An 11-win season is difficult for any college football team to accomplish. All the intangibles that go into each game during the season can break a team down and make it fall just short of that accomplishment. With the amount of parity in college football today, even one 11-win season is rare, which makes Kansas State’s magical run from 1997 to 2003 with six 11-win seasons even more incredible. The Wildcats were just the second team in college football history to accomplish this feat. K-State went to bowl games all seven years during that span, won its first conference championship since 1934 and received its first Bowl Championship Series (BCS) bowl invitation. Not surprisingly, many of the stars of those teams went on to have successful careers in the National Football League, while those and many others will live in the memory of every Kansas State fan.
The run began in 1997 as the Wildcats went 11-1, including a 7-1 mark in conference play. Starting the season with a preseason rank of 21st, K-State outplayed its ranking, working its way up to No. 9 to finish the regular season. Although K-State fell short of the Big 12 Championship, it did earn the school’s first “Alliance Bowl” bid, playing in the Fiesta Bowl against No. 14 Syracuse. Kansas State defeated the Orangemen and future NFL superstar quarterback Donavan McNabb, 35-18, putting Kansas State on the college football map. Darnell McDonald, K-State’s leading receiver, collected nearly half of his 441 yards on the season in the Fiesta Bowl, setting the school record for receiving yards in a game with 206. Kansas State finished the 1997 season ranked No. 8 with its convincing win over Syracuse and set itself up for a big 1998 season.
The 1997 squad saw many highs during the season, defeating a pair of 14th-ranked opponents in Syracuse and Texas A&M. The squad placed five on the All-Big 12 First Team, headlined by linebacker Jeff Kelly and placekicker Martin Gramatica. Quarterback Michael Bishop was named the Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year, while Kelly earned Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year accolades.
Although both Bishop and Kelly were named the team’s Offensive and Defensive Most Valuable Players, another candidate for team MVP honors could have easily been Gramatica. The Buenos Aires, Argentina, native, set the school record for highest field goal percentage in a season at 95 percent (19-of-20), including a long of 55 yards, en route to being named a consensus first-team all-American and the Lou Groza Award winner.
With only one player leaving the program via the NFL Draft following the 1997 season, many impact players from the year prior returned for the 1998 slate. The Wildcats had high expectations heading into 1998, and for the most part didn’t disappoint. K-State was a preseason rank of No. 6, and went on to complete the regular season with an unblemished 11-0 record, the first undefeated regular season in school history. Kansas State ran through the regular season schedule and they defeated three ranked opponents, including a 40-30 win over No. 11 Nebraska. The victory over the Huskers was the first against Nebraska since 1968. The 8-0 conference mark was tops in the Big 12 North Division and punched Kansas State’s ticket to the school’s first conference championship appearance. In the process, the Wildcats ripped off 19 consecutive wins between Oct. 11, 1997 and Nov. 21, 1998, the most consecutive wins in school history. Furthermore, K-State received its first No. 1 ranking in school history from the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll from Nov. 8 to Nov. 29 of the 1998 season.
However, Kansas State lost a heartbreaking double-overtime game against Texas A&M in the Big 12 Championship game, dropping the Cats from national title contention to an Alamo Bowl loss to finish the season at 11-2.
Even though the season ended sour for the Wildcats, they still achieved many feats along the way, especially return man David Allen. Allen had a broke three NCAA records, including: most return yards in a season (730), most consecutive games with a touchdown return (3), and most return touchdowns in a season (4). In the process, Allen was named a consensus first-team all-American.
K-State had 10 players named first-team All-Big 12, including Jeff Kelly, who was named the 1998 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, along with being the runner-up for the Bronko Nagurski Award and a semifinalist for the Butkus Award. Quarterback Michael Bishop was the runner-up for the coveted Heisman Trophy, the highest finish by a Wildcat for the Heisman history. To top off the awards, head coach Bill Snyder was awarded his third national-coach-of-the-year honors from five different organizations, including the Associated Press and the Walter Camp Foundation. NFL scouts also thought highly of K-State’s senior class, drafting six players off the 1998 squad, tied for the most in a single season.
The Wildcats quickly got things headed back in the right direction in 1999. With a preseason rank of No. 17, the Wildcats ripped off nine straight wins to begin the season, including a victory at No. 15 Texas, and climbed up to No. 5 in the rankings before a loss at No. 7 Nebraska. K-State, though, quickly bounced back the next week and promptly thumped Missouri 66-0 in the regular season finale. Kansas State finished Big 12 play 7-1 and Big 12 North Co-Champions, but the lone loss to Nebraska proved costly as the Huskers went on to become the north’s representative in the Big 12 Championship.
Following the regular season finale, Kansas State turned its attention to the University of Washington and the Holiday Bowl, the Wildcats’ seventh-straight bowl game and eighth in school history. The No. 7 Wildcats won in come-from-behind fashion to defeat the Huskies, 24-20, for the fourth bowl victory in program history.
Awards filed in for another year as linebacker and leading tackler Mark Simoneau was named a consensus first-team All-American, as well the Big 12 Conference Defensive Player of the Year. He was a semifinalist for the Football News National Defensive Player of the Year and the runner-up for the Butkus Award. Placekicker Jamie Rheem also earned a runner-up finish for the Groza Award. The Wildcats placed seven on the all-conference first team and tallied five NFL draft picks, including second-round pick Darren Howard to the New Orleans Saints.
By the 2000 season, success on this level had almost become expected and K-State produced more of the same. The Wildcats started the season on a six-game win streak, including a 76-0 thrashing of Ball State for the most points ever scored in a game by K-State. A preseason rank of No. 8, Kansas State worked its way up to No. 2 in the country before a 41-31 home loss to Oklahoma, and stumbled again two weeks later at Texas A&M. However, the Wildcats regrouped and finished the season on a three-game winning streak, which included a 29-28 gut-wrenching home victory that finished in a heavy snowstorm against No. 4 Nebraska. The Wildcats turned around a week later and secured a four-point victory at Missouri to claim a share of the Big 12 North. With its victories over Nebraska and Missouri to end the season, the Wildcats deservingly played their way into the Big 12 Championship game. However, Kansas State lost by the same three-point margin as it did in its first conference championship appearance, falling for a second time that season to eventual national champion Oklahoma, 27-24.
Although the Wildcats came up just a field goal short in the conference championship, they had revenge on their minds as they traveled to Dallas, Texas, to take part in the Cotton Bowl, a bowl the Wildcats lost in 1995 to BYU. The No. 11 Wildcats out-battled No. 21 Tennessee all day as K-State took home its second-consecutive bowl victory with a 35-21 win.
For the second-consecutive year, placekicker Jamie Rheem was the runner-up for the Groza Award, while also earning first-team All-America honors from various organizations. Mario Fatafehi and Quincy Morgan were also on many organization’s first team All-America lists. K-State placed seven players on the first team All-Big 12 list and claimed the conference Defensive Newcomer of the Year in Derrick Yates and the conference Defensive Freshman of the Year in Terry Pierce.
Quarterback Jonathan Beasley set the school record for touchdowns in a game with five against North Texas and Morgan hauled in 14 receiving touchdowns during the year. Morgan also headlined K-State’s draft class following the 2000 season and was taken in the second round by the Cleveland Browns. Tight end Shad Meier was also a first-day selection, taken in the third round by the Tennessee Titans.
The 2001 season could be coined by only one term: rebuilding process. Kansas State started sophomore quarterback Ell Roberson in hopes that youth could serve well for the season. However, it turned out that he played more for experience than anything else. The Wildcats started out the season with a preseason rank of No. 12 and moved up to No. 11 after starting 2-0, including a 10-6 victory at Southern California. But four straight losses knocked K-State out of the rankings and Big 12 North contention as they finished the regular season 6-5. And although the Wildcats had its lowest win total since 1992, they were still able to advance to its ninth-consecutive bowl, playing in the Insight.com Bowl in Phoenix, Ariz.
Junior Terence Newman, who led the team with 16 pass breakups and also hauled in three interceptions, was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award following the season. Kansas State also had another six players selected in the draft the following April, headlined by the New York Jets’ second-round pick of Jon McGraw.
As difficult as the 2001 season might have been, 2002 brought sweet redemption. The Wildcats started the season unranked for the first time since 1995, but ran by non-conference foes Western Kentucky, Louisiana-Monroe and Eastern Illinois by a combined total of 179-16. Kansas State cracked into the top-25, holding a ranking of No. 25 just in time for a week-four showdown at home against No. 11 Southern California before a national television audience. The Wildcats won in thrilling fashion, 27-20, opening the nation’s eyes to junior quarterback Ell Roberson and sophomore running back Darren Sproles. The next week, K-State jumped from No. 25 to No. 13, but two losses in the next three games, which included a 35-31 heartbreaking loss at Colorado, dropped the Cats back to No. 20. The squad regrouped, finishing the regular season with five-straight wins, including a 58-7 thrashing of No. 21 Iowa State on homecoming. But the loss at Colorado proved costly as the Buffaloes were crowned North Division Champions and earned a trip to the Big 12 Championship game.
Needing a statement win to finish out the 2002 slate, the No. 6 Wildcats went back to the Holiday Bowl for the third time in the program’s history. Tied at 27 with 1:15 left to play, Roberson fired a touchdown strike to receiver Derrick Evans to propel the Wildcats to a 34-27 victory over Arizona State, a win that would set the stage for the Wildcats’ magical 2003 season.
Senior Terence Newman was a consensus all-American and avenged his semifinalist finish in the Thorpe Award voting from the year before by winning the award in 2002. He was also a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Award and was named the Big 12 Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Furthermore, the Wildcats had four first-team all-conference selections and had four players drafted to the NFL, none higher than Newman. With the fifth overall selection, the Dallas Cowboys drafted the talented cornerback and return man as Newman became the second-highest Wildcat ever selected in the draft.
The 2002 season was filled with broken records, especially on the ground. The run-oriented Wildcats broke the school record for team rushing yards with 3,443 and touchdowns with 53. Roberson also registered the most rushing yards by a quarterback in a game with 228 against Nebraska and Sproles reached the 100-yard plateau on 10 occasions, also a school record. As good as the Wildcats’ rushing attack was, they were equally as good at stopping the opponents rushing game. They allowed a school record -37 yards rushing against Baylor and also set the record for fewest rushing yards allowed per game with 69.5. The secondary was full of ballhawks who not only picked off passes, but retuned them for points. The 2002 secondary returned five interceptions for touchdowns, including two against Iowa State, both school records.
Kansas State’s impressive seven-year stretch culminated in 2003, considered the best season of football in school history. The road map for the 2003 season may have turned out a little different than the Wildcats originally envisioned, but in the minds of K-State's players and staff, the destination was always the same Kansas City for the Big 12 Championship game and the program's first BCS berth. Ranked in the top seven of both polls to open the year, most preseason prognosticators projected the Wildcats to arrive at the 2003 Big 12 Championship Game via a smoothly-paved interstate. However, K-State ran into unexpected road blocks along the way and was forced to travel a route more akin to a pot hole-riddled country back road than modern superhighway.
After a 4-0 start, K-State was saddled with three consecutive losses all by a touchdown or less, including a pair of four-point setbacks to open Big 12 play. Kansas State hit the season's midpoint in a position few thought it could recover from at 4-3 overall and winless in the conference at 0-2. But the Wildcats showed a steady resolve and a never-give-up attitude down the stretch. And thanks to a six-game regular-season ending winning streak, which included the program’s first win at Nebraska since 1968, Kansas State arrived in Kansas City as the Big 12 North Division Champion ready to make history after having successfully maneuvered through a steady succession of detours along the road to the championship game.
Once there, Kansas State didn't just make history in the Big 12 Championship game, it effectively shocked the college football universe, steam-rolling a No. 1-ranked Oklahoma Sooner squad many were calling one of the best teams of all time. So impressive were the Sooners, that many had already penciled them in as the 2003 National Champion.
But on the evening of Dec. 6, 2003 in Arrowhead Stadium, it was Bill Snyder's Wildcats that looked like the best team in college football as K-State dismantled Oklahoma, 35-7. The victory gave Kansas State its first Big 12 championship and first conference crown of any kind in football since Pappy Waldorf led the Wildcats to a Big Six Conference crown in 1934.
And though K-State's heart-pounding rally from 21 points down vs. No. 7 Ohio State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl would come up seven points short, the loss would not be enough to overshadow the number of other historic feats accomplished by the Wildcats on the road to their first conference title in 69 years.
Kansas State’s versatile offense was spotlighted by its star running back Darren Sproles. Not only was he vital to the team’s success during the storied year, but he also broke records that likely won’t be touched for years. Sproles set the single-season rushing mark at 1,986, as well as the single-game rushing mark of 273 against Missouri, a record he would reset during his senior year. Furthermore, the versatile running back/kick returner claimed the record for most all-purpose yardage in a season with 2,735. A native of Olathe, Kan., Sproles was fifth in Heisman Trophy voting, third for the Associated Press Player of the Year Award and the runner-up for the Doak Walker Award.
During the incredible seven-year run, Kansas State had a combined record of 72-19 (.791) and a conference record of 43-14 (.754). The program produced four consensus All-Americans, placed 37 on the Big 12’s first team all-conference list, produced 30 NFL draft picks and recorded a 4-3 bowl record, which included two January bowls.
Kansas State achieved more in just seven short years than most schools have in decades. The players from that era who made an impact during their tenures raised the bar for Kansas State football for years to come and turned one of the dormant programs in collegiate football a powerhouse.