All week, Kansas and Kansas State players and coaches downplayed the magnitude of today's game at Snyder Family Stadium. But for evidence that the Sunflower Showdown is indeed important for gauging where each program is headed, it would be wise to remember the aftermath of last season's game:
The Jayhawks pounded the Wildcats 52-21 in Lawrence for their third straight victory over K-State, and KU players said things like "I think the tide has finally turned in favor of Kansas." A few days later, K-State athletic director Bob Krause fired coach Ron Prince, who was 0-3 against KU. Krause couldn't deny that the beating at the hands of the Jayhawks was the backbreaker for the Prince regime.
"That certainly was a factor, yeah," Krause said then.
KU owned the state, and there was no reason to believe that would change anytime soon. Sure, the Jayhawks were going to lose their greatest allies in the rivalry — Prince was out, which likely meant that turnover-prone quarterback Josh Freeman would leave early for the NFL — but whoever K-State hired as its new coach would have to totally rebuild the foundation. Knowing that, Krause did the only thing he knew to do: He hired the old coach.
And since that day, when Snyder reassumed command, the tectonic plates underneath the state's football landscape have been shifting — slowly at first, and then quickly beginning around Oct. 17. On that night, Colorado upset Kansas in Boulder, and Kansas State pummeled Texas A&M in Manhattan. Today, the Wildcats lead the Big 12 North with a 3-2 record, and the Jayhawks are trailing at 1-3.
One of the only people not shocked by this is probably KU coach Mark Mangino, who coached under Snyder at K-State for eight seasons. Mangino quickly pinpointed the difference Snyder has made in less than a year.
"They are certainly a much more sound, fundamental football team," Mangino said.
In other words, Mangino can only assume there will be no more freebies. Freeman, Prince's handpicked quarterback, turned the ball over to KU 13 times in three games.
"They're back to playing basic principle football," Mangino said. "They are not real flashy. They don't make a lot of changes. Their philosophy on offense is you don't run a play unless you can block everybody, or you get out of it. You don't say, 'Well, the running back will make one guy miss.' (Snyder) doesn't believe in that. Neither do I. They don't leave anything to chance. Everything is carefully choreographed and detailed."
That attention to detail Mangino learned in Manhattan has helped both sides make a run in the rivalry. K-State won 11 in a row from 1993-2003, and now KU has won four of the last five. Certainly, the current setting is not lost on the Wildcats.
"I grew up a K-State fan, and I was coming here no matter what," K-State center Wade Weibert said. "It hurt to see the program the way it's been. We go to work every day and work hard trying to get it back to where it was."
K-State safety Tysyn Hartman, from Wichita, said: "When I grew up, it was always KU basketball and K-State football. That's always the way it's been until recently."
KU's Kansas-born players knew full well what it meant when Snyder returned. But they didn't expect him to have this kind of impact.
"I'm sure my thinking was a lot of people's thinking," KU safety Darrell Stuckey said. "The game has changed a lot since he's left in different ways, different types of formations and offensive advancements. But once a great mind, always a great mind in football."
KU receiver Kerry Meier, whose brothers Shad and Dylan played for Snyder, didn't think he'd look across to the opposing sideline and see Snyder.
"I don't really know what it's going to feel like," Meier said. "I think it's more different for K-State fans. They never really imagined him being back. He's back, and he's got them going and playing well. We'll give him our best shot."