I couldn’t believe it had been 11 years since I covered a game in Manhattan, Kan., but yep, I looked it up. Hadn’t been to KSU Stadium (that’s what it was back then) since that 2000 epic, when the upstart Sooners beat the No. 2-ranked Wildcats 41-31. For no good reason, really, other than other games to go to.
But I was back last Saturday and remembered everything I once loved about Manhattan. What a great campus. What a great town. What a great part of America. I’m generalizing, of course, but anyone who doesn’t like Manhattan really isn’t my kind of people.
Aggieville is Kansas State’s version of OU’s Campus Corner or OSU’s Strip. Only way better. Bigger, more thriving, more diverse. About six square blocks of commerce. Aggieville hops most nights, I assume, but really is bubbling the night before a big ballgame.
I missed one of the great traditions, though. The KSU pep band trolls Aggieville, popping into most establishments to play a fight song. I was in two places in Aggieville and the band didn’t come in, but I’ve still got the memories of 2000, when the band came into this little Mexican place where we dined. Couldn’t have had more than 15 or so tables, tiny little place, and all of a sudden here comes 8-10 musicians, filling up the place with “Wabash Cannonball.”
All generations descend on Aggieville the night before games. Seniors, mid-lifers, yuppies, students, kids, babies. It’s a blast.
We ate at a place called the Hibachi Hut. I was thinking Japanese Steakhouse, or some kind of stir-fry place. It was crowded, so I figured we couldn’t go wrong.
Turns out it was a Cajun place. I know, Cajun in Manhattan, Kan.? But it worked out beautifully. The food was good; I had red beans and rice, a shrimp po’boy and jambalaya. It was all good, though I’ve got to tell you, I’ve always found jambalaya to be overrated. Give me gumbo any day. Photographer Chris Landsberger had Chicken Orleans (maybe it was shrimp Orleans, I can’t remember), which looked really good. Videographer Damon Fontenot ate a steak; guess he’s one of those guys who goes to Wendy’s and orders a chicken sandwich; goes to Pizza Hut and orders nachos.
Anyway, I knew we were in the right place when I saw a couple of long-time K-State people. Tim Fitzgerald, publisher of Powercat Illustrated and GoPowercat.com, and former KSU sports information director Ben Boyle both were in the Hibachi Hut with separate parties. And a contingent from OU came in; video whiz Brandon Meier told me he’d been twice before. So I knew I was in good hands.
THE KANSAS PLAINS
I had never driven to Manhattan by going through Salina. I’ve always gone the Kansas Turnpike to Cassody, then north on U.S. 177. That changed Friday.
In Wichita, we went north on I-135 to Salina, hit I-70 and drove an hour east to Junction City, where we stayed and which is just 15 minutes or so outside Manhattan.
I love the prairie and the plains. Northern Kansas looks like something out of the old West. Like Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call could have run their Lonesome Dove cattle drive smack through the middle of. Then when you start going east on I-70, you quickly hit the Flint Hills, with rock formations and beautiful trees. Which leads you to Manhattan, a Norman Rockwell type of town. And late October was a grand day to be there. You know all the color we missed out on this autumn because of the summer drought? It’s still in Manhattan. Gorgeous trees and hills.
Now, the downside to going through Salina is I missed out on U.S. 177. We went home that way, but in pitch dark,. That means I missed two great landmarks. The Hays House in Council Grove, oh, probably 30 miles south of Manhattan, which bills itself as the oldest restaurant west of the Mississippi. I had a fried chicken dinner there in 1995. Great atmosphere. And probably 20 miles south of Council Grove is Cottonwood Falls, where the Chase County Courthouse is easily one of the 10-coolest buildings I’ve ever seen. Oldest still-used courthouse in Kansas. Great old building. I’ve never stopped and walk around in it, but some day I will. And finally, the Knute Rockne Memorial just outside Matfield Green and just north of the Kansas Turnpike. Rockne died in a 1931 plane crash on a nearby Kansas wheatfield.
I didn’t eat dinner Friday night with colleagues Travis Haney and Mike Baldwin because they are baseball junkies and didn’t want to miss a pitch of Game 7 of the World Series. So they holed up in Tubby’s, an Aggieville sports bar, while we went around the corner to the Hibachi Hut. Turns out we had a great view of Cardinals-Rangers ourselves; HD television right in front of our table.
But we went back to Tubby’s and watched the last five innings or so with them. There is something endearing about community sports watching. If this was a game I was really connected to — OU or OSU football or basketball, the Thunder, any NFL playoff game, the Final Four, etc. — I would have made a bee-line for my hotel room. But if details didn’t matter, watching with a few friends and a hundred strangers, most of whom were sober, is not a bad way to go.
It appears that Manhattan is Cardinal Country, at least on this night. Hard to be a Royals fan these days, despite Baldwin’s dogged loyalty, including a Royals jacket on this crisp Kansas night. Even over at the Hibachi Hut, a wall was dedicated to the Redbirds, and one of the waiters wore a Cardinal cap.
Tubby’s was a good place, though, because it also had the BYU-TCU football game on, so when Tony LaRussa made one of his incessant pitching changes, I had something to pass the time.
Met a few OU fans in Tubby’s, including a trio of students who drove up for the game. Always interesting to me how some students make road trips. Very adventurous, sleeping on someone’s floor, maybe having a ticket to the game, maybe not. There is something to be said for carefree.
The patrons were generally well-behaved, until after the game, when some knucklehead at the table next to ours began shouting expletives about the Rangers. Do you suppose people have no idea what idiots they become with a little alcohol?
BILL SNYDER FAMILY STADIUM
KSU’s coliseum was packed with purple, except for the few thousand Sooner fans. KSU fans support their squad in a big-time way.
My first trip to Manhattan was 1975, when my dad decided to drive up there the day before the OU-KSU game. We stayed at a motel in Junction City, drove over and bought tickets right behind the OU bench. No way were there more than 25,000 fans in the stands. I remember parking close to the stadium, then driving home basically unencumbered.
What a difference Bill Snyder has made. Traffic in Manhattan was fierce. It took us probably 15 minutes to get to Manhattan, then an hour to get to the stadium. The parking lots were packed with tail-gaters. The stadium was loud.
And here’s what I like best about what K-State has turned itself into. It’s all man-made. By that, I mean it wasn’t organically composed from generation to generation. Kansas State football 30 years ago had no tradition, no fan base, no support, no nothing.
Whereas Bob Stoops built off the success of Barry Switzer, even though there some rocky years in between; and Switzer built off the tradition of Bud Wilkinson, even though there were some rocky years in between; and Wilkinson even built off the tradition of Bennie Owen, even though there were some rocky years in between; Bill Snyder built off nothing.
Any measurable KSU football success was extremely limited, a year here, two years there. Then back to absolute destitution.
Snyder’s success changed all that. But KSU’s fans don’t get enough credit. KSU still isn’t a raging powerhouse; two BCS-level bowls in its history, one conference championship since the 1930s. But the Wildcat fans jumped on Snyder’s success and take great pride in the transformation. Maybe there’s a better way to say it, but they created overnight tradition. I think that’s impressive.
Sorry, Manhattan, for staying away so long. I’ll be back soon.