This Week in History (1996): A new conference is born

KSU Stadium stands packed with students for the first Big 12 sporting event ever on Aug. 31, 1996. Kansas State football defeated Texas Tech 21-14 to start the 1996 season 1-0 in Big 12 play. (Archive photo by Cary Conover | 1997 Royal Purple Yearbook)

August 31, 1996 went down in collegiate sports history as a day of monumental change. 

It wasn’t at the level of Babe Ruth’s called shot, Jordan’s shot against Utah or Vinatieri’s game winning field goals in the Super Bowl. It was a day where an idea that many thought was a desperate move to save one of the nation’s prominent programs ended up being a move that saw the birth of one of the nation’s most successful conferences.

KSU Stadium was packed early. The game featured one of the nation’s best teams, the Kansas State Wildcats battling the Texas Tech Red Raiders from the Southwestern Conference.

The Wildcats entered the 1996 season coming off its best season in program history under two-time Big 8 Coach of the Year Bill Snyder. Led by quarterback Brian Kavanagh, running back Mike Lawrence and receiver Kevin Lockett, the Wildcats would average over 28 points per game in 1996.

Still, the critical side of the ball for the Wildcats was its defense, which allowed the 11th fewest points per game in the nation in 1996. All-American defensive back Chris Canty led the team’s secondary while linebackers DeShawn Fogle and a freshman Mark Simoneau led the team’s strong linebacking core.

As for Texas Tech, they were also coming off a successful 1995 season under head coach Spike Dykes. Zebbie Lethridge led the Red Raiders at quarterback in 1996 and was supported by 2,000 yard running back Byron Hanspard and receivers Donnie Hart and Malcolm McKenzie.

The Red Raiders had a mediocre defense but was home to some standouts such as defensive back Tony Darden, who intercepted three passes that season.

The game started off slowly as the two offenses struggled to feel each other out in the first quarter. The Red Raiders ended the first 15 minutes with a 3-0 lead.

In the second quarter, the Wildcats offense began to find form. Kavanagh hit Lockett for a couple big gains before capping the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run, giving K-State a 7-3 lead.

Later in the quarter, the Wildcats struck again as Kavanagh hit wide receiver Jimmy Dean giving the Wildcats a 14-3 lead.

Late in the half, the Red Raiders were driving down the field when Lethridge hit Hart in the right corner of the endzone. However, the official controversially called the pass incomplete. Had the call been complete, the Wildcats may have lost.

In the fourth, the special teams came to play as defensive back Mario Smith recovered a botched snap in the endzone giving the Wildcats a 21-3 lead, all but putting the game to rest.

Except the Red Raiders were not going to just let the first Big 12 game go to the Wildcats. Texas Tech continued to fight back, scoring 11 points to cut the lead to a touchdown. 

However, in the final minutes, the Wildcats would hold firm and force a turnover on downs, winning the first Big 12 conference game by the final score of 21-14.

The Wildcat finished 6-2 in the new conference in 1996, third behind national powerhouses Nebraska and Colorado. The team lost in the Cotton Bowl to a tough BYU team which now resides in the Big 12 itself.

Twenty-eight years later and many things seem to be repeating themselves from 1996. Four new schools BYU, Houston, Cincinnati and UCF have all joined the conference, adding to its growth. At the same time, former Big 12 school Colorado is rejoining from the Pac-12 in the summer of 2024 alongside Arizona, Arizona State and Utah.

The conference will continue to change even more as Oklahoma and Texas will depart for the SEC come the summer of 2024. 

As the Big 12 has undergone major changes, the look back to the beginning shows how much the conference has evolved. K-State can only hope its footprint on Athletics in the conference coincides with the first Big 12 sporting event to ever be held. With the Wildcats at the top.