Small ball

Valley Voice

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We hit a sour note last week on big time college football, its gilt-edged landscapes and billion-dollar beds of clover for athletic departments. Battles for TV contracts and recruiting wars now cover North America and at least two other continents. The unrestrained commercialization of NCAA football has gutted old conferences and vaporized rivalries among neighboring states. Athletes no longer play for dear alma mater. They play for the transfer portal, for ad contracts, corporate endorsements, professional careers.
And yet the true sport, small college football, lives big. The athletes have begun to settle in at Bethany College (enrollment 800) in Lindsborg and a dozen other campuses of schools in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference.
The KCAC is composed of ten schools in Kansas plus Oklahoma Wesleyan in Bartlesville, Okla., York College in York, Nebraska, and Avila University in Kansas City, Mo. Their enrollments range from 600 (York) to 3,600 (Ottawa University), with many in the mid-range of 700 to 800. These schools belong not to the NCAA but to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.
The NAIA holds moral and educational components: football is a game of discipline, restraining selfish desires for a collective prideful effort. The neighboring rivalries can be intense. Here the football is pure, and fun.
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The core of college football – small and big – is seen in the Kansas legacy of two coaches, Ted Kessinger of Bethany and Bill Snyder at Kansas State.
Snyder transformed football at Kansas State University from Big 8 door mat to Big 12 powerhouse; he coached there from 1989 to 2005 and returned in 2009 for nine more seasons. In August 2014, as the Wildcats opened fall camp, Snyder offered reporters a critique of major college football:
The game has been disgraced, he said, corrupted by the celebrity of television, the money of powerful broadcast interests and the conniving influence of sponsors, boosters and advertisers. The values of young athletes are routinely distorted in the name of money, prestige and corporate profiteering.
“I think we’ve sold out,” Snyder said. “We’re all about dollars and cents. The concept of college football no longer has any bearing on the quality of the person, the quality of students. Universities are selling themselves out.”
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Before Bill Snyder there was Ted Kessinger – patron, guardian and Snyder’s predecessor as advocate for student athletes. Kessinger believed that college students (in his realm, student-athletes) were searching for deeper meaning in their lives; rising to the top, being the best, never required the trappings and temptations of celebrity sport. The challenge was a moral one, he said. The finest institutions and the best coaches sought to develop in their students character and intellect, and a devotion to benefit others.
In 2010 Kessinger was inducted into the national College Football Hall of Fame with a 28-season record of 219-57-1; his Bethany Swedes finished in the NAIA top 25 poll 20 times. They won 16 conference titles and 13 National Championship playoff appearances. Kessinger never had a losing season. His coaching accomplishments include 11 conference coach of the year awards, inductions into the NAIA Hall of Fame (2003) and Kansas Sports Hall of Fame (2005). The KCAC Character of Champions Award is in Kessinger’s name.
When he retired in 2003, Kessinger was the NAIA’s most successful active coach in both percentage of victories (.792) and total wins.
Kessinger’s teams included successful athletes and scholars – nearly 400 All-KCAC players, 43 NAIA All-Americans and 49 NAIA All-America Scholar-Athletes.
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The top-tier NCAA schools recruit athletes for institutional prestige and financial gain, Snyder said, leaving them with little “education” beyond the rote schedule of life as an athlete. “It (collegiate football) is no longer about education.”
“…Everybody is building Taj Mahals and I think it sends a message – and young people today I think are more susceptible to the downside of that message, and that it’s not about education. We’re saying it is, but it’s really about the glitz and the glitter, and I think sometimes values get distorted… I hate to think a young guy would make a decision about where he’s going to get an education based on what a building looks like.”
Bethany College and the KCAC set an example. Players attend class, take the tests, and earn their scholarships. Fans pay a reasonable price for their own seats. They see competition at the base of the game for its lessons, its challenges. Small college ball is supported by people who believe there is more to a game than trading flesh and money for more flesh, more graft and more trouble.

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