Ten years ago, I sat in a room with Bill Snyder … and we talked. We had “talked” dozens of times through the years, of course, because I was columnist for the Kansas City Star and he was head coach at Kansas State. Our paths crossed often. But this was different. Snyder had just retired as head football coach of the Kansas State Wildcats.
And this time we really talked.
“I enjoyed it,” he told me. “In my own way.”
It is all but impossible to explain the sports miracles that Bill Snyder has pulled off in his time at Kansas State. To explain it well enough, you’d first have to be able to recreate in people’s minds just how bad it was when he got there. And it’s all but impossible to do that for anyone who wasn’t there to see it.
Yes, you can say, “Oh, it was the worst program in college football — probably the worst in all of Division I college sports.” You can talk about how the team had not won a game in three years. You can recount that the school had never won a bowl game; heck they’d only APPEARED in one bowl game, a stray Independence Bowl sometime in the ’80s, before it became the Poulan/Weedeater Independence Bowl, before it became the Duck Commander Independence Bowl and long before its current incarnation as the Camping World Independence Bowl.
They lost to Wisconsin 14-3 in that game. The runner-up Independence Bowl trophy was the biggest one in the Kansas State trophy case.
Here’s a good one: From 1935 to 1988, Kansas State won a total of 137 games.
Doing the quick math: That’s 54 seasons, 137 games, yeah, that’s 2.5 wins per season … for more than a half century.
There’s a great story a friend of mine tells about playing at Kansas State in 1988, the year before Snyder arrived. Kansas State did a lot of glorious things that year. They lost every game, of course. They let Barry Sanders run for 320 yards against them. They gave up 70 to Oklahoma. And so on. But the moment that will stick with my friend happened against Tulane early in the season. The Wildcats scored on a wild play with 1:40 left to take a 13-9 lead. On the play, Greg Washington had apparently fumbled, but the officials — no doubt with charity in their hearts — gave Kansas State the touchdown that seemed to seal their first victory in forever.
As everyone danced and celebrated on the Kansas State sideline, my buddy — who was a freshman tight end on the team — noticed that the Wildcats’ defensive coaches were down there celebrating too.
And he idly wondered: Who was up in the press box calling the defense?
Tulane promptly drove 77 yards in a little more than a minute to take away the victory.
And my buddy, not for the first time and not for the last, made his mental list of schools he wanted to transfer to.
Then Bill Snyder arrived, and to say he changed everything — like any effort to explain the sheer awfulness of Kansas State football — is doomed for underestimation. As I wrote 10 years ago, he changed the carpeting, the offices, the wallpaper, the dress code, the practice schedule, the workout schedule, the nonconference schedule (cupcakes!), punishments, injury reports (no more), the logo on the helmet (tougher looking!), the offense, the defense, the special teams, the pregame menu, the gameday program, the academic requirements, the disciplinary rules, the language of football and, yes, even the color purple. “Make it darker!” he grumped; he thought bright purple represented losing.
And that Independence Bowl runners-up trophy? Oh yeah. He got rid of that.
When my buddy showed up for his first weight training session with Bill Snyder’s team, he noticed that by every weight machine was a plastic garbage can. That, he soon realized, was where you were supposed to throw up.
Every tiny step up met with a flyswatter. Snyder was promised some improvements to the football facilities, but construction stopped in the middle because the school ran out of money. When Kansas State finally broke through with a victory — a 20-17 win over North Texas — the fans tore down the goalposts, mortifying Snyder. Whenever Kansas State came even close to winning, people rushed over to congratulate Snyder on the moral victory, motifying him even more.
“You must be proud of the way your team didn’t quit,” reporters said to Snyder.
“They don’t let you quit,” he said with steel in his voice.
The thing about Snyder: He was obsessed. You hear about obsessive coaches all the time; well they were the ones who looked at Bill Snyder and thought, “Man, that guy’s crazy.” There’s an oft-told story that he once talked to a hypnotist to ask if it was possible to live without sleep. He explained to me that story was never told exactly right. But when I asked for the real details, he shrugged. “It’s probably close enough,” he said.
He never stopped. Not ever. Once, defensive coach Brent Venables, who played for Snyder at Kansas State (and is now defensive coordinator at Clemson), left his office for five minutes to get a drink. When he returned there were a note on his door: “If you ever leave this building again, you’re fired.”
Thing is, Snyder didn’t just work 20 hour days — lots of coaches do that — he WORKED 20 hour days. That is to say: He was so absurdly organized that he spent every one of those 1,200 minutes doing SOMETHING to help the team. There was no small-talk. There was no wasted motion. He thought through every conceivable detail, searched for every edge. When Kansas State went with Nebraska to play in Japan in 1992, Snyder worked it out so his team got the shady side of the plane. When his teams arrived on road trips they were given minute-by-minute itineraries — I mean MINUTE BY MINUTE — of how they would spend the next 36 hours (“From 7:12-7:28: Ride on team bus to hotel. Arrive at hotel at 7:28. Dinner begins promptly at 7:51”).
All of this made him inscrutable to most of us. Snyder never seemed to like winning (anyone who ever covered Snyder knows he is ALWAYS grumpier after wins than losses). He did not seem to enjoy what most people would consider the fun parts of being a football coach. It was never easy to figure what inspired him, what motivated him, what drove him.
Mostly he would sit in his office, Kenny G music playing — yeah, Kenny G, what of it?– and he would watch the same film over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and … you get it. He was tireless about finding that one almost invisible technicality that might make the difference. Snyder’s favorite thing to say, the quote he repeated so often that everyone around him could hear in their sleep, is: “Get a little bit better every day.”
And, he told me, that’s what he was doing in that room, at 4 in the morning, staring at the same play. He was trying to get a little bit better.
“I always believed there was something more I could learn,” he told me.
Kansas State won one game his first year, but everyone could sense that something fundamental had changed. The second year, they went 5-6, and in the third year they won seven games for the first time in 37 years.
Just that was pretty miraculous. Everyone thought that was the high note; he had brought respectability to Kansas State. Amazing. But it was nothing. From 1993 to 2003, the Wildcats went to 11 straight bowl games. They went 11-1 in 1997, losing only to a great Nebraska team that split the national championship. The next year Kansas State won its first 11 games and seemed on their way to the national championship game when things fell apart in the final minutes of the Big 12 Championship Game, sending Snyder into a deep depression. A few years later, they would win their first Big 12 Championship Game. And, along the way, Snyder coached some amazing players, won big game after big game, and helped come up with all sorts of football innovations including the Wildcat offense.
But I bring up that moment, 10 years ago. He had just retired to the shock of everyone. Snyder just didn’t seem the retiring type. Yes, it’s true that some of his magic had begun to wear off. The team began losing and Snyder, though he worked as hard and efficiently as ever, began to feel like something was gone. “I could feel the players and coaches looking at me as if there was this feeling: ‘We’ll get out of this. He will pull us through,'” Snyder said. “But our success had always come from pulling closer together. There were things creeping into the program, instances of selfishness, and it no longer felt like we were pulling together the same way.”
He looked so pained. And in that moment, I wanted to understand him a little bit better. I wanted to try and get at what had convinced Snyder that he could really turn around Kansas State’s football team. I wanted to understand the motivation for a man to be that committed to the details, that driven by a crazy dream.
I can’t tell you that I figured it out. I certainly can’t say I’ve figured him out. Mostly, that day, I saw a man who was in conflict with himself; he had retired and seemed to be trying to convince himself that there were things outside of football he wanted to do. But even in that moment, he did not really seem convinced.
And he wasn’t convinced. After three tumultuous and blah years with Ron Prince leading Kansas State, Snyder came back to coach. And though this second run hasn’t been quite as remarkable as the first time around, he did turn Kansas State around again. He has led the Wildcats to six straight bowl games and in 2012 even had them in the national championship picture for most of the season.
But I think I figured out something that day. Saturday, Bill Snyder won his 200th game. That’s something. We love counting things, and so even though the Wildcat did not play well and beat a dreadful Kansas team that has won just twice all year (once at Texas?!), the victory still inspired the Kansas State players to carry Snyder off the field on their shoulders. He looked half excited and half embarrassed about that.
And afterward, Snyder was Snyder. It was beautiful. I once joked that if Bill Snyder’s team ever DID win a National Championship, he would begin the postgame press conference by saying, “We were poor in the punting game today. We have to clean that up.”
After winning No. 200, he really did say, “You know, I probably don’t sound in a pretty good mood today. But I’m responsive to how we played, and we played rather ugly today. I don’t feel good about that, I assure you.”
Well, that’s Bill Snyder. Ten years ago, when we talked, really talked — about family, about faith, about what excellence means — I asked him if coaching was any fun at all because he never seemed to be having fun. “I know people thought for me to enjoy things, I needed to be out on the town, drinking beer with some of the guys, but that just wasn’t my way,” he said. “I went back to work after games because that was just how I did things.”
And that was the thing that I had not realized. Those hours of watching film, those countless plans and itineraries he came up with, the endless moments he would spend trying to solve a tiny problem no one else could even see, those weren’t his burden. Those were Bill Snyder’s reward. The wins were nice. The losses hurt more. But the true joy for him came in finding some tiny way to make the team .0001% better.
And so Saturday night, after becoming the sixth coach to win 200 games, I imagine that Bill Snyder celebrated by watching some TCU tape. He might have even turned up the easy listening music to 4. That is what makes Bill Snyder happy.