Kansas State University

How Bill Snyder’s first bowl game transformed K-State into a postseason staple

K-State players celebrate after the Copper Bowl by giving Bill Snyder a Gatorade bath.
K-State players celebrate after the Copper Bowl by giving Bill Snyder a Gatorade bath. Topeka Capital-Journal File Photo

If you have ever heard Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder speak at a pep rally, chances are good you know K-State defeated Wyoming 52-17 in the 1993 Copper Bowl.

He loves to tell stories about that game.

It was his first bowl as a head coach, and it became a launching point for the sustained success and postseason tradition K-State enjoys today.

Snyder has coached 320 games during his Hall-of-Fame career, leading the Wildcats to 209 victories, 18 bowls and two Big 12 championships. But none of those achievements mean more than that triumphant night 24 years ago in Tucson, Ariz.

Snyder is now preparing to coach his 19th bowl. This one will take him back to where it all began, as K-State will play UCLA in the Cactus Bowl — the modern incarnation of the Copper Bowl.

K-State coach Bill Snyder has seen the team through more than 200 wins and every winning bowl game. (Video by Candi Bolden Music by Bensound.com)

It’s hard not to reminisce about that classic game. Years later, former players, administrators and coaches say it put K-State football on the map. Here is a collection of their stories:

Breakout season

Jon Wefald, former K-State president: The Copper Bowl is the most memorable and important bowl game in Kansas State history. Think about this: from 1935-86 Kansas State had 11 football coaches, nine athletic directors and four presidents, meaning there wasn’t a single person in that group that could turn football around. We were the worst football program in history. Things were so bleak that I once gave a speech to the Rotary Club of Kansas City where I said, ‘I don’t see any reason why we can’t have a competitive football team.’ I didn’t mean a championship team, but I thought we could win four games a year. The whole room laughed. No one thought it could be done. We seemed destined to drop football and join the Missouri Valley Conference. That all changed in 1993. The team went 9-2-1 and finished ranked 20th in the country. The Copper Bowl was a turning point for K-State football. It was magical.

Eric Wolford, former K-State offensive lineman: When Bill Snyder first got there in 1989, the goal was to win a game – any game. One win! A bowl game was the furthest thing from our minds. We took a lot of pride in the journey.

Bill Snyder: It was meaningful, because it was the first bowl game. It kind of highlighted the progression the program had made in those early years.

Laird Veatch, former K-State linebacker: The Copper Bowl is my favorite memory as a player. There were a lot of moments during those early Snyder years where we felt like we were becoming a winning team, but that was the game where we arrived. The rebuilding process was over.

Quentin Neujahr, former K-State center: That started a streak of 11 straight bowl games for Kansas State. A lot of former players have four bowl rings, but I wouldn’t trade my Copper Bowl ring for any four rings. People don’t understand what it was like, what it took to make our first bowl. We went through hell.

Mitch Holthus, former K-State radio announcer: The only other bowl game in Kansas State history was the 1982 Independence Bowl, and it was nothing like the Copper Bowl. K-State fans showed up in Shreveport wearing shorts and flip flops expecting warm weather and it was 5 degrees. Wisconsin won 14-3. After the woeful years of the late 80s, the Copper Bowl was beyond our wildest dreams. So was that team.

Jaime Mendez, former K-State safety: We were close to winning a conference championship. We only lost two games. We tied Colorado (16-16), and that was because we missed a friggin extra point. We lost to Nebraska (45-28), but we were right there with them on the road most of the way. What really hurt us was a hiccup at Iowa State (27-23). We shouldn’t have lost that game. We could have been playing in the Orange Bowl.

JJ Smith, former K-State running back: The Copper Bowl was awesome, but we were initially unhappy about going there. It was kind of like when K-State went to the Alamo Bowl in 1998. Iowa State beating us was a total fluke. We were in control of the game until a streaker ran across the field butt naked. It took security forever to get rid of him. We all thought it was hilarious, but we lost our focus and it turned the game around.

Quentin Neujahr: Lots of ups and downs that year. We went to Minnesota and won (30-25) on a goal-line stand, just stuffed them four times in a row. We started Big Eight play by beating KU (10-9). We beat Oklahoma (21-7) for the first time since 1970. It was our first win over a top 20 team in forever. We lost to Nebraska and stumbled against Iowa State. Then we came back and beat Missouri (31-21) on senior day and Chad May directed an 80-yard touchdown drive to win our final game at Oklahoma State (21-17).

Kevin Lockett, former K-State receiver: It was a breakout year. That was the first season Chad May stepped in at quarterback, and he was incredible. We had an Air Raid offense when everyone else was still running the ball. Nobody could stop us or Chad. He had one of the strongest arms to ever play quarterback at K-State. You could pinpoint his passes the moment they left his hand, and they hit you right in the numbers. Chad was a little bit of a gambler and his confidence rubbed off on the entire team.

Chad May at the 1993 Copper Bowl in Tucson Photo courtesy Kansas State University Sports Information

JJ Smith: We were the best passing team in the conference. Chad threw for (489) yards on Nebraska that year. Our receivers — Andre Coleman, Kevin Lockett and Mitch Running – were all amazing. Coleman was the fastest guy I had ever been around. He could run a 4.2! We were the team that made Nebraska start recruiting defensive backs.

Chad May, former K-State quarterback: We played a lot differently back then. We threw it a lot, and we had great running backs. The offense K-State runs today is like a foreign language to me. They snap it to the quarterback, he does a little dance and runs behind a bunch of people. It works, but I don’t know how. Our offense was much more fun back then. It was wide open.

Stan Weber, K-State radio analyst: Bill Snyder was the greatest offensive mind in college football, and he finally had the talent to execute the way he wanted. They threw the ball more than they ran it, but they used the pass to open up the run. It was a whole new concept in the Big Eight. You had Chad May throwing, JJ Smith running out of the shotgun and Kevin Lockett and Andre Coleman at receiver. They were dominant.

Kevin Lockett: Our defense was really good, too. They carried us at times.

Laird Veatch: We were pretty aggressive that year, as you can imagine. With Bob Stoops and Jim Leavitt as our coordinators, we didn’t sit back a lot. We had good defensive backs that could cover. That allowed us to be aggressive up front. We got after people.

Kirby Hocutt, former K-State linebacker: That was the first year we started to see results. We had a special group of guys who bought into Coach Snyder’s process. We worked hard on fundamentals and repetition, doing the right thing each and every day. We weren’t the best team or the strongest team that year, but we were the most prepared team. We had an all-star coaching staff.

JJ Smith: Bob Stoops, Jim Leavitt, Del Miller and Dana Dimel. Mark Mangino was our recruiting coordinator and motivator extraordinaire. They all went on to become head coaches.

Kevin Lockett: Everything came together that year. We went on a winning streak and the fan base went absolutely crazy.

Sea of purple

Stan Weber: The best thing about the Copper Bowl was the pep rally. Today it’s this huge tradition with K-State fans packing arenas and stadiums, and that all started in Tucson.

Mitch Holthus: Bill Snyder pulled me aside and said, ‘This is how it works at Iowa: a big part of the bowl experience is an awesome pep rally. I want you to put one together.’ My bodily fluids were rushing. I’m in the pep rally business now? How am I going to do this? I had no idea. But I didn’t want to disappoint coach. He was so excited about it. I gave it a shot.

Stan Weber: We all jumped in and helped Mitch create one of the most unbelievable environments in K-State history. We put home-made signs up all across Tucson, announcing a pep rally at the team hotel. There was no social media back then.

Mitch Holthus: We got a plane and dropped leaflets out of the sky. Our hope was to get 100 people. We ended up with thousands. People came from everywhere in BMWs and pickup trucks and cabs. There were so many people that the team bus had to park down the street, and fans were packed into the hotel like sardines. I’m glad the fire marshal wasn’t there, because we had broken code big time.

Bill Snyder: We had well over 5,000 people that couldn’t get in.

Brad Seib, former K-State tight end: It was amazing. There were so many people. We looked at each other and were like, ‘Holy cow.’ Those are the things you heard about from big-time programs. We were trying to blaze a path to get to that point. For all those fans to show up, it meant the world to us.

John Butler, former K-State defensive end: K-State fans are the best in the country. I’m biased, of course, but I think that’s a fair statement. We had to squeeze through the crowd single file just to get to our own pep rally.

Jon Wefald: It felt like Hoosiers. You had this small-town school in a bowl. No one thought it would ever happen. There was so much smiling and enthusiasm in that room. Players walked in with tears streaming down their faces.

Stan Weber: It was chilling how loud and hot it was in that room. It felt like Ahearn Fieldhouse.

Mitch Holthus: When the team came in, the place exploded. It meant so much to everyone. I will take that moment to my grave.

Brad Seib: We had a choice to go to the Aloha Bowl or the Copper bowl. Coach Snyder let us vote on it as a team. We chose the Copper Bowl, because even though we really wanted to go to Hawaii we knew K-State fans were hungry to say they went to a bowl game, and they could only do that in Tucson.

Laird Veatch: The best was when we walked out of the locker room for the game and saw a sea of purple. They say it was only 15,000 fans, but it looked like 40,000. It was overwhelming.

Quentin Neujahr: Nobody wanted Kansas State to be in the Copper Bowl or the Aloha Bowl or any other bowl until that moment. After that, every bowl wanted us. It was an unbelievable atmosphere. We played some home games in front 2,000 people, if you counted them twice. It was the largest K-State crowd we had ever seen.

Immortal introduction

ESPN began the broadcast with a western-themed hype video that featured Andre Coleman, Jaime Mendez and four Wyoming captains dressed as lawmen. It has since been immortalized on YouTube.

Jaime Mendez: I don’t remember much about the game, but I remember everything about that. The entire team was making fun of us. My pants were extremely tight and my hat was too small and they didn’t have shoes for me. I wore sneakers and they filmed me from the waist up. They had us get off this train and our guys were destroying me. The guy who was filming the commercial, by the end, was really upset with me, because I couldn’t say my lines. I was laughing too hard. I tried telling him, ‘I’m no actor. I’m a football player.’

JJ Smith: They shot it at the same place where they filmed Tombstone. Sharon Stone was there filming a different movie. She stayed at our hotel. It looked really cool, and we all wanted to be in it. Instead, we just made fun of Andre and Jaime.

Kevin Lockett: It was all in fun until the video surfaced on YouTube. At the time, I remember being very jealous I wasn’t involved. Now, 24 years later, I watch it and I’m glad I was not involved.

Jaime Mendez: We were so bad. The Wyoming players all had lines, but they took ours out. That’s probably a good thing. Thankfully, we played better than we acted.

The game

Quentin Neujahr: All we heard during bowl practice was that Wyoming had the best offense ever. They were going to throw for 500 and run for 200. The game was publicized as a shootout. We had the mindset that if we had to score 100 to win, we were going to score 100. We were tremendously focused to win the first bowl in school history.

Laird Veatch: We were honestly overprepared. The coaching staff convinced us Wyoming could do no wrong, and we overplayed everything in the first quarter. I remember Kirby Hocutt was so jacked up that I literally had to get him lined up on our first series. He was in the wrong spot every play. Now he’s the AD at Texas Tech and Mr. ESPN with the playoff committee. But nothing could contain his excitement back then.

Kirby Hocutt: All season, I was the guy who made sure Mike Ekeler and Percell Gaskins were lined up in the right gaps. Then, first play of that game, I line up on the wrong side. It was my first bowl experience, just like it was for everyone else.

Nerves clearly had an impact on K-State in the early moments. Wyoming scored first on a field goal, and the game was close at the end of the first quarter. JJ Smith (133 yards) scored on a two-yard touchdown run to give K-State a 9-3 lead.

Stan Weber: None of that mattered. After the first quarter, K-State looked so fast and so good. Andre Coleman was getting loose for touchdowns. So was Kevin Lockett and JJ Smith. Chad May was unstoppable. You couldn’t have scripted it any better.

Kevin Lockett: Everything that could go right went right. I think I only caught one pass, and it was for a touchdown. Our offensive coordinator called a perfect game. We literally couldn’t be stopped.

JJ Smith: I had almost 100 yards and a touchdown at halftime. I really wanted to keep pouring it on Wyoming so we could play our backups. Everything was working. Andre Coleman even scored on special teams.

Coleman went on to win Offensive MVP honors with eight catches, 144 yards and a touchdown as a receiver. He also returned a punt 68 yards for a score. Now a K-State assistant, Snyder’s media policy prohibited Coleman from participating in this story. His big plays gave K-State a 31-10 lead early in the third quarter.

Chad May: I remember throwing for a touchdown on probably the most painful play of my life. I rolled out to my right and at the last minute before going out of bounds threw back across my body to Andre Coleman. He caught it and ran 65 yards, but I got leveled.

Cornerback Kenny McEntyre closed out the game with a 37-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. K-State outgained Wyoming 502-302. May threw for 275 yards and two touchdowns.

Mitch Holthus: Wyoming was an extremely good team. They went 8-4 and won the WAC, but they couldn’t keep up with K-State. Their coach, Joe Tiller, said afterward K-State had too much speed and athleticism. No one had ever said that about K-State before.

Jaime Mendez: We went in there with a tremendous amount of confidence. It might be odd to think that way for a team that had never had success. But we knew how good we were.

The celebration

Quentin Neujahr: After we won, I went into the locker room and cried. I was happy we won, but there was some sadness. I was sad for guys that weren’t there like Toby Lawrence, Paul Watson, Carl Straw, Al Jones and Michael Smith, who went through everything we went through, but never had the chance to experience the joy we had that night.

Eric Wolford: We were part of history. No one will ever take that away.

Jaime Mendez: It was gratifying to know the program was on good footing. As long as Coach Snyder stayed, which was a big worry back then, and he kept that staff together we knew we weren’t going to be a one-hit wonder.

Kevin Lockett: We take a lot of pride in knowing that we were a part of the greatest turnaround in college football, and it only got better from there. That next year, we upgraded facilities, got a new press box and went to another bowl. As a senior, I played in the Cotton Bowl in front of 45,000 K-State fans.

Chad May: It was a great achievement, especially with everything they have done since. It was the greatest feeling in the world at the time. We entered that next season with so much confidence.

Jaime Mendez: I still hear about the Copper Bowl every time I’m in Manhattan. It was 24 years ago, but people talk about it like it was yesterday. Not just people my age, either. People who weren’t even alive ask me for autographs, because they heard stories or saw it online. They appreciate the foundation we built.

Jon Wefald: Kansas State went on to play in Cotton Bowls, Holiday Bowls and Fiesta Bowls, but none of them were as special as that Copper Bowl. Bill Snyder has told me that many times.

Mitch Holthus: It’s important to remember the Copper Bowl, because the newest generation of K-State fan might not know what it was like at the beginning. K-State didn’t used to go to bowls every year and have giant pep rallies. That game started it all.

Kansas State football players celebrate a 52-17 win over Wyoming in the 1993 Copper Bowl. Courtesy Photo: K-State athletics.

Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett