MANHATTAN — The term “starting over” means different things to different people.
Some might say it about the Kansas State football team. Just look at the key players they lost: Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Collin Klein, All-Big 12 linebacker Arthur Brown, top receiver Chris Harper and all but two defensive starters.
Others will look past the absence of that large, talented senior class, which won 11 games and a Big 12 championship last season, to see a promising crop of returning players. Sure, using unproven names at key positions will be challenging, but that doesn’t mean K-State is starting over.
K-State coach Bill Snyder has his own view.
“I don’t think we will ever get to that point,” he says.
When Snyder hears “starting over,” he thinks back to 1989, the year he arrived in Manhattan. The Wildcats weren’t just bad back then, they were awful. They had won three of their previous 41 games and had played in one bowl. The program needed a complete overhaul.
K-State has been to 15 bowl games and won two Big 12 championships since. So when you ask Snyder about starting over, he is hesitant to mention the challenge K-State will face this season.
“It depends on what you mean by starting over,” Snyder says. “Do you mean starting over like in 1989? No, it’s not like that. That being said, every season the dynamics of every program in the country is different. Maybe it’s more noticeable where we are losing nine starters on defense and fine youngsters like Collin Klein, Chris Harper, Travis Tannahill and Braden Wilson on offense, but it’s not starting over.
“It’s just doing the best you possibly can with what you have access to and hoping the people in your program have done what you hoped they’d do when they weren’t the starters and try to help them become better. If, indeed, they have done that, we will have a chance to move on to the next group of young guys. In some ways, you start over every year. Yet, it’s not like starting over when we first got here.”
A more appropriate comparison lies in the more recent past.
Though Snyder will likely never again face a rebuilding project like the one he took on as a rookie head coach, he has plenty of practice replacing valuable players from successful teams. Michael Bishop, Darren Sproles, Terence Newman and Mark Simoneau all played in big bowl games and seemed irreplaceable, but K-State moved on without them.
In college football, turnover is inevitable. Snyder has handled that change well, for the most part, but there are a few seasons he would like to have back.
A good experience came in 1999, the year after Bishop nearly guided the Wildcats to an appearance in national championship game. Snyder replaced Bishop with Jonathan Beasley at quarterback, and there was zero drop-off. K-State won 11 games in back-to-back years after Bishop.
Moving on from Beasley, and the stout defenses K-State enjoyed for years, proved more difficult. In 2001, K-State opened the year ranked No. 12, but limped to a 6-6 record with Marc Dunn and Ell Roberson splitting quarterback duties. Opponents also scored on K-State easily. After years of rarely, if ever, allowing more than 30 points, four teams hit the 30-point mark that season.
Those memories still seem fresh in the minds of Snyder and his coaching staff.
“We are trying to learn from the past,” says co-offensive coordinator Dana Dimel. “We spend a lot of time talking about history. Obviously, you have just won a Big 12 championship. You are guarded against coming out flat. Everyone is wondering what you are going to do next year. Obviously, we lost a lot of guys so the expectations aren’t that high, but we all have expectations.
“Just because we won last year doesn’t guarantee we will win this year. What happened in 1999, 2003 and even what happened in 1990 when we first went from winning one to 5-6, you have to look back and hit on all those things.”
The year that sticks out most: 2004. After going 6-6 in 2001, K-State reeled off two 11-win seasons behind Roberson and running back Darren Sproles. Their peak came in 2003, when they upset No. 1 Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game.
With Sproles returning, the Wildcats were expected to keep that momentum going, and opened the season ranked No. 12. But things went horribly wrong. K-State’s offense declined by more than 2,600 yards with Dylan Meier and Allen Webb at quarterback, and the defense allowed 30.6 points. K-State finished 4-7.
A year later, K-State managed five wins and Snyder decided to retire before coming back in 2009.
“We mention that a bunch,” Dimel says. “It’s just a natural conversation. It’s just kind of in the air. That’s what you want to avoid. The last time we won a Big 12 championship, we came back and had not only one bad season but two bad seasons in a row. That’s what we are really guarded against.”
K-State defensive ends coach Blake Seiler played for the Wildcats from 2003-06, and regrets everything that went wrong after his freshman year.
He still thinks about it, more often than you might think. His mind can’t help but drift back, given all the similarities he sees to this season. K-State had just won a Big 12 championship, it was breaking in a new quarterback and it was re-tooling on defense. Hopes were high for a repeat performance, but it never happened.
“There was a lot that went wrong that season,” Seiler says. “There were a ton of injuries, just devastating injuries. I think, at the end of the day, we had had so much success for 10, 11 years that maybe we got away from how things worked at the beginning.”
So for him, starting over doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.
Seiler has advised his players to try and do exactly that.
“I talked to the team about that the other night,” Seiler said. “The scenario is so similar. We were coming off great years, we were Big 12 champions, we missed a lot of key players but we also had a lot of key talent and players returning. It’s all about how you handle the transition.
“You go through the offseason and everyone is patting you on the back, telling you how good you are. I was talking to the guys about what happened in 2004 and how we didn’t want that to happen to us. You’ve just got to put that behind you and start from scratch every year.”
So far, players seem to be embracing that idea.
“A team’s dynamics change all the time, you just have to be ready for that,” senior safety Ty Zimmerman says. “Throughout the offseason we have done a great job of bringing the young guys along and preparing. We miss having those seniors around, but we aren’t down about it. We look at it as a chance to find our own identity. “
Snyder has helped the transition by preaching his philosophy of “going 1-0.” He tells his players what happened in past seasons or past games has no impact on the next game. He challenges his players to enter each week as if their record was 0-0. The goal is to improve to 1-0 by Saturday and reset the process on Monday.
K-State players have lived that routine for years. They don’t plan on changing it, even though many of them are starting over with new and different responsibilities.
“No matter who is gone, we always have great pieces to the puzzle and people who have helped us along the way,” says senior linebacker Tre Walker. “Coach Snyder has always done a great job of keeping things consistent. We might tweak a few things here or there on the field, but the mindset never changes.”