In the early 1980s, I rode my blue Schwinn around Leavenworth Street, imagined I was Tim Jankovich shooting jumpers on my Nerf hoop, and my worst fear in the world was that around every corner would stand those two creepy girls in dresses from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”
Today, I drive a blue Subaru around Kansas City, drain Mario Chalmers “Miracle” jumpers over my daughters in the back yard, and my worst nightmare involves a kindly, silver-haired gentleman wearing a Cotton Bowl jacket.
It’s funny how things change, unless that particular change happens to provoke decades of suffering. For you see, when I graduated from Manhattan High School in 1988 and drove my VW Rabbit up what was then merely Kansas Highway 177 en route to Lawrence for college, I thought we had a deal where KU and K-State sports were concerned.
While both schools fielded high-quality basketball programs and more-or-less traded blows (the arrival of Larry Brown having recently swung the pendulum back toward Big Blue after Jack Hartman’s dominant late-70s/early 80s run), perhaps more notably, there existed a durable, apparently tacit agreement between the schools to field bad football teams. However, there was a minor but important detail: KU was merely bad; K-State was historically awful — the sort of futility that brought East Coast media attention to Manhattan, Kansas.
Indeed, just as my paternal grandmother was a child of the Dust Bowl, her pantry stacked four-deep with canned goods in pinch-penny precision, I was a child of the Toilet Bowl, the 1987 KU-K-State tilt where the schools brought a combined 1-15 record into a game that featured eight turnovers and ended in a fitting 17-17 tie. As a result, I am forever colored by a brimming inventory of inglorious Wildcat football memories.
As kids, we would rove the empty game-day bleachers of KSU Stadium until we had collected as many plastic cups as we could carry. Eventually, we could settle down in the chairbacks if we desired and take in the game, of sorts. My recollection is that the Cats’ specialty in those days was the surprise third-down quick kick, which brought audible relief from the crowd: “Whew, we got rid of the ball before something truly awful could happen.”
It’s probably a good thing that KU blocked a K-State field goal as time expired in the ‘87 Toilet Bowl, as a Wildcat victory most likely would have touched off a third installment of the Aggieville Riot, a roughly biennial Apocalypse Now-style event in the ‘80s that we area kids would attend so that we could brag about having survived it. My friend Tim Macdonald famously made his way through the carnage in the ‘84 riot with a trash can lid on his head to deflect falling debris.
By the time I left for KU in 1988, the Cats were owners of the worst record in Division I-A history and on their way to a 27-game winless streak. Yet, somehow it seemed worse than that. I was confident that I could attach at least part of my self-worth to KU’s football success in perpetuity, so long as I stayed within the Sunflower State.
Then K-State hired Bill Snyder. The rest is an oft-told tale.
But amid all the bowls, titles, All-America players, NFL players, butter pats, 16 goals and handwritten notes, I fear we have lost sight of the utter devastation Snyder brought to the Toilet Bowl series. While KU has steadfastly upheld its end of the bargain, K-State under Snyder has not.
To wit, after a few ramp-up years, K-State defeated KU 11 straight times from 1993 to 2003 and by a combined score of 460-97. My suspicion is that those 97 points still nag at Coach Snyder.
Quickly, my dreams of triumphant crimson-and-blue-clad sojourns to my hometown were dashed, and after years of finding myself the receiver instead of the giver of witty jibes and heckles, I stopped paying close attention to the series.
At the same time, and to make matters worse, I came to admire Coach Snyder. Indeed, having witnessed the landscape he inherited, I began to assign him mythic powers. I imagined him working 23.5 hours a day and surviving on nothing but a drop of morning dew (a characterization that apparently is not wildly inaccurate). Sure, Snyder owned KU, but his greatest conquest surely was the human circadian rhythm. I recall Snyder saying that he just tried to help his program improve a bit each day. Simple enough, but who on Earth has the energy and tenacity to make themselves actually do this, let alone everyone in his purview?
I began to think that while Snyder the football coach had brightened the lives of innumerable people in innumerable ways, maybe there were some other projects out there that could use his attention.
Imagine what Snyder might do against chronic disease, global terrorism or school lunch? Snyder vs. Juvenile Diabetes, who ya got? I’ll take Snyder. Snyder vs. Climate Change, Snyder vs. Poverty, Snyder vs. Thanos. Oh boy ... well … yeah, I gotta go with Snyder. Some light began to emerge in 2004, when KU broke the streak. When Snyder retired after the 2005 campaign, the series instantly flipped to blue for three years before Snyder’s improbable return in 2009 kicked off another 10 straight for the Cats, this time by a combined score of 404-147. Meanwhile, KU cycled through coaches big-name and small, corpulent of body and fit in its relentless transformation into the new Futility U.
Now, finally, Coach Snyder has decided to retire again and The Mad Hatter walks the streets of Lawrence. I sense an uptick in the winds of change. But I’ve seen this false ending before — it’s the moment near the end of every “Alien” movie when Sigourney Weaver appears to have escaped danger, all is well, only to have a claw break suddenly through the wall.
Coach Snyder, I congratulate you on a brilliant career — you have orchestrated the greatest coaching feat in history and duly punished me for attending KU. By the looks of it, you revitalized my hometown along the way.
But let’s just say that KU notches few W’s in the Sunflower Series over the next few years, and you start to feel an urge to lace up the Nike Cortezes for a third tour. Remember that there are other turnaround projects on the scale of K-State football that need you. Polar ice is shrinking, healthcare costs are rising and Thanos has turned half the superheroes in the Marvel Universe to ash.
I know you could out-scheme them all.
Worthington graduated from Manhattan High in 1988. He’s a KU grad who now lives in the Kansas City metro area.