Vahe Gregorian

The 18th choice for the job: Bill Snyder’s legacy via former KSU president Jon Wefald

The legacy of Bill Snyder at Kansas State

A look back at the legacy of Kansas State Wildcats head coach Bill Snyder from when he was hired in 1989 to his final days coaching the Wildcats in 2018.
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A look back at the legacy of Kansas State Wildcats head coach Bill Snyder from when he was hired in 1989 to his final days coaching the Wildcats in 2018.

Bill Snyder’s legacy at Kansas State extends infinitely beyond the 215 wins and 19 bowl appearances and two turnarounds and unprecedented pride he stoked in the school and community.

It’s about so much more than having his family’s name on the stadium, his statue adjacent to it and a highway into Manhattan named for him.

It’s foremost and forever about creating faith where there was none and changing the very notion of what was possible in the minds of thousands of players he coached. Something no doubt multiplied by tens of thousands of lives they all in turn have touched — and in a fan base that now expects success in a sport that once inspired Sports Illustrated to write a story headlined “Futility U.”

By 1998, SI was writing about Snyder as the “Miracle Worker.” Within a few years, former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer had gone from laughing out loud at then-KSU president Jon Wefald telling him K-State hoped to go to a major bowl someday to calling Wefald to apologize. And publicly saying, “He’s not the coach of the year, he’s not the coach of the decade, he’s the coach of the century.”

Out of nowhere and nothing, really, when in 1988 he inherited a 27-game losing streak, the only 500-loss major college in the nation, apathy and cynicism, attendance dwindling below NCAA minimum standards and neglected facilities that Wefald on Thursday called “primitive.”

With Snyder still yet to publicly address the matter of his recent retirement and the hiring last week of North Dakota State’s Chris Klieman to succeed him, as we still process the meaning of this era, perhaps no one is more equipped to provide perspective than Wefald, who was president of the school for nearly 25 years.

Recruiting gone tepid, a roster in flux and a 5-7 season all pointed to the need for a fresh start. But what the 79-year-old Snyder achieved still can’t be celebrated enough … even without his participation.

Testimony to the improbability of what was to come could be found in the very hiring of Snyder, who wasn’t a proven head coach but merely the offensive coordinator at Iowa.

That probably would have gotten K-State scorched on social media today, though Wefald suggested so few people cared that maybe it wouldn’t even have inspired online outrage.

When Wefald, who had taken over in 1986 amid genuine fears K-State could lose its place in the Big 8, set out to invigorate the program after firing Stan Parrish in 1988, he and athletic director Steve Miller and their team faced another obstacle. No one wanted the job.

Not Jack Bicknell of Boston College, not University of Pittsburgh defensive coordinator John Fox, not Nebraska running back coach Frank Solich …

By Wefald’s count, in fact, not 17 people they approached.

For the most part, he said, “they were insulted. Well, I guess they were a little friendlier than that. They said, ‘Are you crazy?’ ”

They were bordering on desperate by the time they got to Snyder but were encouraged when associate AD Jim Epps called and Snyder said he’d have to think about it.

“He didn’t say, ‘Are you nuts?’ ” Wefald recalled, laughing, and adding, “I don’t know if Bill thinks of himself as the 18th choice. I don’t know if I’ve ever even told Bill. … How many 18th choices end up being in the College Football Hall of Fame?”

That certainly wasn’t what even the ever-optimistic Wefald expected.

Football wasn’t even among his top five priorities when he spoke with the Downtown Kansas City Rotary Club in 1986 and laid out the need to reverse declining enrollment and rekindle fundraising and build a new library, among other priorities.

After he casually mentioned that day that he didn’t see why the football team couldn’t win three or four games a year and maybe every five years or so win five or six, he remembered former K-State basketball star Rick Harman telling him everything else was achievable but “don’t ever mention football again.”

As Wefald and what he calls “the greatest team of administrators” ever to work at Kansas State were modernizing the school, the sport that must not be named at K-State became the talk of the nation under Snyder — whose “steely eyes” to Wefald were a window to his resolve.

A bond issue helped with the facilities, and so did the $37 million lottery winnings of Dave Wagner, a Dodge City resident who donated $1 million for the field.

“What are the chances of winning the lottery? It’s like getting the right coaches, the right fit,” said Wefald, who through research contends that only about 30 percent of coaches are successful for any length of time.

Formidable assistants such as Bob Stoops and Mark Mangino and Brent Venables and Jim Leavitt and Mike Stoops added clout and currency.

But everything that came to pass was a reflection of Snyder’s iron will (in part demonstrated by his continuing work after being diagnosed with throat cancer in 2017), controlling hand, absurd work ethic and fascinating penchant for detail of Snyder — perhaps best illustrated in his actions in 1992 when K-State was preparing to play Nebraska in Tokyo.

For the flight there that the teams would share, Snyder lobbied for his Wildcats to be seated away from the sun. And at least for distribution in Manhattan, he convinced a promotions company to rework a poster that depicted a large red quarterback surrounded by gnat-like purple players swarming it.

As cool and calculating as Snyder could sometimes come off, his nurturing personal touch also was crucial. Just ask anyone who’s ever received one of his handwritten letters. In the early days, players spoke about his habit of walking through the locker room after practice and asking each if they’d gotten better that day.

In 1992, Snyder recalled meeting with the 22 departing players immediately after he was hired and believing “they were going to be harmed for a good portion of their lives by what had happened.”

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his hiring, I asked Snyder to elaborate on that. That was one of the few times over the years I ever saw him get choked up as he spoke about a troubled player whose life he apparently saved.

Snyder didn’t elaborate on how he was able to intervene in the life of the player, who he would say then “is doing extremely well right now.” But with a quiver in his voice, he added, “That really had an impact on me, all of that did.”

And all of that is part of the unique makeup of Snyder, who initially retired in 2005 but returned in 2009 to “still the waters” after Ron Prince’s turbulent tenure.

That may not have been necessary if K-State had been able to hire Leavitt, then the head coach at South Florida. Wefald said Leavitt was offered the job but wanted more time as the Bulls were preparing to play West Virginia in the Big East title game. Leavitt soon received a 7-year contract extension at USF and is now defensive coordinator at Oregon.

Some K-State fans would have preferred Leavitt now to Klieman. Only time will tell how it works out for Klieman, who Wefald called “a walking Norman Vincent Peale” after watching his introductory news conference and believes will prosper.

But as no one knows better than Wefald, what happens now is less about getting a popular choice than it is about the right fit — and a certain special something.

“I’ve always said,” Wefald said, “one person can make a difference.”

Especially an extraordinary one.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.