Open Air: How two former Iowa assistants revolutionized football in the Big 12 conference

When you think of the Iowa Hawkeyes, you usually think of tough, physical, gritty kind of football, which is the image that Kirk Ferentz has instilled. But, once upon a time, the team in Iowa City was seen as offensive revolutionaries….well, at least in the Big Ten.

When Hayden Fry arrived in Iowa City in 1979, the Iowa football program hadn’t had a winning season in nearly 20 years. Expectations were low, the talent was even lower, but morale and passion never left the Hawkeye faithful. Fry knew he had to change the culture, and had the right plan in place.

Throughout the 1970’s, the Big Ten was known as the “Big Two, Little Eight”, as Ohio State and Michigan won every conference title from 1967 to 1981. Those two programs won with a brick and mortar approach, Ohio State with Woody Hayes Wing-T, and Michigan with their various attacks from Wing-T to wishbone to I-formation.

Source: Ohio State University

Fry knew that all other teams in the Big Ten were trying to duplicate what the Buckeyes and Wolverines were doing. But, he knew his wide-open passing attack from North Texas would be something never seen in the Big Ten.

Fortunately for Fry, his offensive coordinator was on board with him. That man? A 39-year old former running back for William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri by the name of Bill Snyder.

Fry and Snyder brought their wide-open passing attack to the Big Ten, however, it did not immediately translate to success, as Iowa finished 5-6 and 4-7 in 1979 and 1980 respectively. It appeared that Fry would be just another victim of Iowa football.

Fry had other plans, however, plans such as the 1981 season.

The turning point was the first Saturday afternoon of the season in Kinnick Stadium, against the #7 Nebraska Cornhuskers lead by Tom Osborne. Iowa defeated Nebraska 10-7 in a landmark victory for the program.

(The Omaha World-Herald) 1981 W-H file photo of University of Nebraska football player Roger Craig being tackled by Iowa defender Brad Webb.

1981 also showcased wins over #6 UCLA and #5 Michigan as Iowa finished the regular season 8-3. With a Michigan upset over Ohio State, Iowa smacked Michigan State in the regular season finale at home to clinch their first Rose Bowl berth since 1958.

The Standard

The next season, a young, curly-haired quarterback from Wheaton, Illinois took over the reigns of the Iowa offense.

His name was Chuck Long.

In his four seasons as a starter, Long set the Big Ten record for passing yards in a career with 10,461 yards, passing touchdowns with 74, and completions with 782.

Long was groomed by Snyder, who also doubled as Iowa’s quarterbacks coach. Many credit Snyder with developing the former wishbone quarterback in high school to one of the Big Ten’s greatest quarterbacks.

Long’s best season was his last, as he finished runner-up in the 1985 Heisman Trophy to Bo Jackson in what was then the closest Heisman vote in history. Long would be drafted in the first round of the 1986 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions.

Snyder remained as offensive coordinator for three more seasons before taking the head coaching job at Kansas State after the 1988 season. At the time, Kansas State was the worst football program in Division I football.

Humble Beginnings

Snyder was not an overnight sensation in Manhattan, then again, who is when you’re taking over a program who had just TWO winning seasons from 1955 to 1988. When Snyder arrived, Kansas State also hadn’t won a football game in over two years as well.

After a 1-10 season in 1989, followed by a 5-win season in 1990, Kansas State finished 1991 with a 7-4 record, just narrowly missing a bowl berth. Bowl game or not, there was hope in Manhattan.

Bill Snyder in his introductory press conference in 1989 (K-State HD)

Two seasons later, Kansas State clinched their first bowl berth since 1982 and the first bowl win in school history when they beat Wyoming in the Cactus Bowl. Kansas State also finished the season ranked for the first time ever as well.

A member of the coaching staff during the early Snyder days was a former defensive back and graduate assistant at Iowa when Snyder was offensive coordinator. A man by the name of Bob Stoops, but we’ll get to him later.

Snyder’s offense was changing the Big 8, a league once dominated by Oklahoma’s wishbone and Nebraska’s I-bone offense. Snyder kept the option apart of his attack, but mixed in the passing game he had crafted at Iowa, which showed a balanced attack the conference had never seen.

The New Standard

Michael Bishop was a two-sport star at Willis High School in Willis, Texas. He attended Blinn Junior College after high school and lead Blinn to an NJCAA National Championship as a dual-threat quarterback.

Quarterback’s of Bishop’s skill set and stature were never really thought of as passing threats, more of generals of the option game, and it showed in Bishop’s recruitment out of Blinn, as he was offered as a defensive back by several universities.

However, when Kansas State offered Bishop to play quarterback, he jumped at the opportunity.

By the time Bishop joined Kansas State in 1997, the Wildcats were fresh off of a 10-win season in 1995 and a 9-win season in 1996. Bishop took Kansas State to the next level, clinching the first of four consecutive 11-win seasons for the Wildcats, finishing 1997 with an 11-1 record. The only loss of the season was to eventual co-national champion Nebraska.

Michael Bishop pushes away Oklahoma State defenders as he runs for 51 yards in the fourth quarter of an October 1998 game. (Bo Rader/Kansas City Star)

The stage was set for a national championship run in 1998, as the Kansas State tore through the Big 12 with an 11-0 record, including the end of a 30-game losing streak to Nebraska, which clinched the Big 12 North title for the Wildcats.

Unfortunately, Kansas State stumbled to the finish, as they were stunned in the Big 12 Championship Game in a double overtime loss to Texas A&M and a last-minute loss to Purdue in the Alamo Bowl. By then, Kansas State had taken the college football world by storm and the Wildcats were here to stay.

However, that offseason a former Snyder assistant was hired by conference rival Oklahoma, and had noticed the success that his former boss had with his offensive philosophies.

The Second Coming

Bob Stoops was hired as head coach at Oklahoma following the 1998 season. One of the blue bloods in college football, Oklahoma had not finished a season with 10+ wins since 1987 and had gone through 4 coaching changes since then.

Stoops took a page out of Hayden Fry’s book and hired an innovator for his offensive coordinator. Mike Leach never played a down of college football, but rose up the ranks under the tutelage of Air Raid creator Hal Mumme.

When Bob Stoops was hired at Oklahoma, he hired Mike Leach to run the Air Raid offense. It changed the fortunes of Sooner football — but it also did a number of football in the Big 12. [AP PHOTO]

What Leach was able to accomplish in tutoring Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch impressed Stoops enough to hire him as offensive coordinator in 1999. Leach’s first job was to transform a former junior college quarterback from South Dakota by the name of Josh Heupel.

Oklahoma finished 1999 with a 7-5 record and their first bowl berth in 5 years. After the season Leach was hired as head coach at Texas Tech, leaving another Snyder disciple, Mark Mangino, in charge of the offense.

All Mangino did was direct an offense that lead Oklahoma to a 13-0 season and the 2000 BCS National Championship, and that junior college quarterback? Finished as the Heisman Trophy runner-up and became an NFL Draft pick.

That same season, Stoops hired former Iowa quarterback and teammate Chuck Long as his quarterbacks coach. Long would go on and tutor a future Heisman Trophy-winner Jason White in his time in Norman. He eventually would become offensive coordinator following Mangino’s departure to Kansas in December 2001.

The Clash of Titans

Between 1999 and 2005, Bob Stoops and Bill Snyder’s squads met 6 times, with the student holding the upper-hand on the teacher with a 5-1 record. Oklahoma and Kansas State did meet twice in Big 12 Championship Games, with the record split at 1-1.

Stoops’ Sooners knocked off Kansas State in 2000 on their way to the national championship. Snyder’s Wildcats would get revenge in 2004, when his Wildcats took down what was arguably, Bob Stoops most talented team at Oklahoma, in the Big 12 Title game.

It wasn’t the Big 8 battles of yesteryear with the Oklahoma wishbone or the Nebraska I-bone. It was high-flying passing attacks with mobile quarterbacks and explosive receivers. An offensive revolution had occurred in the Big 12.

Revolution Becomes Standard

Today, the spread passing concepts of Oklahoma and the spread rushing attacks of Kansas State have become the norm in college football. Coaches such as Urban Meyer, Lincoln Riley and Matt Campbell are just a few of the coaches carrying on the legacy of the two men who re-shaped offensive football.

Their influence has even found its way to the NFL, as coaches such as Sean McVay and Kliff Kingsburry bring the air raid philosophy that Leach and Mangino brought to Oklahoma to the pros.

For years and years, it was believed that the Spread and Air Raid could never make it in the NFL and that they were “gimmicky offenses”. All of that was put to rest when McVay led his Rams to Super Bowl LIII.

His opponent was the New England Patriots, lead by Bill Belichick, a man who people surely thought would never be influenced by the college game…wait, he was? Belichick has evolved his offense to include spread passing concepts as well.

But the spread will always remain a college mainstay and shows no signs of going away anytime soon. In an era where not having a fullback meant you weren’t playing football, two men showed the college football world that the game could played at a different pace and a different look.

Not bad for two guys who lived in Iowa City, Iowa at one point, huh?

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