SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — One has generated what could reasonably be called the greatest recovery in college football in the last 25 years, perhaps one of the most remarkable in NCAA history. Hyperbole? You could look it up. The other has redefined offensive football with a style that should copyright its name, “the blur.”
Program? You can’t tell the players without a stopwatch and an unflinching eye.
Bill Snyder has resuscitated Kansas State. Twice. Chip Kelly has taken Oregon to unprecedented heights — and he may be on his way to bigger things if speculation about an impending move to the NFL is accurate. Kelly certainly must rank high on search lists from Philadelphia to San Diego and many points in between.
When Snyder and Kelly lead their 11-1 teams in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Thursday, it will be a coaching matchup that rivals any this bowl season.
Two winners. Two innovators. One overriding result.
“The proof is in the pudding,” Kansas State co-offensive coordinator Del Miller said Sunday.
Miller was using that old-school saw to describe Snyder, and it is perhaps the most appropriate six-word description of what Snyder has done in turning rural Manhattan, Kan., into a big-time college football town since taking over on Nov. 30, 1988.
It applies equally to Kelly, who has taken the Ducks from the level of Pac-12 contender to one of the nation’s elite programs in four seasons since replacing Mike Bellotti in March 2009.
Both have worked wonders. Snyder’s have encompassed more ground.
Snyder began below ground, at the foundation. Kansas State was 0-26-1 in the previous three seasons before he took over. The Wildcats had needed 51 seasons to reach 130 victories, but Snyder had doubled that total by early in his 16th season. He enters the Fiesta Bowl with 170 wins and seven 11-win seasons in 21 years, and he became the second coach in NCAA history to lead his team to six 11-win seasons in a seven-year span (1997-2003). He has been the national coach of the year four times.
The most striking part of Snyder’s success: He’s done it his way. His “16 goals for success” are the stone tablets of the program. First is commitment, second is unselfishness. Self-discipline, toughness (mental and physical) and enthusiasm are there. Responsibility. The expectation of success. Leadership. They have defined his program and made him a legend back home, where games are played at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, accessible via Bill Snyder Highway off Interstate-70.
“I felt like I was a disciplined guy coming in. Definitely feel like I was very well-mannered. But it’s a different animal up here,” said cornerback and junior college transfer Nigel Malone, who has 12 interceptions in two seasons here.
Snyder, 73, implemented his program immediately. He redshirted virtually every freshman in the program in his first several years to prepare them for the day-to-day grind of the major college game. He did not throw his players to the wolves but built them into warriors instead. He loaded his nonconference schedule in the early years with directionals and satellite campuses — Western Illinois, Louisiana-Lafayette, etc. — to give his players confidence.
And he mined the junior college ranks with remarkable success, identifying players and people who would fit his system and meet his high standards. Quarterback Michael Bishop was a JC transfer who shone in the Snyder system, orchestrating two of those early 11-win seasons. More conventional recruit Darren Sproles had two straight seasons of 2,000-plus all-purpose yards in the mid-2000s. He might have won two Heismans at a more prominent university. But like Kansas State, Sproles was not given his due.
“The real key to the success he’s had over the years is player development,” said Miller, who has been with Snyder through both tours at Kansas State. “It’s kind of funny. I count four- or five-star recruits we’ve gotten over the years, there might have been maybe two. We have an awful lot of three-stars playing in the NFL right now.”
After three years in retirement, Snyder returned to coaching in 2009, with Kansas State having posted a 17-20 overall record without him. He has never believed the NFL was his calling, but this was different.
“The Kansas State family is in flux right now. I want to be able to help,” Snyder said at the time.
After 34 more victories, suffice to say he has.
Kelly has led Oregon to its only two 12-win seasons and its only appearance in the BCS title game, that following the 2010 season when his Ducks lost to Auburn 22-19 on a field goal as time expired at University of Phoenix Stadium, the site of the Fiesta Bowl this season.
His style now is the same as it was then: speed first. The Ducks recruit players with speed on both sides of the ball and run their offense at a ridiculous pace. Kelly likes it no better than when his offense is running plays 15 seconds apart, not only staggering the opponents’ defense but also preventing reinforcements from arriving.
“It is our weapon,” said Kelly, 49.
Like Snyder, he connects with his players on a personal level. He goes over film with redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota, who — like the player he replaced, Darron Thomas — is the key to making the offense go as a dual-threat runner/passer who needs the ability to make the proper decision almost instantaneously.
“From the moment he gave me that opportunity to play here, he’s been able to come up and give me his feedback. Even though a lot of times head coaches are not accessible, he’s the kind of guy that he’s very into his players, understands what’s going on. To have that kind of head coach, it makes me very comfortable. Makes you understand that he’s behind you,” Mariota said.
Kelly’s mantra is “win the day,” a message that has rubbed off on his players.
“Anything we do, there isn’t one week he hasn’t talked about greatness,” said sophomore center Hroniss Grasu, who was on the Rimington Trophy watch list. “In my head I was thinking about greatness like Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali. But he said greatness is being better than your previous self. Tomorrow, if I did something better than I did today, that’s kind of being great. I’m going to take that to heart.”
For Kelly, the past is gone and the future unknowable, so there is no sense dwelling on either. He answers questions about his future in that context, although he is at the right age to accept a higher challenge.
“My whole thing since I’ve been here is that I’m going to do the best job I can every single day. If that’s good enough that other people look at you sometimes, I don’t really care about that. I think too many people live in the future. We live in the moment. Our football team lives in the moment,” Kelly said.
“Our whole thing about our football team is about being consistent, so if my approach was to look at what’s going to happen five years down the road, 10 years down the road — it’s never been my philosophy and never will be my philosophy. My heart is to win the day, and that’s it.
“I know everybody wants to hear a different answer. I’m not being evasive. My job is to coach the University of Oregon football team, and I love doing it. And that’s what I’m going to do.”