Legendary Snyder sparking second monumental Kansas State revival
Projected to finish eighth in Big 12, Kansas State is 7-0 and ranked 10th
Bill Snyder resurrected K-State in '90s, is doing it again in second stint
Snyder is winning with his classic recipe: ball protection, stingy defense
There are plenty of things Kansas State coach Bill Snyder could be doing this week besides preparing a football team to play its biggest conference game of the season.
During his brief retirement from 2006-08, Snyder served as chairman of Kansas Mentors, a statewide mentoring initiative, and the Kansas Leadership Council, a group that promotes civic leadership. He helped advise the university's School of Leadership Studies and Terry C. Johnson Cancer Research Center. And with five children and eight grandchildren, he finally saw some of those school plays he missed while working 16-hour days for 30 years.
There was barely time to watch football, much less entertain coaching it again.
"I didn't have that yearning," said the Wildcats' patriarch. "It wasn't pulling at my shirt sleeve. I had become so very accustomed to a [new] way of life and I was enjoying it."
But Snyder, who resurrected Kansas State from the dregs of Division I-A in 1989 and led it to three Big 12 title games and six 11-win seasons from 1997-2003, still attended Wildcats games, home and away. He watched as his once-dominant program struggled to a 17-20 record during successor Ron Prince's tenure. More disturbingly, he saw his fellow K-State community members splintering. When it came time to find Prince's replacement, the search "started and ended with [Snyder]," said former K-State president Jon Wefald, who also hired Snyder the first time. "We knew he had turned our football program around in a monumental fashion," Wefald said, "so I figured, well, he could do it again."
It took some convincing, but Snyder, now 72, eventually signed on. And sure enough, he has done it again. In his third season back, the Wildcats are 7-0 and ranked No. 10 in the country heading into Saturday's home showdown with No. 11 Oklahoma (6-1). The game lost some cachet nationally when Texas Tech upset the Sooners last weekend, but it's still a plenty big deal in Manhattan, where it's been eight years since K-State won its first and only Big 12 title.
"For the umpteenth time he's done an amazing job, but he always has," said Oklahoma coach and former Snyder assistant Bob Stoops. "It is no surprise to any of us here who have worked with him and are familiar with him."
On paper, Saturday's game looks like a mismatch. Oklahoma is loaded with All-America caliber players like quarterback Landry Jones, wide receiver Ryan Broyles and defensive end Frank Alexander. Kansas State has just one, linebacker Arthur Brown, a Miami transfer. The Wildcats came into the season having to replace star running back Daniel Thomas, now with the Miami Dolphins, and having to rely on a quarterback, Collin Klein, who had attempted just four passes in his first start last season against Texas.
But beginning with a 28-24 win at Miami on Sept. 24, in which linebacker Tre Walker stopped Hurricanes quarterback Jacory Harris just short of the goal line on a last-minute fourth-and-goal play, the Wildcats won four straight games as an underdog. They survived Robert Griffin III and Baylor 36-35, slowed down Missouri's offense for a 24-17 victory, won a 41-34 shootout at Texas Tech and then throttled rival Kansas 59-21 last week.
There's not a Michael Bishop or Darren Sproles reeling off highlights for these Wildcats. Instead, Snyder mostly keeps the ball in the hands of Klein, who's accounted for 65 percent of the Wildcats' offense (670 yards and 14 touchdowns rushing, 934 yards and eight touchdowns passing), and running back John Hubert (637 yards, two touchdowns rushing). And just like in the old days, the Wildcats take care of the ball (No. 10 nationally in turnover margin) and play stingy defense (No. 1 in the Big 12).
"We're playing football like Butler plays basketball," said Wefald, who retired in 2009 but remains a K-State sports junkie. "We're doing the opposite of what just about everyone is doing now with the no-huddle, moving really fast. We're taking the air out of the ball."
Despite his success, Snyder is rarely mentioned among the pantheon of coaching greats like he should be, nor given his due as an innovator. He was among the first to use his quarterback (mainly 1998 Heisman runner-up Bishop) as a shotgun runner, and while there is debate as to the origins of the "Wildcat" package, many believe its name traces to one of Snyder's mid-90s formations.
But the soft-spoken, bespectacled coach didn't rebuild the program twice solely through Xs and Os. His painstaking attention to the tiniest of details is legendary, and his reputation for developing lightly recruited high-schoolers and junior college transfers is unparalleled. While the program he inherited this time around wasn't coming off an 0-26-1 stretch like in 1989, he set about his job the same way.
"Probably because I'm not smart enough to figure out a better way," said Snyder, who slipped to 9-13 in the two seasons (2004 and '05) before he retired and went 13-12 his first two years back. "It's not a way to quote-unquote turn programs around, I just have a system that's been ingrained in me for a long time as it relates to teaching and coaching. I think my approach has not been any different than it was 22 years ago."
That approach includes handing each new player a card detailing his 16 Goals to Success (commitment, unselfishness, consistency and so on) and hammering those goals home in meetings and practices. Snyder is strict with his players on the practice field and the sideline but fatherly in between.
"Some programs talk about 'family,' some actually do it," said Bill's son Sean Snyder, a former punter and current special teams coordinator who has been with K-State since 1994. "We're a program that's very strong about it, and the players find a coach that's hard on them and holds them accountable but really cares about them."
Snyder cares deeply about the university as well, constantly referencing "the people" around the school when explaining why he came back. Prince's short tenure was controversial. The former Virginia offensive coordinator raised eyebrows when, in a seemingly desperate move, he signed a class of 19 juco recruits going into his third season. He reached the Texas Bowl his first season but regressed from there, earning a pink slip nine games into his third season after a 52-21 loss to Kansas.
While Snyder says he hadn't considered returning, those close to him suspect otherwise.
"I didn't feel like he was ready to retire when he did the first time," said Sean. "When the possibility of coming back arose, I personally felt that for him, it was an opportunity to finish what he wanted to finish. He had some time off, which was good, because this profession can wear you down, but I still saw the glimmer in his eye."
Snyder returned, he said, "to calm the waters a little bit," serve as a temporary stopgap and restore stability to the program. If so, he's accomplished those goals.
Last season the Wildcats went 7-6, losing to Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl. But with just 11 returning starters, they could have easily taken a step back this year. Prognosticators generally picked them to finish eighth in the 10-team Big 12. Instead, they're tied for first place with No. 3 Oklahoma State, which K-State visits immediately after facing Oklahoma.
That Kansas State is back playing in games of this magnitude, as it did regularly in the late '90s and early 2000s, seems like a milestone in Snyder's latest reclamation project. But good luck getting the coach to talk big picture.
"We're closing the gap," Snyder said. "You look at the short term, the teams we still have on our schedule, it would be unwise to suggest we would escape error free here. Certainly with the teams remaining on our schedule will be the toughest we've competed against, so there's still the possibility of a rocky road ahead of us."
While that possibility has always existed, Snyder's job has changed considerably since 1989. He is attached to his iPad, and he's constantly reminding his players to be careful on Twitter and Facebook. (Snyder does not tweet.) Nevertheless, those close to him have noticed that Snyder seems more relaxed this time around. He still puts in the same marathon hours, but he spends more time returning calls and e-mails.
"I definitely think he's enjoying it more this time around," said close friend Wefald. "He's very happy."
But don't be fooled into thinking a rejuvenated Snyder is back for the long haul. Despite the Wildcats' success, he still views himself as a placeholder tasked with getting the program back on solid ground for someone else.
"That was the intent, and in my eyes, I have not strayed," Snyder said. "We're going to give it the best effort we can, try to calm the waters. How long that will take, I don't know, but when it does, I'll be back doing that other stuff."
In the meantime, the nation will enjoy watching a legend at work.