This article about Bill Snyder's return to Kansas State appeared in Athlon's 2009 Big 12 regional edition. With the Wildcats sitting at 5-0, it's a good time to look back at Snyder's return to Kansas State, after a brief retirement.
There are days when that rocking chair looks pretty good to Bill Snyder. A quiet moment alone or a little mayhem with the grandchildren would be nice. Catch a nap. Devote a few hours to a good cause. Visit the old stomping grounds and enjoy the royal treatment. Ah, memories.
Then comes the shock of reality. That is not Bill Snyder’s life anymore. He chose retirement three-plus years ago and found it somewhat unfulfilling. Boring, even. And even though he says it took him “three weeks to a month” to make the final decision to return to Kansas State, something tells you his part of the process took far less time than that. Getting his family on board might have been the tough part. Bill Snyder is a coach, not a spectator. He needs a classroom in which to teach and a practice field over which he can preside.
“The fire in his belly to get back into coaching is phenomenal,” says KSU athletic director Bob Krause.
So, he came back to rescue a program that sagged to 5–7 last year. But there are times when the three years away from the maelstrom look pretty darn good.
The primary difficulty facing Snyder these days is a Kansas State program that has reversed the Manhattan Miracle. Over the past five seasons, two of which were on Snyder’s watch, the Wildcats have slid into the Big 12’s discount rack and are easy pickings for the conference’s powers — and some who are not so powerful. The trademark ruthless defense seems devoted to philanthropy. The offense, which helped pioneer spread fields and the 21st century running quarterback, was butter-knife dull, not cutting-edge. These days, some people think it’s a miracle if KSU goes to a bowl. Snyder has been brought back at the behest of school president Dr. Jon Wefald, who has been at K-State since 1986. Wefald figured that it made more sense to recycle a proven commodity who could energize the fan base and stimulate the bottom line than to try out some young colt who might be all sizzle and no wins. Snyder’s return is being sold as the homecoming of a legend who couldn’t bear to see the once-proud program he built sink into the mire.
“Because the Hall of Fame can wait.
“Because family matters most.
“Because hometown heroes become legends.
“Because ‘Wildcat Victory’ is more than a song…
“The Tradition Continues”
That’s the pitch, and it’s accompanied by the requisite dramatic music and compelling imagery. Snyder created the Miracle, and only he can conjure its revival. The good news is that things aren’t anywhere near as forlorn as they were back in ’89, when KSU was the most popular homecoming opponent on the planet. From 1955-88, Kansas State had a total of two winning seasons, both of the six-win variety. The good news is that the climb won’t be so long this time.
“At that time, it wasn’t a matter of trying to redirect things; it was a matter of virtually beginning over,” Snyder says.
That doesn’t mean a rebuilding job doesn’t lie ahead, and that Snyder isn’t partly responsible for creating the need for it. He understands that his final two seasons in Manhattan weren’t successful and that his “retirement” after a 4–7 2004 season and 5–6 ’05 performance wasn’t necessarily mourned. Some thought the venerable then-66-year old coach had lost it. Then came Ron Prince, and things were so bad that critics thought that perhaps Snyder was right when he spoke of his troubles simply being part of a cycle.
“I don’t think it had anything to do with being outdated,” Snyder says. “We were always pioneers.” But while other programs were emerging within the Big 12, the Wildcats were sagging. Granted, it’s harder to keep a program like Kansas State at the top every year, but the numbers spoke loudly against Snyder. “It was part of the normal happenstance,” he says. “You have to continue the climb. Whether we would have had I stayed, I don’t know. But (the losing seasons) were part of the process.”
Old Dog, New Tricks
You may have trouble getting parents or grandparents to enter the digital age, but Snyder has jumped right in. Truth be told, he probably wouldn’t be texting and sending out group e-mails if he hadn’t returned to the coaching ranks, but give him credit for understanding the necessity of communicating with his constituents on platforms they prefer.
“I get probably 150-200 e-mails and text messages a day,” he says. “I can communicate with the players on a very simple basis by using a mass e-mail or text. I can stay in touch with the faculty and past players. You name a group, and I’ve got them on this phone of mine. It took some learning, but I had some good teachers.”
Snyder has made some concessions to the 21st century, but the vast majority of his methods are decidedly from decades past. He remains devoted to the double shift at work. He is still a taciturn authority figure, more veteran leader than cuddly grandfather. And he still insists on strong control of the program. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of on-field modernity and off-field retroactivity. He’ll spread it out with four wides and blitz from all angles, while decrying the commercial personality of the sport.
“There are a number of things I’m concerned about,” he says. “First, college athletics, particularly football and (men’s) basketball, have become a business. I don’t think that’s how it was intended to be. There are certain things that are good and right as they are, and amateur athletics are one of them. I have seen young people grow and prosper and become men and become successful in all facets of their lives because they were in athletic programs with good values.”
Snyder stayed at Kansas State because he believed in the school and his mission there. He’s selling his players on a responsibility to something bigger than them.
“I know I’m going to be part of a rebuilding project, but I’m not doing this for me,” says fifth-year senior offensive tackle Nick Stringer, a Snyder Phase I recruit. “I’m doing it for every other Wildcat who comes here and puts the Purple on.
“People will look at the 2009 team as the group that put the work in that allowed the younger guys to be in the top 25 and compete for championships.”
Because Snyder is a returning hero, he will get the benefit of the doubt should things start slowly. He’ll have an experienced team, thanks to last year’s transfers, although few of them were particularly overwhelming, as the Wildcats’ final record proved. And since quarterback Josh Freeman headed to the NFL a year early, Snyder will have to find someone capable of running the team. It’s a challenge, all right, but it’s certainly not as bad as what he encountered the first time around, when KSU had only 47 scholarship players. And Krause is content to be patient with his old friend, whom he hired 20 years ago.
Snyder may well get five years, but if things are shaky beyond next season, he’ll be regarded by younger alums as an anachronism. At that point, it won’t matter whether Snyder received a standing ovation simply for being shown on the Jumbotron during a men’s basketball game or, as Krause puts it, “the dollars and cents are supporting the decision (to bring him back).” Ultimately, it will be wins and losses that determine whether this is the right move, and not the past.
Snyder is fine with that, because no matter how many newfangled ways he learns to communicate and how cutting-edge his strategies on the field may be, his tested way of working is the only method he knows. If that doesn’t work, chances are he’ll consider the climate more responsible for failure than what he did and how he did it. That’s not a stubborn approach, just a confident one.
“The people that surround the Kansas State program — alumni, fans, students, faculty — they believe that, yes, it can be done again,” Snyder says. “We’d all like to believe that. But you have to do the things that make it happen.”
Sounds tough, but it sure beats a life of leisure.
Most of the time.