Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Old Man and the Sea (of Red).

Some thoughts and perspective on Thursday's delightful Nebraska-Kansas State college football matchup (6:30 on ESPN).

In one corner on Thursday night, you have the Big Red. For pride (okay, maybe a bit of arrogance), sportsmanship and fan support, they may have no equal. No other program can touch the 307 straight sellouts Nebraska boasts, despite the state's relatively tiny population. It is one of the nation's most storied programs, by cold numbers the best since 1970, with five national titles, three Heismans and 25 more wins than any other program during that time. They are one of the giants of the sport.

The Huskers did, like all the great programs, have a down stretch during the just-completed decade, with a 7-7 record in 2002 and losing records in 2004 and 2007. But now they appear to be back, ranked No. 6 or 7, depending on your preferred poll, and the meat grinder defense, the Blackshirts, is back in full force. One of my favorite sports storylines is when a great player or team falls a bit and then rises again. This year, Nebraska has conference and even national title aspirations. But it's a young season. And the Huskers have a young quarterback. Winning titles takes some good fortune along with talent.

In the other corner is a 70-year-old man. Most of the other Big 12 schools are terrified of him. He took over the worst college football program in America, Kansas State, a team that had lost 27 straight. An assistant coach would later say that when the new staff arrived, they had probably two legitimate Division I players. Two. The program was located in the haunting Flint Hills, in seemingly hopeless Manhattan (turns out it's actually a delightful town). Never mind that 800 program wins talk, K-State was the only program to ever lose 500 games when Snyder took over in 1989.

He went 1-10 that first year, but he talked of the potential for a turnaround, he kept working so many hours, he told his program that losing was not who they were. He even designed a new logo to symbolize the new chapter for K-State, that Purple Powercat logo now painted on barn roofs and limestone rocks and mailboxes and grain elevators all across rural Kansas.

Slowly, impossibly, Snyder lifted K-State. They rose past all the other Big 8 schools (starting in 1996, past the other Big 12 North schools) except for mighty Nebraska. People pointed to Snyder's soft nonconference schedules, saying it wasn't a true power program. Then came 1998. Nebraska had defeated the North's have-nots, Kansas State, Kansas, Iowa State and Missouri, every single year for 20 years. Every. Single. Year. The Big Red had won 29 straight vs. the Wildcats. Finally, Snyder and his group of have-nots stood up to the emperor. This year, with Tom Osborne retired, K-State beat the Huskers in Manhattan, a program legitimizing win. It was the defining win for the Wildcat program until a certain game in 2003. More on that in a minute. (Yes, I have to say, as a Nebraska fan, a ghastly missed facemask call dramatically aided K-State, but it was still the win for K-State athletics. Google "K-State Nebraska 1998 facemask" if you want to see the carnage.) Many programs point to their first win over Nebraska in however many million years as a defining win, but for no program is this more true than K-State in 1998.

The Wildcats finished that regular season undefeated and ranked No. 1. But in the Big 12 title game, on the brink of an incomprehensible berth in the national championship, the Wildcats broke down feet in front of the finish line tape, blowing a double-digit lead in the 4th quarter, losing in overtime.

From 1998 to 2004, the Wildcats challenged Nebraska for North supremacy, beating the Huskers five out of seven years. There was some chippiness. In 2003, Bo Pelini, then Nebraska's fiery defensive coordinator, went after Snyder after K-State won big in Lincoln, screaming that Snyder had ran up the score. That wide margin of defeat may have factored in Husker coach Frank Solich being fired at the end of the season. Then-AD Steve Pederson, now a reviled figure in the state, said when announcing Solich's firing, "I refuse to let this program gravitate toward mediocrity." He also said, "We will not surrender the Big 12 Conference to Oklahoma and Texas." His failure to mention or recognize K-State in that last statement rankled the folks in purple.

It seemed especially silly when K-State destroyed No. 1-ranked, supposedly invincible Oklahoma in the 2003 Big 12 title game. It was unthinkable as a watched it, but Darren Sproles kept shaking loose, Ell Roberson kept throwing touchdown passes, and the Wildcat defense beat the heck out of Jason White, the Sooners' gimpy Heisman-winning quarterback. It's become the Wildcats' calling card, going into to battles with a massive chip on their shoulder, punching the bully in the face, showing no fear in pulling improbable upsets. Even after Snyder retired, coach Ron Prince's K-State teams beat Texas back-to-back years. (While I've got you Googling, search "Ron Prince high step vs. Texas." Thank me later.)

The thing is, not only did Nebraska gravitate toward mediocrity after 2003, K-State did so as well. After the stunning Big 12 title in 2003, K-State has had exactly one winning season since. The slipping of these two programs did clear the way for the Missouri-Kansas Armageddon at Arrowhead game, but it also changed the Big 12 landscape.

But both seem to be coming back. Nebraska's surging status was outlined above, and Snyder returned from a three-year retirement last year to lead K-State to a 6-6 season. The Wildcats nearly won the North, with Snyder game-planning to perfection and outfoxing other coaches despite his outgunned team. Nebraska and K-State met last November to decide the North, like it was the late 90s all over again. The Huskers won, but K-State remains a wild card and may have the best coach in the nation.

Snyder is known for bamboozling opponents, as I saw at his original last game in 2005, when I saw his four-win team defeat Mizzou and Brad Smith in Manhattan before a purple-clad, rocking, electric crowd. He conjured up four straight home wins against the Huskers from 1998 to 2004.

But even still, the Huskers always seem to be the team Snyder and his Wildcats are chasing. His record against the Big Red (5-13, .278) is his worst record against any Big 12 school, no doubt hurt by the nine straight losses Tom Osborne's machine teams. Nebraska has won five straight against K-State, although three of those were against Ron Prince. (Snyder is a stout 49-19 against the other four Big 12 North schools since 1990.) Aside from those four straight K-State wins mentioned above, Nebraska is 34-3-2 all-time in Manhattan, and the Huskers lead the overall series 77-15-2, owing to the history of each program. Nebraska's famous statue outside its stadium is of an absurd six Nebraska defenders tackling a poor K-State running back.

And so, with Nebraska going to the Big Ten next year, this game has an even more nostalgic feel. This is one of three Husker trips to old Big Eight stadiums, and the others, trips to Stillwater and Ames, won't come close to moving the needle like Thursday night's game will for these programs. K-State rose up and provided Nebraska with a high-stakes rival to fill the void left by the breakup of the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry. The two programs offer intriguing contrasts, yet similarities in their rural natures and the single-minded devotion of their fans.

On Thursday night, Nebraska's fans, the Sea of Red, will one last time fill great portions of K-State's stadium, now named Bill Snyder Family Stadium. It will be Snyder's 71st birthday. One last time Snyder will try to gameplan to outduel his most challenging rival. K-State fans will rock to the Wabash Cannonball. With both team's defenses and running emphasis, the game on the field could be a bit unsightly. But the scene will be beautiful. One last time.

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