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Bill Snyder retires, concluding college football’s most amazing turnaround ever

Winning at Kansas State used to be impossible. Now it’s shocking when the Wildcats don’t. That’s still incredible.

Auburn v Kansas State

Kansas State head football coach Bill Snyder is retiring, the school announced Sunday.

Snyder’s Wildcats had just wrapped up a 5-7 season, which turned out to end a whole era. His retirement will end a run that’s spanned 30 years, with a three-season break from 2006 to 2008. The coach is 79 and had fallen ill in the not-distant past, working through a throat cancer diagnosis and treatment in the spring of 2017.

Other coaches have won more and won bigger, but it’s hard to think of another coach who’s made so much out of so little.

He took over in Manhattan in 1989 after a decade as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Iowa. Since then:

  • Snyder won 215 games at K-State, where no other coach has ever won more than 33. He exits with a 215-117-1 record, to be exact.
  • KSU’s been playing football since 1896, and 40 percent of its all-time wins have come under Snyder.
  • All 13 of K-State’s ranked finishes came under Snyder, and he nearly led the Wildcats to title shots in 1998 and 2012.
  • He got Kansas State to 19 of its 21 all-time bowl games, including three each in the Fiesta and Cotton. All nine of K-State’s bowl wins came under Snyder.
  • Six Wildcats players have won national awards, all of them recruited and coached by Snyder’s staffs, along with the vast majority of K-State’s conference awards and All-America honors.
  • K-State boasts the Big 12’s longest NFL draft pick streak, at 25 years, despite still ranking near the bottom of the conference in athletic department revenue and being relatively far from Texas high school talent.
  • The three-time national coach of the year is one of four active coaches ever to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

His K-State was so consistently good for so long, it’s sometimes hard to remember the situation Snyder inherited:

"When I got here, those were the days you could have 95 on scholarship. We had 47. Lowest-scholarship program in college football. We were the only program that had lost 500 games in its history at that time."

Under Jim Dickey and Stan Parrish, the Wildcats had gone 3-40-1 over the previous four seasons. But it wasn't Dickey and Parrish -- it was the program. Since 1940, K-State had finished with a winning record four times and had won three or fewer games 38 times.

Snyder didn't inherit a rebuilding job. He inherited a building job.

"The group of young guys that were leaving [when I arrived] -- those who had used up their eligibility -- I had asked to meet with each of them, and did," he says. "I was just amazed to hear young guys talk about never wearing their letter jackets because they were too embarrassed. They were not going to class because they were embarrassed. They were not going to [local bars-and-restaurants district] Aggieville. There were no rules against it -- it was because of total embarrassment.”

By 1993, the Wildcats started a run of eight years in a row with nine or more wins. Snyder eventually reached 11 wins seven times.

Texas A&M V Kansas State
Snyder at 1998’s Big 12 Championship, one decade after K-State had gone 0-11

Being at Kansas State for as long as Snyder has means he’s seen a lot of change.

He took over a Big 8 program. That morphed into the Big 12 in 1997, and the league’s membership has both changed and contracted.

Snyder, for his part, really misses having Nebraska around, and why not? The Huskers steamrolled KSU for decades, but Snyder turned in a four-of-six stretch against them.

He’s also owned the entire state of Texas, racking up a 7-6 mark against the infinitely better-resourced Longhorns. He’s been gracious about it, as he was with Charlie Strong after getting the seventh of those wins, in 2016:

Over time, Snyder’s image has evolved from that of a ruthless competitor who famously had to wake his children up in the middle of the night, just to have time to play with them, to the sport’s grandpa character. He’s known for writing personal letters to opponents, and though he disappointed many by blocking a player’s transfer in 2017, he relented and apologized.

Snyder probably isn’t done being involved.

His contract allows Snyder to stay aboard at KSU as a “Special Ambassador for Kansas State University” for as long as he’s physically and mentally able. He’ll make $250,000 a year in that job, down from $3.5 million in 2018.

These sorts of positions for ex-coaches are usually heavy on fundraising, and Snyder’s won’t be an exception. Kansas State can dispatch him to up to eight “Catbacker” fundraising or “special events” per year.

But maybe most importantly, Snyder will have some hand in picking his replacement. His contract calls for him to “provide appropriate input” during the school’s search.

His son, Sean, is K-State’s associate head coach and special teams coordinator. Snyder has made plain that he prefers his son as his successor, often to the chagrin of K-State fans and administrators. He previously denied a report that he’d nixed the hiring of Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt to be the Wildcats’ coach-in-waiting.

Ace Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, a former Snyder player and assistant, and Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl, formerly hired by Taylor at North Dakota State, will also be mentioned as candidates. North Texas’ Seth Littrell already has been. (Venables has not demonstrated public interest in the job before.) Watch Littrell, in particular:

Kansas State’s uncharacteristic struggles in 2018, combined with uncertainty over who’d succeed Snyder, had come to cast a shadow over the program. K-State blog Bring On The Cats was arguing by the end of October that it was time for a change:

It should be abundantly clear by now that, if we take Bill Snyder at his word, the direction he has set the program on is not working, and that continuing down that path is going to make things better. So while it brings me not the slightest bit of happiness to say this, I can’t hold on to hope any longer.

It’s time. It need not occur now, because no change is rescuing this season and Snyder deserves the dignity of finishing out the year. But athletic director Gene Taylor needs to lay the groundwork for a full regime change, because nobody on the current staff is the answer. I hope that the transition is handled in the most dignified and appropriate manner possible, because while Snyder is not going to ride off into the sunset with a conference championship like he richly deserves for all he has done, he should not be cast aside rudely.

Snyder’s departure means Kansas State will look a lot different.

Snyder has crafted the program in his image. His name, with the word “Family” added, is on the stadium.

But while college football’s changed a bunch, his Wildcats remain throwbacks in many ways. On offense, they’re the same hard-running, grind-it-out sort of team they’ve been for years, though they’ve incorporated spread principles. They don’t create many big plays on offense, but they run efficiently. On defense, they’ve been solid, even while much of the Big 12 has turned to mush. (These trends, of course, did not really hold up in 2018.)

"I used to go into the meeting rooms, and I would take each guy in the meeting room and ask them, ‘What's important to you?’” he told us a few years ago. “Sometimes it was football or academics or family. I'd say, ‘What can you do today to get better?’ They'd think about it, and they'd answer, and it'd be accurate, and they'd get a little bit better. That hasn't changed."

Snyder’s replacement gets to decide how much Kansas State changes. Hiring the younger Snyder or a defense-first coach with deep Heartland ties, like Venables or Bohl, likely wouldn’t mean anything drastic.

There’s something to be said for never changing, because Kansas isn’t a good recruiting state, and the Wildcats are never going to out-athlete the Oklahomas and Texases, despite Snyder’s legendary work on the JUCO circuit.

Snyder found something that worked at Kansas State.

Ron Prince coached a roster of mostly Snyder’s players from 2006 to 2008 and went 17-20. Other bad recruiting teams in the Big 12, like Kansas and previously Iowa State, have floundered for years. Under Snyder, Kansas State did the opposite.