Cody Kirby engineered a 99-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter of a game against Kansas State five years ago that might not be memorable to most. Kirby was the senior quarterback of Missouri State in a game his team lost by 24 points. The game, in the grand scheme of things, was forgettable. From there, Kirby finished his career at Missouri State, played football in Canada and in the Arena Football League before returning to his alma mater as a graduate assistant.
Everywhere he’s gone, Kirby has kept with him a copy of Mind Gym, a book on mental training for athletes. And for the past five years, Kirby has used a souvenir from that game against Kansas State as a book mark. Marking his spot in Mind Gym is an envelope and letter on Kansas State stationery.
“The envelope is kind of torn and tattered,” Kirby says. “But I haven’t let the letter go without care.”
Kirby still reads the letter from time to time as a reminder of the values that stood out to the sender — in this case, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder.
The note, handwritten, complimented Kirby’s competitive nature and the way he handled himself. The message predicted he’d be successful in any future endeavor.
Kirby left that game against Kansas State honored to have shaken the hand of Snyder after the game. Early the next week, the Missouri State football staff told him he had a delivery in the mail room. With the Kansas State return label, Kirby wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
“This was written diagonally across the letter and in a purple marker, so you know he sat and took the time to write that out,” Kirby says.
Anyone around Kansas State, though, will find those trademarks unmistakable: The Kansas State letterhead, the ink from a purple felt-tip pen, the lines of handwriting tilted clockwise at nearly a 45 degree angle.
And finally: Warm Regards, Bill Snyder
Kirby was just one of what must be hundreds of recipients of similar notes over the years. Without any fanfare or public announcements, this is a tradition as much as anything else is at Kansas State.
Snyder estimates he’s sent one of these handwritten notes after nearly every game since he became the head coach at Kansas State in 1989. He’s sent them for dozens of reasons, from consoling an injured player to congratulating an opponent on a victory over Kansas State to simple acknowledgements of competitiveness and leadership.
“I could think of 25 different reasons over the years when I’ve sent a young person a note,” Snyder says.
The process for him doesn’t seem to be a special one, even if he’s the only coach who corresponds with an opponent in such a way.
On an ordinary day in March this spring, for example, Snyder was at his desk, sending thank-you notes from a coaching event in Manhattan, Kan., earlier in the week.
His colleagues are familiar with the notes, too. R.C. Slocum, who as Texas A&M coach overlapped with Snyder in the Big 12, recalls one of his players getting a note from Snyder at some point during his tenure, though he doesn’t remember which one.
Slocum himself received a note from Snyder this winter after attending an event with the Kansas State coach.
“I’m never surprised when I get a nice note from him,” says Slocum, who coached at Texas A&M from 1989-2002. “That’s what he does. That’s what separates him from some of other people. ... That’s why Bill is respected like he is. It’s the personal touch.”
Even bitter rivals have received that personal touch.
Glen Mason, the coach at Kansas from 1988-96, recalled one of his captains receiving a note from Snyder in the late ’80s. Again, the identity of the recipient is lost to memory.
Snyder can’t recall why he started sending the notes. Did one of his coaches do the same? Did an opposing coach do that for him when he first started coaching or when he played?
“I wasn’t a good enough player, so if anyone sent anything to me, they were mistaken,” Snyder says.
When the practice started he can’t really say, either. Joan Friederich has worked in the Kansas State football office since 1973 — predating even Snyder in Manhattan. She’s been the administrative assistant to four football coaches at Kansas State, including both tenures for Snyder.
“That’s been too long ago, I don’t remember,” Friederich says. “It was a little bit later than when he first got the job. He sends so many things out, but he’s been doing it for several years.”
The routine, though, hasn’t changed. After nearly every Kansas State game, Friederich thumbs through her desktop directory to find the address to the football office of the most recent opponent. She loads an envelope into her typewriter — yes, a typewriter — to address Snyder’s note, and off it goes.
Even though this personal touch has gone on for decades, in the past, few people apart from the sender and recipient would have known of each note. Social media changed that, though. After North Dakota State upset Kansas State 24–21 in Manhattan to open the 2013 season, Snyder sent a letter to Bison quarterback Brock Jensen:
“Congratulations Brock. I was truly impressed with you & your teammates. You played so very well, virtually error free & with such poise. I wish you a great year & hope you achieve all you desire. Please share my thoughts w/ your teammates. Warm Regards Bill Snyder.”
A North Dakota State fan tweeted an image of the note, and the story quickly went viral.
“It caught me by surprise,” says Jensen, who led North Dakota State to its third of four consecutive FCS national championships that season. “I didn’t know he wrote notes to opponents like that. I found out when he wrote me.”
Former Texas running back Fozzy Whittaker didn’t know one was coming, either. During his senior season in 2011, Whittaker suffered a knee injury in a loss at Missouri on Nov. 12, a week before Texas’ final home game of the season against Kansas State. Whittaker, as a result, wouldn’t be able to play on Senior Day for the Longhorns. The week before the game against the Wildcats, Whittaker received an envelope from Kansas State.
“The letter he wrote to me, it was basically — not a sympathy letter — but to give me words of encouragement,” Whittaker says. “The fact that it was a Big 12 opponent and it was a head coach that wrote it, it was a gesture that I feel like is unparalleled.”
Coaches often like to say that locker room conversations or postgame exchanges should remain private, and Snyder is notoriously guarded when it comes to information he shares about his program. If his correspondence with opponents is being shared with the public through social media, he can live with it.
“As I tell our young people, don’t write or say anything that you would not want to be repeated,” Snyder says.
• • •
The letters, at least to one opposing quarterback, have become one of the sport’s top honors of sorts.
A note from Snyder doesn’t acknowledge the stats or the result of the game. It means the recipient competed at a level to impress Bill Snyder, a coach whose teams have consistently overachieved in the Big 12 for nearly 30 years.
West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett entered the 2014 season with plenty of goals that would have been obvious — get the Mountaineers back to a bowl game, stay healthy for the season and so on. One of the objectives for Trickett was more specific than wins and losses: Make Bill Snyder sit down at his desk in the Kansas State football office and write out his thoughts about the West Virginia quarterback.
Trickett knew this was a possibility. A year earlier, Trickett’s friend, Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro, received a letter from Snyder during his junior season. In a 49–26 loss to Kansas State on Nov. 9, 2013, Amaro caught nine passes for 67 yards. During the course of the Kansas State game, Amaro took a hard hit and had to be helped off the field. He didn’t return to the game. Again, Snyder noted the details:
“You’ve had a great year Jace. Admire how hard you play & the innate toughness you display to help your team. Hope you weren’t hurt badly on Sat. Wishing you & your teammates continued success, good fortune & health. Warm Regards Coach Snyder”
After Amaro shared the letter on Twitter, Trickett hoped he could live up to the standard to earn one of his own. “That was one of my goals going into the season,” Trickett says. “When we played them, I wanted to be the guy who gets the letter.”
Fortunately or unfortunately, the note came. Trickett sustained a concussion in West Virginia’s 26–20 loss to Kansas State on Nov. 20 and had to leave the game in the third quarter facing a two-touchdown deficit.
“Sorry I didn’t get to see you after the game Clint. Wasn’t aware that you had received a concussion. I hope the symptoms are gone by now & that you will be back soon. Always appreciate you as a young man of great values as well as being an excellent quarterback. Pulling for you to finish off the season at your best. Warm Regards Coach Snyder.”
Trickett, of course, has the letter. He’s taking it with him to East Mississippi Community College, where he’ll start his career as a quarterback coach.
At some point, the letter will hang on his wall. He’ll have framed a memento, essentially, from the injury that ended his playing career. “He’s the foundation of what a coach should be,” Trickett says. “When you think what a coach should be, you think of Bill Snyder. The handwritten letter epitomizes it.”