This is a somber day. It was 42 years ago, on a day every bit as gorgeous as today, that an airplane carrying Wichita State football players, coaches, administrators and boosters – along with the crew – crashed into a Colorado mountainside. Thirty-one people were killed, including 14 players.
I was a high school sophomore in Derby and the news, as I remember, was difficult to comprehend. I remember having immediate concern for Gus Grebe, who at the time was the radio voice of the Shockers. I was relieved to learn that Grebe was one a second plate headed to Logan, Utah, for a game the next afternoon against Utah State.
I would come to find out, though, that a fellow Derby guy, Steve Moore, was one of the players killed in the crash. Moore lived about eight blocks from me on Westview Street. One of my best friends lived across the street from the Moore family.
The tragedy hit close to home not only because of that, but because I was a big Wichita State fan.
I think about the crash often because it was such a huge event of my youth. In my job as a sportswriter, I’ve written many stories and columns about the plane crash and had the privilege to meet several of the family members whose loved ones were lost. The story of the crash has not lost any of its relevance and Shocker football, though disbanded after the 1986 season for financial reasons, is still a topic that resonates with many.
I am not one who thinks football should be re-instated at Wichita State. The obstacles are many and the passion for such a move, as far as I can tell, has never reached more than a relatively few people who feel like the university is not whole without football.
While I empathize with that belief, the reality is that the college football landscape has changed dramatically since 1986. I do not believe WSU fans would sustain support for a football team playing at anything other than the highest level. Missouri Valley Conference football, in my opinion, would not be sufficient in its appeal. And the amount of money required to start-up a football program at WSU is prohibitive.
What still bothers me is that Shocker football was ever dropped in the first place. It would be difficult to adequately describe the amount of empathy that existed for WSU football after another disappointing season in 1986. The program was mired in mediocrity, fixated on futility. Nothing was working and my persistent mental image is of a Cessna Stadium less than half full and quiet enough in which to finish physics homework.
“Apathy,” in fact, was a word used by then-Wichita State president Warren Armstrong in announcing the decision to drop football. Consultants who worked with the university to determine whether keeping a football program was justifiable finally threw up their hands and said, “Enough.”
Publicly, they made a strong case as to why football should be no longer at Wichita State.
Emotionally, though, I’ve never been able to fully accept that decision. I think of all the football players from the Shockers’ past who were crushed by an administrative reaction.
There are those who don’t believe enough was done to save football. And while I’m not sure I agree with them, I understand their point. I remember feeling at the time that the embarrassment of futility was as much to blame for the decision to drop football as the money drain that WSU officials blamed.
Just 16 years after the plane crash, the most monumental event in WSU history, men in shirts and ties made the call to drop Shocker football. I can’t help but think about the handful of players who survived the crash and how they must have felt. I’ve spoken to most of them over the years and know how difficult it was for them to accept the decision. And how much, to this day, they believe Wichita State should still be playing football.
Who knows what would have happened had Armstrong and athletic director Lew Perkins not decided to cut their losses. Perhaps football would have taken the rest of the athletic department under, too. Or maybe a slick, smart administrative team would have been able to figure out a way to make football work.
If that sounds naive, I apologize. Like I said, I’m not one of those who is beating the drum for football’s return to WSU. I just don’t see how it would work now.
I also don’t completely understand how it got to the point of not working 26 years ago. True, the Shockers provided mostly a terrible product. I will always be convinced that the fate of WSU football was sealed earlier during the 1986 season when the Shockers lost to Morehead State – Morehead State! – 36-35 after leading in that game, 35-3. That was the kind of rock-bottom landing that causes knee-jerk decisions and rash explanations.
On this day, especially, I feel badly for the players who gave to much to Shocker football over the years. It’s sad they don’t have a team to root for, a fight song to sing, a stadium they can return to.
Shocker football makes me sad. First the crash, then the disbandment of the program. Two terribly black marks.