ARLINGTON, Texas — With a cardiac regular season complete and the Cotton Bowl five days away, it's difficult to remember that Kansas State had a hard time finishing off football games two years ago.
Even though coach Bill Snyder stressed its importance on a near-hourly basis, the Wildcats couldn't grasp his message in his first year back and missed a bowl game. When they heard "finish," they thought of playing well at the end of games. But Snyder was also talking about hard work in the weight room and mental preparation.
Enter Chris Dawson, a proven, no-nonsense strength and conditioning coach who uses the word "finish" so often, not even Snyder can keep up.
K-State is 17-8 and qualified for two bowl games since.
"The No. 1 thing I wanted to emphasize with this team was finishing," Dawson said. "You've always got to finish strong. A lot of people look at finishing in different ways. When I look at finishing, I look at everything — finishing the play, finishing the day, finishing the game, finishing the season. It's not as simple as just saying 'finish.'
"You've got to work at it every single day."
A few months after Dawson was hired, players began using the term right along with him. They reached seven wins and a Pinstripe Bowl appearance.
Then, after a year under Dawson's guidance in the weight room, they came back to campus last summer stronger physically and mentally. They won 10 games, and seemed to get stronger each week. K-State was suddenly the best fourth-quarter team in the Big 12. K-State won more games (eight) by a touchdown or less than any other team this season.
"Chris has done a wonderful job for us," Snyder said. "He's the type of young person we like to have in our program. He works very hard at what he does. He brings a good deal of discipline to our program, and our youngsters have a great deal of respect for him. That's a vital element of working with young people. He's been super."
K-State players tell different stories about Dawson. He's an excellent advisor but can also be a worst enemy.
Dawson pushes the Wildcats hard at every turn, and demands they compete during every training session. "No ties" is his motto. No matter how well or poorly you perform on a given drill, he is there to push you to give more next time.
If you can't bench press as much as the player next to you, the motivation is easy. Do better. If you run longer than anyone else on the team, the motivation isn't hard. Someone on another team can run even longer.
Dawson used that form of motivation in his previous job at Kansas, and helped the Jayhawks to a 2008 Orange Bowl. It's working all over again with K-State.
"The biggest thing with him is that when it's time to work, there better not be any messing around," senior safety Tysyn Hartman said. "You're there because there's business to be taken care of and he won't put up with any nonsense."
He's too intense for that. Junior wide receiver Chris Harper calls him Captain Insano.
"He'll be screaming at you and you can see the veins bulging out of his neck," Harper said. "That's the way he is, and you've got to like it. He pushes everybody the same. He's a big part of why we are the team we are and why we work the way we do."
His most dreaded drill, according to players, is the 300-yard shuttle, a back-and-forth series of 50-yard sprints that test endurance and lung capacity. The way sophomore linebacker Tre Walker explains it, Dawson has players run half the distance, take a one-minute break, and run it again at full speed.
No one looks forward to it, and players have cursed Dawson for the exercise. But both sides are OK with that.
"It's the toughest test I've taken," Walker said. "But it's so hard that if you can pass that test, you can pass any test."
"Whether they're mad at me doesn't even cross my mind," Dawson added. "I want them to have success. It's tough to win. You have to pay the price."
K-State paid that price this season, and learned the value of its strength and conditioning program. So it's no surprise to Dawson when he sees college football experts use words such as "tough" and "poised" and "closers" to describe K-State on TV.
Dawson won't take credit for the Wildcats' success starting in the weight room. "I can tell you how we squat and how we bench, but there is a lot more that goes into it, especially with the approach we take so it transfers over to the field for games," Dawson said. "The ball isn't always going to bounce your way. That's why being consistent and finishing is so important. You've got to hang your hat on something, and that's what we hang ours on."