September 1982 dawned in the Flint Hills with odd expectations. The Kansas State Wildcats had not had a winning season since 1970, and were coming off a year in which the team went 2-9, their only wins being a solid victory over then-Division II South Dakota (you could play those games then) and a 10-7 win at home over a mediocre Iowa State squad. They'd lost to Missouri by 45 and to Nebraska by 46; a game 28-21 loss to Oklahoma might have been a bright spot, but the 1981 'Cats had also lost by two touchdowns to Tulsa and by a point at home to Drake.
There was, however, a reason for this. In 1980, the Wildcats had gone 3-8 (although the record now shows 4-7, as a two-point loss to Kansas was turned into a forfeit by the Jayhawks due to Kerwin Bell's ineligibility). Jim Dickey, entering his fourth season at the helm of the program, opted to do something absolutely insane.
With the program on probation anyway, Dickey basically conceded the 1981 season. He redshirted 18 players, eight of them seniors. His entire goal was to basically punt 1981 in order to make a push in 1982.
Spoiler alert: it worked.
Expectations measured but optimistic, the season got off to a rollicking start when Kentucky visited Manhattan. The 'Cats rolled to a 23-9 win, forcing a ridiculous nine fumbles and recovering six of them. The following weeks saw routs of South Dakota and Wichita State before a trip to Tempe to face Arizona State. By the end of the game, every upper-classman running back on the roster was injured, and the 'Cats were pounded 30-7.
Missouri came calling the following week. Early in the fourth, with the Tigers leading 7-0, K-State marched into Missouri territory. Doug Bogue (in place of the injured Darrell Dickey) tried to hit Mike Wallace inside the 15, but the pass was picked off by Demetrius Johnson... but a yellow hankie fluttered to the field, and K-State had a first down at the 11. They were pushed back, though, losing 21 yards on the next two plays. Bogue again lofted a pass to Wallace, this time in the end zone. The throw was horrible and wobbly, and Wallace couldn't get a handle on it at first, but he finally got the ball under control, and the 'Cats were on the board. After the extra point, the teams punted back and forth until Missouri's Brad Burditt tried a 52-yard field goal as time expired; it was short, and the two squads trudged off the field with a tie.
After an expected and unsurprising rout in Lincoln, the 'Cats came home again for a historic event. The annual tilt with Kansas was to be the first night game in KSU Stadium annals and the first night game between the rivals; temporary lights were installed in order to facilitate a national television broadcast on TBS. It was a rout. K-State took a 22-0 lead into the locker room at the half, and led 36-0 in the fourth quarter before KU got on the board with a pick-six. With the win, K-State earned not one but two trophies; the Sunflower State trophy as well as the very first awarding of the Wheat State Trophy, earned as a result of the 'Cats win over (and the Jayhawks' loss to) Wichita State.
Slogging through a 9-3 win over Iowa State at Ames left the Wildcats at 5-2-1 and ensured that the worst-case scenario for the season would be a .500 campaign. A trip to Norman saw the Sooners overwhelm the visitors in a 56-10 rout on ABC; the following week, Oklahoma State came to Manhattan and won 24-16. That left Colorado as the Wildcats' last chance.
Kansas State's backfield that year was anchored by a couple of beefy imports. The Samoans never gave the Buffaloes any hope. Isofatu Faraimo had 97 yards on 15 carries while Masi Toluao also had 97 on 14, and the Wildcats rolled to a 33-10 win. The 6-4-1 finish was the 'Cats best year since 1954. For the second time that season, they also had to buy new goal posts; they'd previously come down after the Kansas win.
(The 1982 team reunites at Bill Snyder Family Stadium at this year's Homecoming.)
After the game, athletic director Dick Towers addressed the team in the locker room. "Guys, this is Bob Vanatta of the Independence Bowl and he's been pulling for you all season. ... He's going to extend a very, very important invitation, and I guarantee we're going to accept it." And with that, Vanatta grinned and formally invited the Kansas State Wildcats to Shreveport.
Tulsa, at the time coached by John Cooper, had beaten K-State the previous four seasons. They went 10-1 in 1982, sported two 1000-yard rushers, had also beaten both Wichita State and Kansas during the regular season, and were expecting an invitation to the Independence Bowl for a chance to make it five wins in a row. The Hurricanes were thus quite perturbed to find out that not only had the Hall of Fame Bowl taken Air Force (a team Tulsa had beaten during the regular season), the Independence opted to pit the Wildcats against 6-5 Wisconsin in what would be the very first live football telecast on a new cable network known as ESPN.
Cooper was irate. "To me, that game will generate as much excitement as watching two people fish." But the Wildcat faithful didn't care. For the first time, they were headed to a bowl.
Governor Carlin wagered 25 pounds of beef; Wisconsin Governor Lee Dreyfus ponied up 40 points of Colby and 25 pounds of cranberries. The 'Cats had a festive time in Shreveport, celebrating their accomplishment, but insisted they were focused on the game; indeed, the Badgers had provided some bulletin board material of note suggesting they might not be.
Pretty much everyone involved had to be, though, because the conditions were horrible once game time rolled around. It was wet, it was cold, it was windy; the wind chill was ten below. Naturally, Jim Dickey had a passing offense in mind. The 'Cats took the lead in the second quarter on a 29-yard field goal by Steve Willis to end a completely fruitless drive which began with a fumble recovery at the Badger 18. Wisconsin immediately answered, though. Randy Wright found Michael Jones from 16 yards out to send the Badgers into the locker room with a 7-3 lead.
Wright hit Tim Stracka for an 87-yard strike midway through the third to make it 14-3. Twice the Wildcats threatened after that; one drive ended on an interception in the Wisconsin end zone, and another fizzled on a failed fourth-down conversion at the Badger 26. Darrell Dickey attempted 35 passes on the night, and that would remain the K-State record for pass attempts in a bowl game until Ell Roberson started chucking the ball everywhere against Ohio State 22 years later. K-State had finally played in a bowl game, but their first bowl win was going to have to wait. Still, Jim Dickey was a hero in Manhattan for having engineered even this minor success.
Less than three years later, two games into the 1985 season, Jim Dickey was gone. He'd gambled everything to get the Wildcats to Shreveport, and the senior-heavy 1982 squad gave way to a team which went 3-8, two of those three wins by a total of three points over Wyoming and Oklahoma State. Before his exit, Dickey would go on to lose games to the likes of Kentucky, South Carolina (they weren't good then), TCU (neither were they), Vanderbilt, Long Beach State... and finally Wichita State and Northern Iowa, the latter game being the final straw. Stan Parrish gets the bulk of the blame for the darkness before the dawn, but Jim Dickey has the uncomfortable distinction of both lifting K-State to its greatest glory to date... and guiding the program to the precipice of doom.
(Note: This series got started late, so I'm posting this tonight, and one day between now and January 3 will be a double-post day.)