The man who has made it his life’s work to promote the success of others, both on the athletic field and away from it, was properly honored this weekend in Manhattan, Kansas.
For once, the applause was directed back his way instead of the other way around.
Before he was the “Voice of the Chiefs,” Mitch Holthus was the “Voice of the Wildcats.”
On Friday night, Holthus, along with 9 other Wildcat legends, were inducted into the K-State Athletics Hall of Fame.
He was a six-time Kansas Sportscaster of the Year (1987, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994) and was instrumental in developing the Junior Wildcat Club, the original coaches radio shows and other numerous sales and marketing initiatives that helped develop the athletic department into what it is today.
“It means everything to me,” Holthus, who is also a K-State alum, said of this honor. “Every fiber of my mind, body and soul—the emotions that flowed through me when I got that call, it’s hard to describe.
“My whole K-State life flashed in front my eyes.”
It’s a life that many would feel like they understand and appreciate—Holthus was the conduit to their favorite teams, but the truth is that most of the work he did to receive this honor came behind the scenes and away from the public eye.
His radio calls have become as synonymous as the visions of the plays he called with a voice that brings it together in a way that will forever emotionally connect you to that moment.
Anyone who has ever heard these calls knows Holthus is an artist.
It started for him when he was a fifth-grader living in Smith Center, Kansas, which sits 160 miles Northwest of Manhattan. At the time, he began the K-State club, to which he was the only member—he didn’t care.
He remembers always going to the legendary establishment in Manhattan—Vern’s Donuts. His grandfather was "Vern." He remembers going to his first K-State football game with his parents.
Holthus receives his Hall of Fame jacket on Friday night in Manhattan from his son, Brian.
(Photo courtesy of K-State Athletics)
That’s where it started.
To this day, most people don’t know everything Holthus did to help direct K-State’s rise to national prominence—most of it without pay. From day one, he was ready for the challenge.
“I understood the enormity of the responsibility of sitting in that chair because I grew up listening to Dev Nelson and Fred White,” Holthus explained of two legendary K-State broadcasters. “Both of them were mentors of mine. There were so many times I thought, 'Man, I hope I'm doing it like Dev would do it, or Fred would do it.'
“I'm thinking about the families that were listening like I was growing up listening to those guys. That's what was in my mind during those years, it was just a lot more than doing the games. It was marketing and promotions—fighting for K-State's place in the sun.
“Then Bill [Snyder] showed up and everything changed.”
Snyder, who was just recently inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, arrived at K-State in 1989 after spending the previous 10 years at Iowa.
Holthus had already been at K-State for six years as the voice of the Wildcats but knew right away that things were about to change.
“We were doing a lot of things before [Snyder] got here,” Holthus explained. “But there just wasn’t anything to light the fuse. We were trying to talk about how great K-State could be but unless people were here to see it, of feel it, it didn’t work on a national level.”
Holthus quickly developed a strong relationship with Snyder, one that he still maintains to this day.
“We had long discussions and he would direct me on his vision,” Holthus said of his time with Snyder. “He kept me grounded, kept me focused and kept challenging me. He kept giving me stuff to do or to think about.
“I look back on it now, and it was a blessing to have so many discussions with him one-on-one—to see what this has all become.”
One of those discussions came just moments after K-State beat Missouri, 31-21, back in 1993, which gave K-State an opportunity for their second bowl appearance in program history—which began in 1896.
Before Snyder arrived at K-State, the team hadn’t won a game in 27 straight attempts and had just two winning seasons in the previous 34 years.
This victory was one of many critical moments in the development of a new-founded winning tradition for the Wildcats.
Living through all of those losing seasons as a kid and now having been an integral part of building the foundation of this program, Holthus could barely contain his excitement after the game.
“First thing I thought of was whether or not Coach [Snyder] would give me a bowl ring,” Holthus said laughingly. “Then, all of my euphoria ended because I saw coach. He's always keeping me on the ground and peeling me off the ceiling. And coach goes, 'One of the big parts of the bowl experience at Iowa was the pep rally, and you need to put together a pep rally for me.'
“So I'm thinking, how are we going to do this? I don’t want to disappoint coach or the team. That was a special team—the 1993 team. A very special group of guys and gals that were involved in the program.
“So, I didn’t want to screw it up.”
They were going to play Wyoming in the Copper Bowl down in Tucson, Arizona, and Holthus was now in the pep rally business.
“I'm just praying we have 500 people,” Holthus explained. “I'm thinking no one is going to show up to this.”
In the northern hills of Tucson, all of the doubts and fears slowly dissipated as one of the single greatest moments in the program’s history away from the field happened that night.
“It became the feeding of the 5,000,” Holthus explained. “It was like the scene on Field of Dreams where you have all the cars and people trying to find this place. The hotel freaked out and they finally said no more people.
“But it became kind of a seminal moment, and I remember they played the call of “Bill Moses Snyder.” The team walked through the hotel single file down the middle of this room between thousands of K-State fans.
“I saw the tears in the eyes of the guys and I remember what that meant, and it was bigger than a single moment.”
That moment happened because of Holthus’ efforts, and it set forth a path for a program that would then go to 11 straight bowl games and have 11 seasons without a losing record.
Just a year before Snyder was hired, Sports Illustrated called K-State “Futility U,” and 10 years later, the Wildcats had an 11-0 record and a No. 1 ranking nationally.
Holthus was there for it all.
“Mitch is a dear, dear friend,” Snyder explained, “but more significantly, he was with us when we began. He helped us start the program and he never batted an eye when we struggled. He was the dye in the wool, a true-to-the-core Kansas State Wildcat football fan. He knew that positive things were going to happen from the outset. He spoke that way and he announced that way.
“When we started, we were without people. We had 13,000 people as a fan base—that was the average attendance, and the NCAA rule indicated you had to have 19,000 to remain a Division I program.
“I think Mitch helped K-State so much by being so active and promoting the program and being so enthusiastic about it. It helped bring in more fans. After his first year here, we got above 19,000, and so I credit him a good deal with helping save the program."
His skill as a broadcaster is built upon an unrivaled work ethic and the kind of moral character not often found by those constantly in the limelight.
The effort he put forth during his 14 years with the Wildcats was finally recognized this weekend in Manhattan, when Holthus joined 9 other legends in their rightful place among the best to ever step foot on the campus of Kansas State University.
“It means everything to me,” he repeated. “It was a lot more than just broadcasting games.”