In the days preceding the Great Event, coach Bill Snyder struck
a deal with himself. Even though he wasn't nuts about the
formation of the new Big 12 Conference, he had agreed last
spring to have his Kansas State team host Texas Tech in the
league's first football game--a risk of no small proportion
since the Wildcats would otherwise have opened their season a
week later against harmless Indiana State and since the
inaugural game would be accompanied by all sorts of distracting
hoopla. But Snyder made a promise not to evaluate this
experiment until it was finished.
So there he sat in his office last Saturday evening, overlooking
KSU Stadium from the north end zone as darkness swallowed the
field. Snyder was ready with his evaluation: He didn't like the
pregame ceremony at all. Not the sky divers or the funky daytime
fireworks. Nor did he like the new Jumbotron video screen that
was also making its debut. No, sir, not one little bit. "We're
Manhattan, Kansas, right in the middle of the country," Snyder
said. "That big scoreboard, the fireworks, that's not us." He
didn't even like the multicolored balloons that were released
before the opening kickoff, "although I appreciate that somebody
must make a living selling them."
The occasion was more than a festival. It was also a beginning.
The Big 12 was conceived in February 1994 and steered into
existence through backroom political brawls between members of
the two conferences that formed it. But it was truly born only
last Saturday afternoon, when a dull, ugly game turned emotional
and riveting in the closing minutes and when, with 38 seconds
left, a free safety from the old Big Eight and a wide receiver
from the old Southwest Conference collided three yards from the
goal line, leaving a football on the plastic grass, Kansas State
in possession of a 21-14 victory and a new league drawing
breath, full of life and promise.
As Snyder sat in his office, his 54-year-old face was wrinkled
by a small grin that fought through his stubbornness. This game,
he was asked, was a good idea, was it not? The grin became a
smile. The smile became a laugh. "I'm 51 percent certain," said
Snyder, "that it was a good idea."
Kansas State and Texas Tech represent many of the ongoing
differences in the Big 12. Not only is one of them (Tech) from
the Southwest Conference and one (K-State) from the Big Eight,
but also one sees the new superconference as a savior, and the
other considers it an obstacle. With the gradual death of the
Southwest Conference, the Red Raiders were on the verge of being
orphaned before the Big Eight added them, along with Baylor,
Texas and Texas A&M to form the Big 12. The Wildcats, meanwhile,
had risen from the bottom of college football and made a warm
home for themselves in the upper echelon of the Big Eight,
thanks to Snyder's seven years of tireless work and prudent
nonleague scheduling. In recent seasons Kansas State had beaten
every conference opponent except--big except--Colorado and
Nebraska. The creation of the Big 12, which instantly became the
strongest football league in the country, threatened to stunt
the Wildcats' growth.
The difference in the two schools' views of the new conference
was plain. As the Red Raiders jogged through a light Friday
practice in Manhattan, Tech's new chancellor, 53-year-old former
Texas state senator John T. Montford, punted hanging spirals to
the Red Raiders' interim athletic director, former Tech
basketball coach Gerald Myers. "This weekend is a little bit of
history," said Montford as he changed from Nikes to wing tips.
"It's a great opportunity for Texas Tech University." Before
Friday's practice, Spike Dykes, the Raiders' famously quotable
coach (who had triple-bypass surgery on May 31 and has lost 50
pounds in the last year), said of the game, "It's a strange
deal. We're not used to opening the season with a conference
game, we're not used to playing Kansas State, and we're not used
to traveling north to play anybody. Of course, it's only 436
miles. I'm from West Texas. I drive 250 miles to eat lunch."
Actually Dykes has always scheduled tough early games, some of
them in the north. Last year Tech lost its opener at Penn State
on a last-second field goal. In the second week of the 1994
season the Raiders fell to Nebraska. It was Dykes who agreed to
go to Manhattan after Snyder refused to open the season at Texas
In a perfect world Snyder would not be in the Big 12 at all.
While he acknowledged last Thursday that the Big 12 will be a
"great conference," he then explained how it can only hurt his
growing--but fragile--program: "I believe the national
perception is that Kansas State was an upper division team in
the Big Eight. That means we got a bowl game, year in and year
out, which is very important for us, for Manhattan and for the
state of Kansas. The perception now is that we're a bubble team
in the Big 12, which means we might get a bowl opportunity and
we might not. That has a tremendous effect on us." Like Nebraska
coach Tom Osborne, Snyder dislikes playing eight conference
games, instead of the seven required in the Big Eight, and the
conference title game--because it makes the road to a major bowl
bid or the national championship tougher.
Thus Snyder dragged himself and his Wildcats into Saturday's
game as grudging participants in the spectacle. Or the debacle.
For much of the game it was difficult to discern which was the
better description. In most measurable ways Texas Tech pounded
Kansas State: 27 first downs to 10, 392 total yards to 160 and,
most remarkable, 193 rushing yards to minus-12. Yet after
Wildcats free safety Mario Smith recovered a wild punt snap in
the end zone for a touchdown with 12:51 left in the fourth
quarter, the Wildcats led 21-3.
The Red Raiders' only score had been a 53-yard first-quarter
field goal by Tony Rogers, who had missed three other tries and
had a fourth attempt blocked. But as the game entered its final
minutes, Texas Tech drove 80 yards for its first touchdown and
was successful on a two-point conversion. The Red Raiders
quickly got the ball back and, with 2:26 remaining, pulled to
21-14 on a 53-yard field goal by another kicker, Jaret Greaser.
Kansas State recovered the subsequent onside kick but
inexcusably lost possession on the first play from scrimmage,
when quarterback Brian Kavanagh and running back Mike Lawrence
botched a handoff. "My fault," said Kavanagh later. "I should
have fallen on the ball. All we were trying to do was run the
Suddenly the game was infused with life--and with desperation.
"I was walking off after the onside kick," Wildcats All-America
defensive back Chris Canty would say later, "then the crowd just
On first down from the 50, Texas Tech running back Adrian Ervin,
playing in place of brilliant junior Byron Hanspard, who left
the game in the third quarter with a sprained right ankle and
finished with 115 yards, slipped free for 19. On the bench
Hanspard, a licensed Pentecostal minister, prayed. "Like I
always do," he said. The Red Raiders' elusive quarterback,
Zebbie Lethridge, got seven yards two plays later, but five
plays after that Texas Tech faced fourth-and-18 from the 21.
Lethridge rolled left, trying to look Smith off the post pattern
that split end Donnie Hart was running from the right flank. "I
believe he bit [on the fake], too," said Lethridge, who stepped
right and drilled the ball to Hart inside the five-yard line,
near the first-down marker. "I heard the ball hit his chest,"
said Kansas State cornerback Lamar Chapman, a redshirt freshman
who was chasing Hart across the field. But Smith had recovered
from Lethridge's fake; he broke on the ball, launching his body
into Hart's neck and shoulder just as Hart was making the catch.
"Big hit," said Smith later. "Very big hit." Hart fell limp as
the ball bounced away. The stadium shook with celebration, with
relief. Hart was helped to his feet after three minutes on the
Though Canty collects the most publicity of any of the
Wildcats--the 5'10", 190-pound junior is likely to be a high NFL
draft pick, and on Saturday he not only played corner but also
covered and returned punts and ran two plays at wideout--Smith
is more illustrative of the players who have carried Kansas
State from its ignominious 30-game winless streak in 1986 to '89
to its nine or more wins in each of the last three seasons and
its three consecutive bowl victories. As a Miami high school
senior in '91, Smith was shunned by recruiters when he failed to
reach the minimum SAT score by the end of the winter recruiting
season. When he hit the score in May, only the Wildcats were
still offering a scholarship. "My high school coach promised me
that K-State was a program on the way up," Smith says.
Similarly, Kavanagh was dropped from many schools' lists of
recruits when, in the fall of 1990, as a senior at Naperville
(Ill.) North High, he spent eight days in the hospital with a
staph infection, during which he lost 30 pounds. Kansas State
offered him a scholarship, encouraged him to enroll in the fall
of '91 as a part-time student and redshirted him in '92. Now 23
and a senior, he is a first-time starter full of maturity.
Saturday's win was the Wildcats' seventh consecutive opening-day
victory, but the previous six had been against such teams as
Temple (1995) and Southwestern Louisiana ('94). "Now if we're
4-0 going into our game with Nebraska on October 5, people will
realize it's not the same 4-0 as in past years," said wide
receiver Kevin Lockett. Left alone with his players in the
dressing room, even Snyder embraced the value of a game he had
so resisted playing. "I told them that when this season is over,
they'll look back at this victory and realize how significant it
was to the program," he said.
The visitors' locker room was quiet, save for the occasional
clatter of cleats against the floor and the soft hissing of
showers. In the middle of the room, Texas Tech offensive tackle
Ben Kaufman, a 6'5", 285-pound senior, was sitting on a wooden
bench, stripped to his waist. Spent from the wear of 103
offensive plays in the late-summer heat, Kaufman began to stand
but then shouted in pain as a cramp in his right buttock
snatched him back to the seat. "I'm a little tired is all,"
Kaufman said softly. He had entered the season with 24
consecutive starts, against the likes of Texas, Texas A&M and
Baylor. Now Kaufman stood again, holding his feet steady. From
this oddly historic game, this debut of a new and still wobbly
conference, sprang a fresh possibility. Kaufman took a paper cup
in his right hand and spit a small stream of tobacco juice into
the bottom. "This might be a new rival here," he said, nodding
toward the field. "Just might be."