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There is only one school in the nation that has lost 500 games," says Bill Snyder, Kansas State's new football coach. "This is it, and I get to coach it. "Snyder smiles. Sort of. He is the fourth coach in five years to be given the opportunity, the previous three having been bloodied beyond recognition. Since World War II not one of K-State's 11 coaches has gone on to a better coaching job. "This has been a real career stopper," says the school's athletic director, Steve Miller.
Last November, when Miller hired Snyder away from Iowa, where he was the offensive coordinator, Miller told him, "Kansas State is flat on its back. You may have heard it's one of the toughest jobs in the country. It's not. It's the toughest." How tough? Well, not a single Wildcat was drafted this year by the NFL. When it comes to college football, nobody does it worse than Kansas State. After 93 years of trying to play the game, the Wildcats' record is 299-509-41, dead last among the 106 schools in Division I-A. Next worst is Wake Forest, which has won 308 games and lost 451 over six fewer years of trying. State has been looking for its 300th win since Oct. 18, 1986; the Wildcats have failed 27 straight times, the longest nonwinning streak in the land (they forged a 17-17 tie with Kansas in 1987). K-State publicist Kenny Mossman says, "We may not win many games but we are fun to watch." Actually, the word is funny.
For example, after State went 0-10-1 in 1987, then coach Stan Parrish promised, "I will not let it happen again. That wasn't me." It didn't, and it wasn't. In '88 the team was 0-11. The Wildcats' best 10-year stretch ever was 1905-14, when they went 56-27-3. Since World War II their most successful decade has been 1968-77; their record during that time was 38-70. Mindful of that, Snyder told his battered players soon after he arrived last winter at the Manhattan campus, "Any loss is not the end of the world. If it was, you guys would have been pushing up daisies with your toes a long time ago." Privately Snyder says, "These kids expect so little of themselves now. They came here hoping for so much, and they have gotten so little. That's bad, because if you don't succeed at what you think is important, then it becomes less important."
And so it is that, according to an NCAA statistical study for the period between 1946 and the present, Kansas State ranks last in the nation in scoring offense and last in scoring defense, and since 1954, last in total offense. Perhaps as a result, it is also last in the hearts of most of its students (in 1988 only 2,700 of an enrollment of 19,301 bought season tickets) and, worst of all, last in the minds of the Wildcats. "Maybe," says junior defensive back Danny Needham, "the desire has been lost."
With good reason. In the 44 years since World War II, Kansas State has had exactly four winning seasons; its only conference championship came in 1934, when it won what was then the Big Six. Says former linebacker Will Cokeley, who played for State from 1980 to '82, "The problem is, every time we think we are good, we remember we are Kansas State."
At which time the team folds up like a cheap paper fan. Last season, the Wildcats found themselves ahead of Louisiana Tech 28-7 at the half. They lost, 31-28. The week before, against Tulane, State was ahead 16-13 with 1:47 to play. But Tulane scored and won the game 20-16, thanks to successive penalties against Kansas State for: 1) having 12 men on the field, 2) a face-mask violation and 3) pass interference.
The worst moment in K-State's woeful football history came on Oct. 29, 1966. The Wildcats were ahead of heavily favored Kansas 3-0 and had the ball on first down on their own 32-yard line with only 1:38 remaining in the game. A lock. Two plays gained six yards, and a delay of game penalty left the Cats with third and nine, at which point quarterback Bill Nossek fumbled. Kansas recovered on the State 30. With four seconds left, Jayhawk Thermus Butler—who had never kicked a college field goal—booted a 38-yarder to tie the game. After the season, both State coach Doug Weaver and Kansas coach Jack Mitchell were fired. Butler lives in K-State infamy.
Of course, it was also humiliating in 1987 to lose to Oklahoma 59-10, to Nebraska the next week 56-3, and to Oklahoma State the third week 56-7. The games were not as close as the scores might indicate. Worse was the 26-22 loss to Division I-AA Austin Peay in the opener of the '87 season. After that game, Parrish said. "I came to the realization that we're not very good." What Kansas State dreams about is a year like 1969. That season the Wildcats were 5-5, and Lynn Dickey, the biggest State star ever, played quarterback.
Asked how so much misfortune could have befallen one school, Miller says, "I hate to think it has been 93 years of bad luck." Actually, it has taken some real doing at K-State to be so awful. Vince Gibson, who coached the Cats from 1967 to '74 and is now in the sports travel business in New Orleans, says, "They have no players, and they have no money. Still, I have such good memories of being at K-State—and I'm so glad I'm not still there. I tell you, every day there is a catastrophe." There are those who say the problem is that State is the smallest school in the Big Eight; those same people do not point out that Oklahoma is the second-smallest. The real reasons for the woeful Wildcats:
•Timing. When World War II ended, almost all the schools now playing at the I-A level plunged into football in a white heat. K-State did not. "We just never got started, while everybody else was expanding." says Dev Nelson, the radio voice of the Wildcats from 1954 to '79. "Suddenly it was too late to catch up." From 1946 through '52, Kansas State was 5-63-1, the worst streak in its miserable history.