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MIRACLE WORKER
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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BEFORE 1990

THE '90S

 

W

L

T

PCT.

W

L

T

PCT.

DIFF.

Kansas State

300

519

41

.373

73

27

1

.728

.355

Marshall

335

418

44

.448

97

25

0

.795

.347

Florida State

272

170

16

.611

94

12

1

.883

.272

Florida

452

322

39

.580

90

17

1

.838

.258

Idaho

325

412

25

.443

67

37

0

.644

.201

Mother and son lived alone in a tiny three-room apartment at Fifth and Robidoux in the northwest Missouri city of St. Joseph. They had moved there from Salina, Kans., in 1945, after Marionetta Snyder divorced her husband, Tom, a traveling salesman. The son, Bill, was six years old at the time of the move. For the next 12 years he slept on a Murphy bed in the living room next to his mother, who slept on a rollaway cot.

Bill learned to swim at the YMCA pool six blocks away, and he played five sports at Lafayette High. His mother worked tirelessly. She would leave the apartment before Bill awakened and walk to the Townsend and Wall department store, where she was a sales clerk and buyer. Often she wouldn't return until after Bill went to sleep at night. She never owned a car, never even got a driver's license. She just worked. "We didn't have much, but she provided me with all that she could. She literally gave up her life for me," says Bill. Marionetta died in 1996 at age 78. "She taught me that what the Lord gives you is time," he says, "and 24 hours a day is all you get."

This workday ends at midnight, when Bill Snyder, 59, walks down the narrow carpeted hallway from his office into the foyer of the Vanier Football Complex at Kansas State, where he has been coach for 10 seasons. His only concession to the lateness of the hour is a slight loosening of his yellow necktie, which complements his gray wool suit. He pushes open a glass door and walks into the cool prairie night, pausing to lock the building because he's the last to leave. His dark green Cadillac sits at the curb. "You could drive by the complex after leaving a party at 2 o'clock in the morning, and his car would be there," says Kansas City Chiefs wideout Kevin Lockett, who played for Snyder from 1993 to '96.

Senior tour golfer Jim Colbert, a Kansas State graduate and one of Snyder's best friends, often pulls out his cell phone late at night and dials Snyder's office. "Do you know what time it is?" Colbert's wife, Marcia, will say incredulously as Jim punches out the number.

"Don't worry, I'm calling Coach," Colbert will say. "I know he's still there."

As Snyder pulls out of the parking lot, his headlights briefly illuminate the expanse of Wagner Field, part of a 42,000-seat stadium (soon to grow to 50,000, plus 31 luxury suites) that once was home to the pits of Division I-A football. (In 1989 this magazine proclaimed Kansas State, with its horrific play before empty bleachers, the worst program in the country.) Now KSU Stadium houses a powerhouse, the most improved team in the '90s (chart, page 62). Snyder's Wildcats are 8-0 and ranked No. 4 in the nation after last Saturday's 54-6 victory over Kansas. K-State is a deep, veteran squad that mixes hellacious defense with a balanced offense. It has several computer-weighty games remaining—on Nov. 14 against Nebraska, which it hasn't beaten in 30 years, against Missouri (Nov. 21) and, possibly, the Big 12 championship game (Dec. 5)—and thus could finish first or second in the Bowl Championship Series rankings, which would mean a place in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 4, and a shot at the national title.

The mere confluence of these phrases—Kansas State and national title—is staggering. Barry Switzer, whose last three Oklahoma teams (1986 to '88) hung 185 points on the Wildcats, considered the effects of national college football parity and still concluded that Snyder's work at K-State broke new ground. "Bill Snyder isn't the coach of the year, and he isn't the coach of the decade," says Switzer. "He's the coach of the century."

Snyder's modest office above the north end zone of the stadium has become a mecca for the desperate. University presidents, business leaders, athletic directors and other football coaches seek Snyder's advice on how to set the first stones of rebuilding. "They expect me to reach into my top drawer and pull out a sheet of paper with a blueprint," says Snyder. "I'm flattered, but there's no piece of paper. We just got a little bit better every year for 10 years until...here we are." He went to work every day, just like his mother. Well, not quite like his mother. Not quite like anybody else.

Anybody else would eat. During the season Snyder eats once a day, when he gets home, usually well after midnight. He doesn't eat other meals because, he says, he discovered three decades ago that "you can get a lot done during the lunch hour, and shortly after that I realized that if it works during lunch, it works during dinner."

Anybody else would sleep. Snyder snags four or five hours a night before driving back to the office.

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