SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — By the time Travis Tannahill was a senior, he figured out the secret to winning football games at Kansas State.
The harder you get Bill Snyder to laugh during the first morning meeting of training camp, the more games you win.
“Our little tradition is shaving the freshmen’s heads when they get here,” said Tannahill, a tight end. “It got a little out of control. We do it the first night and show up the next morning with some terrible, terrible haircuts. It is always funny to see Coach Snyder’s face the next morning when he sees some ridiculous-looking freshmen out there.”
They were more outlandish than ever last August. Some players showed up without eyebrows. Some looked like friars. Some were bald. And some had words running down the back of their heads.
True to form, K-State had one of its best seasons. The No. 7 Wildcats won 11 games, claimed its first Big 12 championship since 2003 and will take on No. 5 Oregon on Thursday in the Fiesta Bowl.
“The rituals we started made camp fun,” senior receiver Chris Harper said. “Even though camp sucks and we went in from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. it was fun, because that’s the time you get to spend with everybody. You get to know about the young guys. That was the best time.”
The good times continued on the field, and for that reason Tannahill and Harper will be remembered as members of the most successful senior class of Snyder’s second stint at K-State.
The Wildcats were rebuilding when they arrived on campus. They hadn’t qualified for a bowl game since 2006 and they hadn’t posted a winning conference record since 2003. But then players such as Collin Klein and Braden Wilson and Tannahill arrived, and they helped K-State come within one victory of winning the Big 12 North in Snyder’s first year back.
Then Harper transferred in from Oregon and K-State qualified for the Pinstripe Bowl.
Then Arthur Brown transferred in from Miami, along with promising junior-college players such as Nigel Malone, Justin Tuggle and Meshak Williams. By the time their junior years rolled along, they were part of a diverse 26-man class.
They came to Manhattan from different parts of the country and at different times. But with the help of training-camp rituals and a desire to win, they became a family.
Just like that, K-State won 10 games and played in the Cotton Bowl last season.
“The guys before us were so serious on the field. It wasn’t even fun for them,” Harper said. “Those guys didn’t know how to win. They had always been on losing teams. That’s different now.
“We know how to win. We’ve done it now consistently. Guys are out there now playing, knowing what they’re doing and having fun. That’s the big thing about this class. It set the standard of winning and how to do it, having a balance out there on the field. You don’t have to be that serious guy on the field. You can be who you are and still play with ferocity.”
That swagger, combined with a large group of returning starters, set the scene for what happened this season. The diverse group of 26 seniors came together and experienced new levels of success. If K-State wins the Fiesta Bowl, it will become the first team in program history to win 12 games.
“It wasn’t an easy task,” sophomore center B.J. Finney said. “These guys went through a coaching change, which is extremely hard. They just showed their toughness and determination, which is what makes K-State football K-State football right now. To get this program back and turned in the right direction, it’s going is commendable.”
Klein and Brown led the way. Klein, a once-unheralded recruit out of Loveland, Colo., established himself as one of the top quarterbacks in K-State history and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. Brown, once a highly-touted recruit out of Wichita turned struggling defender at Miami, matured on and off the field and won All-American honors by several publications.
“It’s been great to spend so much time with teammates and family,” Klein said. “It’s been a great journey.”
“This will always be home for me,” Brown added. “I’ve had a great experience.”
Harper, Williams, Wilson and Tannahill took on leadership roles, too, and now have shots at NFL careers.
Together, they improved on the field and set an example off it. Most of K-State’s seniors regularly volunteer around Manhattan.
“They have really hit the core values of our program,” co-offensive coordinator Dana Dimel said. “They really care about each other and believe in each other and molded together. There is a lot of diversity, but they build a lot of camaraderie from working so hard together. What is so great about our program is that when we bring in junior-college players and transfers, there is already such great leadership on the team. Those guys come in and they follow that leadership. That’s why we are successful.”
Though it will be difficult for Snyder to say goodbye to this group, he is at peace knowing the Fiesta Bowl will be their final game together. They have laid a foundation for future success.
“You hate to see young people go, but you want to see them go,” Snyder said. “It’s their time to take that next step in life.”
Their first steps toward success can be traced back to goofy haircuts.
Most young players went along with the ritual this season, and showed up the next morning ready to make Snyder chuckle. But one player wouldn’t cooperate.
In past years, the veterans on the roster might have allowed him to escape with his hair untouched. But not this time. Not with this group of seniors entering its final season.
“He was putting up a fight, just throwing people around and being really stubborn, so we swooped in and held him down,” Wilson said. “He eventually gave in. That was so funny. We are a pretty tight-knit group here. Everything we have done together just brought us closer. I love this team. I’m just happy I was fortunate enough to be a part of it.”