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November 7, 2010

Sixth win puts Cats back in bowl business

Go ahead and compare it to riding a bike. It's been seven years since Bill Snyder coached in a postseason game, but it's unlikely that he's forgotten how to do it. It's also unlikely that the dubious streak will continue beyond this season as Kansas State's 39-14 win over Texas on Saturday night earned the team its sixth victory, thus granering the program bowl eligibility for the first time since 2006.

The second season of Snyder's second stint as head coach probably won't end with a Big 12 title or even a North division championship. There won't be a parade or special posters printed in its honor. It's a point Snyder has always made a priority of driving home, and the 71-year old head coach stayed true to form following his team's win over Texas.

"We're not thinking about that right now," Snyder said when asked about bowl eligibility.

However, while he may not be, others certainly are, and the standup comedy routine that Snyder put on from behind the podium, a question and answer segment that drew more laughs that revealing responses, was just the beginning.

The upbeat demeanor surrounding K-State's win over the Longhorns was unlike anything the program has experienced for some time, and for those who waded through it, the root cause was obvious.

"On the surface, a lot of people would think, 'Man, that stinks. You won't be able to be home with your family over Christmas,' " center Wade Weibert said. "That's not true. I remember (former K-State offensive lineman) Brock Unruh told me that there's nothing better than being on the road with your team at a bowl game. He said it's the best Christmas you can possibly have. I'm looking forward to it."

The mood in organized postgame interviews reeked of faux-composure following win No. 6. Refreshing? Sure, but a reason for celebration? Not publicly.

Weeks ago, players said a six-win season would be construed as a disappointment, and that mindset has now been reinforced. Then again, expressing satisfaction probably wouldn't have gone over so well.

"We aren't planning on just winning six games and going to a bowl game," defensive back David Garrett said. "We still have three more games. We have a chance to win nine games. We want to do that."

Despite the lip service and an organized effort downplay it, a sense of relief and accomplishment bled though at nearly every turn. A few players quietly chanted along with the "We own Texas" chant spilling out of the stands. Assistant coaches patted each other on the back as the clock ran down, and a smiling Daniel Thomas took time to sign a fan's sideline pass with more than four minutes remaining in the contest.

"It was real relaxed and it was fun out there on the sideline," said left guard Zach Kendall, who donned a new, stripped bowtie. "Winning is fun. There were a lot of smiles. We were just having fun together."

The party carried right through the final whistle. "How about that?" long snapper Corey Adams asked a group of tie-wearing athletic department officials as they crossed paths inside the Vanier Football Complex hallways. Defensive backs coach Keith Burns moved toward the exit while unleashing a fist-pump-fueled mini-jig and linebacker Blake Slaughter wondered aloud how "anything could top this."

Saturday's milestone victory even caused some players to reflect on not-so-happy memories of holiday seasons past. Just another win? Hardly, and that fact became obvious as Kendall teetered on the verge of emotional.

"I just went home and worked out," he said. "I could only watch so many bowl games because it made me sick. It makes you sick when you're not in them. It's hard to stomach."

Snyder was quick to point out that the victory doesn't guarantee anything -- it's his job as a coach -- but with games against beaten-down Colorado (3-6) and a turmoil-filled North Texas squad, a bowl-season appearance is a forgone conclusion.

With three games left on the schedule starting with a game next week at Missouri, exactly which bowl destination will welcome in the Wildcats, however, remains very much up in the air.

"I don't care. I just want to go to a big one," Garrett said. "I want to go to the biggest one possible."

Eventually, the poorly muffled celebration will die down and everyone will move on. With a fourth of the season still to play, nobody has any fantasies suggesting otherwise. K-State may be bowl eligible with six wins, but the final victory total will decide what bowl will invite the Wildcats to play in the postseason.

So even if they all do with a smile, Wildcat players say the right things when discussing the program's most recent win.

"Winning six games is not our goal," Thomas said. "We want to win every game. From here on out, we're going to focus on that."

His words hold some weight and represent the truth, but, for at least one night, he and his teammates will, publicly or not, live for moment.

"I want them to be excited," Snyder said, and it was apparent to even the most naive bystander that the head coach got his wish.


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