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June 28, 2014

A symbol of change shaped K-State football

The purple Powercat planted in a sea of gray, the grimy piece of thin steel with rusted holes where screws once lived, resides inside the garage -- an heirloom of the past that symbolized a movement conjured by one man with a vision many years ago.

Twenty-five years. That's how long has passed since wide-eyed freshman tight end Brad Seib, a Hoisington native and the first in-state player ever to commit to play for a Bill Snyder squad, sat with his new Kansas State teammates inside a room at Bluemont Hall on campus. Work continued on the Vanier Football Complex. Work had just begun for the first-year head coach in the heat of summer. He had a plan for the team that would enter the fall of 1989 nursing a painful, nation-leading 27-game winless streak. He told his players that he wanted them to become a little bit better, and a little bit better, and that they would become better, and that he wanted to see them to grow and grow, as people and as players, each day.

And during that meeting, and during one of the many fiery lectures that he hoped would pave way for a steady program-wide renovation, the new head coach, in a peculiar move, gave each player a license plate. Willie the Wildcat was gone. These license plates bore a new logo. A Powercat.

"He told us he wanted us to have the first ones," Seib said. "He said he wanted us to put them on the front of our cars, and that hopefully, a lot more people around the state would follow suit. They were going to start selling them."

Affixed to what Seib calls his "old college beater car," the Powercat license plate saw countless trips to the Vanier football parking lot. The license plate survived through Seib's redshirt freshman season in which K-State won one football game, and through his senior season when the Wildcats won nine games for the program's best campaign in 83 years, capped by the first bowl victory in school history.

Today, the license plate resides inside of the garage of Seib's home in Blue Springs, Mo.

"It might seem silly," Seib said, "but that symbol right there, you drive all over the state of Kansas today, and for that matter, around the country, and you see that Powercat plate on the front of all of those cars."

Over the years, so much has been written about the 74-year-old Snyder, the future College Football Hall of Famer, and the Football Bowl Subdivision's oldest-active head coach, whose 178 career wins rank second only behind Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer (228) among FBS coaches with at least 20 years at their present school. Snyder posted one victory in his first season. Since then, he's recorded seven 11-win seasons, came one overtime period of reaching a national championship game, and has captured a pair of Big 12 Championship titles heading into his 23rd season this fall.

There are undeniably countless smaller footnotes that'll accompany the legacy of the head coach, whose likeness is already affixed to a highway leading to Manhattan, and to the bronze statue that stands outside the stadium named in his honor. But a well-traveled untold tale sits screwed into thousands of vehicles across America fashioned in a 6 x 12-inch plate of steel. The tiniest of trinkets translates into a big story. Today the Powercat license plates -- the purple ones, black ones, camouflaged ones, and mirrored ones -- start around $20, and symbolize allegiance to a university and athletic department nestled in the Flint Hills. They're fixtures in the stadium parking lots, as commonplace as the grills before football games at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, as popcorn at Bramlage Coliseum, and as hotdogs at Tointon Family Stadium.

Lost on the highway while trying to catch a road game at Ames or Norman? Just follow the family of cars bearing the Powercat license plate.

"It's a connection to the grass-roots fans," said Laird Veatch, a Manhattan native and Associate Athletics Director for Capital Support for the K-State athletic department. "That's one of the things that makes K-State special is that everybody can be a part of it and everybody feels connected to it."

Special teams captain Weston Hiebert tells a story. One of four former in-state walk-ons to earn the title of "captain" by a vote of his teammates for the 2014 season, Hiebert grew up in a town of 500 people in Goessel, about 10 miles north of Newton. He helped work the family farm just outside of town and they owned a dairy. For the 22-year-old senior in agricultural economics, the sight of the Powercat flag hanging on the front of his parent's home has remained as consistent as changing seasons.

"Being on a farm in a small town -- that's kind of the K-State way," Hiebert said. "It's crazy that it's been 25 years. I saw the old Willie on some stuff when I was little, or some of the throwback stuff, but really, those Powercat tags are all I've ever known."

In the beginning, there was no flare or flash to the license plate game. The old gray plate told a modest story of a Midwest blue-collared mentality among a group of players and a new head coach, seeking to pull away from the football program's tattered past, and eager to grasp a tangible identity that signified a new era. The Powercat was a logo designed specifically for Snyder's football program by native Kansan Tom Bookwalter, a K-State art professor.

"It wasn't an attempt to interfere with the university logo. It was just going to be football. That's what I shared with everybody."

-- Bill Snyder

"The logo, we'd just developed it, and I liked it, and I was proud of it," Snyder said. "It wasn't an attempt to interfere with the university logo. It was just going to be football. That's what I shared with everybody. I loved Willie the Wildcat and didn't want to interfere with that whatsoever. I told our players that.

"You know, we just wanted to promote our football program. That's the way to do it."

Mike Clark remembers. Currently the Senior Director of Development for the K-State athletic department, Clark was in the midst of amassing a school-record 435 career victories as the K-State head baseball coach when Snyder took the reins of the football program prior to the 1989 season. Snyder arrived at K-State after aiding mightily in the rebuilding job as an assistant coach at the University of Iowa.

Moments before Clark and Snyder shared a few chuckles and quiet conversation while sipping iced tea in the rear of the Marriott ballroom in Wichita one evening in June, Clark rewound back to the time 25 years ago when the sun wasn't the only thing causing summer heat in Manhattan.

"It's amazing," Clark said. "Time goes fast. But I remember when it happened. I remember people, they didn't like it -- a 'Cat-Hawk.' I heard that from some people. I mean, it was a changing of culture, a changing of image, a changing of the way people thought about Kansas State football. Initially, not all of the sports went to the Powercat right off the bat. Then basketball did, and then we did in baseball, and then everybody else came on board. I don't know when it became the official logo of the athletic department.

"It's like a lot of things. When you win it's acceptable and gets acceptable. But when Coach came in, we didn't have any crowds, ticket sales were abysmal, and the image of our football program nationally wasn't good. And in the state it wasn't good. And in the Midwest, and in the conference, it wasn't good."

Veatch, a four-year letterman from 1990-1994, served as a team captain as a senior during which he earned a honorable mention conference selection at linebacker. He was a part of the first K-State football teams in history to reach nine wins in back-to-back seasons in 1993 and 1994.

One summer after Seib sat in that fateful meeting and received his gray Powercat license plate, Veatch sat in a team meeting as a freshman and received one of his own.

"It was the same thing, because, of course, it's always the same thing," Veatch said. "Coach kept doing it. It was an annual deal, at least early on, because he wanted to get them out there. I think we were all so hungry for a change."

Today, clinking of silverware among supporters at these summertime alumni dinners fall silent when the head coach enters a ballroom. And usually, it takes the man in the dark suit and wire-rimmed glasses a little while to even get into the ballroom. From gray-haired gentlemen in polos to little girls awash in purple outfits, they line the hallways for a photo, a handshake, a chance to share a story, or just to say thanks. Over the years, it's frankly become pretty incredible to watch.

And it seems no matter where Snyder's travels take him, a Powercat license plate isn't far behind. All it takes is a glance in the rear-view mirror.

"It doesn't surprise me to drive around any state in the union, not that I get to all of them, but I see them in virtually every state," Snyder said before addressing 290 gatherers in Wichita. "If I'm in California, I never leave California without seeing a logo license plate. Yeah, I see them all over."

Clark recalled another story. This one about his travels in visiting donors.

"About two months ago, I'm driving down Interstate-15 between Helena and Great Falls in Montana, and I look in my review mirror, and yep, that looks like a Powercat license plate," Clark said. "Son of a gun, it ended up being a Colorado plate with a Powercat on the front. We've got alumni everywhere across the United States.

"My son, Casey, graduated from Kansas State University, and went to law school at KU. He bought a package of 10 Powercat plates. He went through five of them in law school. He'd come out in the morning and somebody had taken it off. So he'd go in the trunk of his car and screw the next one on. The KU people, I'm sure they didn't want this Powercat plate on campus, or in the apartment complex. The Powercat plate, it's a source of pride and something we all look up to.

"It represents not only the excellence of our football program, which is what Coach started it with, but it represents the excellence of our whole university."

Today, Powercats, in fact, adorn the front and back of many vehicles. Proceeds from the K-State License Plate Program -- a rear, state-issued plate with a purple tag number stamped onto a white background -- have eclipsed $2 million to provide scholarships for K-State students. Amy Button Renz, president and CEO of the K-State Alumni Association, announced to the Wichita gathering that "the best part is that we outnumber that other university in the state two-to-one."

Twenty-five years after Snyder began levying his footprint on K-State and the construction of his program, and the Vanier Football Complex, began to take form, K-State in April announced an estimated $65-million facelift to the complex and the north end zone in the stadium. The demolition of the 20-year-old Dev Nelson Press Box in December 2012 made way for the $75-million West Stadium Center that made its debut last season.

The Ahearn Fund reached 10,000 members for the first time in history in April.

Recently, K-State announced it's sold 35,000 football season tickets for the second straight year.

Veatch, who's witnessed all of these transformations as either a player or administrator, beamed in Wichita while meeting with various donors, and while recalling how this all came about some 25 years ago with a new head coach, and a vision, and those 6 x 12-inch plates that he distributed to his players during those first few summers, in hopes they might help foster unity and growth among the team and fan base.

"Not only was it a new logo, but it was also a new logo that would be associated with the greatest turnaround in college football history."

-- Laird Veatch
1994 K-State football team captain

"Certainly, I think that was part of the perfect storm," Veatch said. "Not only was it a new logo, but it was also a new logo that would be associated with the greatest turnaround in college football history. It was a new logo that was truly made and associated with the guy that made the turnaround happen. It was all of those things that happened together at once that helped to make it take off.

"It's just a great brand. It has all of those feel-good emotions tied to it, which makes it very deep-rooted and very heartfelt by our people. That's what Coach wants. How many times has he talked about doing it for the people? About the fact that K-State people care about other people? About the fact that K-State people genuinely care?

"It's all of those things tied into one."

A part of the Foundation Team that began the greatest turnaround in college football history, Seib spent the 2013 season watching K-State enact its greatest single-season turnaround in the program's history.

Today, the K-State logo remains synonymous with pride. Within the K-State family, it symbolizes all of those things that Snyder began speaking about in during that meeting in Bluemont Hall so long ago.

"The license plates today are all fancy, glossy, mirrored, and painted with every shade of whatever, but you never saw that kind of pride from K-State fans," Seib said. "We'd been beaten up for so long, we didn't show our colors.

"To me, those license plates tells the significance of Coach Snyder. The pride among K-Staters across the state and the country is just remarkable. The Powercat is everywhere."

One such illustration arrived one evening in June. Countless vehicles bearing the Powercat license plate lined the parking out outside the Marriott in Wichita. Many others were spotted northbound and southbound down a stretch of U.S. Route 77. The plates were purple, gray, black, camouflaged, mirrored -- a cast of shiny spin-offs from the old-school original.

Yes, there'll be endless stories to tell, of course, about the man whenever he decides to leave the parking lot outside his office for the final time.

Not only do trends in American athletics in this day and age suggest it improbable that one man might ever again create such a historic turnaround and give sustaining life to a program for a quarter of a century -- but that he also initiate such a cause by changing the face of the logo.

For years and years to come, it stands to reason that it won't be hard to spot one small footnote in the tremendous legacy of one man's vision.

It'll probably be affixed to the front of a car.






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