SI Vault
Tim Layden
November 09, 1998
Thanks to tireless coach Bill Snyder, once moribund Kansas State not only is a consistent winner but also has the national title within its reach
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November 09, 1998

Miracle Worker

Thanks to tireless coach Bill Snyder, once moribund Kansas State not only is a consistent winner but also has the national title within its reach

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Anybody else would find a way to put down the VCR clicker while exercising. Snyder works out on a stair machine in his office while studying tape.

Anybody else would let it slide when butter is served at a team meal instead of the requested margarine. Not Snyder.

Anybody else would lighten up. Snyder doesn't. He insists that he has interests outside of football—boating, swimming, reading—"but I just can't pursue any of them at this point in my life." Even in rare moments of leisure, he's maddeningly purposeful. He first picked up a golf club four years ago, when Colbert volunteered to give him a lesson at the Bighorn Club in Palm Desert, Calif. Snyder beat balls in the sunshine for five hours until his hands bled.

This fanaticism isn't new. When Snyder was 28, fresh from a year as a graduate assistant to John McKay at USC, he was hired to coach at Indio (Calif.) High, and he tried to have himself hypnotized so that he might compress six hours' sleep into an hour's trance. "The hypnotist just told me, 'That's not the way it works,' " Snyder says.

At Iowa, where Snyder coached under Hayden Fry from 1979 to '88, his dissection of passing plays would reduce his fellow coaches to snickers. "Bill would've described a play for about two minutes, and he wouldn't even have reached the point where the quarterback releases the ball," says Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez, who was the linebackers coach on that Iowa staff.

Snyder has worn the same style of coaching shoes for two decades. When Nike stopped making the model in the 1980s, he hoarded as many pairs as he could find, and now on the sideline he looks like a character from That '70s Show.

All coaches script their game days, and most script their practices. Snyder also scripts his staff meetings and insists that his assistants show him scripts for their position meetings. Kansas State players are required to wipe their feet before entering the athletic complex, they're not allowed to wear earrings, and their facial hair must be neatly trimmed. If a team meal is not served on time, Snyder marches into the kitchen to speed up the process. He refuses to discuss injuries with the press, and he tightly limits access to his players. The phrase control freak comes to mind, and Snyder doesn't fight it. "I probably do have that capacity," he says.

Of course, a man would need lots of control, not to mention lots of time, to right Kansas State football. Snyder inherited a 27-game winless streak when he was hired to coach the Wildcats in November 1988. In the previous four seasons K-State had won three of 44 games. In fact, since the end of World War II, Kansas State had had only four winning seasons and played in one bowl game. "The teams I played on were rotten," says Dana Dimel, a Wildcat in '85 and '86 who assisted Snyder for eight years and is now the coach at Wyoming.

When historian Jon Wefald became Kansas State's 12th president, in 1986, the university's enrollment and academic profile were slipping. Wefald improved both swiftly. Freshman enrollment grew by 1,300 students in his second year on the job, and K-State has since blossomed, ranking second in Rhodes scholarships and first in both Truman and Coldwater grants among the nation's 500 four-year public universities. Yet folks outside of Manhattan were slow to notice improvements, because so much negative attention was focused on the terrible Wildcats football team. "Face it, sports are the window through which the university is viewed," says Wefald.

In 1986 average home attendance at K-State games was hovering around 20,000, and there were fewer than 7,000 season-ticket holders. Before the 1988 season Kansas State was so desperate for football revenue that it agreed to play its next five games against Oklahoma in Norman, because the road money there was better than the home money in Manhattan. The Wildcats' difficulties reached critical mass when Wefald's conversations with other Big Eight presidents led him to believe that they might expel K-State from the conference.

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