Mittie, Schneider seek to restore success at Kansas State, Kansas

After opening Big 12 play with four consecutive losses, Jeff Mittie and Kansas State are 4-4 in league play and 14-5 overall. David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Kansas State coach Jeff Mittie chuckled, although surely he has heard the question before. The purple blazer he was sporting -- was it attire he carried over from his previous place of employment?

Mittie, in his second season at Kansas State after 15 years at equally purple TCU, then showed the blazer's buttons, imprinted with the Wildcats' logo.

"This was given to me when I took the job," Mittie said after Kansas State won 59-46 at Kansas on Jan. 20, "and it is specifically saved for these games."

Rival Kansas has had an even more recent change in coaching; Brandon Schneider is in his first season with the Jayhawks.

Mittie and Schneider are each trying to establish new cultures at programs that previously have had success, although rarely at the same time.

They've paid their dues in the coaching world and see the schools they're at now -- which are roughly 80 miles apart -- as brimming with potential ... but also requiring a lot of work.

"We're both trying to make jumps in the Big 12, a tough league to jump up in," Mittie said. "As we get better, the rivalry will get better. But it's a big rivalry in the state, and it's big in every sport. It's a big deal to a lot of people, and that's what makes it so much fun to coach in and play in.

"You'd like to do it in front of 7,000 or 8,000 people; I'd like to get where we are both playing for a championship."

That would be an intriguing scenario in one of the longest-running series in all of women's college athletics: Kansas and Kansas State have met 113 times, dating back nearly five decades.

The 114th matchup will be Feb. 13 in the Wildcats' home of Manhattan, Kansas; they lead the series 67-46.

"I understand the rivalry," Schneider said, "and hope as we continue to improve our program, it will be something that is very, very intense for a long time."

How they got here

Most schools didn't launch varsity teams in women's basketball until after Title IX was signed in 1972, but Kansas and Kansas State were ahead of the curve. Their programs -- and the series -- began in the 1968-69 school year. Their first meeting was at a neutral site: Emporia, Kansas, on Feb. 23, 1969, with the Wildcats winning.

Schneider hadn't been born yet then. But 26 years later, when he had just finished college at Wayland Baptist in Texas, Schneider moved to Emporia to start his coaching career as an assistant at Emporia State. You could say he was destined to join this profession; his father, Bob, was the women's hoops coach for a quarter-century at West Texas A&M, and Brandon grew up submerged in basketball.

The whole Schneider family celebrated in 2010 when Brandon led Emporia State to the Division II national championship in his 12th year as the Hornets' head coach. The next season, he moved to Division I in his home state of Texas, taking over at Stephen F. Austin. After five years there, the Kansas job opened, and for Schneider it was a dream destination -- even though the Jayhawks had just endured consecutive losing seasons that ended the 11-year tenure of Bonnie Henrickson.

"We knew coming into this season that we were really going to be up against it, especially when we got to Big 12 play," said Schneider, whose Jayhawks are 5-14 overall and 0-8 in the league. "But just from a culture standpoint, I would hope if people walked into one of our practices right now, you wouldn't know if we were in last place or first place. And that's a compliment to our team."

Meanwhile, Mittie already had experienced the challenges of Big 12 play before he took over at Kansas State; TCU joined the league in 2012-13. When Deb Patterson was let go as the Wildcats coach after 18 seasons in 2014, Mittie made the move back to the Midwest where he grew up.

"We're both trying to make jumps in the Big 12, a tough league to jump up in. As we get better, the rivalry will get better." Kansas State coach Jeff Mittie

Mittie is from the Kansas City suburb of Blue Springs, Missouri, and his wife is from Junction City, Kansas, which is about a half hour southwest of Manhattan. For Mittie, the Kansas State job was a chance to be closer to his family's roots, but also to try to really engage with the community in a small college town, as opposed to the pro-sports saturated Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

"I know our fan base loves women's basketball, and I know that we can get them excited about it," said Mittie, whose Wildcats were 19-14 last season and played in the WNIT. "I think our team is starting to feel that: The better we play, the harder we compete, the more excited our fans are."

The 14-5 Wildcats, after beginning 0-4 in the Big 12, have won their past four games. Saturday, they expect a big crowd as they host No. 6 Texas and also honor the top two players in program history: All-Americans Kendra Wecker and Nicole Ohlde.

They played three seasons together. Ohlde graduated in 2004 and Wecker in 2005. Interest in the program was at its highest then. Seven of the eight sellout crowds at Bramlage Coliseum for women's hoops came during their careers, as did the top four season averages in attendance, peaking at 9,365 in 2003-04.

The Wildcats are averaging a little fewer than half that this season: 4,350, with a high of 7,525 on Jan. 16 against TCU. Those numbers are still pretty good in the women's basketball world, but Mittie knows what it was like a decade ago and would love to get back near that.

"We talk to our players about it all the time," he said. "We talk about the facility and the history of the players who have been here. While our kids hear it, it's also a little bit hard for them to totally understand it."

Different paths

If you picked a "Mount Rushmore" of women's basketball stars who were natives of the Sunflower State, three of them became Wildcats or Jayhawks: Ohlde and Wecker for Kansas State, and Lynette Woodard for Kansas. (The fourth would be Jackie Stiles, who went to Missouri State and finished her career in 2001 as the NCAA's top career scorer at 3,393.)

Woodard, though, is actually the all-time leading scorer in women's college hoops if you include the pre-NCAA period. She had 3,649 points from 1977-81, at the end of the AIAW era. A Naismith Hall of Famer from Wichita, Kansas, Woodard was the most prized recruit of coach Marian Washington, who spent 31 seasons as the Jayhawks' head coach, retiring in 2004.

Kansas State and Kansas both had competitive programs in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But their fates tended to alternate after the NCAA tournament began in 1982. The Wildcats and the Jayhawks have made the NCAA field in the same season just three times: 1987, 1997 and 2012.

"I don't look at it as a negative. I think we need good coaches, period, in our game. And I also think there are lot of good young female coaches coming up." K-State's Jeff Mittie, on the declining number of female coaches

In the 1990s, Kansas went to the NCAA tournament eight times, Kansas State just once. Since 2000, though, the script mostly has been flipped: the Wildcats have been to the Big Dance eight times, the Jayhawks just twice. In fact, 2000 was the last time Kansas had a winning record in Big 12 play.

In short, Kansas was the better program of the two in the Big Eight era (which for women started in 1983), while Kansas State has fared better in the Big 12, which began in 1996-97.

Of course, all this doesn't mean much to the current Wildcat and Jayhawk players. But there are fans of both programs who've been around for a lot of this, and now they speculate on the future.

What none of them have ever experienced before, though, is both programs being coached by men. Schneider is the first male coach for the Jayhawks. Mittie is the third for the Wildcats, although that requires a little explanation.

Brian Agler, current coach of the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks, came to Kansas State in 1993, but departed during a tumultuous 1995-96 season. So longtime Wildcat men's coach Jack Hartman came out of retirement to finish out just that season with the women.

"As a male in this business who chose from day one to coach women, the thing that does bother me is when men are hired who were on the men's side, and it's kind of an afterthought for them to get jobs in women's basketball." Kansas coach Brandon Schneider

Does having two men now at the helm for the Jayhawks and Wildcats really make any difference? Both Mittie and Schneider, who've spent their entire careers coaching women, would say no. From a big-picture standpoint, though, they understand it can be a topic.

In fact, the day before their teams met last week, a piece by FiveThirtyEight examined the declining number of female coaches in women's collegiate sports, including basketball. The reasons for that are myriad, and not everyone would agree about them. But there are some obvious ones.

"The money -- you can't deny that's a factor," Mittie said of the increase in salaries in women's college basketball, particularly in the past 15 years. "Money has gotten better, and that has gotten more people interested.

"But I would say also there's a great appreciation of the women's game. I've been in it a long time. Back when I was 25 years old and getting started, I was like, 'These athletes can flat-out play.'"

That was when he was at his alma mater, Missouri Western. Mittie, now 49, also coached at Arkansas State before going to TCU, and has always wanted to stay in women's basketball.

"So I don't look at it as a negative," Mittie said. "I think we need good coaches, period, in our game. And I also think there are lot of good young female coaches coming up."

For Schneider, who grew up watching his dad coach a women's team, this was also never a debate.

"As a male in this business who chose from day one to coach women," Schneider said, "the thing that does bother me is when men are hired who were on the men's side, and it's kind of an afterthought for them to get jobs in women's basketball.

"I think there are plenty of coaches out there, male and female, who have worked really hard in the women's game, and those are the folks who ought to be getting jobs."

What could be ahead

Mittie's Wildcats have shown recently that they might have a shot at playing their way into an NCAA tournament berth. They're led by Breanna Lewis, a 6-foot-5 junior post player under the radar nationally but definitely known to WNBA scouts.

"She's really got a chance to get there," Mittie said of Lewis, who's averaging 17.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks. "She's finishing at a high level, and defensively she's a factor. This league has some pretty good centers, and she's right up there with the very best of them."

Lewis is from Milwaukee, but Kansas State's other starters are from either the states of Kansas or Missouri. Including guard Kindred Wesemann, the other Wildcat who's averaging in double figures in scoring (12.8 PPG). And starting forward Kaylee Page is part of a sibling duo from Wamego, Kansas, just 14 miles from Manhattan. Her sister, Lanie, is a 6-3 freshman guard who's redshirting this season due to injury.

The "local-kid" factor was a big reason for the Wildcats' aforementioned attendance spike just over a decade ago. That has never seemed to be as much a component of fan interest at Kansas, although it can't hurt.

"One of the things that bothers me the most is right now we're a team that's hurting our league's RPI. I don't want to be that program."" Kansas' Brandon Schneider

And neither does Schneider see the enormously popular Kansas men's program as hurting the women's program. The Jayhawk men will always be the focal point of Kansas' athletic department and the Lawrence community, but Schneider thinks their longtime national prominence helps all the school's teams.

"In recruiting, we use the success of the men's program and how big a deal basketball is here," Schneider said, also touting the allure of majestic Allen Fieldhouse. "We're given every opportunity to build a nationally prominent program."

Perhaps more relatable to the Jayhawk women's basketball team, though, is the recent success of the Kansas volleyball program, which in December made the final four for the first time.

Kansas is a long way from that in women's basketball; the best NCAA tournament showing for the Jayhawks is the Sweet 16, which they've made four times. And Schneider doesn't mince words about how the talent level has to improve for Kansas to even compete in the Big 12.

This season is about establishing a new culture for the Jayhawks, with native Kansans such as freshmen Kylee Kopatich and Tyler Johnson among them. Next season, the Jayhawks will be helped when transfers Jessica Washington (from North Carolina) and McKenzie Calvert (from Southern California) are eligible. And Schneider hopes Kansas can make a big splash recruiting-wise by his third season.

Mittie and Schneider both have high hopes for what their programs can be. And while part of that means trying to beat each other, they also understand how mutual success can be beneficial. Rivalries are one of the foundations of sports' popularity, and especially need to continue to be cultivated in women's team sports.

"I'm for everybody in our league being good; it makes for a tremendous conference," Schneider said. "One of the things that bothers me the most is right now we're a team that's hurting our league's RPI. I don't want to be that program."

It's usually easier to believe the best is coming when you start a project. Henrickson took over at Kansas in 2004 and was asked where the Jayhawks would be in 10 years. She predicted they'd have a national championship by then. But Kansas didn't even come close to winning a Big 12 title in that time.

There are plenty of hurdles in the way for Mittie and Schneider, including each other. But maybe their programs both will climb enough to get to a place where this "ancient" rivalry will be about much more than just geographical bragging rights.