How Kansas State Wildcat coach Bill Snyder changed college football forever

David Smale, The Sports Xchange
Kansas State University head football coach Bill Snyder (pictured) changed the way college football programs were built, and despite the criticism he received across the board, he stuck to his plan. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI
Kansas State University head football coach Bill Snyder (pictured) changed the way college football programs were built, and despite the criticism he received across the board, he stuck to his plan. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo

Doug Looney wrote an article for the 1989 college football preview issue of Sports Illustrated. The headline read "Futility U." Looney labeled Kansas State as "America's most hapless team."

And then he got nasty.


Kansas State was, without question, the worst program in college football history. When Bill Snyder's predecessor, Stan Parrish, won his first game at K-State in 1986, he improved the school's all-time record to 298-480-40. Certainly the Wildcats would be able to hit the 300 win mark before they hit the 500 loss mark.

When Parrish got fired after his third season, K-State was 299-510-41.

It wasn't just wins and losses that spelled K-State's ineptitude. Kansas State was dead last among Division I-A teams in total offense over the previous 40 seasons. That meant that no other school had played consistently worse offensively than the "Mildcats." Not to be outdone, the Cats also were last in total defense during that same 40-year stretch.

Looney joked once that the Big 8 Conference used to send out preseason polls to participating members of the media with Kansas State already printed in eighth place. "It's harder to always pick the horse that will finish last than the horse that will finish first. Kansas State made it easy."


After the article came out, Snyder called Looney and told him it was mean, but fair. He asked Looney to promise that he would come back and write a new feature after Snyder had turned around K-State's fortunes. Looney said he had no authority to promise another article, but he quickly agreed, because he knew there was no chance he would have to deliver.

Snyder not only proved to be a great coach. He was also a pretty good prophet.

"I think the opportunity for the greatest turnaround in college football exists here today, and it's not one to be taken lightly," Snyder said at his introductory press conference. He was accurate on both points.

Snyder knew he couldn't out-do Nebraska or Oklahoma, or even Kansas. He couldn't be competitive with teams with bigger and/or faster athletes. So he had to out-smart his opponents. He changed the way college football programs were built, and despite the criticism he received across the board, he stuck to his plan.

He was the first major college coach to fully embrace the junior colleges as a source of ready-to-play athletes. Now they're a staple of almost everybody's program.

His scheduling was the subject of ridicule, but he knew that his players had experienced plenty of losing. If they were going to experience winning they had to start with easier opponents. Now practically every program schedules at least one East Lowlife State in their non-conference schedule.


Finally, at the time, the Big 8 Conference was all about grind-it-out football. So Snyder brought in an innovative passing game that defenses could not decipher. Interestingly, now that the Big 12 is a pass-happy league, with little or no defense being played by even the best teams, Snyder uses old-school, smash-mouth football.

Snyder's method is so complex, it's simple: Find something to be better at and then do it better than anybody.

He came up with his "16 Goals For Success" that are just as applicable to life as they are to football. They start with Commitment and Unselfishness, going through Self-Discipline and Great Effort, and finishing with Leadership and Responsibility.

His methods boil down to three key categories: hire good assistants and let them coach, adapt to the talents of your roster, and work harder than anybody.

During his first tenure, his legendary work days started before dawn and lasted until midnight. He only had time for one meal a day, which he ate before going to bed. It wasn't for everybody, and many assistants moved on to avoid the expectation that they would match his effort. The second time around he's softened a bit, but nobody out-works him.


He also only wants recruits who are willing to work hard and be coached. The NFL is littered with former walk-ons who became stars at Kansas State (Jordy Nelson, Jon McGraw, Ryan Mueller, B.J. Finney and Rock Cartwright, to name a few).

Snyder knew that kids with too many stars by their names might not be as interested in being pushed to the limit, so he took the two- and three-star athletes with chips on their shoulders. After K-State won the 2003 Big 12 championship with a decisive 35-7 victory over Oklahoma-a team called one of the greatest of all-time prior to the game-Snyder suddenly had entry into the living rooms of four- and five-star recruits.

He spent his time focusing on them without landing any of them. Meanwhile, the kids he usually got had committed elsewhere. He finished under .500 in 2004 and 2005 and stepped away.

He was replaced by Ron Prince, who went 17-20 in three seasons before he was fired. Snyder agreed to come back, and he went back to the old plan. He had led the Wildcats to a bowl game in 2016, for the seventh straight year, and he has been at .500 or better every year. He's back to what made him successful.


K-State now stands 516-635-41. That's still not close to average over their history, but when the Wildcats defeated Kansas 34-19 November 26, Snyder became the 26th FBS coach to reach 200 victories, and just the sixth to do it with one team.

Former assistants are all over the college football map, and many, like Bob Stoops and Bret Bielema, give Snyder a lot of the credit for their success. Even those who didn't coach under him admire him.

Former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer once said, "Bill Snyder isn't the coach of the year, and he isn't the coach of the decade. He's the coach of the century."

Current Kansas coach David Beatty, who was Snyder's 200th career victim, said, "I told him before the game that he's one of my coaching heroes. That guy has done as good of a job with this program as anybody could ever do with any program. I do not know how you can dispute that.

"We study all the greats. I am the biggest thief in the world. If you do something good, I am going to steal it. I am not very smart, but I know who does it well. We are going to watch it and we are going to emulate it.


"He has a very disciplined program. They do not beat themselves and they never have. From the very beginning, he has stressed discipline and not beating yourself. You are going to have to beat K-State when you play them. It does not matter who you are. They do not make mistakes."

The sobering fact for Kansas State is that the Snyder era is nearing the end, whether it's after this year or next, or even four or five more years. Snyder turned 77 during the 2016 season, and he won't be here forever.

He doesn't golf or have other hobbies, and no signs exist that his departure is imminent. But when he does step down there will be a void, no matter who becomes head coach.

Until that happens, Bill Snyder will keep adding to his legacy. With 11 more victories, he will own 40 percent of the school's wins, and they have been playing football at K-State for 121 years.

Looney was wrong. K-State can be a great football program with the right man in charge. Maybe the best ever.

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