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The Manhattan Miracle

In Kansas State's Fairy-Tale Season, the Story Seems More Evil Stepmother Than Cinderella

November 13, 1998|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANHATTAN, Kan. — The newspaper headline was man-bites-dog shocking:

"Snyder Warns Not To Take NU Lightly," Wednesday's Manhattan Mercury reported.

Not take NU lightly?

Kansas State has lost 29 consecutive games to Nebraska since 1968.

Until the Wildcats defeated Iowa State at the end of the 1996 season, Kansas State had the worst winning percentage in the history of major college football.

In fact, the Wildcats, who have played football for 103 years, would have to win every game from now until 2012 to get up to .500.

Ten seasons ago, the Wildcats finished 0-11.

Not take NU lightly?

Has "the Little Apple" gone bonkers?

At Ballard's Sporting Goods store on Moro Street in Manhattan's Aggieville district, T-shirts are already on sale adorned with this Saturday's final score: Kansas State 38, Nebraska 17.

"That's my guess," Steve Ballard, the store's owner and a life-long Kansas State fan, said.

Ballard also has purple shirts plastered with this week's ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll, which elevated Kansas State to its first No. 1 ranking--the Wildcats technically share the top spot with Tennessee.

And Ballard's is surely the only storefront in America that has the bowl championship series standings photographically enlarged and pasted on its window.

Ballard, in fact, is hopping mad that 9-2 Nebraska, winner of three national titles in the last four years, will not start the game undefeated against 9-0 Kansas State.

"They've screwed us up," Ballard said of the Cornhuskers. "This was going to be our big proving game and they go and lose a couple."

Saturday's game against Nebraska is, no debate required, the biggest football gamein Kansas State history.

This is payback for a century of punishing pain--Nebraska maintains a comfortable 70-10-2 series advantage--and the final obstacle in completing Kansas State's remarkable comeback from having been football comatose.

Defeat is not considered an option.

"The downside of this game is horrendous," Ballard admitted.

At a nearby restaurant, two Kansas State seniors were asked to contemplate the worst.

"If we lose to Nebraska, they might cancel classes Monday," Sam Felsenfeld said. "People would be so depressed."

Scott Fritchen, sipping a beer, said the atmosphere would be "deep and dark" and a "detriment to the community."

Kansas State fans started counting down toward Nov. 14 hours after last December's Fiesta Bowl win.

Strangely, though, there is something amiss about this heartland tale:

Heart.

Kansas State's rise from the college football scrap heap might be the story of the decade if it were not so sterile and joyless.

In 1995, the nation embraced longtime loser Northwestern as those Wildcats made a magical run to the Rose Bowl.

Yet, few outside Kansas City proper have offered Kansas State so much as a hug for this sequel to the color purple.

The reason: Coach Bill Snyder is not what you would call the huggable type. He has rebuilt this engine with a robotic, assembly-line precision, a compulsive attention to detail and an almost utter disdain for outside input.

Having Any Fun?

Kansas State may be the most secretive Manhattan project since Dr. Oppenheimer's.

The Wildcats' practice field is secured by a fence topped with barbed wire. You can get more face time with the pope than some Kansas State players.

Michael Bishop, the school's wonderfully gifted senior quarterback, has not been allowed to speak with reporters since the Colorado game Oct. 10.

Snyder's decision, for reasons not satisfactorily explained, has mortally wounded Bishop's Heisman Trophy chances.

Because of Manhattan's stark isolation in the fields 120 miles west of Kansas City, Snyder is able to dictate policy and control the local media.

Snyder issues injury reports only at gunpoint. In 1996, starting tailback Eric Hickson broke his leg in a preseason scrimmage before thousands of spectators, yet Snyder refused to acknowledge to reporters the next day that Hickson was out for the season.

Snyder's talents cannot be understated. At 59, he is a tireless workaholic who eats one meal a day, usually at 1 a.m., so as to not interfere with his football workload.

Snyder has no hobbies and does not take vacations.

"Maybe I ought to encourage him to get away more," Kansas State Athletic Director Max Urick said.

Snyder once asked a psychiatrist if it was possible to go without sleep.

He is such a stickler for detail that, before last year's Fiesta Bowl, Snyder demanded a map of Tempe so he could track the fastest route to practice.

On a Kansas State football trip to Japan, Snyder, apparently unfamiliar with window shades, had his players seated on the side of the plane facing away from the sun on the inbound and outbound legs.

His interviews with reporters are painstakingly and purposefully boring. Every game is a big game to Snyder, Indiana State no less important than Nebraska.

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