Remember The Program: Wichita State Football

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Uncertainty dominates the college football conversation amid COVID-19 shutdowns, but one news item that mostly flew under the national radar perhaps provides some finality. On April 15, the Kansas Board of Regents unanimously approved the demolish of Cessna Stadium, home to the long dormant Wichita State football program.

For the uninitiated, Wichita State fielded football for nine decades before ceasing operations in 1986. Discussion of resurrecting the program surfaces occasionally, with the prospect in more recent years coinciding with the Shockers basketball team reaching the Final Four in 2013, which came one year after a failed movement to introduce a club team at the university.

The American Athletic Conference’s invitation to Wichita State in 2017 rekindled rumors. The American’s status as the strongest Group of Five conference, and that each of its members participates in football, welcomed the conversation if nothing else. And with UConn leaving the conference for the Big East whenever sports resume, American Athletic football will have odd-number membership.

However, the impending demolishing of Cessna Stadium at least feels like tangible closure on the thought of bringing back Wichita State football. The venue would have required wholesale renovations as is, but building a stadium from the ground up? IN THIS ECONOMY?!?

As with most decisions to shutter a football program — an unfortunate reality a number of programs could face if COVID-19 cancels the 2020 season — the cancellation of Wichita State football came down to financials.

An Associated Press report from December 1986 quotes Synergos, Inc., the consultant agency that assisted in Wichita State’s internal examination of finances, with the following:

“This course of action prompted by the critical financial state of the athletic program is necessary to preserve intercollegiate athletics at WSU and to maintain a broad-based offering of programs for the student-athlete at a competitive level. In the end analysis, there is no other alternative but to drop football at Wichita State University for an undetermined period of time.”

Likewise, abortive efforts to restore the program have been quashed due to money. “An undetermined period of mine” may well be forever.

“Everybody wants it, nobody wants to pay for it,” Wichita State president John Bardo told The Sunflower in 2018. “[Football] is not something we’re going to spend a lot of time on unless the external situation changes where people change and decide to put money into it.”

Of course, it’s interesting to note that Shockers basketball coach Gregg Marshall earns $3.5 million a year; that’s the 13th-highest salary in Div. I, placing his contract in league with that of the wealthiest and most basketball-mad athletic programs in the nation.

Marshall’s Shockers play at Charles Koch Arena, named for one of the two billionaire brothers whose monetary involvement in modern politics made them lightning rods (David Koch died last August). Koch provided a $6 million endowment that aided in the venue’s 2002 renovation.

Koch money impacts Wichita State basketball in other ways, as detailed in this 2018 New Yorker feature, and with a reported net worth of $36 billion, Koch Industries could bolster a hypothetical Wichita State football program in a similar manner.

Dollars may be less of an issue than demand. And if there isn’t a pressing demand for Wichita State football, one can refer to 90 years of history to understand why.

Perhaps the most well-known moment in Shockers football lore is the plane crash that killed 31 players and staff in October 1970, about a month before the tragic accident that nearly shuttered the Marshall football program.

Wichita State’s tragedy wasn’t immortalized in film like the 2006 movie We Are Marshall — although the WSU athletic department produced a worthwhile documentary on the crash.

That could be partially attributed to the history that immediately followed. Marshall football came roaring back, growing into a Div. I-AA powerhouse by the late 1980s and into the 1990s before moving up to the present-day FBS in the same decade.

From the transcendent talent of Randy Moss and his Heisman candidacy, to the flirtations with BCS bowl-busting around the turn of the millennium,  the Thundering Herd thriving on the field made for a more palatable Hollywood ending.

Wichita State football, meanwhile, finished above .500 just once in the final 17 seasons after the crash. The 8-win 1982 team became the Shockers first since 1963 to conclude a winning campaign, in fact.

The ’82 campaign was sadly an aberration, as the Shockers limped to four straight 3-8 seasons before closing its doors.

To offer a juxtaposition that might explain the collective investment in basketball that football lacks, Shockers basketball reached a Final Four (1965), an Elite Eight in an expanded NCAA Tournament (1981), and Xavier McDaniel led the nation in both scoring and rebounding during the years from one of Wichita State football’s final two winning seasons and the program’s ultimate closure.

Those final years of Wichita State football deserve a more thorough examination, however, beginning with the 1982 season. ESPN, if anyone in Bristol is reading, you need content badly right now: Get the 30 for 30 gears turning.

Some moments in those final years to consider include the 1983 Shockers rallying from down 23 points, with a freshman quarterback, in the late third quarter against West Texas A&M.

Freshman quarterbacks and four-score rallies may be relatively normal now, but both were out of the ordinary in 1983.

That quarterback, Brian McDonald, lined up each of the final four seasons of Shockers football. He shared the backfield at one point with Valasco Smith, a hidden gem recruited to Wichita State out of Florida State’s backyard in Tallahassee.

Forgive the Seminoles for not landing Smith, who rushed for 808 yards and 10 touchdowns in Wichita State’s final season and powered a 1985 upset of the Big 8 Conference’s Kansas State.

Smith didn’t play varsity football in Tallahassee, instead catching the eye of Wichita State staff while playing flag football.

With the venue the Shockers called home headed for termination, the stories that unfolded there deserve to be remembered.