Sean Snyder is almost exactly halfway through what will turn out to be a 20-minute conversation about what kind of head coach he would be and at the moment he is stumped.
So far, most of what he says is what you might expect. His father is Bill Snyder, the Hall of Fame football coach at Kansas State and the man with his name on the highway and the stadium and the statue outside. It makes perfect sense that Dad will be his model if and when the opportunity comes.
“But my personality is a little different,” Sean said.
How so, he’s asked.
“You know, well, Dad is more,” and here he pauses. Three seconds, then five seconds. Now it’s 10.
“Um, well, Dad...”
“That’s a great question,” he said. “I don’t know if I can really answer that, to be honest.”
Here, in 25 seconds, is every reason Bill Snyder and some around K-State believe Sean should be given a chance to succeed his old man — and why others are terrified of the possibility.
They call him Sean. That’s it. Sean. Not coach Sean, and certainly not coach Snyder, because there’s only one coach Snyder and it’s not Sean.
“Just makes it 100 times easier,” junior tight end Dayton Valentine said.
“Hey, Sean,” senior linebacker Trent Tanking said. “That’s what I call him. I hope that’s not wrong.”
The title is a bit of a constant if unnecessary reminder of who Sean is, and more to the point, who Sean’s dad is. Bill is the boss, and Sean is the son, and so he’s dealt with questions of whether that’s the only reason he’s around since his days as a punter from 1989 to 1992.
More players have had more reason to call by name lately, too. Sean, 47, is the special teams coordinator, associate head coach, and director of football operations. That’s a lot of titles, and a lot of work, and the result is he’s touched virtually every part of the program.
People have a tendency to scoff at the special teams coordinator title, at least in terms of being a head coaching candidate, but it means he’s personally coached nearly every player on the roster. Last year, in making the case for Dave Toub getting a head job, Chiefs coach Andy Reid talked about how special teams coaches have to be more creative and versatile than offensive or defensive coordinators.
Sean has bounced around to different position groups over the years, including tight ends last fall, and when his dad was away with his cancer treatments, Sean was the one running practices with the whistle in his mouth and a speech at the end.
“This is all I’m going to say about it,” Bill Snyder began when asked about Sean’s strengths. “He’s more than as successful a special teams coordinator as there is in the country. That’s year in and year out. Not just on occasion, but year in and year out.
“He’s also director of operations, and if you look at the list of responsibilities, it entails anything and everything that you think a head coach would be doing. He’s doing that, again, year in and year out. Put those two things together. There’s a football aspect of it, and a leadership management responsibility that goes along with it, and that pretty much encompasses what head coaches do.”
This is one of the most divisive issues around K-State, and at least part of why former athletics director John Currie had a somewhat frosty relationship with Snyder. Maybe new AD Gene Taylor will be more receptive to it. He’s been intentionally and intelligently vague on that, at least publicly.
The arguments on each side can be crudely simplified: “Nobody knows the program and culture better” vs. “no other major college football team has or is expected to want to hire Sean as a head coach.”
But what isn’t talked about as much is what kind of head coach Sean expects to be.
Sean has thought a lot about this. That’s not rare for an assistant. With few exceptions, they all want to be head coaches. Many of them keep journals with reminders about what they want to emulate about their bosses and the changes they’d make. Some even have informal promises with others about positions on hypothetical staffs.
Sean does the same thing.
“Do I have some ideas and thoughts about what I would do?” he asked. “I do, but they’re mine.”
There is no way to have a conversation with Sean and not hear some of his father. His words come out deliberately, even-toned and measured. He will not reveal much.
There was a time he wanted to be an AD, but since committing himself to coaching has doubled down on copying as much of his father as possible.
That means a general philosophy that the head coach’s job is to coach the assistants, and the assistants’ job is to coach the players. That means an emphasis on organization, and of chopping every task down to its most manageable size.
Sean admits his father is more even keeled — “my youth will get to me sometimes, yeah” — but other than that, he says he wants to be as much like his father as possible.
“He has a great patience for really working through thoughts and processes with decision making,” Sean said. “A lot of people have a tendency to knee jerk too quick, and that’s one thing we all have a hard time with. His ability to not make a knee-jerk decision is phenomenal, and it’s important.
“As a head coach you affect a lot of people when you make certain decisions. If you don’t think through those, there are some unintended consequences you have to deal with. He’s phenomenal at doing that.”
Normally, talk of who will replace a sitting head coach is frivolous. But Bill Snyder will turn 78 in October and has openly talked for years of wanting Sean to be the next coach. Bill says he’s “doing fine” now, but, still. He’s fighting throat cancer.
Bob Stoops — a former K-State assistant under Snyder — retired this summer and was immediately replaced by top assistant Lincoln Riley so it’s at the top of mind around the league.
Snyder said it is “extremely important” and “my self-imposed obligation” to make sure the program is in the best shape possible before he retires, and if you have the context of his relationship with Currie in mind, gave a noteworthy answer when asked about “the trend” of head coaches stepping down at a time in the calendar when they are more likely to be able to pick their successor.
“Where the trend needs to be is administration understanding that (importance of continuity) the same way that we do,” Bill Snyder said. “Being able to not have to put coaches in a position where they have to finesse that to take place.”
Bill doesn’t say this, because he doesn’t have to: the university tried ignoring his input in hiring his replacement once already, and he had to come back to save the program.
For years, one of the pet theories around K-State has been that Bill Snyder might do what Stoops did — retire shortly before the season, leaving Sean as the most logical replacement, but still being available as a sort of mentor or consultant.
“I don’t anticipate that,” Sean said. “But I might know a few minutes before everybody else. He’s very good at keeping things close to the vest, and with what he’s done, he’s earned every right that when he’s ready, he’s ready.”