former Boston Celtics forward Ernie Barrett, who starred at Kansas State and spent 75 years at the school as an athlete, coach and administrator, died Friday in his hometown of Manhattan, Kansas. He was 93.
Barrett’s family announced his death. A memorial service is scheduled for Thursday at Bramlage Coliseum, where the Wildcats play their basketball games and where a banner recognizing Barrett’s achievements hangs from the rafters.
“He came to visit me before every home game and was incredibly welcoming to me and my staff in our first year,” said Kansas State men’s basketball coach Jerome Tang, who led the Wildcats on a surprising Elite Eight run this past season. “No one loved this university and its basketball team more than him.”
Barrett was a Kansas schoolboy legend in the 1940s, when he led Wellington High School to its only state championship in basketball. He was recruited by Phog Allen to play at Kansas and Henry Iba to attend Oklahoma State, but he wound up going to Kansas State and playing for Hall of Fame coaches Jack Gardner and Tex Winter.
Barrett led the Wildcats to the championship national game in 1951, where they lost to Adolph Rupp and Kentucky.
Barrett was selected by the Celtics with the seventh pick in the 1951 draft, but he deferred his NBA career to spend two years in the Air Force. He wound up playing two seasons for Red Auerbach alongside Celtics great Bob Cousy.
The pull of Barrett’s alma mater was strong, though, and he returned in 1955 to work with the alumni association. He became an assistant coach for Winter in 1958, and over six seasons Barrett twice helped the Wildcats reach the Final Four.
Barrett moved into an administrative role in 1963, and was Kansas State’s athletic director from 1969–75. He also spent time as a consultant and director of development until his retirement in 2007, though he remained active with volunteer work.
“Ernie was the dearest of friends, one of the greatest K-Staters in the world,” said longtime Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder. “Never in my 40-plus years here have I met anyone who meant more or did more for a university than Ernie. He sought out opportunities to promote Kansas State University and the athletics program everywhere he was.”
Former Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas State graduate who served in Congress for 40 years, said Barrett was the university’s “first big fundraiser” for athletics who made its program competitive – and improved the university’s image of itself.
“He could squeeze a dollar out of you, or quite a few, and you couldn’t escape him,” Roberts told The Associated Press.
Roberts remembered handshakes that could “nearly pull me off my feet.”
“Back in the day when I would shake his hand, there was a danger that I would become left-handed,” Roberts said.
Barrett was popular among students, too, offering that same firm handshake to anyone who crossed his path. The bronze statue outside the Bramlage Coliseum depicts Barrett offering a handshake, rather than showing him as a player.
“Ernie cared so deeply about Kansas State, and I appreciated our friendship and his personal interest in our football program,” said Wildcats football coach Chris Klieman. “Everyone knows Ernie for his figurative handshake, but what I will remember most is a person who spent nearly three-quarters of a century trying to make his alma mater a better place.”
Barrett is survived by his wife of 72 years, Bonnie, along with his son Brad and grandson Ryan. He was preceded in death by his parents, Ernie and Ruby Barrett, and by his son, Duane.