MANHATTAN, Kan. — There has to be a reason to seek out the sleepy college town that’s home to Kansas State University.
It’s two hours by car from Kansas City, out in the heart of the Flint Hills, tucked away in a picturesque valley well off Interstate 70. It’s off Exit 313, for those who have time for the drive, past flowing fields of golden wheat and the natural tall grass acreages of the Konza Prairie.
Two decades ago, Bill Snyder gave people a reason to find it.
The nondescript offensive coordinator from Iowa showed up one day and took over a program that had been winless in 27 games, proclaiming that the “opportunity for the greatest turnaround in college football history exists here today.” It wasn’t hyperbole, either. Snyder actually believed it, and then made it work, taking the downtrodden program to previously unthinkable heights.
Now, after stepping away for a brief retirement, the maestro of Manhattan is doing it again.
Relying on the same principles and instilling the same beliefs in a new generation of players, Snyder has the No. 7 Wildcats off to another 4-0 start. The ranking is their highest since the 2003 season, when Kansas State won its first conference title since FDR was in office, and represents yet another benchmark for a coach who keeps moving his team ever higher.
“People asked me what I thought of him coming back, and I said, ‘What he’s doing is proving to everyone that it wasn’t luck the first time around,’” said former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer, who once labeled Snyder not merely coach of the year or decade but “coach of the century.”
Perhaps now, he’s coach of the millennium.
Kansas State is coming off a dramatic 24-19 victory over then-No. 6 Oklahoma, the highest-ranked victory in a true road game in school history, and its first in Norman since 1997.
The Wildcats have a throwback Heisman Trophy contender in quarterback Collin Klein, a Darren Sproles-like dynamo in running back John Hubert, and a bend-but-don’t-dare-break defense that made life miserable for Sooners quarterback Landry Jones, expected to be a first-round NFL draft pick.
In short, they have all the ingredients to make an improbable run at a national championship.
As if anything is improbable with Snyder stalking the sideline.
“Bill’s been described in a number of ways, but there’s nothing he does that surprises me,” said former wide receiver Kevin Lockett, who was part of the program’s foundation in the 1990s and whose son, Tyler Lockett, is now a sophomore on the team.
“He hasn’t changed a bit,” added offensive lineman Ryan Lilja, now a member of the Kansas City Chiefs. “Watching how his teams play, how his players react to him, the guy hasn’t changed a bit.”
Just about everything else has changed, though.
The price of gas is four times what it was in 1988, when he first drove into town. Perestroika is a distant memory, George Michael and Gloria Estefan no longer top the charts, and the chic style popularized by television shows such as “Magnum, P.I.” is considered garish at best.
The game has changed, too. The wishbone offense run by Switzer has been replaced by pass-happy attacks predicated on spreading the field.
Some of the game’s greatest minds, such as the late Joe Paterno at Penn State, have had their reputations sullied by scandal. The pursuit of big TV contracts has caused seismic shifts in the game, and old rivalries have gone by the wayside through unsettling waves of conference realignment.
“I think society has changed a great deal. We all recognize that,” Snyder said during an interview this week. “Our children are a product of today’s society, so consequently, yes, they’ve changed. But when I say they’ve changed, it’s an all-encompassing statement. Everybody has.”
Nearly everybody, at least.
Snyder still wears the same Nike Cortez shoes in vogue last century. He still wears the same antiquated eye glasses, pulls out old windbreakers from bygone bowl games, and his favorite film remains the animated Disney classic “Pinocchio” for the values it represents.
“I don’t know that I’ve changed a great deal, other than what age does to you,” said Snyder, who will turn 73 on Oct. 7, the day after Kansas State plays Kansas for the Governor’s Cup.
Indeed, in a world that moves at an increasingly rapid pace, Kansas State’s program is in many ways a time capsule. Inside the football complex, the expansive room overlooking the stadium that bears Snyder’s name is still called the “Big 8 Room,” and logos still adorn the walls for Nebraska, Missouri and Colorado — schools no longer part of the Big 12 Conference.
And while Snyder believes that most kids have changed, those he recruits have not.
Klein may be the perfect example.
The senior is the quintessential “yes sir, no sir” player of yesteryear, espousing the same values as Snyder: hard work, commitment, unselfishness. Along the way, Klein has emerged as one of the nation’s most dynamic playmakers, piling up touchdowns at a record-breaking pace.
“His value system has not changed. It’s the same value system that was in place 20 years ago,” said Snyder, pausing to sip from his steaming cup of drip coffee (no Starbucks here).
“We have a lot of young people like that,” Snyder said. “We have a lot of young guys who have a very intact value system that might be a little antagonistic to today’s society, collectively, overall. There are some changes, but it doesn’t embrace every person you have in your program.”
Klein said the way Snyder relates to his players hasn’t changed, either.
He may not listen to the same music or watch the same movies, but Snyder shares with them a single-minded pursuit of excellence, on the field and off it. Greatness is never good enough.
“We all want the same thing,” Klein said. “He wants us to be the best we can be individually, he wants us to be the best we can be collectively, and you know, we all want that, too.”
“He understands us, and he understands our goals and aspirations,” offers linebacker Arthur Brown, a Butkus Award candidate who transferred from Miami. “He also sees the big picture. He possesses an understanding that life is bigger than the game itself.”
The impact that Snyder’s had on Kansas State is difficult to overstate.
Enrollment surged when he first turned around the program, and remains robust to this day. The visibility of the football program is a big reason that donations pour in, including an $814,000 gift this week from Koch Industries and the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation to the school’s Office of Diversity. Many campus-wide projects, including a privately-funded, $75 million renovation to the west side of the football stadium, would not be possible without the silver-haired fox.
Nobody knows when Snyder will retire again, even though school officials confide — off the record — that they’re preparing for the inevitable. For now, it’s not even a topic of discussion, those around the program content to ride another wave of unfathomable success.
“It’s so early in the season right now,” Snyder said. “There’s so much that lies ahead.”