Wildcats coach Stan Parrish resigned after an 0-11 season in 1988, and athletic director Steve Miller was charged with finding a replacement. Sixteen candidates were interviewed. Jack Bicknell, then coaching Boston College, was offered the job and nearly took it, but at the last moment he pulled out. Jim Epps, then Kansas State's associate athletic director, suggested to Miller that they look at Iowa, which had rebuilt its program in the early '80s. "I was reasonably sure that we couldn't lure Hayden Fry to Manhattan," says Epps, "so I asked Steve, 'What about the coordinators?' " Epps grabbed an Iowa media guide and found that Snyder was the Hawkeyes' offensive coordinator. Epps called Snyder, who agreed to listen.
Snyder knew all about rebuilding. Before Fry's arrival in 1979, Iowa hadn't had a winning season in 18 years, but since then it had averaged nearly eight wins per season and had played in three Rose Bowls. Snyder also knew offense. His passing game had given fits to Neanderthal Big Ten defenses. When Miller called Bo Schembechler of Michigan to ask about Snyder, Schembechler said, "Hire him, get him the f—- out of this conference."
Snyder, then 49, was comfortable in Iowa City. Friends warned him that Kansas State was a professional black hole. Indeed, none of the four head coaches who immediately preceded Snyder, dating back to 1967, ever became a college head coach again. Still, Snyder took the job. He took it by the throat and hasn't let go.
Snyder arrived with a plan, and he stuck to it "He was so damn focused," says Miller, now director of global sports marketing for Nike. "He was an AD's dream, because he worked so hard, and an AD's nightmare, because he wanted things. That first year, every time Bill came into the building, Jim Epps and I would just about hide under our desks, thinking, Oh, jeez, what does he want now?"
He wanted his assistant coaches' salaries almost doubled, to be competitive with those in the top Big Eight schools. He wanted better facilities and a bigger recruiting budget. "All of this was difficult, because we were not only broke, we were in debt," says Epps.
When there was no money to begin renovating the football complex, Snyder offered to write a $100,000 personal check. Instead, Kansas rancher Jack Vanier came up with the funds for the complex named in his honor. Then Dave Wagner of Dodge City, Kans., a $25-a-year contributor to the Wildcats, won $37 million in a 1991 national lottery drawing and donated $1 million to buy Kansas State new artificial turf. (Hence, Wagner Field.) Since Snyder's arrival the university has pumped $15 million—modest by some standards—into football facilities, and every penny has been paid by private donations. "I never wanted a Taj Mahal," says Snyder. He doesn't have one, but he no longer has a dump.
The Wildcats won seven games in Snyder's third year, 1991. Snyder visited his friend Colbert in Las Vegas after that season, and Colbert told him to leave as soon as the right offer arrived. "I said, 'Coach, you've done a heck of a job, but when the big boys come calling, you ought to leave, because it's not going to get better at Kansas State,' " Colbert says. Two years later the Wildcats went 9-2-1, crushing Wyoming in the Copper Bowl. While walking to the team bus before that game, Snyder saw Colbert in the crowd, walked over and told him, "And you said it couldn't be done."
Five years later Snyder oversees one of the most efficient programs in the country. Kansas State has won at least nine games for five consecutive seasons, and its current 16-game winning streak is second only to UCLA's 17. The Wildcats have milked junior colleges for good players, including quarterback Michael Bishop. But the principal reason for Kansas State's rise has been Snyder's relentlessness on the practice field. The Wildcats practice longer than almost any other team in the country. "Oh, my god," says Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle Barrett Brooks, who played for Snyder from 1991 to '94. "Three hours. Three and a half hours. Every day. He'd kill us." That's how Kansas State has won with modest talent. Only one of Snyder's recruiting classes has been ranked in tire top 20 by any service.
Meanwhile, under Snyder the Wildcats program has engendered only one scandal: Last spring coveted junior college running back Frank Murphy received $3,000 from Wildcats supporters, which Kansas State reported to the NCAA and which resulted in Murphy's suspension for four games. By all appearances Snyder's tenure could serve as a model for reconstruction. "I've worked for Rich Brooks, John Cooper, Terry Donahue and Mike White, and this guy is absolutely the best there is," says Wildcats offensive coordinator Ron Hudson. "I've never worked harder, but you could put Bill Snyder anywhere—any school, the NFL, anywhere—and he would win."
Coaching has cost Snyder not just food, sleep and hobbies but also his first marriage and a role in the rearing of his first three children. This has been the central contradiction in his life. "My priorities have always been family, faith and football, in that order," he says, and yet football has consumed the vast majority of his time.