1998 or 2012, which is better? The debate begins

By Joshua Kinder

Winning 11 games is nothing new to Kansas State. The Wildcats did it six times in seven years from 1997 to 2003 and have a chance to do it again this year with a win at Baylor on Saturday.

But one team still stands alone as perhaps the most superior, or at least the most heralded team, in K-State history during that stretch.

It wasn’t the 2003 team that won the Big 12 title against Oklahoma. Nor was it the 1999 team that finished 11-1 or the ‘97 team that was also 11-1. It wasn’t the 2002 group that finished 11-2, or the 2000 squad that was 11-3 and played for the Big 12 title.

No, it has always been the 1998 team — the one every team since has been compared to. It’s the team that finished with the first undefeated regular season at 11-0, beat Nebraska for the first time in 29 years and climbed to the school’s first-ever No. 1 national rank in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll.

Those are the benchmarks every team since has had to live up to. None have done it, even though the 1998 Wildcats finished the year with two straight losses to go 11-2.

Despite losing to Texas A&M in the Big 12 title game, one win away from the national championship game, and then losing in the Alamo Bowl, the 1998 team has widely been considered the greatest in K-State history.

What set 1998 apart from the rest wasn’t the 11 wins or the 17 guys who went on to play in the NFL. It was what those 11 wins meant to the Wildcat program. Defeating Nebraska proved the impossible was possible and climbing to No. 1 elevated K-State to a national standing never before seen on a football field in Manhattan.

“It was a good group of young guys, young guys that reflect the value system we’re talking about, were good hard workers, were competitive, very competitive,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said Tuesday.

With games against Baylor and Texas remaining, the 2012 Wildcats have a chance at giving K-State its second undefeated regular season. They already have the No. 1 ranking in the BCS — a first for the program — and could very well have this season’s Heisman Trophy winner playing quarterback in Collin Klein.

Directly comparing the two teams, separated by nearly 15 years, is difficult. It’s a different league now. Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M and Missouri have all moved on. Now there’s West Virginia and TCU and no league title game.

About the only element that remains the same and has stood the test of time is Coach Snyder. He’s one of the few links to that 1998 team that still remains — including assistant coaches Michael Smith, Mo Latimore and Job Bob Clements, who played defensive end that season. They’re all that remains from the 1998 team that accomplished so much, but yet left so many with heartache when it couldn’t finish the job.

K-State receiver Chris Harper has heard the comparisons. He knows all about Michael Bishop and the win over Nebraska. There are reminders all over the place — giant photos in Manhattan bars and restaurants, images and names in the football complex, highlights on the video boards on gamedays and K-State fans who still wear Bishop jerseys to games, even after all these years.

And with every win this season, his team takes another step closer to joining the 1998 squad in Wildcat lore. Others have come close, but none have quite reached those heights.

“I remember Michael Bishop. I watched him,” Harper said this week. “I wore No. 7, played quarterback when I was little.

“But they lost a game. We’re trying not to do that. We’re trying to set ourselves apart, want to come out of the shadow of the ‘98 team.”

The one big difference between both teams could be in where they come from to reach elite status. The 1998 squad was coming off an 11-1 season the year before. In fact, K-State had won no fewer than nine games the previous five seasons before the ‘98 Wildcats made everyone believe anything was possible.

This year’s Wildcats, however, got to this point a much different way. Sure, K-State was 10-3 last season and played in the Cotton Bowl. But before that, the Wildcats were just 7-6 and 6-6 in Snyder’s first two years back. Before that, under Ron Prince, K-State suffered through two losing seasons in three years, once going 7-6.

“For me it was different,” said Harper, who transferred from Oregon following the 2008 season when the Ducks were 10-3 and defeated Oklahoma State in the Holiday Bowl. “I came from a team that won, to coming here and I was like, ‘man, what did I do? What am I doing right now?’” Those guys here hadn’t won anything, so they didn’t know what it was like to have success. And Coach Snyder coming back gave them hope that we could turn it around.”

A man who preached consistency, Snyder wasted no time putting his plan back in place following the departure of Prince. The longtime Wildcats coach returned to K-State to “calm the waters.” The first step in doing that was to introduce his 16 goals for success, the same set of commandments that the successful K-State teams of the past used as a guide for greatness.

Klein remembers the first meeting with Snyder vividly.

“At our first team meeting when he had come back, he handed us our 16 goals laminated sheet,” he said. “The message of that meeting was, ‘all I ask you to do is to be better than you were yesterday and to really care, care about what you’re doing, care about the people around you and if that happens, we’ll be OK.’”

Oh it sounds so simple. But handling the pressures of success that finally comes isn’t always so easy. The 1998 team had been there and done that, so to speak. This team, built from recruiting classes that ranked 58th, 68th, 63rd, 92nd and 27th in the last five years, is still relatively new to this media blitz that includes a No. 1 ranking, Wildcats on Sports Illustrated covers and a two wins away from a spot in the national title game.

Yet, through all of the noise, Snyder said they do nothing different today than he did in 1998.

“For us, part of that process is dealing with distractions and having the capacity to have the discipline to stay focused on whatever the task at hand might be,” he said. “It’s not always football. It might be academic stuff as well, personal lives.

“They have been exposed to that routine since the day they arrived on campus, so there isn’t anything we do differently today that we didn’t do (15) years ago.”

The 2012 Wildcats, who began this path to greatness a year ago, and has done nothing but win since, has learned without losing this season — a trait that isn’t always seen in a group so new to the national spotlight. After all, K-State has won 20 of its last 23 games since 2010.

“We’ve been able to learn a lot of lessons while still winning and that’s a great thing to be able to do,” Klein said. “But we all believe we haven’t played our best game yet and that’s what we’re striving for and will continue to strive for forever. It’s a very healthy mentality in any aspect of life.”

It’s a scary thought for opponents if the Wildcats are still saving their best for last. We saw that in 1998 when the Bishop-led Cats knocked off Nebraska in Manhattan, 40-30. Bishop, who was the Heisman Trophy runner-up that year, was superb against the Cornhuskers that day, passing for 306 yards and rushing for another 140 yards and finishing with four touchdowns.

Bishop was without a doubt the face of the 1998 team, an electrifying quarterback every QB since has been compared to as well — including Klein, who like Bishop, is a candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

“You don’t have an undefeated team without having quality leadership from within,” Snyder said. “And leadership isn’t always the same year in and year out. Quality leadership can be manifested in a variety of different ways, and as I reflect back on that team, I think Michael was a quality leader for us, but in a far different way than Collin is. But still, his teammates responded to him in a positive way.”

Snyder said teammates responded to Bishop because of his play-making ability.

“He was extremely athletic and could do a variety of different things,” he said. “He made mistakes, but the end result was positive, and that motivated other young players because they knew that Michael could make plays.”

Klein, however, could hold the key to leading his team to places not even the 1998 team did way back then — with what he does off the field.

“Collin’s leadership goes beyond (making plays),” Snyder said. “They respond to him not only because of what he does, but what he addresses them about in areas other than just football.”

So, which team is better, 1998 or 2012? You mayhave to wait until January to find the answer.

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