In the days preceding the Great Event, coach Bill Snyder struck a deal with himself. Even though he wasn't nuts about the formation of the new Big 12 Conference, he had agreed last spring to have his Kansas State team host Texas Tech in the league's first football game—a risk of no small proportion since the Wildcats would otherwise have opened their season a week later against harmless Indiana State and since the inaugural game would be accompanied by all sorts of distracting hoopla. But Snyder made a promise not to evaluate this experiment until it was finished.
So there he sat in his office last Saturday evening, overlooking KSU Stadium from the north end zone as darkness swallowed the field. Snyder was ready with his evaluation: He didn't like the pregame ceremony at all. Not the sky divers or the funky daytime fireworks. Nor did he like the new Jumbotron video screen that was also making its debut. No, sir, not one little bit. "We're Manhattan, Kansas, right in the middle of the country," Snyder said. "That big scoreboard, the fireworks, that's not us." He didn't even like the multicolored balloons that were released before the opening kickoff, "although I appreciate that somebody must make a living selling them."
The occasion was more than a festival. It was also a beginning. The Big 12 was conceived in February 1994 and steered into existence through backroom political brawls between members of the two conferences that formed it. But it was truly born only last Saturday afternoon, when a dull, ugly game turned emotional and riveting in the closing minutes and when, with 38 seconds left, a free safety from the old Big Eight and a wide receiver from the old Southwest Conference collided three yards from the goal line, leaving a football on the plastic grass, Kansas State in possession of a 21-14 victory and a new league drawing breath, full of life and promise.
As Snyder sat in his office, his 54-year-old face was wrinkled by a small grin that fought through his stubbornness. This game, he was asked, was a good idea, was it not? The grin became a smile. The smile became a laugh. "I'm 51 percent certain," said Snyder, "that it was a good idea."
Kansas State and Texas Tech represent many of the ongoing differences in the Big 12. Not only is one of them (Tech) from the Southwest Conference and one ( K-State) from the Big Eight, but also one sees the new superconference as a savior, and the other considers it an obstacle. With the gradual death of the Southwest Conference, the Red Raiders were on the verge of being orphaned before the Big Eight added them, along with Baylor, Texas and Texas A&M to form the Big 12. The Wildcats, meanwhile, had risen from the bottom of college football and made a warm home for themselves in the upper echelon of the Big Eight, thanks to Snyder's seven years of tireless work and prudent nonleague scheduling. In recent seasons Kansas State had beaten every conference opponent except—big except—Colorado and Nebraska. The creation of the Big 12, which instantly became the strongest football league in the country, threatened to stunt the Wildcats' growth.
The difference in the two schools' views of the new conference was plain. As the Red Raiders jogged through a light Friday practice in Manhattan, Tech's new chancellor, 53-year-old former Texas state senator John T. Montford, punted hanging spirals to the Red Raiders' interim athletic director, former Tech basketball coach Gerald Myers. "This weekend is a little bit of history," said Montford as he changed from Nikes to wing tips. "It's a great opportunity for Texas Tech University." Before Friday's practice, Spike Dykes, the Raiders' famously quotable coach (who had triple-bypass surgery on May 31 and has lost 50 pounds in the last year), said of the game, "It's a strange deal. We're not used to opening the season with a conference game, we're not used to playing Kansas State, and we're not used to traveling north to play anybody. Of course, it's only 436 miles. I'm from West Texas. I drive 250 miles to eat lunch."
Actually Dykes has always scheduled tough early games, some of them in the north. Last year Tech lost its opener at Penn State on a last-second field goal. In the second week of the 1994 season the Raiders fell to Nebraska. It was Dykes who agreed to go to Manhattan after Snyder refused to open the season at Texas A&M.
In a perfect world Snyder would not be in the Big 12 at all. While he acknowledged last Thursday that the Big 12 will be a "great conference," he then explained how it can only hurt his growing—but fragile—program: "I believe the national perception is that Kansas State was an upper division team in the Big Eight. That means we got a bowl game, year in and year out, which is very important for us, for Manhattan and for the state of Kansas. The perception now is that we're a bubble team in the Big 12, which means we might get a bowl opportunity and we might not. That has a tremendous effect on us." Like Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, Snyder dislikes playing eight conference games, instead of the seven required in the Big Eight, and the conference title game—because it makes the road to a major bowl bid or the national championship tougher.
Thus Snyder dragged himself and his Wildcats into Saturday's game as grudging participants in the spectacle. Or the debacle. For much of the game it was difficult to discern which was the better description. In most measurable ways Texas Tech pounded Kansas State: 27 first downs to 10, 392 total yards to 160 and, most remarkable, 193 rushing yards to minus-12. Yet after Wildcats free safety Mario Smith recovered a wild punt snap in the end zone for a touchdown with 12:51 left in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats led 21-3.
The Red Raiders' only score had been a 53-yard first-quarter field goal by Tony Rogers, who had missed three other tries and had a fourth attempt blocked. But as the game entered its final minutes, Texas Tech drove 80 yards for its first touchdown and was successful on a two-point conversion. The Red Raiders quickly got the ball back and, with 2:26 remaining, pulled to 21-14 on a 53-yard field goal by another kicker, Jaret Greaser.