Kansas State is 5-0 and one of 2011's surprise teams.
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 Snyderâs life anymore. He chose retirement three-plus years ago and found it somewhat unfulfilling. Boring, even. And even though he says it took him âthree weeks to a monthâ 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.
âThe fire in his belly to get back into coaching is phenomenal,â says KSU athletic director Bob Krause.
So, he came back to rescue a program that sagged to 5â7 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 Snyderâs watch, the Wildcats have slid into the Big 12âs discount rack and are easy pickings for the conferenceâs powers â 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 itâs 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. Snyderâs return is being sold as the homecoming of a legend who couldnât bear to see the once-proud program he built sink into the mire.
âBecause the Hall of Fame can wait.
âBecause family matters most.
âBecause hometown heroes become legends.
âBecause âWildcat Victoryâ is more than a songâ¦
âThe Tradition Continuesâ
Thatâs the pitch, and itâs 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 arenât anywhere near as forlorn as they were back in â89, 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 wonât be so long this time.
âAt that time, it wasnât a matter of trying to redirect things; it was a matter of virtually beginning over,â Snyder says.
That doesnât mean a rebuilding job doesnât lie ahead, and that Snyder isnât partly responsible for creating the need for it. He understands that his final two seasons in Manhattan werenât successful and that his âretirementâ after a 4â7 2004 season and 5â6 â05 performance wasnât 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.
âI donât think it had anything to do with being outdated,â Snyder says. âWe were always pioneers.â But while other programs were emerging within the Big 12, the Wildcats were sagging. Granted, itâs harder to keep a program like Kansas State at the top every year, but the numbers spoke loudly against Snyder. âIt was part of the normal happenstance,â he says. âYou have to continue the climb. Whether we would have had I stayed, I donât know. But (the losing seasons) were part of the process.â
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 wouldnât be texting and sending out group e-mails if he hadnât returned to the coaching ranks, but give him credit for understanding the necessity of communicating with his constituents on platforms they prefer.
âI get probably 150-200 e-mails and text messages a day,â he says. âI 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 Iâve got them on this phone of mine. It took some learning, but I had some good teachers.â
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. Itâs an interesting juxtaposition of on-field modernity and off-field retroactivity. Heâll spread it out with four wides and blitz from all angles, while decrying the commercial personality of the sport.
âThere are a number of things Iâm concerned about,â he says. âFirst, college athletics, particularly football and (menâs) basketball, have become a business. I donât think thatâs 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.â
Snyder stayed at Kansas State because he believed in the school and his mission there. Heâs selling his players on a responsibility to something bigger than them.
âI know Iâm going to be part of a rebuilding project, but Iâm not doing this for me,â says fifth-year senior offensive tackle Nick Stringer, a Snyder Phase I recruit. âIâm doing it for every other Wildcat who comes here and puts the Purple on.
âPeople 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.â
Because Snyder is a returning hero, he will get the benefit of the doubt should things start slowly. Heâll have an experienced team, thanks to last yearâs transfers, although few of them were particularly overwhelming, as the Wildcatsâ 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. Itâs a challenge, all right, but itâs 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, heâll be regarded by younger alums as an anachronism. At that point, it wonât matter whether Snyder received a standing ovation simply for being shown on the Jumbotron during a menâs basketball game or, as Krause puts it, âthe dollars and cents are supporting the decision (to bring him back).â 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 doesnât work, chances are heâll consider the climate more responsible for failure than what he did and how he did it. Thatâs not a stubborn approach, just a confident one.
âThe people that surround the Kansas State program â alumni, fans, students, faculty â they believe that, yes, it can be done again,â Snyder says. âWeâd all like to believe that. But you have to do the things that make it happen.â
Sounds tough, but it sure beats a life of leisure.
Most of the time.