Miracle Worker Thanks to tireless coach Bill Snyder, once moribund Kansas State not only is a consistent winner but also has the national title within its reach

November 09, 1998

Mother and son lived alone in a tiny three-room apartment at
Fifth and Robidoux in the northwest Missouri city of St. Joseph.
They had moved there from Salina, Kans., in 1945, after
Marionetta Snyder divorced her husband, Tom, a traveling
salesman. The son, Bill, was six years old at the time of the
move. For the next 12 years he slept on a Murphy bed in the
living room next to his mother, who slept on a rollaway cot.

Bill learned to swim at the YMCA pool six blocks away, and he
played five sports at Lafayette High. His mother worked
tirelessly. She would leave the apartment before Bill awakened
and walk to the Townsend and Wall department store, where she
was a sales clerk and buyer. Often she wouldn't return until
after Bill went to sleep at night. She never owned a car, never
even got a driver's license. She just worked. "We didn't have
much, but she provided me with all that she could. She literally
gave up her life for me," says Bill. Marionetta died in 1996 at
age 78. "She taught me that what the Lord gives you is time," he
says, "and 24 hours a day is all you get."

This workday ends at midnight, when Bill Snyder, 59, walks down
the narrow carpeted hallway from his office into the foyer of the
Vanier Football Complex at Kansas State, where he has been coach
for 10 seasons. His only concession to the lateness of the hour
is a slight loosening of his yellow necktie, which complements
his gray wool suit. He pushes open a glass door and walks into
the cool prairie night, pausing to lock the building because he's
the last to leave. His dark green Cadillac sits at the curb. "You
could drive by the complex after leaving a party at 2 o'clock in
the morning, and his car would be there," says Kansas City Chiefs
wideout Kevin Lockett, who played for Snyder from 1993 to '96.

Senior tour golfer Jim Colbert, a Kansas State graduate and one
of Snyder's best friends, often pulls out his cell phone late at
night and dials Snyder's office. "Do you know what time it is?"
Colbert's wife, Marcia, will say incredulously as Jim punches out
the number.

"Don't worry, I'm calling Coach," Colbert will say. "I know he's
still there."

As Snyder pulls out of the parking lot, his headlights briefly
illuminate the expanse of Wagner Field, part of a 42,000-seat
stadium (soon to grow to 50,000, plus 31 luxury suites) that
once was home to the pits of Division I-A football. (In 1989
this magazine proclaimed Kansas State, with its horrific play
before empty bleachers, the worst program in the country.) Now
KSU Stadium houses a powerhouse, the most improved team in the
'90s (chart, page 62). Snyder's Wildcats are 8-0 and ranked No.
4 in the nation after last Saturday's 54-6 victory over Kansas.
K-State is a deep, veteran squad that mixes hellacious defense
with a balanced offense. It has several computer-weighty games
remaining--on Nov. 14 against Nebraska, which it hasn't beaten
in 30 years, against Missouri (Nov. 21) and, possibly, the Big
12 championship game (Dec. 5)--and thus could finish first or
second in the Bowl Championship Series rankings, which would
mean a place in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 4, and a shot at the
national title.

The mere confluence of these phrases--Kansas State and national
title--is staggering. Barry Switzer, whose last three Oklahoma
teams (1986 to '88) hung 185 points on the Wildcats, considered
the effects of national college football parity and still
concluded that Snyder's work at K-State broke new ground. "Bill
Snyder isn't the coach of the year, and he isn't the coach of
the decade," says Switzer. "He's the coach of the century."

Snyder's modest office above the north end zone of the stadium
has become a mecca for the desperate. University presidents,
business leaders, athletic directors and other football coaches
seek Snyder's advice on how to set the first stones of
rebuilding. "They expect me to reach into my top drawer and pull
out a sheet of paper with a blueprint," says Snyder. "I'm
flattered, but there's no piece of paper. We just got a little
bit better every year for 10 years until...here we are." He went
to work every day, just like his mother. Well, not quite like
his mother. Not quite like anybody else.

Anybody else would eat. During the season Snyder eats once a
day, when he gets home, usually well after midnight. He doesn't
eat other meals because, he says, he discovered three decades
ago that "you can get a lot done during the lunch hour, and
shortly after that I realized that if it works during lunch, it
works during dinner."

Anybody else would sleep. Snyder snags four or five hours a
night before driving back to the office.

Anybody else would find a way to put down the VCR clicker while
exercising. Snyder works out on a stair machine in his office
while studying tape.

Anybody else would let it slide when butter is served at a team
meal instead of the requested margarine. Not Snyder.

Anybody else would lighten up. Snyder doesn't. He insists that
he has interests outside of football--boating, swimming,
reading--"but I just can't pursue any of them at this point in
my life." Even in rare moments of leisure, he's maddeningly
purposeful. He first picked up a golf club four years ago, when
Colbert volunteered to give him a lesson at the Bighorn Club in
Palm Desert, Calif. Snyder beat balls in the sunshine for five
hours until his hands bled.

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.

At Iowa, where Snyder coached under Hayden Fry from 1979 to '88,
his dissection of passing plays would reduce his fellow coaches
to snickers. "Bill would've described a play for about two
minutes, and he wouldn't even have reached the point where the
quarterback releases the ball," says Wisconsin coach Barry
Alvarez, who was the linebackers coach on that Iowa staff.

Snyder has worn the same style of coaching shoes for two decades.
When Nike stopped making the model in the 1980s, he hoarded as
many pairs as he could find, and now on the sideline he looks
like a character from That '70s Show.

All coaches script their game days, and most script their
practices. Snyder also scripts his staff meetings and insists
that his assistants show him scripts for their position
meetings. Kansas State players are required to wipe their feet
before entering the athletic complex, they're not allowed to
wear earrings, and their facial hair must be neatly trimmed. If
a team meal is not served on time, Snyder marches into the
kitchen to speed up the process. He refuses to discuss injuries
with the press, and he tightly limits access to his players. The
phrase control freak comes to mind, and Snyder doesn't fight it.
"I probably do have that capacity," he says.

Of course, a man would need lots of control, not to mention lots
of time, to right Kansas State football. Snyder inherited a
27-game winless streak when he was hired to coach the Wildcats in
November 1988. In the previous four seasons K-State had won three
of 44 games. In fact, since the end of World War II, Kansas State
had had only four winning seasons and played in one bowl game.
"The teams I played on were rotten," says Dana Dimel, a Wildcat
in '85 and '86 who assisted Snyder for eight years and is now the
coach at Wyoming.

When historian Jon Wefald became Kansas State's 12th president,
in 1986, the university's enrollment and academic profile were
slipping. Wefald improved both swiftly. Freshman enrollment grew
by 1,300 students in his second year on the job, and K-State has
since blossomed, ranking second in Rhodes scholarships and first
in both Truman and Goldwater grants among the nation's 500
four-year public universities. Yet folks outside of Manhattan
were slow to notice improvements, because so much negative
attention was focused on the terrible Wildcats football team.
"Face it, sports are the window through which the university is
viewed," says Wefald.

In 1986 average home attendance at K-State games was hovering
around 20,000, and there were fewer than 7,000 season-ticket
holders. Before the 1988 season Kansas State was so desperate
for football revenue that it agreed to play its next five games
against Oklahoma in Norman, because the road money there was
better than the home money in Manhattan. The Wildcats'
difficulties reached critical mass when Wefald's conversations
with other Big Eight presidents led him to believe that they
might expel K-State from the conference.

Wildcats coach Stan Parrish resigned after an 0-11 season in
1988, and athletic director Steve Miller was charged with
finding a replacement. Sixteen candidates were interviewed. Jack
Bicknell, then coaching Boston College, was offered the job and
nearly took it, but at the last moment he pulled out. Jim Epps,
then Kansas State's associate athletic director, suggested to
Miller that they look at Iowa, which had rebuilt its program in
the early '80s. "I was reasonably sure that we couldn't lure
Hayden Fry to Manhattan," says Epps, "so I asked Steve, 'What
about the coordinators?'" Epps grabbed an Iowa media guide and
found that Snyder was the Hawkeyes' offensive coordinator. Epps
called Snyder, who agreed to listen.

Snyder knew all about rebuilding. Before Fry's arrival in 1979,
Iowa hadn't had a winning season in 18 years, but since then it
had averaged nearly eight wins per season and had played in three
Rose Bowls. Snyder also knew offense. His passing game had given
fits to Neanderthal Big Ten defenses. When Miller called Bo
Schembechler of Michigan to ask about Snyder, Schembechler said,
"Hire him, get him the f--- out of this conference."

Snyder, then 49, was comfortable in Iowa City. Friends warned him
that Kansas State was a professional black hole. Indeed, none of
the four head coaches who immediately preceded Snyder, dating
back to 1967, ever became a college head coach again. Still,
Snyder took the job. He took it by the throat and hasn't let go.

Snyder arrived with a plan, and he stuck to it. "He was so damn
focused," says Miller, now director of global sports marketing
for Nike. "He was an AD's dream, because he worked so hard, and
an AD's nightmare, because he wanted things. That first year,
every time Bill came into the building, Jim Epps and I would just
about hide under our desks, thinking, Oh, jeez, what does he want
now?"

He wanted his assistant coaches' salaries almost doubled, to be
competitive with those in the top Big Eight schools. He wanted
better facilities and a bigger recruiting budget. "All of this
was difficult, because we were not only broke, we were in debt,"
says Epps.

When there was no money to begin renovating the football
complex, Snyder offered to write a $100,000 personal check.
Instead, Kansas rancher Jack Vanier came up with the funds for
the complex named in his honor. Then Dave Wagner of Dodge City,
Kans., a $25-a-year contributor to the Wildcats, won $37 million
in a 1991 national lottery drawing and donated $1 million to buy
Kansas State new artificial turf. (Hence, Wagner Field.) Since
Snyder's arrival the university has pumped $15 million--modest
by some standards--into football facilities, and every penny has
been paid by private donations. "I never wanted a Taj Mahal,"
says Snyder. He doesn't have one, but he no longer has a dump.

The Wildcats won seven games in Snyder's third year, 1991.
Snyder visited his friend Colbert in Las Vegas after that
season, and Colbert told him to leave as soon as the right offer
arrived. "I said, 'Coach, you've done a heck of a job, but when
the big boys come calling, you ought to leave, because it's not
going to get better at Kansas State,'" Colbert says. Two years
later the Wildcats went 9-2-1, crushing Wyoming in the Copper
Bowl. While walking to the team bus before that game, Snyder saw
Colbert in the crowd, walked over and told him, "And you said it
couldn't be done."

Five years later Snyder oversees one of the most efficient
programs in the country. Kansas State has won at least nine
games for five consecutive seasons, and its current 16-game
winning streak is second only to UCLA's 17. The Wildcats have
milked junior colleges for good players, including quarterback
Michael Bishop. But the principal reason for Kansas State's rise
has been Snyder's relentlessness on the practice field. The
Wildcats practice longer than almost any other team in the
country. "Oh, my god," says Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle
Barrett Brooks, who played for Snyder from 1991 to '94. "Three
hours. Three and a half hours. Every day. He'd kill us." That's
how Kansas State has won with modest talent. Only one of
Snyder's recruiting classes has been ranked in the top 20 by any
service.

Meanwhile, under Snyder the Wildcats program has engendered only
one scandal: Last spring coveted junior college running back
Frank Murphy received $3,000 from Wildcats supporters, which
Kansas State reported to the NCAA and which resulted in Murphy's
suspension for four games. By all appearances Snyder's tenure
could serve as a model for reconstruction. "I've worked for Rich
Brooks, John Cooper, Terry Donahue and Mike White, and this guy
is absolutely the best there is," says Wildcats offensive
coordinator Ron Hudson. "I've never worked harder, but you could
put Bill Snyder anywhere--any school, the NFL, anywhere--and he
would win."

Coaching has cost Snyder not just food, sleep and hobbies but
also his first marriage and a role in the rearing of his first
three children. This has been the central contradiction in his
life. "My priorities have always been family, faith and football,
in that order," he says, and yet football has consumed the vast
majority of his time.

Bill and his first wife, Judy, were married in 1964, while Bill
was coaching at Indio High. They had three children: Sean and
daughters Shannon and Meredith. Bill took the family with him to
Austin College in Sherman, Texas, in 1974 and to North Texas
State in 1976. By the time Bill arrived at Iowa in the winter of
'79, he was divorced. "I was simply a bad husband, that's all,"
he says. "I was a faithful husband, but a bad one. You could
certainly say that football was a part of it."

He worked as hard then as he does now. "We never saw him," says
Sean. In the summers following the divorce, the children would
visit their dad in Iowa City and often run loose in the football
complex while their father worked.

As long as there is a team to coach, Bill will never throttle
back his office hours. Yet he feels he is trying to be a better
father and husband. He recruited Sean to Iowa and encouraged his
transfer to Kansas State, where he became an All-America punter
and now works as the Wildcats' assistant athletic director for
football operations. "It's been wonderful just to get to see him
every day," says Bill. In 1984 Bill married Sharon Payne, whose
21-year-old son, Ross Snyder, is a reserve running back for
Kansas State. Bill and Sharon have a 12-year-old daughter,
Whitney, whom Bill calls on those nights when he knows he will
be returning home after she is asleep. He calls Shannon and
Meredith every day and recently bought 42 acres of Texas land to
be divided among his first three children. "He seems a lot more
relaxed than he was 10 years ago," says Shannon. "Now I can go
visit him and get him to go out to dinner."

The most arresting moment in Bill's life as a father occurred on
Feb. 14, 1992, when Meredith, then a senior in high school, was
critically injured in a one-car accident near Judy's house in
Greenville, Texas. Riding in the front seat between classmates,
Meredith was thrown from the car, which flipped over seven
times. When, after a seven-hour drive, Bill arrived at the
Dallas hospital where Meredith had been taken, she was paralyzed
from the neck down and breathing with the aid of a ventilator.

Bill jumped into her life as never before, seeking out the best
hospitals and rehabilitation centers, consoling Meredith when
she needed it, pushing her like a football coach when she needed
that. Within 2 1/2 months she was breathing on her own, and
within six months she was walking with the aid of crutches or a
cane. Meredith, now 24 and a junior at Texas A&M-Commerce, can
drive a car without special instruments. She will be married in
May. "Bill has really come through for Meredith," says Judy.
"It's made up for all those years he wasn't there."

"I can't tell you how much his encouragement has meant to me,"
says Meredith. "He has so much discipline, and he's instilled
some of that in me."

Bill sat in his office during a recent foodless lunch hour.
There is a framed picture of Meredith on the corner of his desk,
taken during a ski trip at Big Bear (Calif.), almost two years
after her accident. "She made 12 runs that day and didn't fall
once," he says. His eyes water as he looks long at the photo and
says, "She's such a strong-willed girl."

There is another frame, on a facing wall. In it is an animation
cel of a scene from Pinocchio. It's Snyder's favorite movie. He
has bought dozens of copies of the videotape and sent them to
his children and to friends and acquaintances who have kids.
Geppetto, Pinocchio's creator in the film, captured Snyder's
heart. "This guy had a tremendous passion for children," says
Snyder. "Then he goes through disappointment, yet he has the
compassion to stay with it." It is surely how Snyder sees
himself, in life and in football. As Geppetto, the builder with
a soul.

He's home now. The suit jacket is laid neatly across the cooking
island in the kitchen of his house in an upscale development
three minutes from the stadium. In six hours he will be back in
the office, chasing perfection again. Snyder is at the top of his
profession and in the race for a national title. Yet, like any
perfectionist, he despises finite goals. "If we're fortunate
enough to win a national championship, I don't believe it would
be a culminating experience," he says. "There's no finality in
any of this for me, other than death."

Is he happy? "I'm not unhappy," he says.

Soon the only sound in the kitchen is the rhythmic clacking of
dress shoes on the hardwood floor, followed by the opening of a
refrigerator door and the whisper of cool air flowing into the
room.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS CATCHING ON The high-flying Wildcats now pack 'em in. [Kansas State player making lunging catch] COLOR PHOTO: VINCENT MUZIK NEVER TOO LATE Though still obsessed with coaching, Synder has made amends to his former wife, Judy, and daughter Meredith. [Bill Snyder] COLOR PHOTO: LANE STEWART The most arresting moment in Bill's life as a father occurred when Meredith (far right) was critically injured in a car accident. [Bill Snyder's first wife Judy and Meredith Snyder] COLOR PHOTO: VINCENT MUZIK [Joe Bob Clements and Mark Simoneau tackling opposing player in game] COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Breakthrough? K-State is favored to slip free of Nebraska for the first time since 1968. [University of Nebraska players tackling Kansas State player]

BEFORE 1990 THE '90s
W L T PCT. W L T PCT. DIFF.
Kansas State 300 519 41 .373 73 27 1 .728 .355
Marshall 335 418 44 .448 97 25 0 .795 .347
Florida State 272 170 16 .611 94 12 1 .883 .272
Florida 452 322 39 .580 90 17 1 .838 .258
Idaho 325 412 25 .443 67 37 0 .644 .201

His priorities have been family, faith and football, in that
order, yet football has consumed the vast majority of his time.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)