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October 5, 2011His body ailing, Collin Klein winced as he tried to shake hands in the aftermath of Kansas State's latest feat Saturday night. The junior quarterback had become the first at the school since Josh Freeman to defeat a nationally ranked team and the first since Ell Roberson to do so under Bill Snyder. The 36-35 victory over No. 15 Baylor would link Klein to notable names in Wildcats' lore.
"The key word is 'linked,'" Klein said. "We all just hung together across the board. I can't emphasize enough just how fortunate we are to stay together when things look pretty dark and to keep sawing wood. Any success we've had, I'm just so thankful that God has brought me here and to this place to be a part of this family."
Through four games, including back-to-back nail biters, one overriding theme for the undefeated Wildcats has been family and goals and values. A squad picked during the preseason to finish eighth in the Big 12 Conference, and one that a preseason publication predicted to win a total of four games, enters Saturday's 2:30 p.m. kickoff ranked at No. 20 nationally and seeking the program's first 5-0 start in 11 years.
So far, this season has been about discipline, commitment, no self-limitations and never giving up. It's about unity and perseverance and thriving as the underdog.
This all has the makings of classic Snyder football. And without saying as much, the 20-year head coach, off to an exciting start to his third season since returning to the sideline, described it all to a fault in a prolonged delivery immediately following his first victory over a ranked team in Manhattan since 2002.
"The bottom line of all of it, you hear me talk all the time during the out of season, and it's about a bunch of goals and it's all about values and how important those values really are, and that's what it's been about all year," Snyder said. "You think about it -- never give up, discipline to do the right things when you had to do the right things, all of those things that we teach our kids. It makes an amazing difference and it's hard for young people to really understand that, but I think they're starting to get the picture because it has been a great asset to them so far. I am really proud of them."
He entered the Big Eight Room in the Vanier Football Complex on Tuesday wearing a navy-blue suit and broke out the purple tie for the first time this season.
"Get new lights?" he said, gesturing to towering TV lights off to the side.
"I think they're just a little brighter," a K-State official replied.
This was vintage Snyder in his element, attentive to every detail. And yes, the lights do grow a little bit brighter this week as K-State prepares to face Missouri, 2-2, in a national ABC telecast, the second for the Wildcats in as many weeks.
Not everybody knows that K-State, which outlasted Miami, 28-24, before a one-point upset of Baylor, became only the fourth team in Big 12 history to win consecutive games by a combined five or fewer points. Not everybody knows that the Wildcats became the only team in Big 12 history to accomplish the feat while on the road one week and against a nationally ranked team the next.
But everybody is anxious to see where the upstart Wildcats go from here.
"We're trying to ride it out as far as we can," senior defensive end Jordan Voelker said. "There's a lot of improvement that still needs to be made, but we're trying to take it as far as we can, and be the best team we can be, and hopefully bring back some of that K-State loyalty with the teams that we used to have in making those BCS bowl appearances."
The immediate mission in front of the expected electric crowd at Bill Snyder Family Stadium will be to remain unblemished after five games, something the 2002, 2003 and 2010 teams fell just short of in recent years. It will be no easy chore against Missouri, which has won five straight over the Wildcats.
Interestingly, the last time Snyder coached a ranked K-State team against a non-ranked Big 12 opponent in the stadium that now bears his name came when No. 13 K-State beat Missouri, 24-14, in the final home game of the 2003 season.
For as much as the 2003 squad demonstrated toughness in bouncing back from three straight losses in the midseason to win its next seven games, including the Big 12 Championship game against top-ranked Oklahoma, this current squad, in winning three games by single digits this season, has shown some toughness of its own one-third of the way through the regular season.
"We've had an awful lot of teams in the past and throughout the '90s that really were mentally-tough young people, which promotes a lot of values for your football team," Snyder said. "I can't think of any comparison, but it's just that I haven't taken time to think about it. But I do believe that we're gaining some confidence in that value in becoming a tougher football team. I think we're still a work in progress but we're closing the gap."
K-State lost two of its final three games by single digits last season. Baylor marked the fifth nationally ranked opponent Snyder-coached K-State has defeated by single digits and the first since the 25th-ranked Wildcats topped No. 11 Southern California, 27-20, in 2002.
Toughness is one important quality, but there are so many other ingredients involved with the evolution of this team, which appears to be the closest-knit group fielded in the Flint Hills in several years.
It can all be best summed up on a credit card-sized list of 16 Wildcat Goals For Success, which Snyder hands out prior to each season.
"Being on the outside, I never knew about the 16 goals, I never read his book or anything," said Voelker, a Newton native and life-long K-State fan. "It's a great outline for success. There are a lot of things that make championship teams. Just knowing the demands it takes to be great, it works at every level."
Eleven consecutive bowl appearances can't be wrong.
"He's done a great job of staying the same and not changing," Voelker said. "He does what works and he doesn't change that. He knew what it took back then and he still uses that today."
It started when Snyder arrived in Manhattan prior to the 1989 season after serving under head coach Hayden Fry during successful rebuilding projects at North Texas and Iowa. Snyder wrote down 12 goals. He distributed the list of goals to his first team.
Just how important were the goals to Snyder?
"We'd take an hour on each one," he said.
The list eventually grew to 14 goals and now stands at 16.
"It's just common sense, I think, as much as anything," Snyder said. "Everybody probably addresses the same thing in athletics and in raising kids. We just put it on paper and tried to make it significant to our players. They have their little cards and I test them on it all the time. They're important things."
Josh Buhl, a senior co-captain and second-team All-American linebacker in the 2003 team, recalls those days.
"For sure," he said. "That was definitely something you had to memorize. That's part of what he wanted. He felt that everything you did revolved around those 16 goals and if you did that you'd be better for it. He had them up everywhere and talked about them."
Which goal first comes to mind?
"Discipline," Buhl said. "That's what it takes to be a winner, to discipline yourself enough to not only understand what you're doing out there on the field, but discipline for life in going to film room and studying other teams. It's all a part of discipline to know that's what it takes and if you don't have that discipline you won't win the games."
So far it hasn't been lacking on this squad. The pair of fourth-quarter come-from-behind wins? Voelker believes they're the fruits of disciplined preparation during the offseason.
"The strength coaches and coaches in general do a great job of working on our mental toughness as well as our physical toughness," he said. "They're really demanding in the offseason and that helps us to finish in the fourth quarter. They don't let us slow down. They push us to limits that you don't think you can get to. That helps on us just being able to finish late in the fourth quarter.
"Ray Kibble is a great example of that. Toward the end of the game, he hit Robert Griffin and caused that interception. That just shows the determination we have as a whole team. Somebody's going to step up and make the play when plays need to be made."
Of all the Wildcat Goals, a few remain most embedded within Voelker during this start.
"The goals for me are 'expect to win' and 'commitment,'" he said. "As a whole, we just have to have the confidence that we're going to get it done in the end and come through. You've got to expect to win, know you're going to find a way to get it done no matter what happens, and never give up. The commitment level, it takes a lot of time and effort, long practices, extra film and late nights just staying up and working. It's what it takes to be great."
Fifth-year senior safety Tysyn Hartman, who has started in a team-high 36 games, remembers receiving the Wildcats Goals during one of the first team meetings after Snyder returned to the program prior to the 2009 season. But that moment didn't signify a culture change for program that had finished 17-20 in the three years prior to Snyder's return.
The shift in culture arrived soon after through the constant repetition of the goals as Snyder sought to hammer home his hallmarks for success.
"He might mention two of three of them after practice and how they related to the practice," Hartman said. "He puts it into perspective."
Perspective is an interesting thing. But Hartman is wary of any hint that the Wildcats, armed with their highest ranking since 2004, have proved doubters wrong.
"I wouldn't make that prediction just yet," he said. "We started 4-0 last season and won two more games the rest of the year. It's too early in the season to make a prediction like that. I believe we're on our way. There's still a lot to be done, a lot more to get better at, that's for sure."
Upon Snyder's return, one of the questions was whether the 69-year-old could relate to today's student-athlete.
Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Tomasi Mariner believes that Snyder, who turns 72 on Friday, has answered such skeptics.
"Coach really has understood us," Mariner said. "He knows things we like. He asks us things we want to do. He likes to talk to us and make things better for us."
Mariner appreciates the positive reinforcement as well.
"He's been more uplifting," Mariner said. "Practice has always been the same. There really haven't been too many changes. He's more happy, I guess. He always tells us good job on and off the field. On the field, if you do something good, he'll tell you that you did something good. He'll make you feel good about it. Also, if you mess up, he'll coach you up. He's always there for you."
Equally important, on the field the players are there for each other.
"The whole brotherhood aspect has changed a lot," Voelker said. "We're so much closer this year as a whole. The offense plays for the defense and nobody is playing for himself. It's everybody playing for each other. That's brought a real positive light on the whole team."
That's one of the facets of this squad that has become a source of Snyder's pride.
"It's a conduit to being successful," Snyder said. "Our players in the last two and a half years have made a diligent effort to draw their football team together and to have relationships that are meaningful. In every athletic program in the country, somebody will stand up and say, 'We're a family! We're a family! We're a family!' So many times it's just talk and it doesn't really exist."
The expression upon Klein's face following the Wildcats' latest victory perhaps best illustrated that the bond is alive and real while the goals remain ceaseless and demand attention for another week. His body was beaten, but his face beamed over the magnitude of the team's latest accomplishment.
"It's just so fitting in all aspects," he said. "Special teams had a little bump or two but were able to carry through the day, the defense was playing great and just kept at it. It was across the board and we just keep sawing wood.
"It was a family affair across the board."
So far, the family business is doing well.