NCAA FB

Snyder brewing a second K-State revival

Is 6-0 Kansas State for real? Thayer Evans breaks it down.
Is 6-0 Kansas State for real? Thayer Evans breaks it down.
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Thayer Evans

Senior College Football writer Thayer Evans previously wrote for The New York Times and Houston Chronicle, as well as contributed to The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post and more. Follow him on Twitter.

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Bill Snyder thinks he has been to a movie theater since coming out of retirement two seasons ago to return as Kansas State’s coach.

But for someone so obsessed with details relating to his football team that he has been known to carry a Dictaphone, he can’t remember which movie he saw. He also thinks he’s been to the grocery store since then, but he admits to being frightened by the prices and fondly recalls when a gallon of milk cost 40 cents.

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Then again, no one can remember the last time they saw Snyder eat, let alone sleep. Except for practices and games, some Kansas State players have gone their entire careers and not seen him outside of his office that has pictures from "Pinocchio" on its walls.

But what Snyder’s friends, players and assistants always remember is seeing his car parked outside Kansas State’s football facility day and night.

“I wouldn’t say he’s a gremlin, but I would say he’s like one of those mythical creatures that you only see every blue moon out,” former Kansas State wide receiver Taco Wallace says. “You know, like the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot. People get a glimpse of them or something, but they’re not quite sure if it was him.”

Snyder is already a legend for his first coaching stint at Kansas State, one in which he inherited major college football’s worst program in November 1988 and a decade later magically had it within a single play of the BCS championship game. The biggest turnaround in the history of college football became known as the Manhattan Miracle and prompted former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer to declare Snyder the coach of the 20th century.

Now, Switzer believes the 72-year-old Snyder might just be the coach of the millennium with his latest surprising resuscitation of Kansas State. Less than three years after returning to save what he built, his Wildcats (6-0, 3-0 Big 12) are No. 11 in the BCS standings and off to their best start since 2000 entering Saturday’s game at rival Kansas (2-4, 0-3).

“Bill Snyder," Switzer says, "is my hero."

Like Snyder’s first revival of Kansas State, this one is rooted in long, grueling hours, a trait he learned from his petite mother, Marionetta Snyder, who raised him as a single parent in a one-bedroom downtown apartment in St. Joseph, Mo. She would leave for her job as a sales clerk at a Townsend, Wyatt and Wall department store before Snyder was awake and sometimes didn’t return until he was already asleep.

The first to arrive and last to leave at Kansas State, Snyder still works 16-hour days and eats only when he gets home, which is usually after midnight. His players must wipe their feet before entering the team’s facility and aren’t allowed to wear ball caps or earrings inside it.

Snyder also provides his players with a laminated piece of paper that has what he calls the “16 Goals For Success” that they must memorize for random tests. They also must adhere to “Cat Time,” which requires them to be 10 minutes early for every class, practice or meeting.

After each practice, Snyder not only grades the performances of his players, but also his assistants, says friend and professional golfer Jim Colbert.

“I’m no different than I always have been,” says Snyder, who has a career record of 155-80-1. “I’m a strong believer in consistency.”

While Snyder’s impressive list of former assistants includes prominent coaches such as Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops and Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema, some view him as a prickly, old-school control freak. He’s been known to do everything from telling his coaches how to shave to asking a player not to wear certain house shoes because they were red.

“I certainly don’t view myself that way,” says Snyder of his stigma as a control freak.

But what no one disputes about Snyder’s methodical approach is that the devil is truly in the details.

“He’s just thorough in his thought process to try to gain an advantage,” says former Arizona coach Mike Stoops, who was an assistant for Snyder from 1992-98. “That’s the whole story behind everything he does.”

Says Bielema: “Coach Snyder really honestly believes in the philosophy of, ‘Leave no stone unturned, and then go back and turn them over one more time.’ He’s so detailed- and task-oriented that it’s just amazing.”

When Snyder was 6, his mother divorced his father in Salina, Kan., and moved with her son to St. Joseph, Mo., which is in the northwest part of the state.

She raised her son in their one-bedroom downtown apartment in which he slept on a Murphy bed and she slept on a cot. Although Snyder’s mother was just 4-foot-9 and never weighed more than 100 pounds, she was dynamic.

She walked four blocks each way to her job at Townsend, Wyatt and Wall because she didn’t have a driver’s license. She didn’t make much money, but saved what she could to someday pay for her son’s college.

“Anything that I’ve done that is decent or good in my life has been a product of what my mother had taught me and the example she set,” Snyder says of Marionetta Snyder, who died in 1996 at age 78.

Snyder attended the University of Missouri in 1958 and was the freshman’s team 10th-string starting quarterback before he flunked out after a semester. He had let down his mother and returned to live with her in the one-bedroom apartment.

He attended community college briefly before transferring to William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., where he played defensive back and graduated. He started coaching full time in 1964 as an assistant at Indio (Calif.) High School.

“It was the only place I had a job,” Snyder says.

Snyder was a graduate assistant at USC in 1966 and after he became head coach at Indio High a year later, he asked a hypnotist if he could squeeze six hours’ worth of sleep into one hour (he could not).

After a stint as head coach of Santa Ana (Calif.) Foothill High School, he left in 1974 to become offensive coordinator and head swimming coach at Austin College in Sherman, Texas.

Two years later, Snyder sent a handwritten letter to then-North Texas coach Hayden Fry about an open position to coach the team’s quarterbacks and running backs.

“I will do a good job recruiting and coaching the backfield,” Fry recalls Snyder’s letter saying. “I have a real love for the game of football.”

Along with the letter, Snyder sent Fry a copy of his playbook.

“That was very unusual,” Fry says. “It really was. He wanted the job that bad.”

Fry hired Snyder, whom he lovingly calls “one of my sons.” For the next 17 years, the two men worked together, a span in which Fry doesn’t recall Snyder once taking a lunch break.

“He motivated all the other coaches to work harder,” Fry says.

When Fry was hired at downtrodden Iowa after the 1978 season, he took Snyder as his offensive coordinator. Snyder implemented a passing attack never before seen in the Big Ten.

Even then, Snyder was a notorious stickler for details. Fry recalls Snyder used to correct Hawkeyes quarterback Chuck Long every time he threw the ball in practice.

“Son, you didn’t turn your thumb down.”

“Son, you didn’t stride far enough.”

“Son, you threw the ball too hard.”

When Fry listened to Snyder critique Long at a practice in 1985, he noticed Long was completing all of his passes. So Fry walked over to Snyder and told him, “Coach Snyder, just leave the kid alone one time. Don’t correct him.”

The words caused the veins in Snyder’s neck to bulge and he began to turn red, Fry recalls.

“That’s the last time I ever corrected him,” Fry says.

That season, Iowa won the Big Ten and played in the Rose Bowl, while Long was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.

“That gives you an idea what kind of coach Coach Snyder is,” Fry says.

When Snyder was hired at Kansas State in late 1988, he took over a program with a 27-game winless streak and that had won just three of 44 games the previous four seasons. At the time, the Wildcats had only four winning seasons and a single bowl appearance in over five decades.

Kansas State’s facilities were abysmal, and attendance was so poor that the Wildcats played some of their home games on the road to make more money.

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“It was the worst job in America,” Switzer says. “We knew we’d hang half-a-hundred on ’em every time.”

Snyder won one game his first season, five the next season and had a 7-4 record his third season. All along, Snyder preached to his staff the importance of improving daily.

“Coach just taught us all the difference is in the details,” says Louisiana Tech athletic director Bruce Van De Velde, who was Snyder’s director for football from 1992-97. “You have to tend to the details every single day.”

Van De Velde knows that all too well. When Nebraska and Kansas State played in the Coca-Cola Classic in Tokyo during the 1992 season, the two teams flew together on the same airplane and sat on separate sides.

Before the trip, Snyder asked Van De Velde to research which side of the plane would get the most sun so his team could sit on the other side to get better sleep.

“That’s the kind of detail that Coach would look into,” Van De Velde says.

Mike Stoops recalls Snyder used to have his team go through a situational practice from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. on the Saturday two weeks before its season opener. As the hours dragged by during those sessions, Stoops and the other assistants tired, but Snyder only got stronger.

“It was crazy,” Stoops says. “It was the longest day of my life. Those were brutal, but I think it was his favorite day of the year.”

Kansas State made and won its first bowl under Snyder in 1993 and a year later went to the Aloha Bowl. During the trip to Hawaii, a pickpocket stole a couple of the team’s bowl watches from a table in its hotel.

Van De Velde told Snyder about the theft, and the two chased after the pickpocket. After they finally cornered the thief, Van De Velde unsuccessfully asked for the watches.

But when Snyder asked for them, the pickpocket handed them over immediately.

“That’s the power of Coach,” Van De Velde says.

When Ron Hudson went to work for Snyder in 1995 as an assistant, Kansas State had incredibly posted back-to-back nine-win seasons. The Wildcats’ first game that season was against terrible Temple, which had won only six games over the previous four seasons.

But the Owls had a new defensive back from a junior college in California. Snyder made one of his assistants get video of the player and find out everything about him, even though he had been practicing for less than a month.

“Let’s see how good he really is,” Hudson recalls Snyder telling his staff.

Not that it ended up mattering. Kansas State won the game in a blowout, and Hudson doesn’t even remember whether the defensive back played.

“Coach Snyder wasn’t going to take any chances,” Hudson says.

In 1997, Snyder led Kansas State to its first 11-win season, and a year later the second-ranked Wildcats beat Nebraska for the first time in 30 years. Afterward, Hudson and other Kansas State assistants went out to celebrate in downtown Manhattan with their wives.

On Hudson’s way back home about 1 a.m., he passed the team’s facility, and Snyder’s car still was parked outside. He was inside watching the game’s film.

“He doesn’t get carried away with the moment,” Hudson says.

Another time during a staff meeting, Hudson recalls Snyder being pestered by a buzzing fly. He became so irritated that he asked Van De Velde, “Bruce, what are you going to do about the fly?”

“He was dead serious,” Hudson says.

Of all the anecdotes about Snyder’s early years at Kansas State, one of the most popular ones has been exaggerated, says former Kansas coach Mark Mangino, who worked for Snyder from 1991-98.

During a bus trip to play at Nebraska, he insists Snyder didn’t yell at one of his staffers for an unexpected delay caused by an idle train. Mangino was sitting in the seat behind Snyder that day and laughs at the mention of the tale.

While waiting for the train to move, Mangino recalls Snyder simply telling one of his staff members, “Next time we drive up here, we’re going to have to check the train schedule.”

“It was tongue in cheek,” Mangino says. “That story has been embellished so much that it has taken a life of its own. Trust me.”

But what hasn't been exaggerated is Snyder's ban on the wearing of ball caps and earrings in his team’s facility. Aaron Lockett, a wide receiver at Kansas State from 1997-2001, recalls Snyder warned first-time violators, and subsequent violations resulted in being called out in team meetings.

Repeat violators were punished with “8, 8 and 8,” which required participants to run eight times around the football field and eight times up and down the bleachers the day after games at 8 a.m.

“That’s not a good list to be on,” Lockett says. “For some reason, that list seems to translate into less playing time later on.”

By the time Taco Wallace was considering transferring from a California junior college to Kansas State in 2001, Snyder was coming off four straight 11-win seasons but still hadn’t won a Big 12 championship. The first time Wallace went into Snyder’s office, he immediately noticed scenes from “Pinocchio” on the walls.

It’s Snyder’s favorite movie, and he identifies with the character Geppetto, who creates the puppet.

“This is strange,” Wallace recalls thinking. “This man is like 70. It’s all over the place. Wow.”

While at Kansas State, Wallace briefly wore red house shoes to the team’s facility. Snyder, however, asked Wallace to wear a different color of house shoes — like purple or black — but Wallace told his coach his favorite color was red.

Eventually, Wallace stopped wearing his red house shoes to avoid Snyder’s ire.

“He thought it had something to do with Nebraska,” Wallace says.

When Bielema became Kansas State’s defensive coordinator in 2002, Wildcats assistants warned him about Snyder’s 100-page coaching manual that he went over with his staff before each season. But Bielema was still shocked by the depth of its detail.

When outlining how coaches should dress and act in the office, Snyder brought up how he wanted his coaches to be clean-shaven each day. He told his staff that if any of them forgot to shave at home, disposable razors would be available in the coaches’ locker room for use from noon to 1 p.m.

Because of the type of razors that would be provided, Snyder told his assistants they should use a downward shaving stroke instead of an upward stroke.

“It’s much more efficient,” Bielema recalls Snyder saying.

During that first year coaching for Snyder, Bielema recalls driving by Kansas State’s football facility at 7 a.m. on Father’s Day. Spring practice had ended months before, and coaches weren’t allowed to work with players, but Snyder’s car was there.

Later, Bielema asked Snyder’s son, Sean — now Kansas State’s associate head coach — how many times he had spent Father’s Day with his father.

The younger Snyder raised a fist — zero.

“That’s just the way Coach is,” Bielema says.

Some coaches have morning staff meetings, but while Bielema was at Kansas State, Snyder had one at 8 a.m. and another at 1 p.m. Back then, the Wildcats worked on punt returns on Wednesday nights, and sometimes Snyder wouldn’t come into Bielema’s office to work on the week’s game plan until 10:30 p.m.

The two would argue about what they were going to do for hours.

“I had a plan to start with, he’d destroy it all, and then we’d get about halfway back to where we started,” Bielema says. “It was a fun process every Wednesday night, I can guarantee you that.”

After finally winning his lone Big 12 championship in 2003, Snyder had his first losing season in more than a decade. And in 2005, with his team assured of another losing season and in the midst of five consecutive defeats, he announced his retirement less than a week before his team’s last game.

When Snyder decided to retire, he called his friend Jim Colbert at 5 p.m. the day before his announcement and told him to come to his office. After Snyder informed Colbert of his decision, Colbert tried to talk him out of it for the next two hours.

“You’re too emotionally involved,” Colbert recalls telling Snyder. “Take a week and think about it. You’ll probably come to the same decision, but that’s OK.”

But Snyder insisted on retiring. He told Colbert that he already had talked with his family about his decision.

“I couldn’t talk him out of it,” Colbert says.

Snyder has never admitted that he should have taken extra time to think about his retirement, but Colbert believes he might have kept coaching if he had.

“I just thought it was time,” Snyder says. “I thought the program was in reasonable shape. It was time for somebody else.”

After retiring, Snyder admits he missed coaching, but that didn’t last long. He enjoyed being a special assistant to Kansas State’s athletic director and raising money for the university’s library.

The state’s governor wanted Snyder to run for Kansas’ secretary of state, but he declined, Colbert says.

Yet as busy as Snyder was during his retirement, his presence still loomed at Kansas State and over his successor, Ron Prince, who had been Virginia’s offensive coordinator. Snyder not only kept an office in the football facility, but he and Colbert used to sit in the skyboxes at Bill Snyder Family Stadium and watch the Wildcats’ practices.

“I knew he missed it,” Colbert says. “I could just tell.”

In his first season at Kansas State, Prince had a 7-6 record with a bowl loss. He went 5-7 the next season and was on his way to another 5-7 record in 2008 when the school announced in early November he would not return after the season.

By then, Kansas State already had approached Snyder about coming back. He says he mulled the offer for a month and a half before deciding to accept it in late November.

“It was about people,” Snyder says. “I was approached that the people of Kansas State were in a certain degree of unrest and that I might be able to smooth the waters.”

But Colbert says a significant factor in Snyder’s decision to return was the wounded state of the program that he worked so hard to build.

“It had really sunk pretty low as far as the ability of the players,” Colbert says. “It was going to be fairly close to as bad as it was when he took over the first time. He didn’t want it to get any worse.”

During Snyder’s first team meeting after his return, he told the group what he had been telling his players and coaches for years.

“I’m never going to ask you to do anything that’s not in your best interests,” Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein recalls Snyder telling his players. “I’m just going to ask you guys to work extremely hard in trying to improve on a daily basis.”

In Snyder’s first year back, Kansas State had a 6-6 record. Last season, the Wildcats went 7-5 and lost in the Pinstripe Bowl.

This year’s Kansas State team was picked in the preseason to finish near the bottom of the Big 12. The Wildcats were underdogs in their last four games and outgained in each of them.

“If they lose to a team, it’s because that team was flat better,” Hudson says.

When asked about Kansas State’s success this season, Klein robotically rattles off the No. 12 — as in “No self-limitations,” from Snyder’s “16 Goals For Success.” But he admits that he doesn’t think he or his teammates would have predicted the Wildcats’ undefeated start.

“It’s been a total team deal the whole way, and we’re all enjoying the ride,” Klein says.

Since Snyder’s return, Colbert insists his friend is more relaxed than when he coached Kansas State the first time.

“I think he trusts his coaches a little more,” Colbert says. “I think he trusts his players more than he had. He’s not out there trying to coach every position on every play.”

But if Snyder is looser, he’s not admitting it.

“That’s just his perception,” Snyder says of Colbert’s observation.

When Snyder came out of retirement to coach again, he signed a five-year contract. He says he’s not sure how long his second tenure will last, but he is intent on stabilizing the program he built and making its fans once again proud.

“When that time comes, it’ll be time to go back and do those other things I enjoy so much,” Snyder says.

Maybe then Snyder will go to the movie theater and grocery store again. But for now, don’t expect to see him out in Manhattan.

Instead, look for Snyder’s white Cadillac Escalade. It’s the closest thing to a sighting and is easy to find.

It’s parked nearly all the time outside Kansas State’s football facility.

Tagged: Nebraska, Kansas State, Kansas, Texas, Collin Klein

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