Kansas State’s Bill Snyder Succeeds Where No One Else Had

MANHATTAN, Kan. – Like most other college towns across the country, Manhattan, Kansas has a hotspot or two where students and other fans congregate after a football game.

And no matter where the flock gathers, the goal is always the same: to celebrate a big victory by the home team or lament after a tough loss.

Once Bill Snyder arrived on the campus Kansas State University as coach in 1989 celebrating become the norm in Aggieville as fans flocked to the area.

And with good reason.

All Snyder did was resuscitate a once-moribund program, dubbed “Futility U” in a Sports Illustrated article a short time before Snyder’s arrival.

The school had appeared in just one bowl game in school history and Snyder turned the Wildcats into one of the most consistent programs over the course of the next three decades.

GROWING UP

Sports became an integral part of Snyder’s young life while growing up in St. Joseph, Mo., a cowtown along the banks of the Missouri River and home of the Pony Express. 

The city was the also site where outlaw Jesse James was killed by Bob Ford on April 3, 1882, a former member of the James-Younger Gang. James’ home, where the shooting took place, is one of the city’s top tourist attractions.

“I spent all my free time either at the YMCA or on the streets playing sports,” Snyder said when recalling growing up on the north side of St. Joseph.

He graduated from Lafayette High School in 1958 and enrolled at the University of Missouri in hopes of playing football for the homestate Tigers.

“I really wasn’t very good,” he said. “My thinking is that Missouri was in state and that was where I was supposed to go to school at.”

Snyder found himself low of the depth chart for the freshman team and it didn’t take long to realize he was unlikely to find his way to the playing field in Columbia.

He returned home after one semester and enrolled at St. Joseph Junior College, which has grown into Missouri Western State University. After the spring semester he was coaxed into joining the football team at William Jewell College outside of Kansas City by then-coach Norris Patterson. He lettered all three seasons at the school in Liberty, Mo., while playing halfback and defensive back for the Cardinals before graduating in 1963.

Snyder spent the 1962 season as an assistant coach at Gallatin High School in nearby Gallatin and moved on to Indio (Calif.) High School where he spent two seasons (1964-65) as an assistant coach. After spending the 1966 season as a graduate assistant at Southern California under legendary coach John McKay, Snyder returned to Indio as the head coach for the next two seasons.

COLLEGE COACHING

After spending the 1966 as a graduate assistant for McKay and the Trojans, Snyder rejoined the collegiate ranks by becoming an assistant at Austin College (1974-75), where he also coached swimming. He joined Hayden Fry’s staff at North Texas for three seasons (1976-78) before moving with Fry to help restore the luster of a once-proud Hawkeye program that had fallen on hard times prior to Fry’s arrival.

Snyder said he tried to emulate McKay during his early days as a young coach. 

“(McKay) had that incredible sense of humor, but what many people don’t realize is that he was also very matter-of-fact. I tried to walk like him, talk like him and act like him,” Snyder said of his former mentor. “I was a miserable failure at it.”

Fry, according to Snyder, was gregarious and fun-loving. And like McKay, was a brilliant offensive coach.

“I learned quickly that the best thing a young coach can do is to simply be who you are,” he said. “What is most important is knowing that it all boils down to working hard and helping players improve consistently.”

KANSAS STATE

After serving as the offensive coordinator for Fry for 10 seasons at Iowa and helping the Hawkeyes to a winning season for the first time since 1961, along with winning a pair of Big Ten championships, Snyder assumed the task of transforming Kansas State in much the same way as had been done in Iowa City. 

Many people questioned Snyder’s decision to take over a KSU program that had combined for a 299-510 (.370) record in 93 seasons of football. The 510 losses were the most of any Division 1 team at the time. The school had only been to one bowl game prior to Snyder’s arrival and had not won a conference championship since 1934. 

More numbers prove the futility that school had endured over the years.

Kansas State had just four winning seasons in the last 44 years and just two in 34 seasons. The Wildcats were also on a dismal streak that had seen them go winless in their previous 27 games. A 17-17 tie against arch-rival Kansas on Nov. 7, 1987 was the lone highlight since a 29-12 win over Kansas midway through the 1986 season.

“Contrary to what most people thought, we believed we could success (at Kansas State),” Snyder said.

“The only place we could go was up,” he added. “We could not fail. If we did not win a game, people would just figure it was Kansas State being Kansas State.”

The first meeting Snyder had with his new team he took the players onto the turf at KSU Stadium and told them to look at the scoreboard, which Snyder had lit up.

“I told them not to worry about the scoreboard,” he said. “I explained to them I would never judge them on the score of a game and what I would judge them on was the effort they gave to improving each day. I stressed that the scoreboard is not nearly as important as the quality of person each of them became.”

The improvement came slowly.

K-State managed just one win in Snyder’s first season on the sideline in Manhattan when the Wildcats defeated North Texas 20-17 in the fourth game of the season when a touchdown pass on the last play of the game. 

Kansas State would drop the final seven games of the season to finish the year 1-10-1.

The next season K-State opened the year with back-to-back wins over Western Illinois (27-6) and New Mexico State (52-7) and went on to finish the season with a 5-6 overall record, including a 2-5 mark in the Big 8 Conference after downing Oklahoma State (23-17) and Iowa State (28-14) in conference action.

The five wins matched the most by Kansas State just twice in the previous 17 years.

The improvements continued in 1991 as Kansas State enjoyed the first winning season at the school since 1970 by winning the final three games of the season to finish 7-4 on the year and narrowly missing out on a bowl bid. The 4-3 conference record posted by the Wildcats marked just the third time since 1934 KSU finished above .500 in league play.

Things slipped the following season as Snyder’s team won just five of 11 games. But, all five of those wins came at home as the Wildcats finished undefeated at home for the first time since 1934.

Courtesy Kansas City Star

HISTORY MADE

The football fortunes at Kansas State took a giant step forward over the next two seasons under Snyder’s leadership.

The team won the first five games of the season before Nebraska snapped that streak with a 45-28 win over the Wildcats in Lincoln. Two more wins, capped by a 21-7 win over No. 14 Oklahoma allowed the Wildcats to earn a No. 18 national ranking of its own the following week before falling to Iowa State 27-23 for their second setback of the season.

It would be the defeat the Wildcats would suffer the rest of the season. 

Wins over Missouri (31-21) and Oklahoma State (21-17) propelled K-State into a bowl game for the first times since the 1982 Bowl and just the second time in history the Wildcats would play in a bowl game.

Unlike its previous bowl appearance, this time K-State emerged victorious after crushing Wyoming 52-17 in the Copper Bowl played in Tucson, Ariz.

It marked the first of 11 consecutive bowl appearance by Snyder and the Wildcats, who finished 9-2-1 on the season.

The nine wins marked just the second time in school history the Wildcats had won nine games and the No 20 ranking in the final Associated Press poll (No. 18 Coaches’) was the first time the school had been ranked in a final poll.

The 1995 season saw more history being made in Manhattan by Snyder and the Wildcats. 

A 41-7 triumph over arch-rival Kansas, which was ranked No. 6 at the time, gave Snyder 40 wins in his career at the school and passing former coach Mike Ahearn as the winningest coach in school history.

The win came one week after the No. 8 Wildcats fell to No. 2 Nebraska 49-25 in Lincoln to snap K-State’s six-game winning streak to begin the season. The Wildcats would lose only one more game during the regular season and a convincing 54-21 win over Colorado State in the Holiday Bowl would give Kansas State its first 10-win season in school history.

The Wildcats finished sixth in the final AP Poll to give the school it’s first-ever top-10 finish in history.

The apex of success at K-State under Snyder came from 1997-2000 as the Wildcats won 11 games in each of those four seasons.

Just 10 years after being labeled as the worst program in the country, Kansas State entered the 1998 Big 12 Championship game with an 11-0 record and a No. 1 national ranking – another first in program history. And it appeared Kansas State was on a collision course with Tennessee for the national championship.

It would not end that way as Texas A&M outdueled the Wildcats 36-33 in double overtime to claim the conference championship and sending K-State to the Alamo Bowl where they dropped a 37-34 decision to Purdue to finish 11-2 on the season.

The 1998 season saw a strong-armed quarterback lead the Wildcats. And cement his own legacy in the history of the school and the Big 12.

Michael Bishop, who spent two years playing junior college at Blinn College, had transferred to K-State after other schools recruited him to play running back or defensive back.

“(Bishop) was such a competitor,” Snyder said. “He may not have been the most accurate passer, but he was so strong and could really throw the ball.”

Bishop, the Big 12’s newcomer of the year in 1997, started all 25 games in his two seasons (1997-98) in Manhattan and finished with a 22-3 record as a starter. He won the Davey O’Brien Award in 1998 as the nation’s top quarterback.

Another player that made a huge impact on the success of K-State in the 1990s was Mark Simoneau, an in-state product who impressed Snyder from the moment he stepped on campus in the fall of 1996.

“He was such a tremendous person,” Snyder said of his former defensive standout. “He probably got more out of his abilities than anyone I have ever been around.

Snyder remembers Simoneau as sitting straight up in the first row at all team meetings. While some players would occasionally nod off during those sometimes long meetings, Simoneau never did.

“He never varied from where he sat,” Snyder said. “He took all the information we provided and used it all to make himself better than he was the day before.”

Simoneau, the conference’s defensive player of the year in 1999, was as consensus first-team All-American as a senior and finished with 400 tackles during his KSU career. He was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the third round of the 2000 NFL Draft and spent time with Philadelphia, New Orleans and Kansas City before retiring from football in 2010.

In 2012 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and joined former Kansas State standout Gary Spani as the only other K-State player so honored.

Another long drought came to an end in 2003 was K-State won the Big 12 championship with a 35-7 trouncing on top-ranked Oklahoma in Kansas City.

The win gave the Wildcats a conference championship for the first time since 1934 and snapped a 69-year gap between titles – the longest in Division 1 history. A loss to Ohio State nearly one month later in the Fiesta Bowl gave the Wildcats an 11-4 record on the season and made them just the second school in the history of college football to win as many as 11 games six times in a seven-year period. 

RETIREMENT: PART ONE

The success Snyder and the Wildcats had enjoyed over the course of more than 10 years slowed considerably in 2004 and 2005. The team combined for a 9-13 record in those two seasons and Snyder decided it was time to step down as coach.

Just three days after his team dropped a 27-25 decision on the road at Nebraska, Snyder announced he was retiring as coach of the program he built into a national contender. 

Kansas State officials wasted little time in announcing plans to honor Snyder. The same day Snyder announced his retirement, the school said it would rename the stadium in Snyder’s honor.

His team defeated Missouri 36-28 three days later inside Bill Snyder Family Football Stadium to send the popular coach into retirement on a winning note.

His record of 136-68-1 (.667) made Snyder the winningest coach in KSU history – by a wide margin. His win total were also as many as his predecessors had compiled in the 54 seasons prior to Snyder’s arrival in Manhattan.

Former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer was among a legion of people who considered Snyder’s success at Kansas State as one of the greatest rebuilding jobs in collegiate history.

“He’s not the coach of the year, he’s not the coach of the decade, he’s the coach of the century,” Switzer once said of Snyder.

Snyder’s successor, Ron Prince, managed just a 17-20 (.459) record in the three seasons at head coach. Prince led K-State to a 7-6 record in his first season as Snyder’s successor. It turned out to be the only winning season during his brief tenure at the school and calls to replace Prince began to grow louder.

Jon Wefald, the school president, according to Snyder, asked if the former coach would return to the sidelines. 

“I was just getting comfortable not coaching and kind of liking the retirement thing,” Snyder recalled. 

Despite rejecting the initial offer to return Wefald continued to court Snyder, who eventually agreed to return.

ACT TWO

The winningest coach in Kansas State football history returned to the sideline on Sept. 5, 2009 and began to add to his win total.

The Wildcats downed Massachusetts 21-17 in front of a record crowd of 50,750 inside the stadium that bore his name.

Back-to-back wins midway through the season over Tennessee Tech (49-7) and Iowa State (24-23) gave K-State a respectable 5-3 record at the time. But, the Wildcats would falter down the stretch by winning just one of the final four games to end 6-6 in Snyder’s return.

And much that same as in his first stint as coach, it didn’t take long for things to return to the way Snyder had established previously.

K-State climbed above .500 by finishing 7-6 in 2010 and followed that up with records of 10-3 and 11-2 the next two seasons. He won the Woody Hayes Coach of the Year Award following the 2011 season and added the Boddy Dodd Coach of the Year Award the following year.

In 2015, while still coaching, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and became just the fourth active coach to earn that distinction.

Snyder stepped down from coach a second time on Dec. 2, 2018 less than two weeks after the Wildcats were defeated by Iowa State 42-38 in the annual Farmageddon clash between the two school as K-State ended the season at 5-7. It was just the seventh losing season in Snyder’s 27 seasons leading the program.

He finished his career with a record of 215-117-1 (.647). His 215 wins are 176 more than the 39 wins compiled by Mike Ahearn in his six seasons (1905-10), the previous wins leader at the school. Current coach Chris Klieman, who replaced Snyder prior to the start of the 2019 season, has a 20-16 career record at the school heading into the 2022 season. Snyder’s win total is also more than all other K-State coaches from 1928 to present combined and he owns more than 40 percent of the school’s all-time wins in football.

Snyder earned conference coach of the year honors on seven times during his illustrious career. He was also inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2006 and the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame that same year.

Snyder coached 37 All-Americans during his time at Kansas State and several earned some of the nation’s top awards at their respective positions, including Chris Canty, who won the Jack Tatum Trophy (top defensive back) in 1996 and Martin Gramatica, who was was named the winner of the Lou Groza Award (top kicker) in 1997.

Collin Klein earned two national awards while leading Snyder’s offense. He was named the winner of the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award (outstanding senior quarterback) and Kellen Moore Award (top quarterback) in 2012. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting that year.

Tyler Lockett was named the winner of the Jet Award (top return specialist) in 20014. He was the third of three Locketts, brothers Kevin and Aaron were the others, to play for Snyder.

“Kevin and Aaron’s parents were magnificent people,” the legendary said, “and they stressed doing things the right way.”

Kevin Lockett spent seven seasons playing in the NFL for four different teams and Aaron Lockett also played in the NFL and in the Canadian Football League. Tyler Lockett, the son of Kevin, was a third round draft pick by Seattle in 2015 and will be in his eight year with the Seahawks this season.

A total of 14 of Snyder’s assistant coaches have gone on to become head coaches in college or the NFL, including Bob Stoops (Oklahoma), Mike Stoops (Oklahoma) and Brent Venables, the new coach at Oklahoma.

HANDWRITTEN NOTES

The personable Snyder became widely known for sending handwritten notes to opposing coaches and players after games against his Wildcats.

“I just wanted to recognize people who did well,” Snyder said. “We always have a moment after games to congratulate one another, but the handwritten notes take time and effort and I think people realize that by doing so that the thoughts are more genuine.

AFTER COACHING

Now into his second stint of retirement, Snyder holds the title of special ambassador for the K-State athletics department.

“I really don’t know what that title means,” Snyder quipped, “all I know is I talk to groups around the state, region and country and try to motivate them.”

One of the lessons he talks about involves one of the concepts Snyder has long adhered to since his days growing up in St. Joseph.

“Make sure that whatever you decide you want to do that you seek all the possible ways of making yourself bettter each day,” he said.

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