Last week, as part of an SB Nation weekly feature, we all relived the fabulous 2002 season, as Luke Sobba anointed that 2002 squad the best Kansas State team to never win a title.
Let’s just stipulate to the 2002 version as one of the best Kansas State teams of all-time. That team was loaded with NFL-caliber talent on offense and defense, it played a tougher-than-typical schedule, and it helped begin a second-streak of 11-win seasons for the Wildcats. But is it inarguably the best Kansas State team to never win a title? I certainly don’t think so, and by the end of this piece, I hope you’ll be persuaded that this somewhat dubious distinction belongs to the 1999 team—often forgotten, but never surpassed.
As Luke noted in his paean to the 2002 team, “best” is subjective, but a number of different factors play into evaluating a particular team: results, post-season rankings, wins over quality opponents, margin of victory/defeat, NFL accomplishments, and the like. By most of these measures, the 1999 team stands well ahead of the field, at least in this writer’s opinion. Believe it.
It is, of course, impossible to discuss the 1999 Kansas State campaign without looking back to the 1998 season, and a team that scaled unprecedented heights. Not only did the 1998 team finally get that Nebraska-shaped monkey off the program’s back, but it also earned the school’s first No. 1 ranking, and briefly—ever so painfully—the team even flirted with destiny.
The senior-laden 1998 squad featured four All-Americans and 11 All-Big 12 players. Of those all-conference selections, only four players returned in 1999, and none on offense. The 1999 Wildcats would have to break in a new quarterback, three of five starters on the offensive line, the top receiver, the top running back, two of three linebackers, and even a new kicker and punter.
With a roster full of holes and a slightly tougher schedule, not much was expected of the 1999 team. Indeed, the Wildcats began the season with a preseason ranking of #20 (fairly pedestrian by Kansas State standards of the late 90s) and with a nod to Bill Snyder’s ability to coach his team up, expectations of a 9-2 record at best, a bit of a comedown for a program that had last won just 9 games way back in 1994.
It is a testament to the the 1999 team that it began the season as a band of relative unknowns and ended the season with an 11-1 record, a bowl win, and eight All-Big 12 nods, not to mention two consensus first-team All-Americans. Several players on the 1999 roster would go on to successful careers in the NFL.
Mark Simoneau was the key player on one of the best defenses to ever take the field in Manhattan. He would finish the season as a consensus first-team All American, Big 12 defensive player of the year, and the runner-up for the Butkus Award. Drafted early in the third round by the Atlanta Falcons, Simoneau had a ten-year career in the pros, earning a Super Bowl ring before retiring in 2010. Already on the Kansas State Ring of Honor, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012, only the second Wildcat ever to be so honored.
The other consensus All-America selection for Kansas State was David Allen, the best punt return specialist at a program that has excelled in this category. In 1999, all Allen did was return four punts for touchdowns bringing his career total to seven, tying Johnny Rogers’ NCAA record (since broken by Wes Welker (8) and by Dante Pettis (9)) in the process. Though his senior season in 2000 would be marred by injury and his ultimate NFL career short, Allen’s electric on-field mystique was more than enough to turn the tide in several games in 1999.
The name of the game in 1999 was defense, and almost nobody in the Big 12 was better at it than defensive end Darren Howard, who absolutely terrorized opposing quarterbacks throughout his career, but especially in 1999. Howard, who finished his college career with a school record 29.5 sacks would go on to be drafted by the New Orleans Saints with their first pick in 1999 on his way to a decade-long NFL career.
It’s hard enough to replace an experienced place kicker. It’s even harder when your predecessor is a former Lou Groza award winner and NCAA record holder. But Jaime Rheem took all that in stride, kicking a school record 15 straight field goals in 1999, setting a single game record for field goals, and becoming a Groza finalist and first team All-Big 12 player in his own right.
Several other Kansas State standouts played on that 1999 team, a list of instantly recognizable names from the Snyder 1.0 era, many of whom also played on Sundays: Quincy Morgan, Aaron Lockett, Damion McIntosh, Jarrod Cooper, Lamar Chapman, Jon McGraw, Ben Leber, Monty Beisel, and so on.
And last but not least, the 1999 squad featured Jonathan Beasley, still the only Kansas State quarterback to win two bowl games, including the school’s only victory at the Cotton Bowl (and only victory on January 1, for what it’s worth). The season had begun poorly for Beasley. He had to be kept out of the spring game with an injury and the clamoring for his backups was deafening by the time he was named the starter—in true Snyder fashion, not until just before the first game of the season. Beasley, now the assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at Tarleton State, did not wow anyone with his athletic prowess in 1999, but, in his own words, he had “a strong desire to do things right. That’s what Coach is constantly talking about, and it worked for me like it has worked for Collin (Klein).”
11 wins. In 1999, that number did not seem as magical as it does now. After all, the 1997 and 1998 teams had won 11 games too, so what’s so special about that number? That was certainly how most fans—spoiled by success—felt at the time. But the feat has only become more impressive with every passing year, and this factoid is the most telling: nine teams had finished the 1998 season with 11 wins or more, including Kansas State. But the Wildcats were the only team to scale that peak again in 1999.
How did K-State pull off this apparently impossible feat returning only four starters from the previous year? They went old school, because defense (almost) wins championships, and slow and steady (usually) wins the race.
The season did not have the most auspicious beginning. In August, while out running in Manhattan, defensive coordinator Phil Bennett’s wife Nancy was struck by lightning and died two weeks later. The program—coaches, players, and staff—rallied around Bennett and it’s probably safe to say the defense played harder than ever for their new coordinator.
At first, it was easy. The Wildcats posted identical 40-point shutouts against Temple and Utah State, sandwiched around a 40-7 romp over UTEP. The first sign of trouble came in Kansas State’s first road game of the season, against Iowa State in Ames. This should have been a routine win for the Wildcats. Instead, Kansas State found itself in a 21-point hole at halftime. A timely 94-yard punt return from David Allen began the comeback, and the defense stiffened to hold the Cyclones to just 74 total yards in the second half. K-State 35, Iowa State 28.
The next week, arguably Kansas State’s biggest game of the season, saw the Wildcats on the road at No. 15 Texas. Although Kansas State was the higher-ranked team, the Longhorns were heavy favorites. The teams were somewhat evenly matched at first, but Major Applewhite moved the sticks steadily and went in at the half up 14-9. Then, this happened:
Allen eludes the first Longhorn, gets up field to the 30, Allen to the 40, has some room to midfield, Allen to the 40, Allen down the sideline to the 30, Allen to the 20, 15, 10, 5, touchdown. Oh he did it again! — Greg Sharpe, former “Voice of the Wildcats,” October 2, 1999.
All it took for Kansas State to break the game wide open was Allen’s record-tying punt return. Simoneau spent the rest of the game treating Applewhite like his personal rag doll, repeatedly hurrying and rushing the Texas QB into three fumbles and three interceptions, the last of which Simoneau took to the house. Rheem kicked a school-record five field goals and Allen added another 35-yard rushing score to seal the deal and truly begin the Wildcats’ ownership of Texas. K-State 35 Texas 17.
Sunflower Showdown? More like Sunflower Mowdown. K-State 50 Kansas 9.
Kansas State is now ranked #7 in the country and almost certainly looking ahead to a showdown with Nebraska, because the team stumbles. In an eerie echo of the Big 12 opener in Ames, the Wildcats were in Stillwater and staring down a 21-point deficit. But this time, instead of relying on Allen to pull off more magic in the return game, it was Beasley who steadied the offense, completing huge passes for a total 311 yards while the defense held the Pokes to just 70 yards in the second half and forced four interceptions. Kansas State has now won 20 games in a row. K-State 44, Oklahoma State 21.
Why is Baylor actually a thing? So the Wildcats can have a guaranteed win for Homecoming. Duh. K-State 48 Baylor 7.
A week after trouncing Baylor and still looking ahead to Nebraska, the Wildcats took care of business against Colorado, an inexperienced but game Buffs squad that did not have enough fire power or consistency to beat Kansas State that day. K-State 20 Colorado 14.
Every Kansas State team in living memory had stumbled at least once in its pursuit of greatness, and the 1999 team was no different. Coming into the all-important showdown against #7 Nebraska, Kansas State was riding a 22-game Big 12 winning streak (including a 10-win streak on the road), had a 9-0 record and a giant 1998-shaped bullseye on its back. Predictably, with so much riding on the game, both teams played sloppy. But while the Huskers were able to clean up their own mistakes, including a school record 10 fumbles, everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Wildcats. Rheem had a field goal blocked, a blocked punt led to a safety in the first quarter, Beasley, severely hindered by a shoulder injury, only completed 3 passes, the Blackshirts—then still worthy of that name—stifled Kansas State’s run game, and Nebraska never even kicked to Allen. All in all, it was a disaster. K-State 15 Nebraska 41.
Still, with that nightmare in the rearview mirror, and with an outside chance at making the Big 12 title game, Kansas State would bounce back big time against Missouri. This wasn’t a good Mizzou squad by any means, but the Wildcats ran out to a 35-0 lead in the first quarter, and the rout was on. This absolute pasting of Missouri sealed the best Kansas State season since 1997 and the 10-1 record was good enough for a #7 ranking to close out the regular season. K-State 66 Missouri 0.
In what is now routine for Kansas State, the Wildcats were disappointed that their 10-1 record and lofty ranking were not sufficient for an at-large bid to a BCS bowl. That honor would go to a two-loss Michigan team instead, and Kansas State would have to be content with an appearance in the 1999 Holiday Bowl. Determined not to let the disappointment cost them another bowl game, the Wildcats played Marques Tuiasosopo and the Washington Huskies close for much of the game. Trailing 17-20 with less than a minute left in the third quarter, Kansas State put together The Drive, a 20-play, 92-yard feat of classic Snyderball that took 9 minutes 54 seconds off the clock and ended with a 1-yard touchdown run for the winning score. As Snyder would later say, “[i]t was a pretty special drive.” K-State 24 Washington 20.
Final record: 11-1
Rankings: Associated Press - 6th/Coaches Poll - 6th/BCS - 6th
Second place, Big 12 North Division
Why 1999 was best team not to win a title
The record speaks for itself. The 1999 team was only of only two teams in the program’s entire history to go 11-1, and this team achieved the feat with a group of players who began the season unheralded and underrated, and ended it as the sixth-ranked team in the country (in all polls), the best finish by any Kansas State team. Ever.
Yes, Kansas State lost to Nebraska in a game that was not close. That lone blemish on the record can be explained fairly easily though. That Nebraska team was genuinely great, and only lost one game, on the road, by just four points. Nebraska avenged that loss with a comprehensive defeat of Texas in a rematch in the Big 12 title game, finishing just barely outside the final two in the BCS rankings. The Huskers then annihilated No. 6 Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl. There is no shame in losing to one of the best teams in the country.
That one loss aside, the 1999 team had a point to prove, namely that Kansas State was more than just Michael Bishop, that the 1998 season was not the exception but rather the norm, that Futility U was finally truly dead. Not only did the Wildcats more than prove themselves, they underlined everything the program stood for: grit, determination, poise, excellence, and even humility.
The 1999 team didn’t overwhelm the opposition with its offensive prowess, nor did it have to rely on a few lucky bounces to win close games. The offense was efficient, and when it mattered, potent. Kansas State actually finished the season third in the country in total offense in 1999, averaging almost 40 points a game.
On defense, Kansas State just wore other teams down by executing to near perfection. As Washington’s Rick Neuheisel noted after the bowl game, “it was one of the best defenses I’ve seen at the collegiate level. If you threw a grenade out there, you’d get all of them because they are all so close to the ball.”
But statistics only tell so much of the story. The real test is in the passage of time, and how well the 1999 team stands up to scrutiny more than two decades later. Here’s at least one argument in the 1999 team’s favor: If the College Football Playoff had existed in 1999, there’s a good chance Kansas State would have made it to the final four. I’m not sure the 2002 team could make that argument, no matter what you’ve heard about that team already. After all, you can’t be the best Kansas State team to never win if you can’t even beat Texas, a thing even the teams coached by Ron Prince managed to do.
So, to reiterate, defense (almost) wins championships, and slow and steady (usually) wins the race.
Party like it’s 1999.