Friday, Feb. 19, 1999 | noon
It was a year ago this spring that John Robinson was in Phoenix working as a television commentator for a show with the Playboy All-American team.
One of his subjects for an interview was Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder.
"He was the preseason coach of the year," Robinson recalled. "We sat down and talked for a while. One of the things I asked him about was how he did it, how he turned things around there."
Long-suffering UNLV football followers can only hope that Robinson took some meticulous notes that afternoon. Because there is no program that epitomizes going from college football's outhouse to the penthouse any better than Snyder's Kansas State Wildcats.
And it is the remarkable turnaround of Kansas State's program in recent years -- not to mention some breakthrough years at schools like Northwestern, Washington State and Oregon -- that have given UNLV football fans hope.
"I remember that the topic of Kansas State's program came up a few times when our (head coach) selection committee got together," UNLV senior associate athletics director Jerry Koloskie said. "The feeling was, 'Hey, if they can do it, why can't we?' "
So just exactly what was Snyder and Kansas State's blueprint for success?
"If we could sell that formula, we'd all be rich," Wildcat senior associate athletic director Jim Epps chuckles.
When he took over as Kansas State's 12th president in 1986, Jon Wefald talked about things like a new art museum and producing Rhodes scholars. He also talked about the unthinkable ... putting together a winning football program.
Obviously Wefald, who earned a doctorate in history from the University of Michigan in 1965, didn't know anything about the history of the woeful Kansas State football program.
Kansas State was simply the laughingstock of college football.
The only poll where the Wildcats could be found was The Bottom Ten by humorist Steve Harvey of the Los Angeles Times, which ranked the worst teams in college football each week. He frequently referred to Kansas State as "The Mildcats," and that was one of the nicer things said about the program.
And rightfully so. Kansas State had fielded just five winning teams in a 54-year span and eight times had gone winless. The school averaged an All-American just once every 18 years. From 1984 to 1988, KSU went 3-40-1, was outscored by an average of 43-13, lost at home to schools such as Austin Peay, Wichita State and Northern Iowa, and didn't have so much as one all-Big Eight player in three years.
"We had nothing. Zero. No base at all," Wefald recalled. "There was no tradition. There were no facilities. There were maybe 10 or 12 major college players (out of 95) on scholarship."
Things were so bad that the Big Eight Conference was even considering booting the Wildcats out.
"There was talk going around that they might kick us out and bring Arkansas in," Epps said.
But Wefald put his money where his mouth was. Facilities were upgraded. The football budget and coaches' salaries were expanded. A major commitment to the football program was initiated.
"We were dead last in the Big Eight in coaches' salaries," Epps said. "Looking back, it was almost laughable."
But after Kansas State foundered through another 0-11 season in 1988, Wefald made the biggest move of all ... firing head coach Stan Parrish and, thanks to Epps' recommendation, convincing a highly-touted offensive coordinator from Iowa named Bill Snyder to take on the challenge of building Kansas State's program from the ashes.
The Miracle Worker Snyder, 59, who had played a major role in helping rebuild programs at North Texas and Iowa, didn't come easy.
During the interview process, it was Snyder who seemed to be asking most of the questions.
"He asked me, 'What's the commitment? Will you do this? Will you do that?' And I was on my heels the whole time," said former Kansas State athletic director Steve Miller, now an executive with Nike.
"I'm a pretty aggressive guy, and this guy's interviewing me. ... I left that place and said, 'He is the guy.' "
Snyder wanted total control over the program and got it. He also got a lot of promises that some Kansas State officials now say they weren't sure they'd be able to keep.
"We made a pledge to raise money to redo the offices and the weightroom and some of the other facilities," Epps recalled. "We did that although there were times we didn't know where the money would come from."
A big priority was upgrading coaching salaries so that they would be competitive with other Big Eight institutions.
"In all cases we at least doubled and in some cases tripled (the salaries)," Epps said. "It's a smart investment. We continue to rank near the top of the (now) Big 12 Conference in that area. To get really good coaches you have to pay well. Otherwise, why would they want to come to a school like Kansas State?"
Snyder, a tireless worker prone to 100-hour workweeks, had a simple goal when he took over.
"The driving force has been, 'Let's get better,' " Snyder said. "Improve every day ... as a player, person and student."
That carried over to the facilities. Kansas State built a brand new indoor practice facility for those chilly and snowy fall afternoons. Three new grass practice fields also were installed. State-of-the-art video equipment can now be found in the Wildcat coaches offices. A new press box with luxury suites was added to KSU Stadium.
"We just never stopped investing in the program," Epps said. "And the last few years that's paid big dividends."
The Turnaround The transformation from college football's laughingstock to legitimate Big 12 Conference and national championship contender didn't happen overnight.
In 1989, Snyder's first year at the helm, the Wildcats went a very K-State-like 1-10, including the usual 58-7 drubbing from Nebraska. The only win came on a last-second touchdown pass against Division I-AA North Texas State, 20-17. Didn't matter. Long-suffering Wildcat fans tore down the goal posts, anyway.
"The level of expectation was low, to say the least," Snyder said. "People were surprised when we showed up on time."
But Kansas State stuck to Snyder's philosophy and continued to get a little better each day.
In 1990, the Wildcats jumped up to a 5-6 record and won their first two Big Eight games in four years. They followed that with solid 7-4 and 5-6 campaigns in 1991 and 1992.
Then came the breakthrough year for the program.
In 1993, Kansas State finished 9-2-1, upset 13th-ranked Oklahoma, 21-7, and crushed Wyoming in the Copper Bowl, 52-17, the first bowl victory in school history. K-State finished the season ranked 18th in the coaches' poll.
The Wildcats haven't won fewer than nine games or been ranked lower than 17th in the final coaches' poll since. And last November, for the first time in the school's 103-year football history, Kansas State, once routinely referred to simply as "Futility U," was rated No. 1 in a major college football poll.
"It's a story of almost biblical proportions," Wefald said. "When you look at some of the miracles of the Old Testament ... I'd say it's very close to Moses parting the Red Sea."
UNLV's turn? Ironically, two of Kansas State's victories during its breakthrough years of 1993 and 1994 came at the expense of a school headed in another direction ... UNLV. The Wildcats defeated the Rebels, 36-20, in 1993 in Manhattan and rolled over UNLV, 42-3, in 1994 at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Since that 42-3 thrashing by Kansas State, UNLV has compiled a 7-39 record, including 16 straight defeats heading into the 1999 campaign. Snyder's Wildcats, once college football's version of roadkill, have gone 41-8 in that same span.
Enter Robinson, 63, who guided USC to a national title in 1978 and also led the Los Angeles Rams to two National Football Conference championship games in the 1980s. He will try to perform his own miracle here.
"We have to recognize that it's going to be a process over time that gets us where we want to be," Robinson said. "It's not an overnight kind of thing."
Still, UNLV would seem to have a lot more going for it than Kansas State did back in the late '80s.
And, perhaps most importantly, Robinson, like Snyder, has a school president in Dr. Carol C. Harter and an athletic director in Charles Cavagnaro who have made a public commitment to do what it takes to field a competitive football program.
"The support I'm getting here is good," Robinson said.
"Charlie Cavagnaro and Dr. Harter have been enthusiastic and great. And the people who work here -- the strength coach (Mark Philippi), the academic adviser (Eric Toliver), the equipment manager (Paul Pucciarelli), the trainer (Kyle Wilson) -- they all have very positive frames of mind and are doing good jobs."
"It's very important that everybody goes into something like that shoulder-to-shoulder," Epps said.
So can UNLV be another Kansas State one day?
"I think what they did is fabulous," Robinson said. "I think the big thing I got from talking to (Snyder) is that they had a plan at the beginning and they stayed with it. The thing we have to be careful about here is it's a multi-step task for us. There are about 20 steps that need to be done for this to be a Top 25 program. It isn't something that just happens overnight."
Snyder, a former graduate assistant at USC for Robinson's old boss, John McKay, in 1966, agrees.
"(People) expect me to reach into my top drawer and pull out a sheet of paper with a blueprint," Snyder said. "I'm flattered, but there's no piece of paper. We just got a little better every year for 10 years until ... here we are."
Epps, who has been through the highs and very lows in his 20 years at Kansas State, says the whole city of Las Vegas will benefit from a football turnaround.
"It would be great for Las Vegas if they can get that thing turned around," he said. "It'll pay dividends for the whole community. You can't get a hotel room around here on a football weekend. The restaurants are overflowing. And the stores sell all kind of clothes and merchandise."
And students also view their school from a different perspective.
"It's funny, but there are students here now who remember nothing but great football," Epps said.
That's a problem UNLV certainly wouldn't mind having one day.