Wildcats, Mean Green have memorable past
MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) There are two games against North Texas, played more than two decades apart, which stand out vividly in the mind of Kansas State coach Bill Snyder.
Both laid the foundation for future success.
The first was played on Sept. 30, 1989. The Wildcats had won three of their previous 47 games, earning the dubious distinction of "Futility U" from Sports Illustrated, when they managed a late score to beat the school then known as North Texas State 20-17 at home.
Within five years, Kansas State was making regular trips to bowl games.
The second game was played on Nov. 27, 2010. Snyder was in his second year back from a brief retirement, and the Wildcats were playing a rare nonconference season finale on the road. Helped by a late kickoff return, Kansas State managed to squeeze out a 49-41 victory.
It allowed the Wildcats to qualify for a bowl game, and set up a 10-win season last year.
Few expect the No. 15 Wildcats (2-0) to have similar struggles against the Mean Green (1-1) on Saturday. Kansas State will be tuning up for next week's showdown at fifth-ranked Oklahoma.
Still, the game provides Snyder an opportunity to walk down memory road.
"It wasn't just the first win; it was the only win that season," Snyder said with a chuckle, recalling the win over North Texas in his first season coaching the Wildcats.
"It probably saved my sanity, maybe, as you look at it," Snyder said. "What'd it mean? I don't know what it meant. As I've said so many times, what was really significant to me was that at the end of the season, I was able to look back at the season and realize that we had improved, week-in and week-out. Even though we didn't win any ball games, we got better during the year."
Over the following years, Kansas State posted six 11-win seasons, won a Big 12 championship and played in marquee postseason destinations. But the program slipped following Snyder's sudden retirement in 2005, and he was lured back into the corner office just four years later.
The Wildcats won six games his first season, but the breakthrough came in 2010, when Kansas State narrowly beat North Texas to qualify for the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl.
"The North Texas game that I more frequently share with our players about is the one that happened two years ago, when we went down to Denton and played," Snyder said. "If we don't run a kickoff return back late in the ball game after they had just run one back, we might easily have lost that ball game, and lost the opportunity to play in a bowl game."
Now, Kansas State is back to those heady days of the 1990s.
The Wildcats went to the Cotton Bowl last year behind the emergence of quarterback Collin Klein, and now they're coming off blowout wins over Missouri State and Miami to start the season.
They've already started the slow climb up the national rankings - it helps to beat a vaunted program like the Hurricanes 52-13 - and are tuning up for the Sooners against a North Texas program that should be plenty familiar to Snyder, if not the rest of the Wildcats.
Not only have there been some memorable games, Snyder also served as an assistant coach at the school in the late 1970s. And now, the Mean Green is led by Dan McCarney. Like Snyder, he's a disciple of Hayden Fry, and twice beat the Wildcats while he was coaching at Iowa State.
"They're clearly playing like a top-10 team," McCarney said. "When you just obliterate a team like Miami, like they did last Saturday, we know what we're getting into."
McCarney certainly isn't intimidated, though. He understands that few expect North Texas to win besides those close to the program. It's the quintessential nothing-to-lose experience for a team that has never started 2-1 since moving up to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
"They've got a great system in place, they play extremely hard, they don't beat themselves - things we preach all the time here," McCarney said. "Those things make a difference."
If it sounds like McCarney is trying to model his program after Kansas State, well, in some respects he is, and he's quick to point out that there are far worse blueprints.
"Isn't that pretty neat, when you know when you get done - whenever that is for Bill Snyder - he's left an amazing imprint on college football?" McCarney said. "How to do it, the way to do it, how to sustain it, in the place where nobody, nobody thought it could be done?"