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Basketball success helping K-State over crisis

MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — The embarrassing financial scandals that disgusted donors and rocked Kansas State only 10 months ago seem to be fading into distant memory with every high-arching 3-pointer that Jacob Pullen drills home.

For the once-reeling Wildcats, reaching the NCAA tournament's round of 16 this week could translate into something far beyond renewed school spirit. It could also help bring an end to a crisis of confidence that many of the school's most loyal followers had been feeling.

Already, there are signs that fans may be opening checkbooks they slammed shut over a so-called secret agreement to pay former football coach Ron Prince $3.2 million above the $1.2 million he was already due for being fired.

In what shaped up as a huge celebration, the school planned a pep rally Monday night for coach Frank Martin and the Wildcats, who will play Xavier in the West Regional semifinals in Salt Lake City on Thursday night. It's the deepest run they've had in the NCAA tournament since 1988, and the first time in 29 years K-State has outlasted archrival Kansas when both won bids to the big dance.

"I think this has restored confidence," said athletic director John Currie, who walked into a firestorm of bitterness and controversy when he was hired last June to replace the fired Bob Krause. "There's no question the success of this basketball team this year has helped salve the feelings of fans who might have been frustrated before."

Frustrated hardly describes the intensity of emotion many K-Staters were feeling last spring. Betrayal would be more fitting.

Financial mismanagement had been uncovered on such a scale that outgoing president Jon Wefald teared up when he went before the board of regents.

According to Wefald, school lawyers discovered by accident a sweetheart agreement Krause had entered into with Prince that would give him $3.2 million in severance pay. Prince, fired the previous fall with a three-year record of 15-17, was already due $1.2 million in severance from a school that has to watch every nickel and dime to compete against wealthier rivals in the Big 12 Conference.

Prince's lawyers maintain the agreement is legally binding and will be upheld in court. About the same time that embarrassment was breaking, so were the results of an audit that contained many other humiliating examples of fiscal irresponsibility.

Donors were furious. It was not the best of times for Kirk Schulz to walk in as president or Currie to become athletic director. The new administration apologized, vowed transparency in future contracts and designed a strategy to win back confidence based primarily on football coach Bill Snyder.

It made sense. Revered by K-Staters, Snyder ended a three-year retirement to once again patrol the sidelines of a stadium which is named in his honor.

But Snyder failed to get to a bowl game last season and here is Martin, their fiery third-year basketball coach, leading his Wildcats to the Sweet 16 after getting a No. 2 seed, the highest in school history. Thousands of fans flocked to Oklahoma City last weekend to see high-scoring guards Denis Clemente and Pullen lead their school past North Texas and Brigham Young.

"The only thing about Prince that came up this weekend was that he was hired by the Indianapolis Colts as an assistant coach," said Dan Lykins, a prominent Topeka, Kan., attorney who rarely misses a road game. "The last few months, basketball is about the only thing people seem to be talking about."

A member of the Kansas State Foundation as well as the board of regents, Lykins has firsthand knowledge of the school's financial health.

"From what I can see, we are getting more money in," he said. "A big reason why is Frank Martin and his basketball program. Some of the big donors I saw in Oklahoma City were the same people who were so very, very upset last year. But they were hugging Frank and having their picture taken with him. They're donating again."

There may not be a K-Stater anywhere who is happier with the basketball success than Currie.

"There are challenges when you're winning and challenges when you're losing," he said. "But certainly, the challenges when you're winning are a lot more fun."