A series well into its second century is bound to produce a few contests clouded in coaching uncertainty.
The 116th Sunflower Showdown brought new twists to the narrative.
Kansas was playing its first game since the firing of David Beaty, and the Jayhawks were coached by … Beaty, who is finishing out the season.
Bill Snyder, creator of the college football’s greatest turnaround project, is feeling heat from the outside. That won’t change even with the Wildcats holding on for a 21-17 triumph on Saturday that was entertaining, tense and comical.
If anyone remembers the 1987 game between these two that was dubbed the Toilet Bowl — it ended in a 17-17 deadlock — it was kind of like that all the way down to the final moments. That year, Kansas State lined up for a game-winning field goal, and it was blocked on the final snap.
Saturday, on what became the Jayhawks’ last play, the ball slipped from quarterback Peyton Bender’s hand as he cocked to throw. K-State recovered the fumble.
This occurred a few minutes after the theatrics that will come to define this year’s game. Kansas tight end Marvin Saunders helplessly watched a second straight long rushing gain, the first for 74 yards the other for 60, wiped out by a holding penalty on an offensive lineman. KU led 17-14 at the time. If either play had stood, the Jayhawks would have been in a good position to win.
The second long-gain-negating flag was tossed at the 5. Saunders picked it up, carried it to about the 30, dropped it and stood over it, as if to hide it. When detected by a nearby official, Saunders kicked the flag. All of which earned him an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Even Snyder cracked a smile when asked about the moment, saying he was “somewhat amazed” at the sight.
The frustration that prompted the flag hiding was shared throughout the Kansas side. The Jayhawks had come this close to ending a decade-long streak of Big 12 road losses. They had their share of goofs but led most of the afternoon and outgained the Wildcats.
Any suspicion that members of the KU coaching staff would be more concerned about finding their next jobs this week was unfounded. Kansas played well enough to win. Instead, its inability to finish a winnable and meaningful game showed why athletic director Jeff Long is spending his weekdays searching for Beaty’s replacement.
And Kansas State continued to play in a way that suggests the next Sunflower Showdown could be waged with new coaches on both sidelines, not just one.
A season that can conclude in a bowl game if Kansas State finds a way to beat Texas Tech and Iowa State in the final two weeks still feels lost.
But Snyder remaining as K-State’s coach beyond 2018 isn’t all about this year. The recent trends of recruiting misses and roster attrition have taken a toll on the program, and if Snyder does not want to retire, the school’s decision makers will have to determine the best future course for Kansas State no matter the coach’s iconic status.
Snyder stands with the best and most respected in the game’s history, and Kansas State and Manhattan have about run out of ways to show their appreciation. The highway to the stadium and the stadium itself are named in Snyder’s honor, and his statue greets visitors at the entrance.
If Kansas State doesn’t qualify for a bowl, a streak of eight postseason years will be snapped. Many programs would envy such success. The one Kansas State defeated Sunday clinched its 10th straight losing season, and will start the next one with its fifth coach since 2008.
But the feeling grows that a fresh start and new ideas will energize Kansas State. A similar process to 2005, when Snyder retired the first time, makes sense. He announced his decision the week of the regular-season finale and the Wildcats defeated Missouri.
But back to 1987. The teams entered that game a combined 1-15 and change was in the air. The Jayhawks fired Bob Valesente after the season and hired Glen Mason, who brought stability and a top 10 season in his nine years in Lawrence.
Stan Parrish got a third year at Manhattan before he was fired. The Wildcats turned to Iowa’s offensive coordinator, Snyder, and he did amazing things, endearing himself to the fan base in many ways ... not the least of which was dominating Kansas. Snyder improved to 23-4 in the rivalry on Saturday, with three of those losses occurring in his first four years on the job.
But the time may have arrived to pass this rivalry on to new coaches.