With apologies to ex-Kansas State head coach Ron Prince, who succeeded Snyder before preceding him, the Wildcats will be a much more interesting squad to cover in 2009.
They won't necessarily be better than the team that finished 5-7 in 2008 (Prince went 16-18 in his three seasons on the prairie), but they'll make better copy. That's what happens when you disinter a legend, the architect of the Manhattan Miracle, plug him back into the program he resurrected once ... and ask him to revive it again.
"My concern with Kansas State University," a purple-tied Snyder told a friendly audience in Wichita last December, a few days after accepting the job, "is that the water's a little rough right now."
He was talking about the criticism rocking the athletic department from fans disgruntled over the football program's slide. "That's not the Kansas State family way," he said. "If I can, I want to help smooth the waters -- to recreate, so to speak, that family environment that existed" during his 17 years running the show.
Part of the show, of course, is the way Snyder runs the show. You want attention to detail? Here is a man who makes Bill Belichick look half-assed. Snyder doesn't just script game days and practices. He scripts his staff meetings and insists his assistants script their position meetings. He famously wigged once, at a team meal, when his men were served pats of butter rather than more easily digested whipped butter. A former assistant of his once told me that, when the team buses were held up at a train crossing, Snyder was peeved that the coach in charge hadn't done his homework -- hadn't, you know, called the railroads ahead of time.
Many coaches have studied Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to get the most they can from their staff and players. Snyder is the only one I know of who seeks to deny those needs (as they apply to him). Such normal human requirements as eating and sleeping are an affront to him. During the season, he reportedly ate once a day -- around midnight -- shortly before enjoying three or four hours of sleep, then heading back to the office.
As SI's Tim Layden wrote 10 years ago in what remains the finest Snyder story ever, "This fanaticism isn't new. When Snyder was 28, fresh from a year as a graduate assistant to John McKay at USC, he was hired to coach at Indio (Calif.) High, and he tried to have himself hypnotized so that he might compress six hours' sleep into an hour's trance. 'The hypnotist just told me, 'That's not the way it works,'' Snyder says.
The Big 12 is not the way it worked when Snyder was executing the most unlikely college football turnaround since World War II. When Snyder took the K-State job in 1989, the program was the doormat of the Big Eight. Oklahoma was down. Today, the Sooners -- along with Texas, which joined the Big 12 when the conference expanded -- are perennial national title contenders. Missouri is now a fixture in the Top 25; resurgent Nebraska within striking distance of recouping a large measure of its former greatness. Texas Tech spent a month last season ranked No. 2 in the nation! All the whipped butter and scripted meetings in the world can't change the fact that Snyder is wading back into a much rougher neighborhood than the one he left.
He is joining the battle with a ragtag army. There is no greater indictment of the sorry state of Kansas State's recruiting woes than the fact that Prince signed 19 juco players in his final season -- the sport's equivalent of slaking one's thirst with seawater. Working in a compressed window, Snyder and his staff brought in a class that Rivals.com ranked last in the Big 12, and 94th in the country.
Their most telling defeat may have been the stiff-arm from Marshall Musil, a 6-foot-3, 224-pound fullback from La Crosse, Kan., who committed to Oklahoma before Snyder returned to Manhattan. Musil is the kind of hard-nosed, prairie lad that formed the foundation of Snyder's past success. But, as he told OUInsider.com last December, "Coach Snyder and Kansas State called and tried to come to our school. That was supposed to be today, but we told them no. I just didn't want to waste his time ..."
To be fair, K-State's recruiting struggles precede Prince. In 2004, the NCAA outlawed the use of private jets in shuttling recruits to campus. That restriction hurt some schools more than others. Since then, the Wildcats have flown prospects into Kansas City, then driven them the 132 miles to Manhattan, past endless fields of sorghum and soy beans and amber waves of grain, a journey during which many a blue-chipper from urban parts of say, Florida or Texas, has undoubtedly mused to himself, Man, this place is out in the sticks!
This is the new world order in which Snyder finds himself. He embarks on this journey with a fine staff, but not the staff that took his side during that first, incredible rise. Those assistants included Bob and Mike Stoops, Mark Mangino, Phil Bennett, Jim Leavitt -- all of whom are now head coaches in BCS conferences.
That brain drain, as much as anything else, slowed the ascent of a program that Snyder is now attempting to resuscitate. He interrupted that quest for a 10-minute teleconference last Tuesday, during which he was asked how close the program is to being where he would like it to be.
"I can't see there from here," replied the legend, with brutal candor. The man who once presided over some of the orneriest, nastiest defenses in the nation must now rebuild, from the wreckage, a unit that finished last season ranked 117th in total defense.
"We have some deficiencies, and they're very recognizable," he allowed. They will be corrected, he promised, but also labored to tamp down expectations, saying, "That's not going to happen overnight."
Or by next season, in all likelihood, which is why Snyder is preaching patience and loyalty these days. His problem is of his own creation: In his second act, Snyder will be held to the standard he set in his first. When he's finished smoothing the water, Wildcats fans will expect him to walk on it.