Twenty-five years ago this November, soon-to-be-initiated Kansas State coach Bill Snyder inherited a 26-game winless streak, a roster of 47 scholarship players (of a possible 95), a “tradition” that included one bowl appearance and a dilapidated stadium around a tattered field.
All befitting the worst program in college football history, then the only one with more than 500 losses.
“I found out we were in some serious trouble,” Snyder said Monday.
Nothing told him that, though, like the session he soon scheduled with the 22 departing players and the unscheduled emergency meeting he would have with one in particular.
Those moments left him concerned that regular bludgeonings on the field had wrought deep psychological damage off it.
When he extended the invitation to meet the players leaving, Snyder had wanted to assure them they would always be welcome in the program and give them an opportunity to express themselves.
He expected, he said, “a dialogue of dead silence” but instead saw the players behave like “kindergarten youngsters, standing on chairs and raising their hands” to speak.
What he heard was “the amazing impact this lack of success on the football field had had on other aspects of their lives.”
So as not to be conspicuous, humiliated players wouldn’t go out on Saturday nights, wouldn’t wear their letter jackets around, wouldn’t even go to classes on Mondays — and sometimes Tuesday, it turns out (which begins to beg other questions).
Anyway, all of that stayed with Snyder, he said, but none of it resonated like this:
“There was a young guy in our program who tried to take his life during that period of time. Who had finished (playing), and it had such an impact on him,” he said. “Somebody told me about it, and I was able to find him. I didn’t know my way around here, and it was out by the lake, and off in one of those little park areas down there.
“And sure enough they guided me to him and he was sitting in his car, and he’s got that hose wrapped around from the exhaust into the automobile, sitting there getting ready to give his life up.”
Snyder is not prone to public emotion or sharing such details, and he didn’t elaborate on how he was able to intercede.
But here he paused and choked up as his eyes misted over.
“That really had an impact on me, all of that did,” he said, his voice soon betraying another quiver. “And to think that this silly game has that kind of an impact on the lives of young people.”
Snyder noted he recently spoke by phone with “that young person who is doing extremely well right now.”
There is little way to know, of course, what role football actually had in leading the player to the brink of suicide.
But that episode is forever in Snyder’s mind as part of a broader landscape that seems unfathomable now, when the better part of a generation has known only football success at K-State.
Reminder for those taking it for granted: The Wildcats won 11 games last year, for instance; they won 10 total in seven years from 1983 through 1989, Snyder’s first season.
One of the losses in Snyder’s 1-10 inaugural season was to Northern Iowa, where current Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby then was athletic director.
Unprompted as he began making remarks during a visit to Manhattan on Monday, Bowlsby said, “I’ve said it publicly and I’ve said it privately to coach Snyder: I think that the job that he has done at Kansas State University is probably the biggest turnaround in college football history.”
It’s hard to dispute, if for no other reason than K-State was the documented dregs of major-college football.
So now at K-State, which still is basking in winning the Big 12 football, basketball and baseball titles in one season, the athletics complex has “a prosperous feeling, and it’s got a feeling that comes with winning,” Bowlsby said.
All light years from what he saw in 1989, when the Panthers beat the Wildcats 10-8.
“There is no comparison. It’s just almost impossible to know where to start,” Bowlsby said. “The football stadium was old, there were not many people in the stands, and the football team wasn’t very good.
“And I think that’s, I guess, where ground zero is, or the bedrock is. It was not a good situation, and now it is. I don’t think you can look any further than Bill Snyder’s contribution to it.”
All the more remarkably, of course, Snyder has done it twice here, coming back out of retirement in 2009 to resuscitate the program — or “still the waters,” as he put it — after its descent under the Ron Prince regime.
At the time, I gritted my teeth. The move seemed more like nostalgic wishful-thinking winning out over sound decision-making: Snyder’s last two teams of his first run had gone 9-13 overall and 4-12 in the Big 12.
But here he is, 21-5 the last two seasons, and showing no sign of slowing down at 73.
Still the waters?
“He stirred them back up again, is what he did,” said his son, Sean, the associate head coach.
Asked how much longer his father would continue, Sean Snyder smiled and said, “That’s a good question. I don’t know.”
It’s also hard to know, really, just how Snyder has pulled this all off. Surely, he has evolved and tweaked along the way, though, and his legendary work ethic evidently remains intact, as does his penchant for control of his program. (“I’m a believer in habits,” he said, “if they’re good habits.”)
Monday, for instance, is the only day Snyder and his players will be available to the news media before the week of their opener Aug. 30 against North Dakota State.
“We’ve all got too much to do,” he said. “We can spend the time preparing or we can spend it talking about whatever it is we’re talking about.”
So in this time of TMI and TMZ and all-access, don’t expect a K-State football reality show any time soon.
“Not in my lifetime,” Snyder said, laughing.
Just expect Snyder to be wired in fundamentally the same way he was when he came to K-State from Iowa 25 years ago, informed and moved by the past but looking toward the future.
When he walks out on the field that now bears his name and is amid its latest upgrade, the $75 million West Stadium Center, Snyder could be tempted to feel something between pride and satisfaction.
In fact, he allowed himself that some when he was retired, and he will when he does for keeps, too.
But now he thinks to himself only, “How are we going to get better today? I don’t have any thoughts other than that.”
If he “gets caught daydreaming,” he added, “then I’m not setting the example. And I have no right to ask players to do exactly that.”
One way or another, trying to understand what his players are thinking — and thus what he can ask — has been crucial to Snyder from the very start.
“It was very dramatic, very dramatic,” he said, “and I will never forgot those things.”