This isn’t a story about football although football is a main character.
When I went to K-State in the 70s, we had the worst football program in the history of football. This isn’t hyperbole; it’s fact. By any statistic whether it be games won or points scored or points given up, however you want to judge it, we were the worst and it had gone on for decades. In those days, you lied about going to a football game on a beautiful crisp fall afternoon by saying you were going to the library because going to the library on a beautiful crisp fall afternoon was less embarrassing than saying you were going to that stadium that reeked of absolute futility.
We only sold out our stadium when Nebraska or Oklahoma came to town and even then it was sold out by fans wearing red as the Huskers and Sooners took over the restaurants and hotels and, indeed, the stadium. We only won moral victories as in we only lost by 55 or 63 or 78 and should feel good about that.
Then, for some reason that no one can explain, everything changed. K-State hired this man who had no right to expect that he could do what NO ONE had done before him. He was going to take those kids that no one else wanted, that no one believed could win, and he would make them winners. And he did…bowl game after bowl game…
Bill Snyder is prickly. He’s a bad interview because he says things like “we could have played better” and “we have a lot of work left to do.” He doesn’t like interviews; he doesn’t smile during them. They are quite clearly a waste of his time. He doesn’t eat two of the three meals that the rest of us do because that is a waste of time. He doesn’t sleep. He probably couldn’t name a movie released in the last several years. He doesn’t waste time in small talk. He’s boring. And, did I mention, a bit prickly.
He does things like time how long the bus ride from the hotel to the stadium will be and tries to shave off a few minutes to, yes, save time. When he requests that butter be served at the team breakfast and margarine shows up on the table, he asks for, and gets, the butter. He found a pair of long-retired Nikes that he liked years ago and now tries to buy up all in his size on the internet.
It gets stranger. He calls those tough inner city kids who traveled from maybe The Big Apple to the Little Apple “youngsters” which is, of course, a word these kids are unfamiliar with. Even those kids from the rural Midwest who make up most of his team have never heard the word “youngsters.” Even I’ve only heard it in what, maybe Heidi or Leave It to Beaver? How could anyone so unhip as to call his football team a “great bunch of youngsters” have a chance in hell to get them to listen.
And it gets stranger. His favorite movie is Pinocchio and he hands out copies to these strapping men and tells them that they’ll really like the message. And still it gets stranger. These guys respond to him; they work hard for him; they win for him…hell, they even watch Pinocchio for him.
But I said this wasn’t about football and it isn’t really. Here’s why I love this guy:
Early in Snyder’s career at K-State, a newly-hired assistant coach moved his family to the small town of Manhattan. Soon after that, the man’s beloved wife was struck by lightning on an early morning walk and soon died. There was a little girl left behind who missed her mother and who had a father with a new coaching job who needed to be at work all the time. Soon the little girl had a desk outside Coach Snyder’s office and that’s where she did her homework and colored pictures and hung out with “Coach.” This same man who had no time to spare had time to spare for her.
When his team travels and stays in hotels, all these players are, of course, required to make curfew and wear ties and behave. However, they are also asked to write notes to the maids who make their beds and clean their toilets thanking them for their hard work and dedication because he wants the guys to appreciate the tremendous gift it is for them to get to play a game and receive recognition way outside what is deserved. He writes letters to players on opposing teams telling them what a great game they played.
When he retired from KSU the first time, he thought he had built a program that could continue without him. When they asked to name the stadium in his honor, he was horrified. After much pressure, he agreed but only if it were called The Bill Snyder Family Stadium. Within two years of his being gone, the magic was slipping away and KSU was on its way to mediocrity and losing ways again. He was talked into coming back although everyone agreed that this man who was what sports people around the country called the Best Coach in the History of Coaching could not possibly, no way in hell, work that magic a second time.
Tonight, after just a few years back at KSU, he’s playing in the Cotton Bowl and maybe Pinocchio does make sense as this prickly Gepetto turns these boys into real men. Let the magic begin.
And, oh yeah, Every Man A Wildcat.