The line began just outside the Kansas State trophy room, where
Wildcats seniors and their parents had gathered at a reception
in weary celebration of a historic afternoon. The line stretched
down a long corridor, through the lobby of the football complex
and out onto a floodlit parking lot. Towheaded children with
hair streaked in purple and senior citizens clutching souvenir
Wildcat Growl Towels thrust slips of paper, trading cards,
T-shirts and miniature footballs at Kansas State quarterback
Michael Bishop, each trying to take home an autograph and a
In the sea of bodies surrounding Bishop were his parents, Artis
and Ethel, and a cluster of other relatives and friends from his
hometown of Willis, Texas, about 50 miles north of Houston. Also
in the pack was Bishop's girlfriend, Kansas State junior Marilou
Mewborn, holding a clear plastic plate of crackers and cocktail
franks, ostensibly Bishop's dinner. Bishop, who was trying to
make his way out of the reception, shuffled and signed, shuffled
and signed. "I don't know why I'm holding on to this food," said
Mewborn. "There's no way he's ever going to have time to eat it."
Bishop is public property these days. He is the prized
possession of Wildcats Nation, that giddy throng that has
hitched itself to Kansas State during its remarkable rise from
the dregs of college football to this year's 10-0 record and
contention for the national championship. Despite the Wildcats'
40-30 victory over Nebraska last Saturday and Tennessee's narrow
win over Arkansas (page 152), Kansas State remained No. 2 in the
AP poll and third in the Bowl Championship Series standings,
which will determine who plays for the national title in the
Fiesta Bowl. The Wildcats did take sole possession of the top
spot in the coaches' poll after Tennessee dropped a spot.
The mere prospect of the Wildcats' first win over the
Cornhuskers in 30 years had prompted the sale of T-shirts
emblazoned JUDGMENT DAY FOR THE CHILDREN OF THE CORN starting
more than a month before the game, and the win touched off a
riotous celebration that brought down the north goalpost in KSU
Stadium and spilled into the bars of Aggieville in Manhattan.
"All of us have waited a long, long time for this," said Dirk
Ochs, who played defensive end for Kansas State from 1992 to '95
and whose brother, Wildcats senior linebacker Travis, made a
critical sack of Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch in the final
November 23, 1998
In victory there was a delicious irony. Kansas State's program
is built on a foundation of discipline and detail laid by
relentless coach Bill Snyder, who was hired before the 1989
season. Woe to the player who so much as enters the locker room
unkempt, for no indiscretion escapes the eye of the 59-year-old
Snyder. Mistakes on the field are the least tolerable. Chad May,
a Wildcats quarterback in 1993 and '94, recalls that Snyder
could find a flaw in a seemingly perfect throw to a receiver
wearing number 88 by pointing out that the pass was shaded
slightly more to one eight than the other. This year, however,
has seen the birth of the Michael Bishop Exception.
On Saturday afternoon Bishop nearly killed Kansas State's season
by losing three fumbles in the first half (one on
second-and-goal from the Cornhuskers' one with the scored tied
at 7-7) and throwing an interception in the second. But Snyder's
tolerance was rewarded as Bishop buried those errors in an
avalanche of brilliance. Overall, he completed 19 of 33 passes
for 306 yards and two touchdowns to senior wideout Darnell
McDonald, and rushed 25 times for 140 yards and two more scores.
Given ample reason to sulk, he instead played more effectively
and with greater passion. For every slip, there was a play of
unpredictable poetry. "No surprise," said Bishop's father after
the game. "He did that kind of thing in grade school and he did
it in high school. It just seems like he gets mad and plays
better after he messes up." Still, Bishop at the controls of
K-State's offense was like Andy Warhol running IBM.
Not that Kansas State has a wealth of other options. Faced with
twice-beaten and struggling Nebraska's best effort since
September, the Wildcats' offense was All Bishop, All the Time. Of
their 76 offensive plays, Bishop ran or passed on 58 (76%), and
on three others he made option pitches before being drilled to
the artificial turf.
More than an hour after Saturday's victory, Bishop fell into a
soft chair in Snyder's office, letting out a protracted groan.
"Just a little sore is all," he said. "I was getting hit on every
play, whether it was a pitch or a pass or a run. I don't know if
they were trying to take me out of the game or intimidate me, but
they were hitting me."
The early fumbles made him angry, but his game has no rearview
mirror. "I couldn't wait to get back on the field after every
one of them," he said. Not only did he play with more verve
after miscues, but he also pestered Snyder and offensive
coordinator Ron Hudson to adjust pass routes to take advantage
of the huge cushion Nebraska defensive backs were giving
McDonald, who caught 12 passes for 183 yards. "Michael has never
done that before, and the things he pointed out were right,"
said Hudson. Bishop had seen similar cushions in tape study of
the Huskers, and "once we got out there, they were just going
into their backpedaling as soon as we snapped the ball," Bishop
It should come as no shock that Bishop is not easily
discouraged, either by his own mistakes or by the sustained
pounding of a good defense. His road to Saturday's monumental
victory was long and, at times, unpromising. As a senior at
Willis High, he was dropped from recruiting lists when it became
apparent he wouldn't meet the NCAA's core-course requirement for
athletic eligibility. He played at Blinn College in Brenham,
Texas, in 1995 and '96 and took the Buccaneers to consecutive
national junior college championships, which helped atone for
his failure to win a state high school title, a disappointment
that still nags at him. "Texas high school football is big,"
Bishop says, "and I never got us to the big game."
In Bishop's second year at Blinn, Baylor and Texas recruited him
as a quarterback, and Texas A&M went after him as a wide
receiver. Kansas State also entered the picture. The Texas
schools were eliminated for various reasons: Texas already had
James Brown at quarterback, Baylor had uncertainty at head
coach, and Bishop wasn't going to play wide receiver anywhere.
(Bishop also didn't pass an exam required by Texas junior
colleges to obtain an associate's degree.) In December '96 he
signed a letter of intent with Kansas State and transferred his
Blinn credits to Independence (Kans.) Community College. Kansas
does not require passage of an exit exam, but Bishop still
needed an associate's degree to become eligible for football,
and he got it in the spring of 1997.
Bishop arrived in Manhattan almost two months before the start
of camp for the '97 season and soon established himself as the
best quarterback on campus. "I knew I could step in and make
plays," he says. Bishop has started every game since. "The thing
that has most often been overlooked about Michael is that he's
only been in the program for a little more than a year," says
Snyder. "We run a complex offense. It's amazing that he's
learned as much as he has."
It is equally remarkable that Snyder has been so tolerant of
Bishop's miscues. "He makes mistakes and we
have...conversations," says Snyder.
"He doesn't get down on me, he corrects me," says Bishop.
Sometimes he does more than that. Twice in Bishop's career,
Snyder has prohibited him from talking to the media. The first
was during a four-week period last season after Bishop publicly
accused his teammates of quitting in a 56-26 loss at Nebraska,
his only defeat since high school. ("He believes they did quit,"
says his father.) The second came this year, after Bishop told
reporters that junior college transfer running back Frank Murphy
had predicted that he--Murphy--would go 80 yards for a touchdown
on his first carry in an upcoming game against Colorado. Snyder
felt Bishop was setting up Murphy for abuse by Buffaloes
defenders and silenced him again. "Michael sometimes says
controversial things," says Snyder. The second ban, with
occasional exceptions, is ongoing. Bishop spoke only to SI after
Despite these muzzlings, Snyder has an affection for Bishop, who
has forced the coach to change his view of perfection, if not of
interviews. "We live with Michael's mistakes because if we're not
careful, we could temper a great talent," says Snyder. "Michael
is a great all-around football player. That's what that trophy is
supposed to be for, isn't it?"
The trophy in question would be the Heisman. Bishop was seldom
mentioned as a strong candidate early in the season, and he still
lacks the polish of Texas's Ricky Williams. Yet he makes plays,
with his arm and his running ability, as few quarterbacks in the
country do, and on Saturday he was the force that allowed a
program to prove itself worthy of a No. 1 ranking.
Kansas State, which came into the game ranked first in the
country in scoring defense (7.7 points per game) and second in
total defense (219.7 yards per game), gave up 351 yards to
Nebraska. Offensive creativity was essential for K-State, and
Bishop delivered. Two examples: In the second quarter, on
second-and-11 from his own 19, Bishop went 50 yards on a
scramble, thanks in part to a scalding midfield fake that left
Huskers safety Mike Brown squeezing air. On the game-winning
touchdown pass, with 5:25 to go, Bishop scooped a poor shotgun
snap off the rug, sprinted hard to his right and threw a tight
spiral across his body to McDonald, who was alone in the back of
the end zone.
Through the dying minutes, as Nebraska's final two drives failed
and as Kansas State linebacker Jeff Kelly scooped up a fumble
and ran 23 yards for a crowning touchdown, Bishop ranted up and
down the sideline, waving, exhorting the crowd and in general
expunging the foul taste of last year's loss in Lincoln. "When I
got elected a captain this year," Bishop said, "I wanted to make
sure the whole team was on the same page for Nebraska. I knew it
was going to be a different game this time."
Amid the growing delirium that followed Kelly's clinching score,
as grown fans wept in celebration and students prepared to rush
the field, the coach and the quarterback found each other on the
sideline. Snyder first faced Bishop and placed one hand on each
of his quarterback's shoulders as the two had an animated
conversation, but one without humor. "I'm proud of the way you
played today," Snyder told Bishop. "But we're going to go and
look at the tape of that first half, and we're going to keep
making you a better player."
Bishop nodded swiftly. Slowly the game faces dissolved into
smiles and the coach's bloodless grab became an emotional hug.
Given ample reason to sulk, Bishop instead played more
effectively and with greater passion.
"We live with Michael's mistakes because if we're not careful,
we could temper a great talent," says Snyder.