crowds are small, the costs are large, and the springs are schizophrenic. Clark says KSU never threatened to drop the ax, as long as he stayed within his financial constraints. Still, Myers Field became dated quickly; as exhausting as it was for Clark to get an AD to approve a renovation Max Urick finally gave the green light, 12 years into the coach's tenure the end result was even more taxing. Because of delays, the Wildcats had to spend the entire 1999 season without a home field, "hosting" games at 19 different sites, including Salina, Hutchinson and Wichita, traveling roughly 17,500 miles in the process."I'll tell you, when we were playing at Emporia State, K-State baseball was even kind of a joke, 'Nobody will go there,' " says former K-State athletic director Tim Weiser, now the deputy commissioner of the Big 12, the man who had hired Hill to pick up Clark's baton. "Emporia State was a much more sought-after school, because of what Dave Bingham had done and that they had won national championships. And so it had dropped way, way down."But I think Mike's perseverance and his willingness to kind of fight the good fight it took his toll on him, and you could tell. I could tell. He was just wearing down and he was just running out of gas. All the time he had spent just trying to keep the program afloat and keep the program going had just taken its toll."Over his first three seasons in The Little Apple, Hill's teams finished 10th, 10thand ninth. He had yet to qualify for a Big 12 tourney, let alone the NCAAs. Weiser recalls somewhat bemusedly now a reporter phoning him up after Year 3, to ask if he was ready to pull the plug on his baseball hire out of Central Missouri State."It's kind of been this slow, steady build," Weiser says. "To me, it's the old theory of, 'Well, would you rather plant flowers or would you rather plant a tree?' "It's an oak now, popped from the tiniest acorns imaginable. Myers Field was rededicated as Tointon Family Field, in honor of lead donors Betty and Bob Tointon Class of '55 in 2002, a limestone jewel, replete with a locker room that takes up more than 3,100 square feet. Clark notes that there are roughly 1,000 season-ticket holders, and that current AD John Currie has been unwavering in his support."Really, the biggest challenge is the perception for the kids," Hill says. "That was the hardest challenge: The perception that we could beat Oklahoma, that we could beat Texas, that we could beat A&M or Wichita State."Little by little, piece by piece, perception has become reality. Hill eschewed the quick-fix route of junior-college transfers, preferring a base of high-schoolers with a collective chip on their shoulders. It's a nice problem to have, but how is Uncle Charlie going to handle life, going forward, with a big ol' target strapped across his back?"For me, it's going to be real simple," Hill says. "Because last year was a real slap on the side of the head. We're going to use that. I tell the guys, 'Hey, fellas, you know what? We were just a year removed from being last in the conference. We were fighting just to make the conference tournament.'"The expectations are good. The entitlement is not."It's a fine line, and the fall to the storm cellar is short. In Manhattan, then as now, no stone is left unturned.You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com
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