AMES, Iowa – Miracles don’t have to be pretty. Miracles don’t have to happen with a flash of light or with a parting of the seas or with a perfect 50-yard touchdown pass with just the right amount of arc that guarantees play on the highlight reels.
Bill Snyder’s Second Miracle in Manhattan is the type of miracle that is not particularly pretty. This miracle is a 73-year-old coach with wispy white hair and a milquetoast manner, raising his Kansas State Wildcats from the dead for the second time with his grind-it-out brand of fundamental football.
It’s a quarterback with a dinky throwing arm, a patient yet powerful running style and a gutsy will to win, all traits that should remind you of Tim Tebow. It’s a group of football players that on Saturday, in their typical wear-you-down fashion, beat a tough Iowa State team, 27-21, making K-State one of two teams in college football to start 6-0 the past two seasons.
But an ugly miracle is no less miraculous. And if No. 6 K-State can head to West Virginia next weekend, stand up to the dynamic and beautiful offense that is WVU football, make Collin Klein’s case for the Heisman against former frontrunner Geno Smith and show the nation that the Wildcats truly deserve to be a top-five football team, then Snyder’s Second Miracle in Manhattan will have been just as impressive as his first, when he built the worst football program in the nation into a powerhouse.
There wasn’t a single play at Saturday’s Big 12 game where Klein or his K-State offense took the fans’ breath away. Instead, there was Klein’s efficient 16-of-24 passing for 187 yards. There was the zero-turnover K-State offense. There was K-State going 8-for-17 on third downs and 1-for-1 on fourth downs, and there was Klein’s offense holding the ball for more than two-thirds of the game. There was a slew of patient runs by Klein, waiting and waiting and then finally bursting toward the line, gaining 105 yards on 25 carries, including three touchdowns.
“He’s an All-American in my book,” Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads, who is working on his own rebuilding miracle in Ames, said of Klein. “He doesn’t get the attention because he’s not as flashy and doesn’t put up the gaudy numbers that some of the other college football players do, but he has a 6-0 football team that is ranked in the top five in the country. They can play with anybody in the country with arguably less talent on the field than everybody in the top 10, if not everybody in the top 15.”
It’s the type of backhanded compliment that Snyder’s overachieving teams have garnered for three decades, since he took over what Sports Illustrated called “America’s most hapless team” way back in 1989. That program hadn’t won a game in two seasons. They went 1-10 in Snyder’s first season, then 5-6 his second, then 7-4 in his third. By 1998, Snyder’s team was undefeated in the regular season, first in the national polls before losing in the Big 12 championship game. They’re never the most talented team, but they’re always the best-coached team.
The odds of their winning the national title this year are roughly the same as Klein’s chances of winning a Heisman: probably not too good. Big 12 guts and discipline can only take you so far against SEC size and talent. But the fact that Snyder’s second go-round at K-State has again turned the cow town of Manhattan, Kan., into one of the nation’s football capitals beats any expectations this program had when Snyder took over before the 2009 season.
Klein might not be the prettiest quarterback in the land, but no player in the nation means as much to his team as Klein does to K-State.
After Saturday’s game, instead of gloating on behalf of their Heisman-buzz quarterback or their national title hopes, Snyder stood before a circle of reporters, a Styrofoam cup of black coffee in his hand, and pointed out where his boys had struggled with fundamentals.
“It was out of character for us being a highly penalized team, and we were,” Snyder said of K-State’s nine penalties. “That’s not the right direction for us to be going. We’d been the least penalized team in the country. Now we became the most penalized team in the country. It’s a matter of discipline. It’s discipline and focus. That means we didn’t coach them well enough – me in particular – to sustain the direction we were going.”
It’s neither pretty nor sexy, of course. It’s focusing on things like penalties when fans would rather focus on national rankings. It’s being more than happy with a rushing attack that didn’t have a run longer than 12 yards on Saturday but just kept plugging away. It’s bouncing back from the team’s biggest mistake – when Tramaine Thompson fumbled a punt in the second quarter and gifted the Cyclones great field position – with a goal-line interception on the very next play. It’s thumbing your nose at the flash and dash of the rest of college football and doing things old-school.
“Coach does a great job of just keeping us focused on what we need to do,” Klein said. “It’s a process. It’s a daily grind. A lot of us have been around when we weren’t very good and we weren’t very tough, and we remember that. We remember what it took to get here. It’s something we have to remember on a daily, snap-by-snap basis.”
No, it’s not the prettiest or sexiest quote. Klein is the 23-year-old version of his coach: Do the little things right, stay humble, work hard, don’t gloat. It’s a simplest explanation for why this is a top-five ranked football team, the simplest explanation for a miracle. Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.