By Dennis Dodd
DALLAS -- Few people realize how bad it really was at Kansas State.
Ten years ago this season, the nation's worst college football program was waiting for Dr. Kevorkian. It crashed, burned and rested in pieces. Head coach Stan Parrish, unable to endure what would eventually become a school-record 30-game winless streak, quit with two games left in the 0-11 1988 season. That was in November. The school's last victory had come more than two years earlier.
You couldn't get past it if you were even remotely affiliated with the school.
Everything about K-State football was bad. The ugly purple uniforms, the ancient facilities, the pittance of fans. During that winless season, the defensive coaching staff left the press box late in a game with K-State leading 16-13 at Tulane. When the Green Wave scored late in the game to win it, Parrish saw his defensive coaches strolling across the back of the end zone.
Former Oklahoma players Brian Bosworth and Jamelle Holieway once removed their shoulder pads during one rout, stood up on the bench and led mock cheers to KSU's alumni section. Former Sooner Anthony Phillips didn't care about bulletin-board material. He wondered out loud in the Norman Transcript, "What was it like to come down to play a game they had absolutely no chance of winning?" This was the day before another typical Oklahoma drubbing.
It never was publicly stated but current coach Bill Snyder says today that the program was in danger of dropping out of the Big Eight and dropping down to Division I-AA.
"That was significant reality," Snyder said.
There was no argument over the subject. With a 300-511-39 all-time record, K-State was absolutely the worst program in the country. Not just for that year but for the previous 92 seasons during which there were a paltry 19 winning seasons.
"There weren't five people in the Western world in 1988 who thought we could do it," Kansas State president Jon Wefald said. "I went to a Kansas City rotary club meeting. I mentioned all the usual things...fund-raising, enrollment. A former All-American basketball player for us, Rick Harmon, came up and said, 'Just don't mention football. It can't be done.' "
The 10th anniversary of that season is significant to college football and should be significant to all of mankind because it was done. K-State is a consensus top five pick going into the season. It is coming off the team's best season, 11-1 after a Fiesta Bowl victory over Syracuse. It is one of only six schools to have won at least nine games in each of the past five seasons.
It has an honest to goodness Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Michael Bishop, who symbolizes how far the program has progressed. Asked at the Big 12 media day on Friday if he were aware of K-State's football history, Bishop nodded yes.
"I knew they had a couple of nine-win seasons when I came here," Bishop said.
How soon they forget. How soon they wanted to forget.
"I think it's one of the top two or three stories in college football over the last two decades, maybe longer than that," said Kenny Mossman, an assistant athletic director at Illinois State and former K-State sports information director. "You could almost take it into a broader realm than college football."
Like the real thing, college football's version of the Hindenburg disaster has lessons that never should be forgotten. As bad as that 1988 season was, the off-season was worse. Athletic director Steve Miller had to find a new coach. Wefald had to find a way to make the job attractive. He had a larger mandate of increasing enrollment and enhancing the university's reputation. They hit upon the idea of spending money -- money they didn't have.
The program was running a $5 million deficit but Wefald decided to embark on an $8 million facilities upgrade. Some of the money came from donors, some came from the school's foundation, some was borrowed. Bankers had to be K-State fans or crazy to do such a thing. Most likely they were both. "We had no collateral. None, zip, zero," said Jim Epps, senior associate athletic director and a 20-year veteran of the department. "We couldn't say, 'If we default on a loan you can have this.' It was people willing to believe in us and take a huge personal risk."
Or as Snyder more pointedly put it, "They were willing to make what was basically a bad investment."
Considering the doom behind them and the uncertainly in front of them, it was worth the risk. Buildings are nice, though the Wildcats needed a coach, preferably one with a strong stomach.
"I'll take credit for that," Epps said. "We talked to 17 candidates and were just stymied. Rather than looking at coaches in successful programs, it dawned on me. Why don't we look at a program that was real, real bad and got well? We had played Iowa in '87 and '88. I thought to myself, 'There was a program that was terrible.' Not only did they fix it, they kept it well. I started looking through the press guide. I saw Bill Snyder, offensive coordinator. It listed all these school and Big 10 conference records. I said, 'Holy Smoke, this guy must be pretty neat.' "
He was. He was also quirky. He ate once a day, usually at 1 a.m. when his work day was done. The media didn't take kindly to a guy who limited access to players and closed practices. Even today he insists on a Charmin-soft non-conference schedule in order to get his players ready for conference rigors.
But before Snyder had talent or the full effect of the facilities, he instilled a different mindset. Players no longer were ashamed to wear their letter jackets around campus. They expected to win. In the fourth week of the '89 season, K-State broke the 30-game winless streak with a last-second 20-17 victory over I-AA North Texas State.
You would have thought it was a national championship. The school quickly marketed a highlight video of that game "A Great Finish to a Great Beginning."
"We floated into work that Monday morning," Mossman said.
K-State then lost its next seven to finish 1-10. Meanwhile, there was more of the same elsewhere. While the program operated at a huge deficit, the athletic department almost didn't make payroll a few times, Epps said.
Snyder was called back from the Big Eight meetings before his first season in 1989 to meet with a contractor who needed $100,000 to continue construction on the football complex. Snyder's response: "How much do you need?"
Did he have it? Of course not.
"I would have gotten the money," Snyder said. "There wasn't any doubt. We were fighting tooth and nail to get this thing going. We weren't just going to let it fly by the wayside."
Even as the program turned around, personal tragedy haunted Snyder. From late 1991 through 1992, four persons close to Snyder were stricken. Quarterback Paul Watson was stabbed outside a Manhattan, Kan. bar trying to break up a fight. Snyder's daughter Meredith was paralyzed in a car accident. His mother suffered a reoccurrence of cancer. His 97-year old grandfather fell in his home and lay undiscovered for hours.
Snyder trudged on, taking unrecruited or under-recruited talent and molding it into a force.
"Basically, what he did was take a bunch of misfits," said former All-Big Eight center Quentin Neujahr. "He took a bunch of people nobody wanted and made them play together."
The second season produced five victories, the most in eight years. In 1993, K-State went to its second-ever bowl. The first Jan 1. Bowl in 1996 drew 40,000 K-Staters to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl. A mid-afternoon pep rally a few days before the game actually caused a traffic jam created by 20,000 wild-eyed Wildcats in downtown Dallas.
Last January, the Fiesta Bowl benefited from K-State's rabid following. Forty-thousand fans got to Tempe to watch the Wildcats defeat Syracuse 35-18.
"In the last, maybe, eight to 10 years, I can think of two things that have lived up to their billing," Fiesta Bowl director John Junker said. "They are Kansas State football and Michael Jordan. You can't sell either of them short and they both get it done. There aren't many things like that in this world today."
Now it is a glamour program. Beat Nebraska on Nov. 14 and the Wildcats could coast into the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 4 playing for the national championship. The facilities are on a par with any school. The debt has been paid to the banks and the long-suffering fans.
"There must have been 40,000 people in the stands when they were losing 11 games because I met every one of them," linebacker Travis Ochs said Friday. "It's hard for the new guys coming in. They don't know where we've really come from. It's something I think guys should remember."