When head coach and football magician Bill Snyder first came on the scene at Kansas State in 1989, the Wildcats were a laughing stock and considered to be one of the worst programs in college football. In his glass-half-full mind set and leadership style, the then-49-year-old Snyder viewed K-State's delicate, destitute situation more as an opportunity than a problem. That's his nature, and it has worked out very well for him - not just in football, but in all aspects of his grounded, balanced life.
Snyder was keenly aware when he accepted the K-State job that the frustration level of Wildcat fans toward their football team was well beyond the breaking point and that there was high urgency to fix and reverse the dreadful reality that had made Kansas State the laughing stock of the college football universe. A Sports Illustrated story at about that time called the program that Snyder inherited "Futility U."
Prior to Snyder taking over for Stan Parrish at Kansas State, the Cats' combined won-lost record for the decade prior to that was a deplorable 24-84-2, and the three seasons immediately preceding Snyder's first year in Manhattan, Kansas State managed only two wins in 33 games, both out of conference, and went 0-21-1 in 1987-88. The state of K-State football at that time could be summed up in two desperate words: rock bottom.
Snyder's rescue squad at K-State included a bright, young up-and-coming defensive coach named Bob Stoops, who was on Hayden Fry's staff at Iowa, where Snyder was the offensive coordinator. "I don't know that anybody can really look back, unless you were there at that time, and see how really poor and rotten it was," Stoops said this week in an interview with the Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City). "There's no describing it. It was horrendous."
Snyder's magic didn't take hold immediately. His team in his first year (1989) won only one game and went winless in the Big Eight for a 1-10 overall record, but by his fifth season, the Wildcats were well on their way to respectability, ending the 1993 season with nine wins in 12 games and a 4-2-1 record in the conference. For the next 12 seasons under Snyder, K-State failed to produce a winning season only twice, compiling an aggregate record of 97-40 and just missing playing for the national championship in 1998, losing a two-overtime heartbreaker to Texas A&M in the Big 12 championship after going a perfect 8-0 in the conference and entering the championship game as the top-ranked team in the country.
The man who will go down as the greatest, and certainly the winningest, football coach in Kansas State history, elected to step down and retire after 17 seasons leading the Wildcats. It didn't take long after Snyder was succeeded by coach Ron Prince before Kansas State became mired in mediocrity, although not nearly as fall down the slope as the team had been before Snyder came along. In three seasons under Prince, the Wildcats were 17-20 overall and 9-15 against Big 12 opponents. That's when the call went out for an encore appearance by the Miracle Man of Manhattan.
Bill Snyder returned to the sidelines for the 2009 season, but there were a few skeptics who questioned if he would be capable, at age 70, or hungry enough, to work another magical turnaround. His first two seasons back at the helm produced average results at best. Both his 2009 and 2010 team hovered around .500, at 6-6 and 7-6, respectively.
And that brings us to this year's chapter in this improbable story. Lightning has struck again in the Little Apple. The Wildcats barely escaped an upset at home by an FCS (formerly NCAA Division II) opponent in their opening game of the season, validating their eighth-place predicted order of finish by Big 12 coaches in the conference preseason poll. Since then, as most followers of Big 12 football know, Snyder's team has reeled off six consecutive wins, one of only eight unbeaten teams in the country just past the midseason mark, and earned eighth-place ranking in the current BCS standings.
One man who is not shocked at all by what Kansas State has done this year is Stoops. "It doesn't surprise me at all," the Oklahoma head coach said. "And that's a compliment, because I know how Coach (Snyder) does it and works and has been part of it for a long time."
Just a week ago, it appeared that the stars were aligned just right and casting an illuminating light toward a monster matchup that no one - and I mean no one - had on their college football radar screen at the beginning of the season. Then No. 3-ranked Oklahoma was coming to Manhattan for a homecoming date with K-State, the team the BCS formula had rewarded with the No, 11 placement in the first week of the BCS poll. ESPN College GameDay had even made reservations to be there and add to all the hype and excitement surrounding the late October showdown in the Sunflower State.
But then, the unthinkable happened. Oklahoma lost to Texas Tech, at home, where the Sooners had rung up 39 consecutive victories and 75 wins with only two losses under Stoops. So now, instead of two 7-0 teams going at one another in a Saturday afternoon fight to the finish to stay in the chase for the Big 12 championship, it has been reduced to unbeaten K-State against one-loss, shell-shocked Oklahoma.
Hardly the same importance any longer, right? If that's where your head is at the moment, don't dare let that out to Snyder or his former pupil, Stoops. They would probably laugh right in your face. If anything, this game is more important now than it ever was. Not that Kansas State needed a shot of confidence after beating Miami in Miami and rather handily shoving aside two of its first three conference opponents, but with mighty Oklahoma having lost to a team that already has two conference losses and showing a lot of vulnerability in the process, the Wildcats have to feel even better about their chances on Saturday.
From OU's perspective, the Sooners certainly won't be taking Snyder's team for granted or looking ahead to next week's contest with in Norman Texas A&M. You'd think they would come in angry and anxious to show what they've really got (similar to the attitude and on-field performance three-weeks ago against Texas). That would be logical to conclude, given the Stoops' defending Big 12 champions still have most if not all of their season goals out in front of them (win out from here and the Sooners still can claim the conference crown and the automatic BCS bid that goes to the Big 12 champ). But when you're a team like Oklahoma, whose one overriding goal every season is to play for the national championship, even one loss can be enough to unravel an entire season.
We are going to find out two things on Saturday after the Sooners and Wildcats have a vicious go at one another:
- Has the miracle returned to Manhattan through the wonders of Snyder's uncanny coaching magic, and is this physical, tough-minded and well-discipline group of Wildcats really as good as their record indicates?
- Can the Sooners put the Texas Tech loss behind them and come out and play, in a hostile, amped-up environment, like they are truly capable and with everything on the line - which, for them at least, it is?
What it all boils down to, pure and simple, is: Which team wants this game more? Forget all the pre-game buildup, the statistical analyses and the individual, team and coaching comparisons. None of it matters. It's even irrelevant which school is considered the better football team. The only thing that really counts is which team plays the best on Saturday.
Whichever team measures up to that standard will win the game. That's a sure bet.
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