ARLINGTON, Texas — Bill Snyder and Kansas State haven't been on this stage in a while, but they know a thing or two about playing in a major bowl game and what comes next.
They ended the 2003 regular season in style as champions of the Big 12 Conference with a trip to the Fiesta Bowl. Two years later, they said goodbye to Snyder and welcomed in a new football coach, only to fire him midway into his third season and said hello to Snyder all over again in 2009.
The program, headed for a second straight bowl under Snyder with a 10-2 record, is back on steady footing.
K-State heads into 2012 preparing for the Cotton Bowl, and the core of this team, which finished second in the Big 12 behind juniors Collin Klein, Arthur Brown, Chris Harper and Nigel Malone, will have eligibility remaining next year.
The future looks bright for a team that came out of nowhere — K-State was picked to finish near the bottom of the Big 12.
But bright futures don't always turn into ideal realities.
While some schools have been able to turn an appearance in a major bowl into several years of success, recent history is littered with examples of breakthrough teams that couldn't build off that momentum and faded back into irrelevancy like a star ending its life with one brilliant blaze of light.
K-State has found itself on both ends. Early in Snyder's tenure, when the Wildcats broke through with a trip to the Copper Bowl and followed it up with 10 more bowl trips in 10 consecutive seasons, they were able to build the program like never before. But they fell off after making their first appearance in BCS bowl game in 2004, and struggled for bowl eligibility after Snyder took a brief retirement.
So as the K-State faithful begin to wonder what's next for these Wildcats after they are finished playing Arkansas on Friday, Snyder is likely already using one thought to drive him.
"It's hard to sustain excellence year after year after year, especially when the kids coming in are new and don't know how hard you've worked to get there," said K-State radio commentator Stan Weber, who has attended all 14 of the Wildcats' bowl games. "One thing you learn from watching a lot of college football is that it is very hard to sustain that success."
One team that found that out the hard way is in the same state. When Kansas capped its dream 12-1 season with an Orange Bowl victory in 2008, it appeared to have staying power. Instead, the Jayhawks have taken the place previously reserved for Baylor as the worst team in the Big 12.
In the Big Ten, Illinois has disappeared twice, going to the Sugar Bowl in 2001 and the Rose Bowl in 2008 but doing nothing impressive in between or after. Much further away, Hawaii and Washington State haven't been taken seriously since losing in BCS bowls.
In many cases, including K-State's downturn, those failures can be attributed to coaching changes. When a winning system disappears, it's hard to replace. But there are other problems overachieving teams run into, such as aiming too high on the recruiting trail.
"It's real tempting as a coach to say, 'Hey, we were playing in this bowl game or that bowl game and we won 10 games,' and think you can walk into every five-star recruit's living room and score them," said ESPN recruiting expert Jeremy Crabtree. "But it's a tough sell."
Maybe one four-star recruit in a regular recruiting area will take notice and commit. But most high-caliber recruits from faraway states won't be swayed. For the most part, they are attracted to traditional powers and established coaches. That's hard for anyone to produce with one big season.
"Kids are looking for trends. A string of success is what they want," Crabtree said. "The top programs continue to recruit well even when they're down. Miami will recruit well. When Florida State was down they were able to sign big-time classes. If it's just a one-year flash in the pan, maybe one kid will catch their eye, but not many more."
That's something Snyder knows all about. When K-State started winning 10 games on a yearly basis during his first stint on the job, he briefly tried to go away from the three-star players and junior college recruits who had worked so well for him in favor of higher-profile recruits.
The experiment didn't work, and actually made it harder for Snyder to land the players he would have originally targeted. That's not a mistake he will make again.
"I don't see us recruiting differently," Snyder said. "I would always like to recruit better, but how we do it, I don't think will be any different."
Teams that have used successful seasons to strengthen recruiting and their entire programs have mastered those strategies.
After leading Oklahoma out of mediocrity to the 2000 national championship, Bob Stoops restored Oklahoma's status as a national powerhouse. Boise State turned a Fiesta Bowl victory over the Sooners into sustained national prominence and Utah parlayed an undefeated season and Fiesta Bowl victory into a spot in the Pac-12 Conference.
K-State did it for 11 straight seasons, too. Back then, Snyder used a system that combined finding players that fit into the Wildcats' culture and utilizing every moment of practice time with them once they arrived.
Unlike some coaches, Snyder sets aside time during bowl practices to emphasize the future. He puts his young players, who haven't had the opportunity to play in live games, into pressure situations and prepares them for upcoming seasons.
He rebooted that routine leading up to last year's Pinstripe Bowl appearance, and spent the first few bowl practices in December building up his young talent and building up his team. It's the approach he used many years ago that emphasizes his 16 goals for success and improving at every opportunity. He trusts it.
"I don't think that there is any difference in the approach from Bill Snyder's first term to now," Weber said. "To him, it really is about getting better every day. He has never limited how good his players can be, and he has never looked around saying, 'We are overachieving.' He just tries to win every game, and tries to help his team get better every single day. Very few people can execute on that, but he does."
He's seen what it's like for the program to spend the bowl season at home. He doesn't want to see it again.
When Snyder came out of retirement, he said he did so to calm the waters, and help return K-State to its past glory. Just like the first time around, that doesn't mean playing in one major bowl game.
This week's Cotton Bowl appearance is a good first step. He hopes there are several more to come.