Bill Snyder said he returned to Kansas State four years ago to “calm the waters.”
Instead, he stirred up college football.
The 73-year-old coach, refreshed and rejuvenated after a brief retirement, has once again raised a downtrodden program to national prominence. The seventh-ranked Wildcats won only their second Big 12 title and the third conference championship in their 117-year history, and will play Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl next month.
His star quarterback, Collin Klein, is among three Heisman Trophy finalists, and several other players on a team whose only loss came at Baylor late in the season have futures in the NFL.
It’s no surprise that Snyder was the unanimous choice as AP’s Big 12 coach of the year.
“There’s a lot of people who invest a lot of emotion, a lot of spirit, and probably who as much as anything genuinely care,” Snyder said. “Certainly that embraces all of our players and all our staff and all the support people that we have in our program.”
Snyder joined Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops as the only three-time winners of the award on Tuesday. He also won it last season, when he guided the Wildcats to the Cotton Bowl, and in 1998, when Kansas State came up just short of playing for a national championship.
The award was voted on by 18 reporters who regularly cover the conference. The players of the year and All-Big 12 teams will be announced Wednesday.
Kansas State (11-1, 8-1) was predicted to finish this season in the middle of the Big 12, a league that suddenly featured three returning conference champions in Oklahoma, West Virginia and TCU.
Things started slowly, too, with the Wildcats struggling early in a win over Missouri State.
Then they began to pick up momentum.
They ran roughshod over Miami, a team that tied for its division title in the ACC. And after an easy win over North Texas, Kansas State beat then-No. 6 Oklahoma on the road.
The Wildcats’ next big showdown came on the road against the Mountaineers, at the time one of the top teams in the country. Kansas State grounded Geno Smith and Co. in a 55-14 blowout.
Remarkably consistent all season, the Wildcats finally cracked on a Saturday night in Waco, Texas. They had climbed to No. 1 in the BCS standings for the first time in school history after Alabama’s stunning loss to Texas A&M, but were done in by turnovers and blown assignments in a 52-24 loss to the Bears that dashed the Wildcats’ national championship dreams.
Never more was Snyder’s even keel more valuable.
After a week off, the Wildcats returned to the field for their season finale Saturday night against Texas. They needed a victory to wrap up their first Big 12 title since 2003, and scored 35 second-half points in a 42-24 victory on senior night.
Snyder even allowed a little smile to slip in the postgame celebration.
“It means an awful lot to all of us,” he said. “A great deal to the young people in our program — they were excited about it. Obviously I speak for everybody in our football family, I think it’s significant and important for each and every one of us.”
The turnaround from a five-win team in the final year of Ron Prince’s first tenure to the opportunity for the first 12-win season in school history with a victory in the Fiesta Bowl mirrors in many ways Snyder’s initial turnaround, dubbed by many the “Miracle in Manhattan.”
Kansas State had been winless the two seasons before his arrival in 1989, but slowly became one of the most gritty, consistent and well-coached programs in college football.
It all culminated with the Wildcats’ first Big 12 title in 2003.
“I think I’ve addressed this team, when I first came back, they were in position to maybe — not totally replicate that, but become maybe the second-greatest turnaround,” Snyder said of his return from retirement, when he promised to “calm the waters” for a program that had backslid.
“When you look back at fifth-years seniors, they won five, then they won six, then they won seven, and won 10 and 11. It wasn’t sudden, and that’s exactly what happened the first time.”
Snyder’s formula doesn’t rely on blue-chip recruits.
Instead, his coaching staff slowly and methodically mines high schools and junior colleges for players who fit their system, and then ensures they buy into the values they represent.
That’s how Klein, a lightly regarded recruit from Colorado, became a Heisman Trophy finalist, and how linebacker Arthur Brown found his way to Kansas State after a time at Miami, and how junior college defensive back Nigel Malone put himself in position to play professionally.
“It sounds like a simple thing,” Klein said, “but it’s just been amazing how Coach Snyder is always talking about improving, and every team I’ve been on every single year we’ve had here has gotten better every year.”
Brown said he appreciated Snyder’s leadership on a personal level, away from the field.
“It’s molded me as a player and as a person,” said Brown, who emerged as one of the nation’s best linebackers. “That’s invaluable in itself, and I’m thankful for the opportunity.”
It’s an opportunity he’s given players at Kansas State for more than two decades.
“There’s no question, his record speaks for itself,” senior kicker Anthony Cantele said. “He’s instilled a lot of leadership in this team from the ground up.”