When he was first named as the new athletic director at Kansas State University in April of 2017, Gene Taylor knew he would be on a learning curve.
It’s just that way with a brand new job at a brand new university in a brand new state in a brand new city.
“I’d only been to Manhattan twice before interviewing,” Taylor said Tuesday in a sit-down interview with The Telegram at The Golf Club at Southwind prior to a KSU Catbacker golf outing and alumni dinner later that evening. “I knew that the department was in pretty good shape, but you’re always wondering just what you’ll find once you actually begin.”
What Taylor first discovered was a department that had a solid staff.
“We did make a few changes, by moving people up, moving people around to meet the needs as we looked at things,” Taylor said. “The first thing I did was promote Jill (Shields, to deputy athletic director/senior woman administrator), because she’s just such a great person to have in that position.”
In the early months of his inaugural year with the Wildcats athletic department — after more than a decade at North Dakota State and a couple of years at Iowa — Taylor said he met with every staff person and and every coach.
“What are we doing well? What are we not doing well? What do we need to stop doing?” Taylor said of the questions posed to his new staff. “There was a common theme that we were doing more with less, which can be a source of pride. But we could use some additional staff to help us in certain areas.”
The big task in that job was to find personnel for the staff positions, and then find the money to provide them with competitive salaries.
“We know we can’t likely match the highest-end universities nationally or maybe even in the Big 12, but we go with what are average in a lot of places,” Taylor said. “Obviously, you’d like to pay your best people as good as you can.”
For Taylor, there were few surprises along the way during his “honeymoon” year in Manhattan.
“It was everything I expected and what I thought about Kansas State,” said Taylor, who had been to Manhattan in 2009 (basketball) and 2013 (football). “I didn’t really see much of Manhattan when I was here then.”
Taylor’s extensive background in athletic administration was one of the big attractions for the hiring committee, and the new boss of the Wildcats athletics program has been going fast and furious ever since.
His tour of professional experience has taken him from his college days at Arizona State University, to a master’s degree from St. Thomas University in Florida, to Southern Methodist University and the Naval Academy prior to his two most recent stops before K-State came calling.
“I think I’ve been impressed with just how nice everybody is,” Taylor said of his early impressions of Kansans in general. “Most people are very respectful when I’m out, but I do enjoy talking to people because you see their genuine care and concern for the university and the athletic programs.”
One other item also grabbed Taylor’s watchful eye.
“You know there’s a lot of pride when the garbage cans are purple,” Taylor said with a genuine smile. “There’s a lot of passion and a deep care for the university.”
To nobody’s surprise, the biggest and most often asked question was the future of football coach Bill Snyder.
“It was easily the No. 1 question I got from everyone,” Taylor said. “Of course, when you have the situation with his age and his health, you try to have a plan in place with multiple scenarios.”
Taylor said he honestly didn’t know what Snyder would decide through the summer months and even during the fall football season, until the Wildcats made a late run and then defeated UCLA in a bowl game.
“I’d say to people that he and we are in a good place right now,” Taylor said. “I certainly expect him to be here through next season, but beyond that I’d say is pretty much up to him. For what he’s done for the university, I’d say the decision more rests with him, and he has said that as long as he is wanted, he’ll stay as long as his health allows. So I think from our talks, we both know where things are and it’s a good place to be.”
Taylor said that there has been a complete assessment of the facilities at KSU, and that plans are well under way to break ground in November on a $16 million baseball/soccer complex that will be built on the existing site, with some expansion included.
“We’re nearing completion on a facilities master plan that will take us out the next 5 to 10 years, and we hope to unveil that to our donors and the public sometime this summer,” Taylor said. “The biggest question we got from donors was they liked what we had done, but wanted to know what’s next. I thought this is really great that people are happy, but not satisfied with what has been done.”
With respect to the future and the Big 12 Conference, Taylor said he thought the Big 12 was on solid footing now after major conference reshuffling occurred a few years ago, resulting in the loss of Missouri, Texas A&M, Colorado and Nebraska, but the addition of West Virginia and TCU, leaving the conference with 10 schools.
“I think everybody is happy with the 10 schools,” Taylor said. “We gave a serious look at expansion, but felt like 10 was the right number. All of the AD’s and presidents get along well, and I think we’re a strong conference now.”
Taylor said that most television contracts with conferences, which caused the tectonic shift, will likely arise again around 2023.
“We want to be in a position of strength, and I think we are,” Taylor said. “The addition of the conference football championship game shows that the schools did what was in the best interest of the conference and not in just one or two school’s best interest.”
During his first year, Taylor saw KSU win a bowl game in football, the men’s basketball team reach the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament, women’s track win the 2017 (and followed it up last weekend with a 2018 title) conference.
“Across the board, I think most of our programs are in good shape,” Taylor said. “We’ve got to find a new baseball coach (Brad Hill just stepped down), so that’s on my immediate list. But I think everyone’s stepping up. I don’t see any one sport that is in a weak position.”
So, when he awakens each morning to head to his office, Taylor just reminds himself that he’s in a good place.
“It’s just been fun,” he said. “I have to pinch myself because being the AD at Kansas State is pretty cool. I haven’t had a bad day at work since I started.”