Everyone here knows the story, of course. As the program hit rock bottom, on the verge of being kicked out of the Big 8, Bill Snyder came in and saved the day.
Sometimes it seems like we forget it took five years.
Snyder's first year saw the end of the winless streak, but the Wildcats still only went 1-10, losing to the three ranked teams they played (Arizona State, Nebraska, and Colorado) by a combined score of 148-18. 1990 saw sharp improvement, as the 'Cats went 5-6; it was the highest win total since the Independence Bowl trip. In the third year, with the help of Eric Gallon's 1102 rushing yards, Snyder led the team to a winning season. The Wildcats were assured of bowl ineligibility with a 28-7 loss in Norman on November 2, but won the final three contests -- including a 32-0 shutout of Missouri, the team's first whitewash since 1975 -- to finish 7-4. The problem, of course, was that two of those wins were against Indiana State and Idaho State. The 'Cats regressed in 1992, suffering a painful four-game midseason losing skid which culminated in the heartbreaking 16-14 loss to Oklahoma in Norman. K-State limped to a 5-6 record that year, the near-miss against the Sooners costing them a bowl bid in the end. Snyder's efforts had already landed him two Big 8 Coach of the Year awards, but he was still lacking the thing he yearned for most: football in December.
Relegated to the sidelines that fateful year were three young men wearing redshirts. One was a quarterback who'd transferred in prior to the season from Cal State-Fullerton; one a freshman wide receiver from Tulsa; the last a sophomore high jumper from Daytona Beach who transferred from NAIA power Northwestern Oklahoma State after being entirely unrecruited out of high school.
Playing in the shadow of the brand-new $3.3 million Dev Nelson Press Box (which was just demolished last week), the first two of those players made their presence known immediately. Chad May threw for 228 yards, 92 of them on seven completions to Kevin Lockett. 69 of those yards came on two ugly floaters which May unleashed while being hit; Lockett and senior Andre Coleman each hauled one in for 30-plus yards a piece. May didn't even know either ball had been completed. "I didn't see any of them. I was on the ground." Coach Snyder, ever the dry wit, said, "I'd like to tell you we practiced them like that, but certainly we don't." Those plays helped spur the 'Cats to a season-opening 34-10 win over New Mexico State.
Western Kentucky presented no problem the following week. The 'Cats won 38-13 behind 99 rushing yards from J.J. Smith and 424 yards of total offense. The next week, however, K-State had to travel to Minneapolis to take on Minnesota, and barely escaped. The Wildcats jumped to an early 17-0 lead on a 53-yard TD pass from May to Lockett, a 2-yard run by Smith, and a Wright field goal, but May unleashed a pick-six and then scored again before halftime. May scored on a keeper early in the fourth to put the 'Cats up 24-13, but Tim Schade found Aaron Osterman for a nine-yard TD reception and then May fumbled in the end zone. Craig Sauer recovered for the Gophers, and Minnesota suddenly had a 25-24 lead with 5:33 to go.
Andre Coleman returned the kickoff 72 yards, and two minutes later Smith scored from seven yards out to put K-State back on top. Minnesota drove to the Wildcat four yard line, but couldn't get it in the end zone, and the gang escaped with the win. A week later, the 'Cats fell behind UNLV 14-10 at the half, but scored 26 unanswered points to roll to a 36-20 win, Smith rumbling for 127 yards.
October began with KU's visit to Manhattan. After holding Kansas on the first possession, May completed a 68-yard drive with a 19-yard toss to Coleman; with the wind, Wright added a 50-yard field goal to make it 10-0 just over ten minutes into the game. The Wildcats wouldn't score again, but the Lynch Mob may truly have been born on that windy October afternoon. Over the ensuing 50 minutes, Kansas snapped the ball 15 times inside the Wildcat 12, aided by three critical K-State turnovers... but all they had to show for it was three field goals. On consecutive drives, the Wildcats halted Kansas on fourth down inside the one. Finally, with eight seconds left and trailing 10-9, Asheiki Preston scrambled 25 yards to get to the K-State 30... but didn't get out of bounds in time, and the game ended. The Wildcats were 5-0, and with games remaining against hapless Iowa State and Oklahoma State, a bowl seemed certain.
Traveling to Lincoln for a clash between 5-0 teams, the Wildcats provided what was probably the first true "oh, hey, wait a minute" moment of Bill Snyder's tenure. With 5:25 to go, Nebraska only led 31-28 before scoring twice to ice the game, but the eye-opening event wasn't the competitive nature of the game itself. Chad May broke the Big 8 single-game passing record, lighting up the Blackshirts with a 489-yard blitzkrieg. Lockett had 143 yards on eight catches, including the 58-yard score which got the 'Cats to 31-28. Coleman added 139, J.J. Smith caught three balls for 87, one a 70-yard scoring strike (as well as running for 102 yards and two scores), and Mitch Running pitched in with seven for 66. But the K-State defense simply had no answer for the Huskers' option. Nebraska ran for 391 yards, capped off by a 46-yard Lawrence Phillips TD to ice the game.
Weighing in on the matter, Tom Osborne summed up Chad May's entire K-State career with three sentences. "It seems that quarterback played out of his head on us. It's hard to believe he's that good all the time. If he is, it's hard to believe they only scored 10 on KU."
Colorado came to town the following week, and the K-State offense went back to mercurial confusion. Colorado led 9-0 at the half on three Mitch Berger field goals. The 'Cats went up 13-9, though, as May hit Coleman for a seven-yard score, then found Brad Seib from the two. The PAT on the first score was blocked, however, and along with a later decision by Snyder that would prove critical. Colorado responded after the second score, driving to retake the lead on a one-yard run by James Hill. With half a minute to go and facing third down inside the Colorado 20, Snyder opted to run the ball toward the middle of the field to set up a tying field goal rather than going all-out for the first down. Wright connected, but the players were upset. "Our kids have played awfully hard and I didn't want them to go into the locker room having lost the ballgame. I never really play for a tie, but at the time it seemed the best of two options," Snyder opined after the game.
Bill McCartney was bemused as well -- not with the choice to position the ball on third down, but with Snyder's decision to actually kick the field goal rather than faking it. "If he had faked the field goal, they would have walked right in because we sent everybody." McCartney also praised the Wildcats effusively, but expressed his opinion that they had no chance against Oklahoma the following week.
Heading into the game, the Wildcats got a present from the pollsters, cracking the top 25 for the first time since 1970. Something else hadn't happened since 1970, but it happened that day. Aided by three lost Sooner fumbles (and five others the Sooners recovered) the Wildcats built a 21-0 lead on the Sooners, pitching the shutout into the fourth quarter as May connected with Running in the second quarter and Lockett in the third before adding a 2-yard run himself. Rod Schiller got a hundred-yard game on the ground, and only a garbage-time touchdown by the Sooners removed the zero from the scoreboard. The win moved K-State to 6-1-1 -- the Wildcats hadn't had a record that gaudy since 1916, and hadn't held Oklahoma to a single touchdown since the end of Franklin Roosevelt's first term. The 'Cats jumped to 18 in the poll, and while the Orange Bowl was out of the question with Nebraska's win over Colorado, there was still an outside shot for a trip to the Fiesta Bowl.
Farmageddon put paid to that idea. The 'Cats took a 17-6 lead into the fourth quarter, but Todd Doxzon led the Cyclones to three fourth-quarter touchdowns and Iowa State held the Wildcats to 248 yards of offense in the 27-23 upset. Instead of visions of Tempe, the 24th-ranked 'Cats found themselves still needing a win to become bowl eligible at all.
Mizzou provided the cure. Again, the Wildcats went up early, taking a 10-0 lead into the locker room. Missouri came back to take the lead in the third, but May let K-State to three unanswered touchdowns, hitting Coleman for scores from 27 and 65 yards followed by a keeper from the one. Missouri scored late and converted the two-pointer to make it a 31-21 final, but it wasn't that close. The Wildcats moved to 7-2-1, back into the top 20, and most importantly they were bowl-eligible.
Stillwater presented the final challenge, and the 'Cats almost failed it. K-State scored first and second, going up 14-0 before Oklahoma State got a touchdown heading into halftime. After a scoreless third, however, the Cowboys tied the game, then took the lead on a field goal with only 58 seconds left. After a touchback on the ensuing kickoff and a false start, things looked grim.
Afterward, the stadium was silenced. May completed five of six passes, hitting Lockett for 18, then Coleman for 24 after an illegal procedure flag. Then it was Lockett again for 26 and a five-yard toss to Running to get the ball to the Cowboy 17. But even then, fate had to intervene. Oklahoma State was called for pass interference in the end zone on the next play; on the next snap, May hit Seib from the two to salvage the season-ending victory. The narrow escape had two immediate effects: the Wildcats remained at #20 in the poll, and it probably cost K-State a shot at the Sun Bowl (at that time, a Bowl Coalition assignment and thus the #2 spot in the Big 8's bowl rotation). Oklahoma, despite being clowned by the Wildcats, was selected to go to El Paso, and Colorado was shipped off to Hawai'i, sending K-State to Tucson for the Copper Bowl.
Nobody in the fanbase was really upset about this the way we would be now, of course, although Bill Snyder wasn't thrilled. "Our goal has always been to receive the recognition that went with the highest finish we could earn in the Big Eight Conferece. I'm a little upset about the selection process, but that still doesn't take anything away from our excitement about playing Wyoming in the Copper Bowl."
Ultimately, the "snub" was a blessing in disguise, and it later turned out that K-State was actually lukewarm about Hawai'i in the first place. Although the Aloha Bowl was much higher profile then, it would still have been a wildly expensive trip for Wildcat fans. Tucson, on the other hand, was close enough to both K-State's southwest mafia fan base and Manhattan itself to ensure that Wildcat Stadium would be packed with purple.
Wyoming never had a chance. The Cowboys were held to 36 yards rushing while May threw for 275 and two scores. Lockett only caught one ball, but it was a 30-yard touchdown pass. Smith had 133 yards rushing, and Coleman ended his K-State career with a 144 yard receiving outburst, but it was in this game that the flickers of what would later be a foundation of Snyderball really shone through. What would have been just a solid win turned into a blowout thanks to a 68-yard Coleman touchdown on a punt return and the evening's capper was Kenny McEntyre's celebratory dash into the end zone on a 37-yard interception return which put the cherry on a 52-17 rout. It could have been worse, too; safety Jaime Mendez recovered a Ryan Christopherson fumble at the Wyoming 14 in the third quarter, but Wyoming held and Wright missed a field goal attempt.
Mendez, Randolph, and center Quentin Neujahr, as well as Coleman, were Big 8 all-first team selections. Snyder picked up his third Big 8 Coach of the Year honor. And those three guys who'd sat out in 1992, awaiting their chance?
Chad May would end up being the Big 8 Offensive Newcomer of the Year. Kevin Lockett (as well as Coleman) would rack up over 750 receiving yards. We haven't yet mentioned the third, because he didn't do anything which jumped out in game recaps. But Percell Gaskins ended up being the Big 8 Defensive Newcomer of the Year and the Big 8 Indoor High Jump champion, and then anchored the defense as the 'Cats methodically improved their record over the following two years.
Tucson was the end to a glorious season, and the Wildcats finished ranked 18th in the coaches' poll, 20th in the AP. It was the first time the Wildcats ever ended a season ranked. The best part for K-State fans was that everyone acknowledged that unlike 1982, this was no one-hit wonder. Big 8 opponents (except, perhaps, Nebraska) were legitimately afraid of what Bill Snyder was building. The 1994 'Cats would return most of their important pieces, the notable exceptions being Coleman, Mendez, and cornerback Thomas Randolph, all of whom had struggled through the early years of Snyder's efforts.