Happy New Year! The start of a new decade (or not, if you want to be a pedant about it) seems like the best time to look back and take stock of the last ten years of Kansas State sports.
— Ten years ago, Bill Snyder has just finished the first season of his second stint as Kansas State’s head football coach. At the time, what did you think was ahead for the football program? Has the decade lived up to your expectation?
Jon: I honestly had no idea. The last two years of Snyder-I didn’t exactly give much reason to expect that he’d turn the program around again. So I was pleasantly surprised by the decade.
Luke S: I took Coach Snyder at his word that he intended to “calm the waters” and retire again. To me, that meant get back to bowl eligibility, stabilize the roster, and hand it off to someone while conditions were good. The end of 2012, in retrospect, would have been a great time to do it, because the program declined slowly after that. But who among us really expected 2012 to be what it was? And can anybody blame Coach Snyder for staying on after getting so close to the promised land again?
JT V: I was a student when Snyder retired the first time, and still a student when he was brought back. I can’t say I was thrilled when he was rehired, but he seemed like a new man. And he brought instance success. It felt pretty great to go back to a bowl game that second season, even if it was just the Pinstripe Bowl. You could tell things were building, but I don’t think anyone could have expected the Big 12 title in 2012. Just sheer mastery. The next few years were great too, and I was at the BWW bowl beat-down of Michigan, and the Texas Bowl for the win over A&M. Overall, I wouldn’t change the end result of the decade, we had a second great ride with The Wizard. But the Chris Klieman era at K-State should have probably started at least one season earlier.
AMS: What I thought was my optimistic expectation at the time was that Snyder would re-stabilize the football program, get the team back up to a 6- to 8-win standard, and stick around for four or five years before retiring for good and hopefully seeing the athletic department hire a better successor than the first time. Obviously the team exceeded those expectations pretty quickly, largely thanks to finding Collin Klein on the roster. But a few years later Snyder kind of lost the thread and overstayed things by at least a year. A year into it, Chris Klieman feels like a great get, so hopefully the Wildcats have their own Roaring 20s.
Eric: I remember his return meaning one thing to me: stability. While the program was going in a non-optimal direction upon his first departure, the several years following didn’t exactly do a whole lot for me. Snyder was a known quantity, and though it wasn’t going to be a long-term solution for obvious reasons, K-State needed to be K-State on the gridiron. His second stanza was certainly rife with frustration, especially late; but overall, thinking it should have gone better feels insincere. I think the biggest thing for me was the end of the decade and Snyder’s tenure - we got the right guy in Klieman. We got a guy that seems very much K-State. And while it was probably a year later than most would have liked (including yours truly), sometimes things happen for a reason.
00: I was deeply skeptical when Kansas State announced that Bill Snyder would be returning to coach the football team. It seemed like a desperate shot in the dark, a sign of a program grasping at straws (and I remain convinced it was mostly that). But as always, with Snyder, nothing is quite as you expect. Somehow, inexplicably, he managed to motivate players recruited by someone else to play harder and better, and somehow, inexplicably, Snyder averaged almost 8 wins a season in his second tenure. That said, it’s also true that what worked in 1989, and somehow worked again in 2009, wasn’t necessarily a good fit for 2019. As glad as I am (in hindsight) that Snyder came back, I’m also glad that Kansas State is moving on to a new era. In Chris Klieman, we have a coach whose values are a good fit for the program Snyder built, but whose methods are actually different. I have a feeling the Cats are going places. Fingers crossed.
Luke T: All I knew for sure was it couldn’t possibly be worse than Ron Prince and the trajectory he was on. Certainly, I was skeptical whether Snyder’s mindset and recruiting practices could continue to be successful, and it was obviously a very pleasant surprise. I honestly don’t remember if there was a time when I thought he would step down gracefully, although I probably shared that naive thought with so many others. But about 3 or 4 years ago it became clear a happy ending would be impossible given his preference for Sean to take over. Despite that, the decade was pretty great overall and it probably ended with as little conflict as possible under the circumstances. Clearly K-State got a great replacement, who seems to me to be a guy capable of getting the job done and willing to stick around for a while. Hopefully that’s not naive, too.
— Frank Martin had just begun his third season in Manhattan ten years ago. The Elite Eight run was still a few months in the future a decade ago, but it was clear that the basketball team was on an upward trajectory. Ten years on—and one coach later—is that still true?
Jon: It’s all going to depend on whether this year’s freshman class pans out. It’s that simple. It’s entirely possible that the Wade/Brown/Stokes triumvirate was sheer dumb luck, three guys who didn’t really need to be developed; it’s also entirely possible the last couple of recruiting classes absolutely need it, and if those two things are both true we’ll know where the failure lies if the program doesn’t bounce back from this year.
Luke S: Anyone who is being rational and not reacting out of personal animus should admit that Bruce Weber, overall, has been better than fine as a replacement for Frank Martin. He has won a share of two league titles (Frank won none) and he’s taken the team to the Elite 8. He led the first K-State team ever to beat Kentucky, and he did it with five guys 6’4 or under on the floor at the end, needing a bucket to win the game. K-State had a down year after the debacle of the Marcus Foster class imploding, but he’s built it back. He has vanquished the dragon of “He only wins with other guys’ players.” Given the turmoil at the time Frank left, I’m not convinced he could have kept the program on even a level trajectory had he stayed. The change of scenery—and an AD who was willing to confront him and rein him in—was good for Frank. I continue to believe it was good for K-State, as well. This year has been painful so far, but after the departure of Dean Wade, Barry Brown Jr. and Kamau Stokes, didn’t we expect that? We have career role players in Cartier Diarra and Xavier Sneed who are now forced to lead for the first time. The growing pains are natural. I like the freshman, and I like the look of next year’s freshmen. But they’re young. Give it time.
JT V: At that time, 10 years ago, it felt like K-State was headed up and up. We had dreams of Frank leading us to the fabled promised land. And then the wheels fell off, ADJC hired Bruce Weber, and things have been...interesting. Overall, I’m very happy with two Big 12 Titles, the Elite Eight run, and getting several players into the NBA. But starts like this year always make it hard to defend Bruce, and even during last year’s run I was never sure it was actually going to happen until the season was over and it actually happened. I like Bruce, I always have. But I feel like I can’t ever be certain about the true direction of the program, and constantly rolling through the hills and valleys is tiring.
AMS: Frank Martin was the coach that K-State needed at the start of the decade, but I don’t exactly miss him. We aren’t on an upward trajectory currently, but absent another disaster like the Marcus Foster recruiting class, I think we have found a somewhat stable cycle. We’ll be good when we’re loaded with experienced upperclassmen, and maybe even compete for championships sometimes, and we’ll be mediocre when those big senior classes graduate and we’re left with a young, inexperienced roster. When Bruce is gone, whether it’s a retirement or firing, it will be important to bring in someone who can really compete for more recruits.
Eric: I can’t say much more than what has already been said, but I’ll try: I don’t miss Frank Martin, especially learning (admittedly hearsay) how much some of the players didn’t like playing for him, and seeing his relative ineffectiveness at South Carolina (one NCAA appearance in 7 seasons). He (with Huggins to start) resuscitated this once-proud program, but we had peaked under Frank. Doubling down on what Jon noted, I think you have to lump the 2020 class into the reload. If this year’s and next year’s newcomers don’t pan out (and subsequently continue to bring in additional solid classes) with Cartier Diarra and [gulp] Mike McGuirl fully at the helm with a year of true leadership under their belts, then I think the program has reached it’s Weber-era peak. Luke nailed the problems we’re seeing this year: The vacuum left behind after seeing off arguably three of K-State’s top-25 players all-time. Bruce Weber is a great coach, and you won’t find anyone that actually knows anything about basketball say different. The main continued gripe with Weber, to be honest, seems to be rooted in the fact that he comes across as kind of a wimp compared to Martin’s fiery demeanor, and that doesn’t resonate with notable portions of K-State’s blue-collar, do-your-job fanbase. That being said, his only flaw in my mind is an apparent lack of ability of developing big men, specifically. A difficult task, but his staffs don’t seem to even muster a passing grade of it. We’re worse than last season to be sure, but if Weber can put together a conference championship run every 5-6 years, and at least be competitive in the interim, that’s...not terrible, is it?
00: I was at Kansas State in the 1990s, a time in which Kansas State made the transition from basketball school to football school, and the notion of average-but-passable basketball had so ossified in my mind that the Wildcats’ return to hoops prominence almost passed me by. Almost. I owe any interest I have in Kansas State basketball to Frank Martin, and the attention his antics and the run to the Elite Eight, brought to the program. So when Bruce Weber was hired, I was not enthusiastic. Hiring a coach fired by a better program hadn’t worked for Minnesota with Tubby Smith, so there was no reason it was going to work at Kansas State. Well, when I’m wrong, I’m wrong. Weber—who still doesn’t demonstrate the most fan-friendly personality, IMO—has two Big 12 titles to his credit and could still do big things at K-State (the Marcus Foster debacle and the current season notwithstanding).
Luke T: Well, it’s hard to think K-State can’t go upward from this season’s nonconference play, so maybe the question is just how far upward. I agree with others that it’s easy to be optimistic with some of the recruits coming in, and despite what some people might tell you, Bruce and his staff can develop players, especially guards. Plus, the defensive approach, while not always the most fun to watch, always brings with it a degree of effectiveness so long as you can get the players to buy in and have a decent amount of talent. If we’re lucky (fingers crossed) the NCAA will come down hard on Kansas with some serious penalties, hurting their program, convincing Bill Self to leave, and giving K-State a better shot at getting local elite talent while opening up an opportunity for other Big 12 teams to be in better position for titles. We can dream, right?
— What was your favorite K-State moment of the past decade, the moment that would take the top spot in your own highlight reel? Of course, the decade also had some lowlights, so feel free to share your least favorite moment too, if you can bear to think about it.
Jon: Can a moment be thirty minutes of football where K-State outscored Oklahoma 41-6? If not, then Jacob Pullen’s fork in Xavier’s back works just fine. My least favorite moment was watching Oklahoma State ruin our chance at the BCS title game by trying to murder Collin Klein.
Luke S.: Favorite for me was Barry’s drive for the winning hoop against Kentucky. The Xavier win was awesome, too, but the Kentucky win felt more unexpected, to me. Also, Barry had completely gakked an opportunity just like the end of the Kentucky game against KU earlier in the year, so I loved his moment of redemption on the giant stage. I’m still amazed at how narrowly he avoided having that shot blocked. I almost couldn’t write the recap because half an hour later, my hands were still shaking. Worst: A tie between the two Elite 8 games against mid-majors that we expected to beat. Dead legs killed us against Butler after a double-overtime in the Xavier game that only went to double-overtime because a ref simply chose not calling the foul that Chris Merrieweather committed to prevent that ridiculous Jordan Crawford 3-pointer from ever being hoisted. Sister Jean voodoo hexed us into bad shooting and inexplicably terrible defense in 2018, which was not very Christian of her. I hope we see a Final 4 in my lifetime. It’s been too long. We were also double-hexed not to have Dean available for postseason two years in a row. Not to be an Eeyore, but with Dean and Collin Klein’s late-season injuries, we really had rotten luck in the 2010s.
JT V: My favorite was definitely the 3-peat in 2012-13, capped by baseball winning the Big 12 title. I know a bunch of guys on that team, it was so fun watching them win the way they did. Overall, that year had a weird mystical vibe to it. Football just kept winning games, basketball managed to still win a share after KU stumbled over itself at the last second, and the best baseball team in K-State history. Lowlight is definitely what happened to those programs after that. Football held steady for a while, and nearly challenged again two years later, but fell off the last few years, necessitating a coaching change. Basketball had the Foster Situation, but Bruce led them back to another title last year. And baseball...woof. Went from easily the best run in K-State baseball history starting in the mid-00’s, capped with a title, to fall back to the one of the worst two teams in the league.
AMS: The most enjoyable moment for me, personally, was being in the stands for K-State 68, Oklahoma 53, last year as we secured a share of the Big 12 Championship in men’s basketball. Others in the running included Pullen’s final dagger against Xavier, Pullen’s fake behind-the-back pass and layup to take the all-time scoring record, Collin Klein’s 25-yard TD run vs. A&M in the third overtime of the 4OT win in 2011, and Barry Brown’s winner against Kentucky. The worst moment was the foul call at the end of regulation against Xavier. When they put it up as a shooting foul, my stomach sank.
Eric: The “best” moment for me has to be the entirety of the K-State v. Xavier Sweet 16 game in 2010. That game was simply epic. My “favorite” moment, though? Barry Brown for the win against Kentucky in the Sweet 16 in 2018. No play that K-State has been involved in has made me jump out of my seat screaming in sheer jubilation like that driving layup to beat Kentucky. Lowlights...man, we’re K-State fans, right? Way too many to go around, but since I’m a basketball nerd, I’ll go with God’s Chosen Ones pretty much handling us from tip to horn in the subsequent Elite 8 game against Loyola Chicago in 2018. Such an emotional let-down after the ecstasy of the way the Kentucky game ended. If I was to go football, it’s probably then-#1 K-State, led by the aforementioned Klein, getting curbstomped by Baylor in 2012 with one regular-season game to go. And strangely, the rain-drenched 26-6 loss to TCU in 2017 sticks out to me. Maybe it was because it was Alex Delton’s first start, and seeing just how ineffective our offense was at home with him at the helm ended up being foreshadowing for what to expect over the 2018 season.
00: For me, the highlight of the entire decade is Kansas State beating #6 Oklahoma 24-19 in Norman. It wasn’t a 2003-type ambush, it wasn’t a shocking upset. Indeed, the Cats didn’t do anything spectacular in the game. They just executed perfectly on offense, on defense, and on special teams. I have never seen Kansas State embody Bill Snyder’s discipline or perfection as much as in that one game. I still watch it from time to time just to marvel at how it all came together. As for moments I would rather forget, I will never get over the look on Barry Brown’s face—and the way I felt—when he just sort of stalled out in the final seconds against Kansas. That was the proverbial knife to the heart.
Luke T: It feels like I’m repeating what Eric said here, but the Xavier game was just so much fun to watch. Uptempo basketball, really fast guards who can shoot from anywhere, and of course, Gus Johnson on the call. “He’s in shape!” It just doesn’t get better than that. Barry Brown’s winner vs. Kentucky was great, but that was a really ugly basketball game (which of course was the only way KSU was going to beat Kentucky that day). As for football, it was definitely the big loss to Baylor. I had recently moved to Tennessee so I had few friends and none with any interest in that game, so I just stayed in my apartment alone and drank a lot.
— Kansas State Athlete of the Decade?
Jon: I really tried to not make this a football player or a men’s basketball player, but it’s really not possible to say anything but Tyler Lockett.
Luke S.: Erik Kynard. And not only to spite Jon. Dude was close to the best in the entire world at his sport, winning a silver medal in the 2012 Olympics.
JT V: Peyton Williams. Might be the most freak athlete to walk through either the volleyball or women’s basketball team. All-conference player in TWO sports, in this day and age? Sheesh. Some of the multi-athletes (like decathlon) for K-State track and field are pretty close, but to dominate two sports that usually require sole focus at this level is nothing short of amazing to me.
AMS: Everyone else has such good choices. A real two-sport star, an Olympic medalist, and a guy who eclipsed his own legendary father at the same position. But I think somebody has to put Collin Klein in the discussion. He, more than any Wildcat since Michael Bishop, had K-State in national championship contention. Bonus points for returning to Manhattan to coach.
Eric: I, too, am going with Erik Kynard. In his three years on campus, Kynard won two NCAA outdoor championships and placed 4th in a third. He also won bronze in the 2016 World Indoor Championships, and won the aforementioned silver in the 2012 Olympic Games in London - to a Russian that was later DQ’d for doping. As much as Collin Klein, Tyler Lockett, and to a lesser extent Jacob Pullen (lesser only because half his career was in the previous decade) meant to this university, it’s pretty hard for me to look past the high jumper that was 2” shy of being the best in the world on the grandest of stages.
00: I’m going to stick with the track theme, but give the nod to Akela Jones. She absolutely obliterated the field in passing the 4000-point mark for the first four heptathlon events at the 2015 NCAA Outdoors, and her two-day total of 6,371 was the fourth-best of all-time. By the way, that was only her second heptathlon ever. I’d put that up against the accomplishments of any other K-State athlete of the decade (with apologies to the truly outstanding efforts of Erik Kynard, Collin Klein, Tyler Lockett, and the doubly-accomplished Peyton Williams).
Luke T: It feels like everybody else is trying to pick a different athlete, so I’ll stick with that theme and take a slightly different route. My pick is Wesley Iwundu. No one would ever mistake Wes for a skilled basketball player, but with his ridiculous length and athleticism he willed himself over four years into becoming an All-Big 12 player and one of the conference’s best defensive players. He could essentially guard any position and even play any position. Remember when Iwundu played point guard (or point forward, if you will) as a 6-7 senior? And just in case you didn’t believe me, now Wes is in the NBA not for his scoring (4.2 ppg average) but because he’s better equipped than most to defense some of the best players in the world every game.
— How do you feel about the next decade of Kansas State sports? What is a reasonable expectation for the football program? The two basketball programs?
Jon: I’m not even going to speak to basketball because I’m really depressed about the state of both programs right now. Football? This team should win at least 90 games this decade. Not kidding.
Luke S.: Optimistic, at least in the short term. Klieman is going to challenge for league titles, and maybe more. Believe it. In hoops, I predict Self leaves the cesspool down the road before Bruce leaves Manhattan, and K-State and Texas Tech have done the best work on the recruiting trail and have the coaches best positioned to—perhaps!—compete for the crown in Big 12 basketball starting a couple of years from now. If you can’t dream at the beginning of a new decade (hush pedantic purists!), when can you?
JT V: I’m definitely excited for football, I think Klieman was the perfect guy for this job, and will likely retire from K-State with at least a couple Big 12 titles under his belt, with the ever-so-slim possibility for something really special. I don’t know what to think about the two basketball teams. I feel pretty strongly, however, that neither program will have the same coach at the end of the next 10-year cycle. Same with volleyball, baseball, and soccer (even if I actually really like those coaches), and rowing, though just because I expect Sweeney to retire at some point in the next 10 years. Rovelto is probably here until he’s 100, still coaching world-class jumpers and winning women’s Big 12 titles every few years.
AMS: I anticipate Klieman will pretty quickly turn the football team into regular Big 12 contenders and get us a few fairly major bowls. It’s hard to predict much higher than that, because we can see how hard it is for teams that aren’t already there to break into the national championship picture. In men’s basketball, I expect Bruce Weber will retire by the middle of the decade, and it’s so hard to predict what will happen after that. Women’s basketball might go up or down, but I can’t even imagine we’ll break into the club of “haves” in women’s basketball in the 2020s, even if things go great. I don’t know enough about the other sports to really wager a guess on the decade ahead.
Eric: I wouldn’t expect the next decade to be much different than the past. I’m bullish on football; Klieman seems like the right dude for the job, and I would expect bowls to be normal, competing conference championships to be frequent. Men’s basketball I expect to look like a yo-yo; up and down, but generally averaging above the midpoint. Women’s basketball needs to get better. Competing for a national championship...maybe not. But finding a way to be consistently relevant in the Big 12 seems like it should be a floor. I would expect K-State to continue to be nationally relevant in track-and-field as long as Rovelto is around. I’m hoping women’s soccer and the baseball team can get something figured out soon, and volleyball seems to be in dire need of a change. Golf, rowing, cross-country...I’m glad those sports give some kids the ability to go to school on scholarship. Don’t do anything embarrassing to the university is the limit of my expectation.
00: I have only optimistic feelings about football and men’s basketball right now. I think those programs are on the right trajectory right now, even if the current snapshot in time suggests otherwise. I’m cautiously optimistic about women’s basketball. There’s clearly talent on the team and I think Mittie is a good coach. But we’ve hit a rough patch there for sure. In the end though, c’mon, everyone knows Kansas State is really a track school.
Luke: I have to share in the optimism of most people here, although I have to admit I’m a little more nervous about men’s basketball. Things didn’t go south for Bruce at Illinois because of bad recruiting. In fact, you could argue it was just the opposite. But hopefully some lessons were learned through recruiting mistakes of the past. I know less about Mittie’s past so I’ll trust him for now, and of course Chris Klieman has had nothing but success. I expect that to continue. It would sure be cool if K-State baseball could get out of the perpetual basement, but I won’t hold my breath. The elephant in the room I’m surprised no one brought up is potential realignment when TV contracts run out in 2025 and the massive impact that could have on K-State athletics. Perhaps it’s best not to think about it.
— Will the Big 12 still exist a decade from now? If not, where will Kansas State be, conference-wise?
Jon: I think so. The system is now set up so that the Power 5 can do whatever the hell the Power 5 wants, and the only thing that could really cause a shakeup would actually benefit K-State rather than harming it — the Pac-12 imploding under the weight of all its terrible business decisions. And while the Big 12 doesn’t pull in as much money as the SEC or Big 10 — neither of which have any real interest in further expansion, because the 14-team model is already proving to be unwieldy and problematic — it’s still better off than the ACC and Pac-12. By a bunch.
Luke S.: What? I can’t hear you with my fingers in my ears. La la la la la!
JT V: I fully expect the Big 12 Conference to exist, though probably not in its current configuration. I do think that at some point the conference shuffles membership, either to expand or as a reaction to someone(s) leaving. But even in a streaming-first world, the more properties you can sell to your market makes it more attractive to more people. More games on a Big 12 Network (or ESPN+, or whatever it will be in the next few years), means people are more likely to subscribe. More teams means more content. Duh. Plus, I really hate that the Big 12 has 10 teams (much like I hate that Big Ten has had more than 10 for a long time now).
AMS: The Big 12 should still exist in a decade, provided Texas doesn’t make a decision that will ultimately hurt themselves by going independent. None of the other P5 conferences are in a position to add teams, and the Big 12 doesn’t appear poised to disintegrate on its own. I don’t even know that we will add any teams. That would depend on having candidates that have competitive programs in desirable markets at a time that broadcasters are willing to renegotiate rights fees upwards.
Eric: Other people pay attention and can speculate better than I. The whole idea of conference realignment is a sham, a racket, to sell advertising to all of our eyeballs during football games. It has nothing to do with schools aligning with others “academically”, or some other altruistic crap. It can sit on a fence-post, as far as I’m concerned.
00: Sometime around 1999, I lost faith in college football as an institution even if the sport itself remains the best in the world. I have a hard time believing that the current conference structure—not just the Big 12—will survive the next decade of content providers jockeying for rights, potential changes to the playoff structure, and the inevitability of having to pay the players. I think there will be some shuffling in the way the Power 5 conferences are set up, and Kansas State will find itself in some sort of conference sub-league or pod with its geographic cohorts. (That’s the best-case scenario, IMO).
Luke T: HEY. I said perhaps it’s best not to talk about it.
Bonus: what was the most fun/interesting post you wrote at Bring on the Cats in the last decade? (Obviously, some of us have not been on the staff for a decade, lol!)
Jon: I’d have to say my favorite post in my decade here had to be my totally serious proposal that LSU join the Big 12 and bring Arkansas with them.
Luke S.: Some self-indulgent Game of Thrones screeds were fun. But I got the most personal satisfaction and positive feedback out of my Bill Snyder retrospective in late November of last year, when we were all wondering about the future of K-State football.
JT V: I started writing here covering the baseball team. It was a lot of fun. But my best work, in my opinion, is much more recent, and caused a considerable stir: How Michael Bishop Broke Bill Snyder. It was fun, in the way that mind-blowing revelations are fun, and it was probably also the longest feature I’ve written for the blog.
AMS: My favorite work I’ve done for Bring on the Cats isn’t writing, but photography. A couple of years ago I rented a better camera and a nice, professional lens and photographed volleyball and soccer. With the unavailability of wire photos of both those teams, we’ve gotten good use out of them.
Eric: My favorite pieces have of course been basketball-related. Covering the Maui Invitational was a blast (for obvious reasons, sitting essentially court-side), despite the upcoming turmoil within the basketball team. Catching the game recaps after big wins have been fun, as well.
00: I’ve written a lot of themed Slates, at least one serious post about Baylor, a historical rundown of the Sunflower Showdown in football, and the inaugural Fandom Friday posts (and here, I should give credit to Luke Sobba for keeping that alive long after I jumped off the Game of Thrones wagon). But my favorite thing I have ever written here was this Slate following the West Virginia game in 2014: You Shall Not Run.
Luke T: I know you said “wrote,” but can I count podcasts? I’m going to count podcasts. It’s always fun when Nick Leckey joins us, of course, and especially when he joined us to talk about Bill Snyder. Those two episodes on Snyder 1.0 and Snyder 2.0 were just so cool because we got to talk to a bunch of K-State players about their experiences on the teams I loved. I continue to be amazed how many people are willing to talk to me just because I occasionally write things and talk about Kansas State athletics on the Internet.