Snyder working miracles again at Kansas State
NOV 01, 2012 10:04a ET
That's the first thing you have to understand, because it's the key to this whole thing. And it's "probably," because the man has not been diagnosed with anything, although he did once consult a hypnotherapist to see if it was possible for a human being to be hypnotized into functioning without sleep.
See what I mean?
Snyder is the football coach at Kansas State, which is No. 2 in the BCS at the moment. This is the second time in the last 14 year,s K-State has been No. 2 in football, and if that doesn't cause a couple transformers to explode inside your head, it's because you just don't understand.
It's OK. Nobody does.
If you are not from Kansas, as I am, you can't be blamed for not comprehending the scope of the achievement that is Kansas State football as we know it today. I didn't fully appreciate it until I moved to Texas and began trying to explain it to people. Anybody who spends at least couple years in Kansas and then leaves ends up becoming this Bill Snyder evangelist, spreading the word to people who don't seem to know or care. We must be terribly annoying.
But it has to be said. Somebody has to say it.
Until just a couple years ago, when Kansas State wanted to bring in a recruit for a visit, it would fly the player in to Kansas City, and then put him in a car on I-70. Forty minutes later, he would approach a college town set on Mount Oread. Lawrence. Two hours after that, he would arrive at K-State's campus in Manhattan. I have often wondered how many of those players over the years thought to themselves, "Well, this really wasn't that bad," and then wondered why the car went cruising right past Exit 202.
You may know that until 1989 Kansas State was considered the worst football program in America, and it wasn't like Kansas was much further up that list. In 1987, 1-7 KU and 0-8 K-State met for their annual showdown. People called it "The Toilet Bowl," and it poetically ended in a tie. The coaches involved in that game, KU's Bob Valesente and K-State's Stan Parrish, went a combined 6-47-2 during their time in the Sunflower State. They combined for one conference win, but it was one beating the other, so that hardly counted.
Football was awful in the state of Kansas, and Kansas State was the carrying the awful flag.
The next K-State coach was Snyder, who in 1989 took over a program with an all-time record of 299-510. When he beat North Texas that first season, it was K-State's first win in three years.
He took over a program in a state of less than three million people that produces maybe 10 or 15 legitimate Division I players every year. A state flanked to the north by Nebraska and to the south by Oklahoma. A state in which his program was No. 2 to one of the worst programs in America. Good luck recruiting, pal.
If you couldn't even beat Kansas – KU still leads the series 65-40-5 -- you were never going to get anywhere at all. So that's where Snyder started. He was going to take the state, for whatever that real estate was worth. He made it his top priority.
That's the legend, anyway. Snyder doesn't talk much about those sorts of things.
There are legends about just how far Snyder was willing to go in order to make this happen. There was a game in the 1990s, one blowout or another, when those watching could have sworn the Wildcats knew KU's offensive play calls as well as the Jayhawks did.
Nobody ever outright accused K-State of spying on KU's practices, but put it this way: No one has ever been more paranoid about having his practices peeked than Mark Mangino, who coached at Kansas from 2002-09. He once had some students kicked off the roof of their dorm, which overlooked KU's practice fields, because he could see them watching from a couple hundred yards away. When the school built a new practice field, it sat below a parking garage, an ideal setting for espionage. So Mangino had a row of trees planted all around the field, then had his team practice inside the stadium almost every day anyway.
Mangino, of course, had worked for Snyder from 1991-98.
But Snyder's mania is not limited to his in-state rival. It extends to everything. Snyder obsesses over details that don't even occur to normal human beings.
There used to be something called the Coca-Cola Classic, which was a regular-season game played in Japan. Kansas State played Nebraska in that one year. The two teams would be flying over on the same plane, and the legend goes that Snyder saw to it that K-State's players were seated on the shaded side of the plane, with Nebraska's players in the sun.
Another often-told story is about the time Snyder got mad that his players were served tubs of butter with their meals instead of pads. He didn't want them eating so much butter.
So you think he knows which of your offensive lineman has a run-pass tell? You think he has a pretty good idea when your safety is going to bite on a double move?
You think he's figured out how to make an offensive tackle out of a tight end? Kansas State doesn't get players. It never has. Snyder's first three recruiting classes since coming out of retirement K-State were ranked 10th in the Big 12. There have been a few big shots here and there over the years, but that isn't how Snyder builds. This is not a man assembling a Corvette out of Corvette parts. This is a guy manufacturing his own pistons and building a Snyder GT. A one-off job, done again every season.
Snyder doesn't just go sign a quarterback to replace the last one, he takes a big wide receiver who runs hard teaches him to run the zone read. That we all call him "Optimus Klein" like he's a Transformer would probably be funny to Snyder if he watched television or movies. It is telling that there is a player very much like Klein who grew up in Kansas and became a blue-chip prospect. But Blake Bell didn't choose KU or K-State. He chose Oklahoma. Of course he did.
And Collin Klein is the Heisman frontrunner.
One of Snyder's best defensive linemen was recruited to play quarterback. He's got scrap-heap recruits all over the field. No, Snyder is not the only coach who has to build a roster this way. But how many of them have ever been No. 2?
Also, Snyder never, ever, ever wears short sleeves. Nobody seems to know why.
Oh, Snyder has caught some bounces along the way. Some of them were guys like Mangino. He, Bob Stoops, Mike Stoops, Jim Leavitt, Bret Bielema and Phil Bennett were all Snyder assistants during the 90s. As with so many things Snyder, there is a chicken-or-the-egg element to this, but in any case these were great assistants. It also helped that during Kansas State's rise (roughly 1993-98), Oklahoma was still recovering from the Barry Switzer-era probation and two bad coaching hires.
When the Big 12 formed in 1996, the only obstacle that seemed insurmountable was Nebraska, which had just won two national championships and would win another in 1997. Neither team in the state of Kansas had beaten the Cornhuskers since 1968.
Well, on Nov. 14, 1998, Kansas State beat Nebraska 40-30. I don't want to get hyperbolic, here, but that has to rank among the most significant wins in college football history. Not 10 years earlier, Sports Illustrated had dubbed K-State "Futility U." Over the next nine years, every time Kansas State accomplished something, there was somebody trying to take it away. When the Wildcats started going to bowl games, well, so what? Beat four non-conference patsies plus Kansas and you're almost there. When they were finishing with winning conference records it was because Oklahoma and Texas were both down.
There was a sense from the outside – and it prevails to this day – that since this shouldn't be happening it must not be happening. This must be some kind of illusion. Why, everybody knows Kansas State stinks at football and always will. And who are these players? A bunch of nobodies! Castoffs and misfits, every one of them!
And this coach – could be BE more dull? He obviously can't recruit. This is a mirage.
K-State had no tradition, and the little bits of tradition it build, everybody was instantly trying to take away.
There is a feeling – and you'll still pick up on this today – that anytime Kansas State beats some team like Miami or Oklahoma or Texas, it was really because the other team played a bad game. That all the Wildcats really did was sit there and get the game handed to them.
Twenty years of this has created a nearly universal sense of paranoia and Napoleonic resentment among Kansans, and particularly Kansas State fans. Kansans are not combative people by nature. They are, by and large, happy to be Kansans but not particularly interested in defending their state against critics the way, say, Texans are. Crime and cost of living are low, visibility is high and if you need a little more out fo a place, well, that's cool. Some people in Kansas wear these shirts that say "Ski Kansas" on them. A little ironic self-deprecation. That's Kansas. We know you're not here for the tourism.
The one exception to this is the University of Kansas basketball program. KU fans are basically the opposite of what I just described. They're proud. Some would say entitled. But ultimately they are secure. A KU fan knows that program is universally regarded as one of the "blue bloods," and there is a great deal of personal identity and security that can be derived from that.
That's about half the state. The other half are Kansas State fans, and whether you call it entitlement or security, they don't have it. What they feel is an unwavering certainty that Kansas State is about to get screwed at all times. That its achievements will be overlooked. That its rightful place on the dais will be taken by some underachiever with blue blood.
And this was why beating Nebraska in 1998 turned it from "amazing turnaround" to "The Miracle in Manhattan." Kansas State was No. 2, and beat Nebraska. It was a dream, hazy and spectacular all at once.
Kansas State finished the regular season undefeated and ranked third in the BCS. Then UCLA lost, opening up the No. 2 spot. Beat Texas A&M in the Big 12 Championship Game, and Kansas State would play for the national title.
Remember, now, how supernatural this felt. This group of juco transfers and misfits had distilled into something greater than the sum of its ingredients. The Wildcats had even caught a break. Succeed now, or forever hold your place as Futility U. Play for the national championship – win the national championship – and they'll never be able to overlook you again. That was the feeling.
Texas A&M 36, Kansas State 33.
The bottle had broken, and all the lightning had spilled out. That would be the end of it. The Wildcats went from the brink of the national championship game to the Alamo Bowl, and lost it to Purdue. The blow had been too crushing.
This wasn't like when Oklahoma or Texas or Florida loses in the conference championship game. When you're Kansas State, you only get one miracle.
The glow, however, lasted a few more years. Kansas State had four more 11-win seasons, including its only conference championship. But the landscape, both regionally and nationally, was changing rapidly. Oklahoma and Texas were back. And it was harder to get the best junior college players, because more coaches were looking there now. The money in the sport kept getting bigger and bigger, and as a general rule anytime in life the money gets bigger and bigger, the stuff in Kansas looks smaller and smaller. Even winning the state of Kansas suddenly was a real challenge, now that the Jayhawks had a guy in charge who knew what it would take to beat Snyder.
From 2004-05, K-State went 9-13 and lost to KU for the first time in 12 years. On Nov. 15, 2005, Bill Snyder announced his retirement, having gone 136-68-1. The next day, they named the stadium after him.
The unraveling of it all was immediate. The Jayhawks beat K-State three years in a row, and did it with Kansas-born kids playing starring roles. KU even had a miracle season of its own, going 12-1 in 2007.
More and more, the narrative became that for all that "miracle" talk, K-State had really only won that one Big 12 championship, that its rise in the early years had happened while Oklahoma was recovering from NCAA probation, that, despite all the wins, Kansas State hadn't really even dominated its division, much less its conference, and that things seemed to go south right about the time all those great assistant coaches started getting other jobs.
The whole thing was being reduced to one magical season, and how magical could it have been if it ended with a loss to Purdue in the Alamo Bowl?
Everybody was going to forget. They were going to forget how impossible it once was to imagine being disappointed by a season that ended in the Alamo Bowl.
Twenty years after he first took over in Manhattan, Snyder returned to a Kansas State team with very little talent that was once again No. 2 in its own tiny state. He was 70, but looked 80. The athletic department was a mess. He said he wanted to "smooth the waters." When you're Kansas State, you only get one miracle.
His second year back, the Wildcats went 7-6, their first winning season in four years. Last year they went 10-3 and lost the Cotton Bowl. It was a miracle, everybody said.
With most of the key players from that team returning, Kansas State was ranked just 22nd in the preseason. The Wildcats never get as much traction as the next guy.
It has been 14 years since that validating win over Nebraska. This year Kansas State beat Oklahoma on the road. That was the game that made people believe in miracles all over again. The Wildcats are No. 2.
Maybe it's true that when you're Kansas State, you only get one miracle.
Or maybe this isn't a miracle.
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