KU Legend Passes Sunday

The University of Kansas and its athletic programs lost an icon and a loyal friend Sunday night. Otto Schnellbacher, "The Double Threat from Sublette," died after a short bout with cancer. He was 84.

His nickname was well-earned. If you could play it at Sublette High School, he was there. And chances are, he was really, really good. He graduated in 1942 and headed east to Lawrence.

Upon his arrival on Mount Oread, Schnellbacher hit the ground running – literally. “Snelly” continued to play both football and basketball, and he continued to do both at a high level. He was a two-time all-Big 6 football selection and an all-American under coach George Sauer and a four-time all-conference basketball pick under the legendary Phog Allen, despite having his career interrupted by two years in the military.

In 1947, he and teammate Ray Evans were named captains by their football teammates and lead Kansas to the 1948 Orange Bowl against Georgia Tech. Both were also named all-Americans that year, the first two Jayhawks to ever receive the honor.

Schnellbacher finished his college football career as Jayhawk career leader in receptions (58) and receiving yards (1,069) – both marks which stood until the 1969 season.

On the basketball floor, he was a member of two Big 6 championship teams and averaged 11 points a game. He was selected team captain for his senior campaign and wrapped up his career as the number two scorer in KU history with 913 points.

He was drafted by the NBA’s St. Louis Bombers and split the 1948-49 season between St. Louis and the Providence Steamrollers. Schnellbacher returned to football in 1950 to play for the New York Giants. He was a three-time all-pro defensive back for the New York Giants and lead the league with 11 interceptions in 1951.

Schnellbacher stayed close to the KU athletics programs as a donor, fan and a longtime member and officer in the Topeka Jayhawk Club. His name resides in KU’s Memorial Stadium Ring of Honor. He was inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1972.

No one cared more about KU athletics than Otto Schnellbacher. He once said in a Topeka Capital-Journal article, “I love basketball so much, I’m not sure how my wife stands me.”

He was always willing to share his favorite KU sports stories, and he was always willing to sign autographs for children, even if it was their parents who sent them over. Any time my sons and I would go to Forbes to welcome back the basketball team from a postseason tournament venue, Otto was already there, arranging the alumni band and making sure a raucous crowd would greet the team.

Those who knew Schnellbacher will always remember him as a man’s man. He served his country proudly and bravely during WWII and, until recently, he still looked like he could strap on a helmet (probably leather), jog his 6-3, 190-pound frame onto the turf at Memorial Stadium and knock a Missouri Tiger into the middle of next week. Had his wife been looking the other way, he probably would have tried.

In a time of corporate sponsorships, scholarship suites, rotating scoring table advertisements and priority seating points, we can remember guys like the Double Threat fondly as a symbol of a more innocent age. They did it for the competition and the camaraderie and less for the gift bags, the PlayStation 3’s, energy drinks and free shoes.

That was then, and this is now. Times may not be better; they’re just different. But today, it’s so much more specialized. One coach feels like he has too much invested in a young man to risk him getting hurt playing for another. Back then, a great athlete could simply transition from one sport to another without missing a beat. He didn’t have to have a posse. He didn’t have to have a trainer who helped him perfect his passing motion. He didn’t have to have an AAU coach “advising” him or play 112 tournament games every summer. You could be successful coming out of a small town out west of Dodge City with talent, some competitive fire and immense pride in having the opportunity to wear the K.

Next fall, at the first Phog.net tent, I hope you’ll join me in raising a glass to the Double Threat from Sublette. KU athletics and the University will miss him.

Phog.net Top Stories