Ten days before the new athletic director’s first official day on the job he met the university’s most important employee. They had talked once before, for just a few minutes.
This talk went longer, around a half hour. Gene Taylor, Kansas State’s new AD, did not ask about football. Bill Snyder, the legendary coach here, did not bring it up. They talked about family, and about Snyder. The conversation was pleasant, respectful, two men who each know it’s in their best interests to get along.
So, no. This wasn’t the time for football.
“When you get settled in,” Snyder said, according to Taylor, “I want to sit down with you. There are three or four things I want to go over with you. Just get settled. I’m in no hurry.”
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Taylor was talking during a quiet moment during K-State’s spring game on Saturday. He hasn’t been here long but knows that Snyder could mean, quite literally, anything. Snyder might want something new or updated in the football office. He might ask how he can help Taylor. He may recommend a Mexican restaurant.
But Snyder is 77 years old, and recently underwent treatment for throat cancer. So maybe Snyder wants to talk to Taylor about his future plans, and why he believes his son Sean — special teams coordinator, former All-American punter, and long-time assistant — should be the next head coach.
Whatever it is, Snyder needs to be heard.
“He’s one of my best friends,” said Jon Wefald, the former longtime university president. “And I think what Bill’s looking for is respect. And he’ll get it. At the end of everything, Bill wants respect. He wants to be listened to.”
Taylor won’t say it, at least not publicly, but he must know this is the most important thing he will deal with in the job that will define his professional life.
John Currie, the man he replaces, leaves very good facilities and financial solvency, among other running starts. Snyder will coach as long as he wants to coach, but nobody can know for sure what that means, so even during Currie’s eight years here this was always the biggest decision he would potentially make.
Snyder and Currie did not get along. There are many reasons for this, each with at least two sides, but the one that most consistently comes from those who know Snyder is that he didn’t feel respected, or listened to, specifically regarding how he ran his program.
At least part of this was the question of who would be the next coach. At one point, Snyder wanted the power the name his successor. He settled for “appropriate input,” with that wording put into his contract.
The administration — some combination of Taylor, president Richard Myers, and perhaps others — will make the final decision.
Taylor will listen to Snyder. But if he chooses to go outside the family — and there are many who love K-State and hope he does — his challenge will be to make sure Snyder feels respected and heard.
This relationship takes on a heightened importance for each side. Snyder wants to know he can make his case, and Taylor wants to best navigate the university’s most important moment since Snyder returned to coaching because the administration got it wrong the first time he retired.
“I hope it doesn’t happen ever, anytime soon,” Taylor said. “But at some point, you’re going to have to make that decision. And it’s going to be big. I don’t want to think about it right now. I hope it doesn’t happen anytime soon. But that’s a big deal.”
Snyder is often credited with saving K-State, and Manhattan, and if there is hyperbole in those words it isn’t much. The program he took over was so rotten that many believe K-State would not have remained in the Big 8 without Snyder’s success.
Instead, K-State won conference titles, and the university saw a renaissance in new buildings and academic success. Some business owners around town believe they owe their livelihoods to Snyder.
Apocalyptic fear doesn’t go away quickly, so now the fear from some is that if football falls off, the athletic program’s place among the power five conferences could be vulnerable if the Big 12 ever breaks up.
“If it falls apart,” Wefald said, “all bets are off.”
Snyder watched the second half of the spring game indoors, from the coaches’ box. He sidestepped a question about that — “don’t be curious,” he said — and was direct when asked how he’s feeling.
“I’m fine,” he said.
But everything Snyder does these days is analyzed, in some way, mindful of an uncertain future. Taylor is Snyder’s new boss in technicality only. Snyder, in some real ways, built this university. Taylor’s first official day is May 1.
He understands this, and compared his situation to how new Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne must feel about Nick Saban.
People ask him all the time now about working with Snyder, and the prospect of replacing him. He won’t say much. His list of qualities for a new coach — hard worker, good teacher, treats student-athletes well, relates in the community — is what you’d expect.
But all of that misses the point. Taylor may not know how or with whom he might replace Snyder someday. But he knows exactly how he’ll work with Snyder.
He’s going to listen, whenever Snyder wants to talk about those three and four things. And he’s going to show respect.