The Wizard of Oz

K-State's Director of Athletics Gene Taylor has found there's no place like home in Manhattan

As the sun rises over Bill Snyder Family Stadium, this morning commences the same as any other for Kansas State’s Director of Athletics, Gene Taylor. Walking into his Vanier Football Complex office that overlooks the football field, he ganders around in awe & appreciation. Amid an assembly of autographed helmets and footballs, there’s photos of family, friends, and decades-past football teams. There are framed jerseys, assorted memorabilia, and a personal collection of commemorative Army vs. Navy ticket stubs. Above all, an abundance of gratitude fills the room. Each morning, Gene begins the day with the same grateful thought: “How cool is this to be here?”

Forrest Gene Taylor was born on July 22, 1957, in a small town near the Pinaleno Mountains of Southeastern Arizona. Raised in Safford, population some 10,000, the area is known as a copper mining, cattle & cotton region. The son of a high school basketball coach, Gene was around sports from the moment he was born. He has fond memories of going to every game, sweeping the floor at halftime, and getting to travel with the team. More importantly, he remembers the quality time spent with his father. “I won’t say that’s why I’m here today necessarily, but when I think back on everything I did – it was all about sports, and mainly because of my father,” he says.

A good athlete growing up, Gene would play varsity football and basketball in high school. Winning state basketball championships three out of four years, he failed to make the basketball team his senior year due to an injury that led to a missed tryout. Despite not playing, he had the respect of his teammates, and came aboard as team manager his senior year. This move would prove to have a lasting impact on his future.

Following high school, he attended a basketball camp at Arizona State University. Injuring his foot on the first day, Gene got to know the coaches while sidelined. Once enrolled at ASU, those same coaches asked if he wanted to be a team manager. Seizing the moment, he served the basketball team for two years. Before his junior year, the football team needed a manager, and that opportunity turned into a full scholarship. Even though he primarily served the football team, a self-proclaimed “equipment room rat, of sorts,” he would still help the basketball and baseball teams during their seasons. Gene just loved the process of being a sports manager.  

Graduating from ASU with a degree in hotel & restaurant management, he soon found himself in Texas, managing a high-end steak supper club. After four years, he began missing athletics. He called an ASU friend who had become an assistant AD at the University of Miami. That friend told him it wouldn’t be easy applying for random athletics jobs, but encouraged him to come to Miami, and get a master’s degree from St. Thomas University. He did just that. His first post-graduate job would take him back to Texas, where he became an intern in the ticket office at Southern Methodist University.

It was a great job that he loved, but there was just one problem that SMU’s athletic department was about to face, and it was called The Death Penalty. (SMU’s football program was shut down for repeated NCAA violations). After having to leave Dallas, Gene went back to Arizona, where a friend from St. Thomas would soon call to tell him about an entry-level position that had come open at the Naval Academy. Gene applied, got hired, loaded his truck, drove across the country, and stayed in Annapolis, Maryland for 15 years.

After working for some time in the business and ticket offices, a new athletic director by the name of Jack Lengyel would soon take over. Jack really took a shine to Gene, essentially taking him under his wing. Gene would climb the ladder to become the Senior Associate AD for Internal Operations at the Navy, and he credits the mentorship of Jack Lengyel as one of the biggest reasons for where he’s at in his career today.

Annapolis was also where he would meet his future wife, Cathy. Gene was roommates with her brother, Mike Schofield. Being from a family of eight, she was the only sibling Gene hadn’t met when they did. Meeting at one of Gene’s favorite annual parties, they started talking, and he liked her from the start. Cathy was living in Pennsylvania at the time, near her native hometown of Pittsburgh, but she would eventually relocate to Annapolis where the two would date for a few years, before getting married in 1994.

One day, Jack came down to Gene’s office and said, “Here’s a job description I think you should take a look at it.” It was for the Athletic Director’s position at North Dakota State in Fargo. With Jack’s encouragement, and Cathy’s nervousness, he applied. After going through the initial process, and garnering some interest, they agreed to a visit. On the first night, Cathy was pretty upset about the prospect of leaving Annapolis. On the second night, she was all in. The difference between the first and second day was the people. They loved the coaches and families, and they loved the Midwestern feel of Fargo.

With a big leap of faith, the family moved from the shores of Chesapeake Bay to the Red River Valley of North Dakota in 2001. “I tell people I’m the greatest salesman in the world because I convinced my wife to leave Annapolis, Maryland for Fargo, North Dakota,” he laughs. It ended up being a great move for the Taylor family.

In Fargo, Gene became the overseer of one of the greatest runs in North Dakota State athletics history. Beginning in 2003, the Bison made the transition from a NCAA Division II school, to being a NCAA Division I FCS school, and thriving in the process. During Gene’s tenure at NDSU, the football team won three straight national championships, and qualified for the NCAA tournament in basketball twice. Gene also oversaw a $41 million capital campaign, which raised money to renovate several of NDSU’s athletic facilities.

Gene had always dreamed of being an athletics director at a major college program. Yet, those opportunities always proved difficult to come by. No matter how much on the field success they had at NDSU, and no matter the fact that he tripled the athletic department’s budget – Gene was having a tough time getting an interview at the next level. However, the next step needed was soon forthcoming.

When Gene first arrived in Fargo, he befriended Gary Barta, a North Dakota State graduate, and up-and-coming future athletic director. Gary would eventually become the AD at the University of Iowa, and around 2014, he had come calling with a custom-tailored opportunity for Gene. He needed a deputy AD, a clear number two in charge, and he badly wanted Gene to take the spot. Understanding how the college athletics world works, Gene knew this was what was needed to get to the next level of his career. It was his family he was most worried about.

Gene admits it was a rough time leaving Fargo, most especially for his son, Jared. The heir-apparent quarterback of his high school football team, he had recently just completed his freshman year. “We still talk about it, and being here now, he obviously gets it,” says Gene. “He's a kid that just really gets it, as does Casey (his daughter), because they grew up around it. But, that was probably the hardest decision we’ve had to make. He’ll probably tell you that it was the best experience because it made him better, and he had to grow up a lot more, but it was still tough.”

After three years in Iowa City, Gene had interviewed for the jobs at Purdue & Illinois before landing another promising one with the University of Pittsburgh. Beforehand, he had told Cathy, “If I don’t get Pitt, I’m out.” Shortly after being informed he would not be getting that job, she reminded him to not give up and mentioned, “Have you seen that Kansas State’s open?”

While doing research about Kansas State, he saw Amy Button-Renz’ name listed. He remembered her from when he applied for the K-State job back when John Currie had gotten the job in 2009. Amy, the director of the K-State Alumni Association, is close friends with Sherri Schmidt, who was then at the Alumni Association at North Dakota State. So, he reached out to Sherri and asked her to reach out to Amy. She spoke to Amy, who then emailed Gene a link to apply for the job.

While Gene and Cathy were preparing to travel to Phoenix for the Final Four, he received a call from Amy, and an interview was set for the following Wednesday in Manhattan. While in Arizona, he was reading about K-State’s then-President General Richard Myers, who was a former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gene thought, “I worked at the Naval Academy for 15 years. I bet I can figure out a link.” He realized that link was through Admiral Mike Mullen, another former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Admiral Mullen was a roommate of Carl Tamulevich, the guy who officed next to Gene at the Academy. Gene called Carl, and asked if he could put in a good word about him to Admiral Mullen.

While in Phoenix, Gene had met with his now-retired former boss, Jack Lengyel. As they were having dinner, Gene mentioned he would be interviewing the next week for the K-State job. Talking about his conversation with Carl, Jack said, “Gene, do you know that I talk to Mike Mullen every day? He and I are working on something for the Naval Academy, and I talk to him literally every day. I'll be happy to visit with him.” This now meant Gene had two good buddies who knew Admiral Mullen, who would put in a good word to him, despite not knowing him himself.

After the first interview, Gene was invited back to Manhattan to meet with General Myers himself. Once that concluded, and just as soon as he landed in Fargo for a visit, he got another phone call. This time, it was Coach Bill Snyder, who wanted to visit with the new AD prospects. After talking for 15 minutes about his background and why he would want to come to K-State, the call concluded as Gene and Casey arrived at a country club to have dinner with old friends. He soon got another call from a 785 number.

“Hey Gene, Dick Myers here. We just wanted to let you know that we've made our decision.” Gene’s heart was racing. He had been here before. Here it goes again, another rejection was coming. President Myers concluded his thought to say, “We just want you to know that we'd like you to be our next director of athletics.”

Elated, Gene immediately accepted the job, ended the call and headed back inside. He and Casey then wildly celebrated in the parking lot of the country club. He then called Cathy, and Jared, and the Taylors were soon Manhattan bound.

When talking to General Myers, Gene says the former University President said, “One of the final straws for me was you were the only candidate that had two Former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff talking about you. The fact that Mike Mullen called me about you, and he doesn't know you, but he knows a couple of people that know you very well - that put me over the edge. Nobody has ever done that. How did you put that together? That really impressed me.”

Once hired, Gene didn’t waste time elevating Kansas State’s athletic department to new heights. One of his first tasks was finding the successor to follow Coach Snyder’s legendary career, which history had shown wouldn’t be an easy feat. He would find that success with another North Dakota State connection: Chris Klieman. He also brought Jerome Tang to Kansas State from Baylor, who won the Naismith National Coach of the Year award and made a trip to the Elite Eight in a storybook first season as basketball coach. His hires of Pete Hughes as baseball coach and Jordan Smith in Tennis are starting to pay dividends, and the anticipated future of the volleyball program under Jason Mansfield is almost here. It’s apparent K-State’s athletic programs are in a great place, just as the facilities continue to be. In a lot of ways, the Gene Era has become a Golden Era in athletics at Kansas State.  

Which takes us back to that office at the Vanier Football Complex, as Gene stands around, soaking it all in. Kansas State was a long time coming for this former equipment manager from Arizona turned restaurateur turned newly named 2023 NACAD Athletic Director of the Year. The mementos & awards are reminders of how far he has come, and the smiles in the family photos prove he was right all along. He hopes to never leave, and K-State wishes the same. They know with Gene Taylor at the helm, the future will always be bright because of the Wizard of Oz.

"I feel blessed every day that I come to work, and walk into that office. I've got a tremendous family that let me do it right, and that's been there with me every step of the way. I want to be here for a lot more years."

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