Pappy Waldorf captured a conference championship in 1934, his only year at Kansas State.
Bill Snyder won Big 12 titles in 2003 and 2012. That’s two in 27 years for the greatest program-turnaround artist in college football history
The lesson: Except for a few programs, conference titles don’t happen often. Savor the moments of a confetti shower, champion caps and T-shirts and the trophy presentation. Hug teammates, shed tears and pose for everyone who wants to click a photo.
K-State did all of that after its heart-stopping 31-28 overtime triumph over TCU in the Big 12 Championship Game at AT&T Stadium on Saturday. A goal-line stand for the ages and a clutch field goal were the biggest moments in the extra period, but this game was edge-of-your seat throughout.
The outcome made a champion of Klieman, the Wildcats’ fourth-year coach, which means he’s won a Big 12 crown earlier in his tenure than Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State, Mack Brown at Texas ... or even the great Snyder.
It happened in a season when the Big 12 was rugged road, with eight teams headed for bowl games. Moreover, the Wildcats were projected in the preseason to finish fifth (TCU was projected to place seventh) and lost a home game to Tulane in September (a Tulane team, Klieman reminded, that played for a spot in a major bowl in the American Conference title game Saturday.)
The K-State coach was sure to credit Gene Taylor, the Wildcats’ athletic director who brought Klieman to Manhattan from North Dakota State, where they had worked together previously.
“I’m fortunate to be here,” Klieman said. “Gene Taylor took a chance on an FCS coach when not a lot of people would. But he believed in me and us.”
Klieman faced an unenviable task at Kansas State: following the legendary Snyder. But Klieman has been ideal, keeping the Wildcats competitive and bowl-eligible throughout his tenure.
Winning was part of Klieman’s DNA after capturing four FCS championships at North Dakota State. He was that level’s Nick Saban. But the challenge is different at Kansas State. The Wildcats don’t own the deep pockets of Texas and Oklahoma, bu it’s possible for a team based in Manhattan to play for an FBS national championship, and will be even more so when the College Football Playoff bracket expands to 12 teams in 2024.
K-State would be part of that 12-team field this year.
Saturday was further proof that major college football thrives with a conference championship game like no other sport, especially in this era of the 10-team Big 12. The league took grief years ago for it’s “One true champion,” catchphrase, then declared co-winners when teams tied for first — most famously Baylor and TCU in 2014. But the Big 12 is the only Power Five league that provides a complete schedule.
National interest was high for Saturday’s game, the only one of the conference-title games matching top 10 teams. Nearly 70,000 fans, all wearing purple, of course, created a frenzied atmosphere.
Both teams rose to the occasion. The arrival of overtime allowed everyone to catch a breath. The coin-toss proved important. Injured quarterback Adrian Martinez, in a jersey and sweatpants, called it for the Cats, and tails won. K-State went on defense.
The Frogs thought they had a touchdown when quarterback Max Duggan stretched the ball to the goal line. But his elbow was down before the ball reached the stripe. With two chances from inside the 1, running back Kendre Miller was stuffed first by Khalid Duke and then by Daniel Green.
Those plays — that goal-line stand — will forever be part of Kansas State lore.
“It just came down to executing, good on good,” Green said.
Four running plays and a kneel-down got K-State to the Horned Frogs’ 13-yard line, where kicker Ty Zentner also assured himself of K-State immortality with a 31-yard walk-off field goal. Nice way to exit a college career: Zentner is a perfect 39-for-39 on field goals and extra points this season.
“I would say that over the past five, six weeks, there may not have been a more valuable kid on the football team than Ty Zentner,” Klieman said.
Crushed as TCU was by the loss, it shouldn’t change the Frogs’ postseason destination. TCU was No. 3 in the CFP rankings this week, and with No. 4 USC falling in the Pac-12 title game, it seems unlikely TCU drops from the top four.
If somehow TCU falls short when the playoff bracket and bowl games are announced Sunday, a great injustice will have occurred. Same for Duggan as a Heisman finalist.
Good as Duggan was, the game showcased Kansas State’s resiliency. That’s been a season-long theme and the Wildcats had to dig deep on Saturday. An unspecified injury to one of their biggest weapons, wide receiver and return specialist Malik Knowles, sent him to the sideline in the second quarter.
K-State adjusted, even getting a touchdown reception from a player named RJ Garcia II., who entered the game with five catches all year.
On-again/off-again quarterback Will Howard took over for an injured Martinez in the regular-season game against TCU, and Kansas State not only didn’t miss a beat but became more efficient.
Running back Deuce Vaughn, who rushed for a 130 yards and delivered a highlight-reel 44-yard touchdown, was selected the game’s Most Outstanding Player. But it could have been Howard, who was plenty solid in throwing for two touchdowns and rushing for another.
Back and forth it went, Duggan winning Heisman votes as the game unfolded, and Howard keeping the Wildcats on track. And as the clock wound down in the fourth quarter, it looked like Kansas State might pull it off. The Cats took a 28-17 lead with 11 minutes remaining.
But anyone who followed TCU this season knew it wasn’t over. The Horned Frogs trailed in the second half of five of their nine league contests, including their 10-point victory over K-State in Fort Worth. Sure enough, overtime was needed.
One more opportunity for TCU to run Duggan, which for some reason didn’t happen. One more chance for Kansas State to show the strength and determination that has carried the program all year.
That’s why the Wildcats celebrated and savored a championship.