Imagine looking out a bus window and seeing Barry Switzer. He is giving you a thumbs up. He is sipping wine and raising a glass in your direction. The retired football coach, winner of three national championships and one Super Bowl, is smiling and waving and urging you to pull over.
How would you react?
If you’re Bill Snyder, you would smile and tell your driver to keep going, fearful that a sudden stop might cause a traffic jam. But you would later write a lengthy thank-you note and drop it in the mail. Switzer would read every word.
This was reality nearly one year ago as Snyder traveled home from a victory at Oklahoma with the Kansas State football team. The Wildcats’ buses followed a route that passed Switzer’s home in Norman, and he was waiting for them on the front lawn.
(This story is part of The Kansas City Star's Football 2015 special section that publishes Sunday, Aug. 30. Pick one up and check out more here.)
Specifically, he was waiting for Snyder, a football savant he once dubbed coach of the century.
“I saluted him,” Switzer said. “I saw him passing by my house and went outside with a big drink in my hand and toasted him. That is what you do for a legend.”
The tributes are just beginning. It seems like everyone wants to congratulate the 75-year old coach as Snyder enters the twilight of his career. After all, he will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in December.
He was worked toward the club his entire life, describing inclusion as a true honor. He reached it by turning the once-forlorn K-State football program into a consistent winner. Before he arrived in 1989, K-State made one bowl trip in its first 93 seasons and led college football in losses. He inherited a roster that had not won a game in three years.
Whenever Snyder reminisces, he says K-State was in danger of being kicked out of the Big Eight. At his introductory news conference, he said “the opportunity for the greatest turnaround in college football exists here today, and it’s not one to be taken lightly.”
The turnaround is complete. Snyder enters his 24th season at K-State with 187 victories, 16 bowls and two Big 12 championships. He is — by an enormous margin — the most successful coach in school history.
“You won’t find a better coach,” Switzer reiterated. “When he got to Kansas State, they were the worst program in college football. No tradition, no facilities, hard place to get to, horrible talent base. They lost something like 30 straight games.
“I played them every year at Oklahoma and I hung half a hundred on them every year. I felt sorry for them. I really did. I played all my players, and they still couldn’t stop us. Kansas State was one of those games you just knew you were going to win.
“Well, then Bill Snyder came to town and took the challenge. Before you know it, they start beating Oklahoma’s (behind). I never faced him, thank God, because he turned that program into one of the top teams in the country. And he built it on a foundation that had nothing but cracks.
“To this day, I look at the coaching job he has done and marvel at it.”
Many coaches switch jobs and change styles based on what is en vogue. Not Snyder.
He bucked the trend and stayed loyal to a single institution, winning with an original and unwavering style.
Sure, he could have left. According to sources, prominent teams such as UCLA, LSU and the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars contacted him at various times. But he turned them all away and stayed at K-State until his retirement in 2005, winning so much that a Manhattan highway and K-State’s football stadium bear his name. When he returned three years later and kept on winning, K-State erected a statue in his likeness.
Around here, there is no bigger celebrity.
Snyder has little — if anything — left to prove. He could announce his retirement plans tomorrow, and no one would judge him for it. Perhaps that is what makes his journey so rare. It is ongoing.
Yes, Snyder has accomplished enough to enter the Hall of Fame, but his career has no expiration date. The upcoming season is not a farewell tour. He has no plans for one.
Other than saying he would like his son, Sean, the team’s associate head coach and special teams coordinator, to eventually succeed him, Snyder does not mention retirement.
When the question comes up with recruits, he answers honestly.
“I don’t know how long it will be,” Snyder said. “My health is always going to be a factor. If it stays good, then that will be a positive factor for staying. The other part of it is whether or not I can be effective in doing what my projection is for young people, helping them become engrained in our value system.
“If I can promote that successfully, I want to do that, and as long as the people at Kansas State are comfortable with me being here, I’m going to be here.”
That passion has made Snyder the oldest active college football coach in the country. Many of his friends of similar age have retired. Switzer, 77, has not coached since 1997. His close friend Mack Brown, 63, left Texas two years ago. Tom Osborne, 78, called it quits at Nebraska nearly 20 years ago. Gary Barnett, 69, left Colorado in 2005.
Yet Snyder is going strong.
“If you want to get old, you will get old,” Snyder said. “If you don’t want to get old, you will still get old, but at least you’ve got a foot back. There have been guys who have coached longer than I have or have been older before they retired. I don’t think about that at all.”
What drives Snyder? What motivates him to work a demanding job that pits him against coaches half his age? This is a man with the power and money to do virtually anything, a man who values family and enjoys mentoring. So what keeps him so passionate about football?
“I think about it every day,” senior left tackle Cody Whitehair said. “How in the world does this man keep going? He isn’t even slowing down. He is amazing and inspiring to us.”
It’s not his odd eating schedule. Every day, Snyder skips breakfast and lunch in favor of work, opting for a single late-night meal — often Taco Bell — when he returns home after an 18-hour day.
It’s not the thrill of winning awards. He is already a member of eight Halls of Fame, including three colleges, two states, one high school and one bowl game.
And it’s not the pursuit of a crowning achievement, such as a national championship. Despite two close calls — K-State was ranked No. 1 in 1998 and 2012 — he has never won or coached in a national-title game. It’s the one thing his resume lacks. Yet, he says, that does not matter.
Wins and losses have become secondary.
“I’m not saying it wouldn’t be cool,” Snyder said. “(Winning a national championship) would be a lot of things, and cool would be one of them, but … we have never set a goal like that. I’m not saying it is right or wrong. It is just the way we have always done it.”
Instead, he is motivated by his 16 goals for success and the opportunity to teach them to his players. Outside of family, which he lists as his only hobby, his primary goal is to help them become men.
“I can’t say I entered coaching with that in mind,” Snyder said, “but I learned rather quickly what was significant for me was just trying to give guidance and direction to young guys that helps them to become successful in their lives. Not necessarily football, but their careers, their families, everything that is important.
“That, and the people at Kansas State, is what brought me back and has kept me in it.”
Ben Leber, one of the top linebackers to play for Snyder, is not surprised he is still coaching at the highest level.
Leber is now a college football analyst for Fox Sports, and the more he learns about other teams, the more he realizes Snyder’s methods stand out.
“He cares so much about his players,” Leber said. “I think, like a lot of coaches, he is addicted to the challenge. And, like a lot of coaches, he is addicted to the reward. But his reward is different from most coaches.
“Any time he can go out there and turn a good player into a better player, and, most importantly, a better person, that is why he keeps coming back. There is always a new kid he can influence.”
Football coaches do not like to compliment other football coaches, but they usually make an exception for Snyder.
Coaches throughout the Big 12, and beyond, respect him. Not necessarily for what he achieved at K-State, but for how he did it.
Snyder wins by emphasizing discipline and hard work over talent. His teams take pride in eliminating mistakes and maximizing potential. He wins with unheralded recruits and he turns walk-ons into future pros, including Green Bay Packers receiver Jordy Nelson. While others compete for five-star prospects, unveil gaudy uniforms and use social media, Snyder stays true to his old-school principles.
He wins his way.
Texas coach Charlie Strong recognized how different, and successful, Snyder’s approach was when he arrived in Austin. So he called Snyder. Any advice? Snyder told Strong to be himself.
Baylor coach Art Briles said Snyder’s track record was proof he could win with the Bears, another once-dismal team.
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops got his start under Snyder before leading the Sooners to national prominence. He never forgot Snyder’s attention to detail. Team meals were served with margarine, never butter. Graduate assistants studied train schedules to ensure stop-free commutes to games. On a shared flight with Nebraska to a rare game in Tokyo, Snyder arranged for K-State to sit on the plane’s shady side both ways. Snyder looked for every advantage.
“I will always remember how wise he was,” Stoops said.
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen has less history with Snyder than most — three games — but he can’t imagine a harder opponent.
“They are about the most well-coached and disciplined football team you will ever play,” Holgorsen said. “They don’t make mistakes. You have got to just beat them, because they are not ever going to beat themselves. That all goes back to coach Snyder. The guy is a stud and an icon in our game.”
K-State won’t return to Norman for a football game until 2016, but Switzer will be waiting for Snyder when the day comes.
There is no telling what kind of team the Wildcats will be then, and there is no guarantee Snyder will be smiling as the buses pass Switzer’s house. Still, Switzer bets that game will play out the same as it did in 2014.
He always bets on Snyder.
“I have said many flattering things about Bill Snyder over the years, and I wouldn’t have said them if I didn’t mean them,” Switzer said. “He is an inspiration. He makes me think about what could have been had I been able to continue coaching at Oklahoma past ’89. I am in good health and I feel good. I could see myself still coaching there. Maybe I should have stayed with it.
“Bill has proven that if you have the spark and the enthusiasm for coaching, you can accomplish unbelievable things for as long as you want to accomplish them.”