Fresh off a Big 12 championship, the Wildcats had won 72 games over the previous seven seasons and earned mention among the nation's best programs. Coach Bill Snyder had somehow discovered the magic formula. He was able to transform the school with the worst record in the history of college football into one of the best, all while using players Mack Brown and Bob Stoops wouldn't give a second look.
But then the Wildcats began chasing stars.
Higher-ranked players started showing more interest in the Wildcats, and K-State returned the favor. But the Wildcats weren't able to reel in the elite national prospects, and the ones they did land didn't fit Snyder's plan. Two former K-State assistants say those misses, especially at quarterback, were the biggest reasons why Snyder suffered losing seasons in 2004 and 2005.
So how do schools that aren't the likes of Alabama, Ohio State, Texas and USC juggle cashing in on the attention that winning brings without deviating from what's worked in the past?
It's a struggle schools like K-State, Oregon State and Boise State constantly battle. Those programs enjoyed tremendous success over the past 15 years by recruiting players who fit their systems without the inherent advantages elite programs enjoy.
They will never have a 7,000-square-foot scoreboard. They're not going to have a large number of high-profile recruits right in their backyard like the Trojans, Gators or Longhorns. And despite all their success, they can't compete with the history of the traditional powers.
Before these schools can figure out how to move forward, it's critical to examine how they got there in the first place.
K-State's rise has been well documented, as Snyder did an excellent job of mining junior college recruits looking for second chances and underappreciated high school prospects.
Those close to the program said Snyder's blueprint is to build off three things -- toughness, character and desire.
"We're always looking for the character and the quality of a young student-athlete," K-State associate head coach Sean Snyder said. "We want a guy that's physically tough, that's mentally tough, and then we want a guy that's passionate about the game of football.
"You start blending a lot of things together in those formulas, and well, not all kids have all those traits. They maybe a phenomenal five-star-rated athlete, but do they have the work ethic to be able to transition to the next level?"
Oregon State has tasted similar success to Kansas State, winning 97 games since 2000. Like the Wildcats, the Beavers don't burn up the recruiting rankings. Last year, they finished 46th in the ESPN class rankings.
So coach Mike Riley requires his assistants to work harder than their Pac-12 peers to find the right fits. The Beavers aren't going to ever be able to match the location that teams like USC, UCLA, Cal, Stanford and even Washington have in the Pac-12. Plus, Oregon isn't exactly teeming with blue-chip recruits, so Riley knows Oregon State has to win the evaluation battle.
"We look for growth potential guys that are going to have their best football ahead of them," Beavers assistant director of player personnel Ryan Gunderson said. "But also, we have some criteria that we look for when it comes to personality and ability to learn and stuff like that. We would take a certain guy who's going to be able to fit into our town, football program and family atmosphere over a highly ranked kid that we have some questions about."
Through the past 12 classes, Boise State has landed only 11 four-star prospects, with quarterback Kellen Moore the highest ranked in the bunch. But year after year, the Broncos find themselves in the top 25 that matters most, including perfect seasons in 2006 and 2009.
"We talk a lot about our OKG formula -- our kind of guys," Broncos recruiting coordinator Keith Bhonapha said. "First, we look to find guys that fit into what we like on offense, defense and special teams, but the football part of it is only one part of it. For us, when it comes to the OKG and the type of player that we want, it's not just football. Is he the type of person that we want? Is the type of student that we want, as well as the athlete?"
While character and discipline can't replace a quarterback's ability to chuck the ball 70 yards down the field off the wrong foot, it can help him to avoid choking under the pressure of playing in front of 100,000 angry fans on the road when he's down four points and has the ball with 2 minutes left.
Identifying both, though, is easier said than done.
"With recruiting at this point, you can go and pull up any film you want from every game in high school," Bhonapha said. "That's what recruiting used to be about when you go on the road. But now at this point for me it should be a fact-finding expedition. We take the time to get as much information from whoever it may be to help you make an educated guess of what type of player, person and student you're getting."
Those fits often come in the form of guys who aren't quite finished products. Ready-made stars are reserved for Alabama, Texas and USC. But that's OK for the Wildcats, Beavers and Broncos. They're looking for upside. They don't have to get the best guy when he's 17. They want the best guy when he's 21. And Snyder, Riley and Chris Petersen at Boise have made of art of finding them.
The poster boys for this at Kansas State are Terence Newman and Darren Sproles. Both were lightly recruited but went on to have great college careers and move on to the NFL. With the Broncos, offensive tackles Nate Potter and Ryan Clady earned All-American honors despite either being unranked or ranked only with two stars. At Oregon State, Mike Hass embodies everything that the Beavers look for. Hass rose from unheralded walk-on to the greatest receiver in OSU history.
However, coaches admit it's tough to stick with the plan when the victories start piling up and you're the cool school mentioned by four-star prospects across the country. That's the struggle K-State faced coming off the Big 12 championship in 2003. Its success produced interest from players who would have never considered the Wildcats in the past, and they went after them -- hard.
After the success of dual-threat quarterbacks Michael Bishop and Ell Roberson, the Wildcats were on the short list for a number of blue-chip running quarterbacks in 2004 and 2005. When those players went elsewhere, Snyder & Co. were forced to scramble, bringing in a trio of signal-callers who never panned out.
Coaches at Boise State and Oregon State can easily understand how that happens. It's the same battle they face every day when they turn on film or read a report from an upper-echelon recruit talking up their school.
"I guess there are personalities and just people within our staff where there is a push and a pull," Gunderson said. "'Hey, we have to go after some of these kids.' And there are also others that say 'Well, let's be realistic here. How many calories do we want to burn on a kid that we may not be in his top 15 schools?' Do we want to spend a lot of time trying to get into that 15? Or are we better off evaluating 50 other kids and finding the guy that's the right fit for us."
Snyder stepped away from K-State after 2005 but returned in 2009 after the Wildcats went 17-20 under Ron Prince. Snyder immediately went back to the blueprint that had worked so well in the past, and the Wildcats were again finding hidden gems. The 2009 class produced running back John Hubert, safety Ty Zimmerman and defensive end Meshack Williams, three difference-makers during the 2012 Big 12 championship run.
K-State offensive coordinator Dana Dimel, who has been with the Wildcats for 16 years, said the team has seen its profile rise to a level that far surpasses what it was in 2003, but lessons have been learned. This time, the Wildcats are going to stick with the blueprint.
"We're not going to be scared of a kid because he's a four star," Dimel said. "We're going to test the waters and see if the kid is interested. If he is, then we're going to recruit him hard. If he's not interested, we're not going to chase him. We're not going to chase him just to be fifth. It doesn't do you any good to be fifth. But most of all, we're going to follow the blueprint and find the kids that are K-State-type players. We can never forget who we are at K-State and what got us here in the first place."