Former Athletic Director attends 220 games straight, still going

Mike Sarkesian took over as Washburn’s athletic director at the age of 35, “When I still had hair.”

For one Saturday in October, hundreds of alumni return to Washburn University, catch up with old friends and take their seat in Yager Stadium amidst the celebration of homecoming weekend.

Then there is a much smaller group of faithful Ichabods, a group that is not entirely composed of Washburn graduates, but includes fans and supporters who made the university their adoptive home.

The most dedicated member of this group grew up wearing a lighter shade of blue in Rhode Island, and attended his first Washburn football game in 1966 as the newly appointed athletic director.

Mike Sarkesian, who was 35 years old at the time of his hiring, has not missed a single Washburn home game since, and after attending 41 consecutive Ichabod homecoming games, there is not a thing in the world that can stop him from watching number 42.

Through a span of more than four decades, Sarkesian has become a walking encyclopedia of the school’s football history, and he is a figure who is admired for doing what he loves.

“Saturdays are for football,” he said. “I might as well be at all the games because if I wasn’t there then I’d just be at home watching some other football game on television anyway.”

Sarkesian’s assessment of the 220-game streak is simple and modest, but without its rough beginning it would have never been possible.

Introduction as an Ichabod

A painting that hangs on Sarkesian’s living room wall is a fitting representation of his passion for the sport. Pictured in a Rhode Island football uniform, the young college student sits on a marker at the 40-yard line with his helmet off, and blood covering his hands.

At the time, Sarkesian said he just sat on whatever he could find because the team bench was full, but the brief moment on the sideline was captured on film and later given as a gift to Sarkesian, a reminder of his determination not just to watch football, but to be active in the game and to get his hands dirty in the process.

Upon his arrival at Washburn, Sarkesian found an opportunity to do just that.

Traveling with his wife, Nancy, who is from Maine, Sarkesian found that the job description for athletic director was much more than he expected. With his hiring coming in the same year as the Topeka tornado, Sarkesian’s role at the university went from overseeing athletic operations to helping rebuild the school from the ground up.

“After the tornado of ’66, we didn’t even know if we’d have a season,” said Sarkesian. “We never missed a game. There was glass on the field. There was no fence set up, so the whole Topeka community would come and watch the games, the place was packed.”

The Ichabods struggled to a 2-7 record in 1966, but the real challenge for Sarkesian involved much more than just football. Sarkesian’s duties that season included serving as ticket manager, washing laundry, sweeping floors, dealing with money and guiding a team in an era before assistant coaches were around to take care of all the details.

“People didn’t know that,” said Sarkesian. “They thought I was an A.D. only. When decisions were made, the A.D. got blamed, and to this day, I think there are still people who think I wanted to drop football. I would never do that. I love football.”

It’s hard to argue that fact with someone who clears his schedule every Saturday to make time for the Washburn game. Working 19 hours per day as athletic director, Sarkesian sacrificed a large part of his lifestyle to keep the university’s athletics running as smoothly as possible after the devastating natural disaster.

Memorable moments

The determination to monitor Washburn football’s well-being continued long after Sarkeisan’s time as athletic director passed. However, like the starting streaks of Brett Favre and Cal Ripken, Jr., there are always going to be a few instances of near misses.

A game at Yager Stadium wouldn’t be complete without Sarkesian in the crowd, but the closest he’s come to missing a game was also one of the best he’s witnessed.

“It was a game in the ’70s against Fort Hays,” said Sarkesian. “I drove back for the game as fast as I could and got there for the second half. When I got there, we were down three touchdowns, and our quarterback Mike Grogan threw for three or four touchdowns and we came back to win it. That was a great game.”

Sarkesian also recalls an equally impressive performance from an opponent who turned out to make a pretty good living in the NFL.

“Another big one was when Mississippi Valley State came in and beat us by 60-something (77-14),” said Sarkesian. “Jerry Rice was there, and we just couldn’t stop them. Of course, they were a passing team and had probably one of the best offenses in the country, so they just threw the ball every play they had it.”

Whether the Ichabods won or lost, sitting alongside Ray Spring was the one thing in common for most of the games Sarkesian attended. Spring, a School of Law professor who served as Dean from 1970-78, died in 2001 and was one of few people who matched Sarkesian’s enthusiasm for Washburn athletics.

Sarkesian refuses credit for his perfect attendance without first pointing to Spring as a fan who appreciated the Ichabods and Lady Blues with an unmatched passion.

“We’d go to football and basketball games together,” said Sarkesian. “But he went to a lot more basketball games than I ever did. Rain or snow, we’d come to the games, even when there were less than 100 people in the stands.”

Looking forward

On and off the field, what excites Sarkesian most about his time in Topeka is the constant change. As a young man, he made the trip from his New England home to raise four kids in a Midwest environment, and the changes he began seeing upon his arrival have yet to stop.

“The whole atmosphere in my early years here was nothing compared to what it is now,” he said. “The press box, that entire Bianchino Pavilion, none of that was around. Ray and I would sneak up into the old press box and watch games when it rained because they knew us, but it was a lot different then.”

A look around Yager Stadium shows how many people Sarkesian has connected with in his 42 years on Washburn’s campus. In his reserved chairback seat, donated to him by professor of finance Gary Baker, Sarkesian sits under the shade of Bianchino Pavilion, named for Bernie Bianchino, a player who began his career the same year Sarkesian was introduced as athletic director.

“When you’re around long enough,” said Sarkesian, “you touch a lot of people. Don’t get me started talking about all the people I’ve taught because I’d go on forever talking about what all they’ve done and accomplished.”

Staying true to his humble mentality, the Ichabods’ most reliable fan would much rather point to the progress Jerry Farley has brought to Washburn, or to the success of Phillies’ first base coach Davey Lopes, a player Sarkesian brought to the university himself, before elaborating on his own impressive feats.

“Every time I come out to the games, I see people I know or people I’ve taught,” said Sarkesian. “I’m 78 now and I’m shooting for 80. After that, I don’t know. A few of my friends laugh about how long it’s been that I’ve been coming. They say, ‘We’ll give you ’til 80. After that, you’re on your own.'”