When Kansas State was one game from a national title

Going into the 1998 Big 12 title game, Kansas State was No. 1 in the BCS standings and a heavy favorite against Texas A&M. AP Photo/L.G. Patterson

The first year of the BCS proved to be among the wildest in college football history.

The wildest part of it all?

Kansas State, which a few years earlier had considered shuttering its football program, was just minutes away from playing in the national championship.

Going into the final weekend of the 1998 season, Tennessee, UCLA and K-State were all undefeated, generating a massive controversy in the debut year of the BCS.

The Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in the coaches' poll. But because of the computers, they needed help.

Improbably, help came. Immediately after Darnell McDonald's 66-yard touchdown catch put K-State up 17-3 over Texas A&M in the second quarter of the Big 12 championship game, the stadium announcement came: Miami had stunned UCLA. The Wildcats were on their way to putting the cherry on the top of Bill Snyder's Manhattan Miracle.

Instead, that moment set the stage for an inexplicable finish in St. Louis, which left the Wildcats in heartbreak. And it turned a diminutive running back, with the help of a "voodoo doctor," into an Aggies immortal.

As Texas A&M and K-State prepare to meet this week in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl, below is a behind-the-scenes look of that famed '98 Big 12 title game, through the words of the players and coaches who lived it:

Michael Smith, K-State assistant (1995-05): Ten years before, my freshman year at K-State we go 0-11. Then Snyder gets hired. Ten years later we're close to the pinnacle of playing for a national championship. That was unreal. They were talking about dropping down to the Missouri Valley Conference with Wichita State. It was futility. Futility U.

R.C. Slocum, Texas A&M coach (1989-2002): I've seen and met and known some great coaches. But if you ask me who has done the very best job, without a doubt, Bill Snyder would be that guy.

Bill Snyder, K-State coach: I've always said I wouldn't identify which was the best of the teams that we've had. But if push came to shove, it probably has to be that ('98) team. All those guys were extremely talented players.

Smith: I'll say it until the end, Michael Bishop is the best dual-threat quarterback ever to play the game.

Snyder: Everyone wanted to bring him to their school to be a defensive back or a variety of different positions. We were the only school that recruited him as a quarterback. Michael was truly unique, truly very gifted. He wasn't a guy that picked up the offense real quick, because there's a lot there and we ask a lot out of our quarterbacks. So there was some talk, 'Well, we can't go with him.' And I said, 'We're going with him.' He could make plays that most people couldn't.

Michael Bishop, K-State quarterback (1997-98): A lot of us came in from junior college with the attitude that 'hey, I want to play ball,' vs. being satisfied with just being here.

Snyder: With community college players, people they say they come with baggage. That had never been our belief. Ours was, you can find good guys and bad guys out of elementary school. It's being able to select the right people.

Darnell McDonald, K-State wide receiver (1997-98): Me, Michael and Jeff Kelly were in that same class. Coach Snyder changed the way people looked at junior college players.

Dat Nguyen, Texas A&M linebacker (1995-98): In Jeff Kelly and Mark Simoneau, they had the best linebacker tandem in the country.

Snyder: Mark Simoneau, I always remembered where he sat in our meeting room and how his eyes never left my lips. He was so intent and paid such close attention to anything and everything that was said because he wanted to make himself as good as he could possibly be. I always admired his work ethic.

Slocum: They were across the board a really good football team. They were a good defensive team. They had the best kicker (Martín Gramática) in the nation. Had one of the best returners (David Allen) in the nation.

Nguyen: Their special teams were unbelievable. Gramática, every time he kicked a field goal, he jumped up and celebrated. I know him now and he's a great person. But playing against him back then, you wanted to choke him.

Aaron Lockett, K-State wide receiver (1998-01): Throughout that season, we were putting up 50 a game. It was easy. We had a team that was very dynamic. We were pretty much loaded.

Martín Gramática, K-State kicker (1994-98): Nebraska was a mental block for us. Once we finally got through that hurdle, we felt good about our chances.

Bishop: We didn't know if we'd get a fair shot because we were K-State -- not a Florida State or Tennessee.

Nguyen: Nobody was giving us an opportunity. The season before in San Antonio, Nebraska had blown us out in the Big 12 title game. We just wanted to keep this one close to give ourselves a chance.

Sirr Parker, Texas A&M running back (1995-98): I had a nagging hamstring injury throughout my senior season.

Slocum: He had been limited for quite a bit. He couldn't go full speed. Getting ready for that game, there was this doctor from the Austin area. One of our alums in San Antonio had a wife in a car accident and had gotten to know the doctor. He called me, and said, 'I've got this friend that might be able to help Sirr Parker.' It was kind of a voodoo thing almost. Our training staff was immediately skeptical of it. Wednesday, this doctor comes in. Parker hadn't been able to practice all week.

Parker: Dr. Susan Grimshaw. It was strange what she did. But she could feel the energy in her hands. She dug her thumb into my leg. Then she had me hold a single ice cube on my leg until it melted. That was it. I was healed 100 percent. Everybody was calling her the 'Voodoo Doctor.' I still don't understand what she did.

Slocum: David Cutcliffe, when he was at Ole Miss and getting ready to play Mississippi State, called me about that doctor and sent a plane to pick her up. It worked for his guy, too.

Snyder: It wasn't a total surprise to us that (Parker) performed well. But it wasn't anything you were initially overly concerned about. We didn't take him lightly, but it wasn't something we were out practicing every day for some of the things he did.

Slocum: Randy McCown broke his collarbone in our last regular season game, so we were minus our starting quarterback. We went to Branndon Stewart. When his opportunity came, he was ready for it.

Joe Bob Clements, K-State defensive end (1995-98): This was a new area for us. I'm not sure anyone knew how to handle it. K-State had never been in that position before. It was a different kind of pressure.

Smith: I knew once Bob Stoops got the job at Oklahoma, obviously, Mike (Stoops) was gone. He was our D-coordinator. You knew he was going to come after (linebackers coach) Brent Venables because Brent was one of his protégés. The surprise was when Coach (Mark) Mangino left on the other side of the ball. To have three guys leave the staff -- that is a major distraction. It's hard to put a game plan together when you might not be there. We did our best. But players read newspapers, they know they're losing their coaches. That takes a toll. Obviously we weren't prepared well enough to be able to overcome it.

Mike Stoops, K-State assistant (1992-98): I don't remember it being a distraction. I remember having the chance to get to the national championship. You're obviously all in to what we were doing. Not many times in life you're in that position. You understand how important it is for Kansas State. You could tell by my reactions in the press box, which were normal, that we were into the game.

Clements: There were more distractions leading up to that game than there needed to be. The computers are telling you, it doesn't matter if you win or not, you don't deserve to be there. Then there's talk about our coaches leaving.

Mark Simoneau, K-State linebacker (1996-99): We started the game very fast. We had control of the game.

McDonald: After that touchdown in the second quarter, I get to the sideline and everyone started roaring.

Nguyen: They announce Miami beat UCLA, and their fans start throwing tortillas on the field, because they're going to the Fiesta Bowl to play for the national championship.

Snyder: I had asked before the ballgame, I had asked the people up there, the announcers if they would refrain from announcing the score of the UCLA ballgame. Then all of a sudden, here it comes. They weren't paying any attention to me, that's for sure. But I can't fault a P.A. announcer. We didn't play or coach well enough in the fourth quarter.

Smith: I'd be lying if I said I didn't hear the score.

Parker: The fans throwing tortillas, it was somewhat disrespectful. It wasn't K-State. It was the fans. But it got us motivated.

Lockett: Now we know, if we win, we're going on to play (in the BCS championship game).

Slocum: We were 15-point underdogs. And there in the fourth quarter, we were where they thought we'd be.

Branndon Stewart, Texas A&M quarterback (1996-98): That's when we just started clicking. The defense was doing a fantastic job of getting the ball to us. Everyone on the sidelines began feeling, 'Hey, we're going to win this game.' We had a lot of momentum on our side. Then they fumble.

Smith: Bishop played his tail off all year, and he fumbles the ball on 3rd-and-six when he has a first down, and all we need is a first down to run the clock out. The biggest play in that game, and our best player fumbles.

Stewart: I couldn't believe they fumbled the ball. The one thing you cannot do right there is fumble the ball and they fumble the ball.

Bishop: The fumble doesn't bother me. One fumble didn't take all the success I had on the football field. I know I left everything on the field that day.

McDonald: It really was impossible for Texas A&M to make a run like they did. So many things went perfectly right for them.

Stewart: We drive and score, we get the two-point conversion to tie the game late. Then they have this fantastic Hail Mary, but it gets caught at the 1.

Parker: Bishop had one of the strongest arms ever. He threw the ball like 70 yards with someone on his back.

Smith: Everett Burnett catches the ball off the deflection at the 1. And you're like, what is going on?

Parker: My roommate Toya Jones is the one who tackled him on the 1-yard line.

Bishop: One more yard and the game is over.

Lockett: We were confident going into overtime. But it was hard to score in the red zone. A&M was extremely fast from sideline-to-sideline. So we had to settle for field goals.

Parker: Being third-and-17, we were just trying to get in range for a field goal to tie it back up for the third overtime. We worked on a lot of motion out of the backfield to get single coverage with me. When I went out there, the linebacker didn't come out. That opened up space.

Simoneau: Everybody knew what the play was going to be when they motioned him.

Stoops: We were in a cover 3 look. The corner just got a little wide, and they split us right in the middle of our defense.

Parker: When I caught the ball, [the corner] dove at my legs. When I felt him fall off, I said, 'Forget the field goal, let's get to the end zone.'

Clements: He definitely didn't get in. I'm not sure if it would've made a difference. We still would've had to hold them from the 1.

Parker: Whether I got in or not, that's what the referee called. I was actually talking to Jeff Kelly the other day, and he was saying, blah, blah, I didn't get in. Well, I said to him, 'My ring and the fact they played in the Alamo Bowl proved I did get in.'

Stewart: I wish I remember what that play was called. It's called the Sirr Parker play now.

Parker: It's an honor that I left that type of impression. Not just with my school, but the history of college football. Eighteen years later, they still talk about it.

Snyder: It was just heartbreaking to lose that ballgame.

Gramática: We play that game 10 times, we probably win nine.

Clements: The fact K-State, in the middle of Kansas, put itself in that position and got that close. At that time, you didn't understand the grand scope of things, of how close we actually were to accomplishing something that would've been miraculous.

Smith: It's the only game in my career I will never watch.

Stoops: It hurt a lot leaving like that. That was probably the hardest loss I've ever had in my coaching career.

Snyder: I think it was such a major hit, having the opportunity to do something Kansas State had never been able to do, the way it happened, with the overtime, the lead we had, and then to drop so many slots in the bowl pecking order despite how close the game was. Yes, it was emotionally very, very difficult.

Nguyen: They were the best team in the country. We played UCLA the year before. We had played Florida State earlier that season. K-State would've beaten that Tee Martin Tennessee team.

Lockett: Nothing against Purdue, but it was not the game we should've been in. Drew Brees played good. But they didn't get the best K-State team. They got a team that was deflated with how the BCS treated us.

McDonald: I truly believe we would've dominated Tennessee. To lose in the Alamo Bowl, it messed up our legacy.

Stoops: We didn't get to the pinnacle. That's why it's so hard. We really came from the bottom. As great as it is now, the story came that close to being epic.

Gramática: Coach Snyder deserved it more than anybody. He still deserves it. When you see him win his 200th game, you just think, 'Man, I wish we could've given him that championship.' That part still hurts like the day it happened.