Looking back at Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, 25 years and two Manhattan Miracles later

08/28/2014 6:09 PM

08/28/2014 6:09 PM

Editor’s note: This Sam Mellinger column appeared in the Oct. 20, 2012, editions of The Kansas City Star

Bill Snyder likes to say he enjoyed retirement, but that’s not completely true. People like Snyder don’t enjoy retirement. Oh, sure. He kept busy. The man knows no other way than busy. If his life’s calling was not to coach football, he’d have been the hardest-working engineer or professor or mechanic you ever saw.

So after stepping away seven years ago from the sports miracle he created at Kansas State University, he buried himself in activities. He watched every grandchild play every game he could, discovering new parts of Manhattan in the process — parks and restaurants instead of the office and his house. He read books he’d put off too long. He even played golf once or twice.

But he couldn’t enjoy all of it, either. Not after a year or two, anyway, when the football program he put so much of his life into went off the tracks under his successor.

Games meant a reminder that Snyder no longer had control, and he doesn’t like not having control. Sharon Snyder’s memory of her husband on fall Saturdays is a man standing in a stadium suite, arms folded, stern look on his face and only speaking when asked a question — and even then only a few words.

“It hurt him to not be involved, “ Sharon says. “…You’re giving up part of your identity.”

You could say the same thing about Manhattan and the university, as the losses stacked on each other and the football program drifted back toward the irrelevance that Snyder once inherited. They needed a man who’d just turned 69 to come out of retirement and replicate the greatest job of program-building in college football history.

They needed another miracle.

***

Magical things happen when a man finds his perfect place in the world.

“I concur with your thought, “ Snyder says while sitting in his office last week. “Kansas State has just been wonderful for me.”

But to fully understand what one man means to one community, it’s important to go back to the very beginning, a quarter-century ago, a very different time for Manhattan and K-State — back when only a crazy person would’ve thought the football team would someday be coached by a 73-year-old and ranked No. 4 in the country with a plausible path to a national championship.

Those were dark days here, back then. The football program wasn’t just awful but historically awful. The consequences of not getting it fixed were far greater than mere embarrassment or irrelevance.

Powerful men not only talked of booting K-State out of the Big Eight Conference, they had a plan. Arkansas was restless in the Southwest Conference. The Kansas Board of Regents considered moving the Wildcats to the Missouri Valley Conference or even dropping the football program altogether.

Nobody wanted to imagine what that would mean to this town.

About 25,000 people lived in Manhattan in the late 1980s, and K-State enrollment dipped 15 percent in that decade. The city had one hotel, and you couldn’t get here from Interstate 70 on anything but a two-lane road.

Five or six men laughed when asked about coming here to coach, and who could blame them? Every K-State coach since the Great Depression had a losing record. One quit in the middle of the season. Only the seniors had ever won a game at K-State, and even then only twice. Back then, raising cattle on Pluto would’ve seemed as feasible as building a national football power in this little town.

Bill Snyder did not laugh.

“That first season it was losing, losing, losing, and I was with the (athletic director) and associate A.D. and I said, ‘You guys are so lucky to have my husband here,’” Sharon Snyder says. “Yes I did. I remember that vividly.

“Who knows what they thought?”

***

Rusty Wilson is calling from Houston. He owns Rusty’s Last Chance and Kite’s, two staples of the Aggieville bar scene, and is finalizing the purchase of a 144-square-foot television screen. He wants you to know he wouldn’t be able to upgrade his bars without Snyder’s football program.

Winning makes people happy, and happy people celebrate at bars. He doesn’t want to think about what life would be like if Snyder hadn’t saved football, again. Maybe Wilson wouldn’t be broke, but he wouldn’t be buying giant TV screens, either.

Various local business owners say that when Snyder retired after the 2005 season and the program lost its way under Ron Prince, their in-season revenue fell by 20 to 30 percent.

Prince’s teams lost 20 games in three seasons before Snyder returned in 2009. The Wildcats only lost 29 times during Snyder’s 11-year run of bowl appearances in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“They say one man can’t make that huge a difference,” Wilson says. “I’m telling you: yes, one man can make that much of a difference.”

It is not enough to say that most people now come to Manhattan on Bill Snyder Highway or that the biggest building in town is Bill Snyder Family Stadium, but that’s a good start.

Snyder turned K-State football from big joke to big business. His success brought network television and national magazine coverage. By the time the Wildcats were fixtures in the national rankings in the late 1990s, Manhattan had gone from one hotel to six. That number has since doubled, most with two-night minimums on game weekends.

Attendance at games has more than doubled, and the city’s population has doubled. Enrollment is up 50 percent. The university has constructed nearly 30 new buildings since Snyder’s arrival. The west side of the football stadium is currently undergoing a $75 million makeover.

Even adjusted for inflation, donations to the athletics department have multiplied 17 times since Snyder arrived — after he came back, they reached all-time highs despite the recession.

Snyder can’t be given total credit, of course, but reasonable people believe he is the single most important factor in all of it. No wonder people name their pets and even children after him.

“He’s the most influential figure in the modern history of this community and this university, “ K-State athletic director John Currie says. “OK? The most transformational figure. And I mean that with great respect to all the people who’ve supported and led the community.”

Snyder is famously understated, typically allergic to speculation, but he has an answer ready for what might’ve happened if K-State had dropped out of the Big Eight two decades ago.

“The one thing I know for sure, had that taken place, Manhattan would not be at all what it is today, “ he says. “The enrollment would’ve continued to decline, the community would’ve continued to decline. The economy of the community has grown immensely, and so much of that, a great deal, is truly due to the people who came to support our program.”

The value of Snyder isn’t all hypothetical, you know. They’ve lived through the alternative twice now.

Once before he arrived, and once after he retired.

***

It’s interesting that everyone involved — Snyder himself, his wife, friends and anyone else who’s been around for both resurrections — says he’s doing it the second time just like he did it the first time. The man doesn’t change. What Snyder did in the 1990s with Kevin Lockett, a receiver who went on to play for the Chiefs, he does today with Kevin’s son Tyler, a standout kick returner.

“It’s all the same,” Kevin Lockett says. “People want to know how he’s different, what he’s doing now compared to what he did with us, and I’m telling you: It’s exactly the same. I hear the same things from my son that I heard from Coach when I was there. It’s unbelievable.”

If there is one critical common denominator between the original Manhattan Miracle and version 2.0, it is attitude. Snyder never talks much about results, only about “getting a little better every day,” because if you’re sweeping up a landfill, you have to take it one pile at a time.

Dragging a university and community from the edge of obscurity is done in the margins, in the details, and nobody does details like Snyder. When he arrived the first time, he changed the offices and the practice schedules and the equipment and the logo and even the color purple.

The old shade was too light, he decided, and light purple looked like a loser. He wanted it darker, and based the uniforms on the Dallas Cowboys. The university supported all of this with money it didn’t really have, an all-in bet on the conservative football coach.

A funny thing began to happen off the field, too. A coach and the community around him began to mesh in a perfect symphony. People in Kansas, particularly the rural parts that make up a large chunk of the K-State fan base, began to see their best qualities in the head coach.

He dresses predictably and practically, either khaki pants and simple collared shirt or suit and tie. He never makes any promises except to keep working hard, and ohmygoodness, does he ever work hard.

The standard work week around K-State football is around 120 hours. Once, an assistant went to get a drink and returned to a note on his door telling him he’d be fired if he ever left the building again.

The picture of K-State football is whichever Cadillac Snyder is driving at the time parked in front of the facility. He knows that it took exactly 2 minutes and 45 seconds to get from his house to the office, a drive he sometimes jokes his car could make without anyone behind the wheel.

The connection between man and fan came quick. Snyder and everyone in the program he rules put in long hours right now for a harvest at the end. Basically, he takes the farmer’s approach to coaching football. The fans he works hard for can appreciate that.

Watch any game of his, and without recognizing the players, the best way to guess the year would be the video quality. Michael Bishop, the Wildcats’ star quarterback in 1997-98, runs straight ahead, behind his blockers in grainy video. Today, Heisman Trophy hopeful Collin Klein does the same in high-def. Get a little better every day. Keep rowing. Snyder said it in the ’90s, and he says it now.

The only difference is the Cadillac — Snyder drives an Escalade, after years of DeVilles.

“Consistency, man,” Klein says. “He doesn’t just preach it. He lives it.”

***

Sharon Snyder hears people say that her husband is mellower this time around, but she thinks that’s a bunch of hooey. If anything, he’s more intense now. Maybe it’s the experience of seeing the program drift so quickly after he retired.

Jim Colbert, the former pro golfer and K-State grad, sometimes watches practice and makes the distinction that his old friend is “intense without being tense.” Colbert says Snyder carries himself with more certainty knowing what his day’s purpose will be, and that he somehow looks younger now than when he was retired.

“He kind of looks at me funny when I tell him that, but it’s true,” Colbert says.

Maybe Snyder leans more on his assistants now than before, but that’s hard to say because he always leaned on them. He uses film of practices to grade his coaches, and lets them use the film to grade the players. Snyder mostly uses practice to watch, to occasionally teach, and always walks around with that voice recorder to help him make notes later. This is that old lifestyle, the one he chose, the one he felt at least a little lost without.

The magic of Snyder is not in what he does but in what he creates. It’s an environment where his coaches and players are so invested in each other, so bonded by a common purpose that nobody stops to think how crazy it is that a 73-year-old man is working 18 hours and connecting with teenagers to build a national football power largely from the other powers’ leftovers.

K-State fans have seen this movie before, of course. Snyder’s best teams are always built with transfers and overlooked high school kids. His worst teams before he left came after he chased some higher-rated recruits.

So what you have might be the rarest kind of college football coach, a one-of-a-kind. He comes without ego or self-promotion, fundamentally unconcerned with the next job or his salary. He is self-aware enough to know he found his perfect place, and good enough that he’s made it so much better.

If you want to know how a team full of guys with three-star pasts keeps beating teams full of guys with seven-figure futures, that’s as good an explanation as any.

***

Catch him in the right mood, and Bill Snyder will tell the story of why he decided to coach the worst football program in America. This was during his interview, December 1988, and it’s bitterly cold.

Snyder asks to be left in the middle of campus, outside, for an hour or so. He guesses he stopped 40 or 50 people. He didn’t know any of them, and he didn’t tell anybody why he was there. He just wanted to talk. Random stuff. Small talk. Sometimes he asked for directions, sometimes he just asked how they liked it here.

Every single person Snyder approached stopped in the freezing cold to talk to a complete stranger. So when the hour was up, he said he’d do it. Random, unwitting and kind K-Staters convinced Snyder to come try to make magic. He wanted to be part of that, and neither coach nor community has been the same since.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send e-mail to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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