Bill Snyder: Miracle Worker

Given the success Kansas State is having (again) under Bill Snyder (again), it’s good to spend a little time thinking about how the 73-year old wonder does it. And, unsurprisingly, the reason K-State is winning now is the same reason K-State was winning before: because they play with great effort, great discipline, and they do all of the little things right (they also have some pretty good players, especially their quarterback Collin Klein and linebacker Arthur Brown).

Always building

Rightly or wrongly, coaches tend to look at football teams as reflections of their coaches: A hardworking team reflects a hardworking coach; an arrogant team an arrogant coach; a disciplined team a disciplined coach; and, most damning of all, a soft, undisciplined team for a soft, undisciplined coach.

There’s no doubt that Snyder’s teams reflect the man — driven, earnest, and, well, maybe even a little bit fanatical, as Tim Layden’s great piece explained a few years back:

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.

Layden’s piece does a good job capturing the sacrifices men like Snyder make to build football teams, in spite of what goes on around them.

Snyder is at the top of his profession and in the race for a national title. Yet, like any perfectionist, he despises finite goaIs. “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.

We should appreciate that men like Bill Snyder build football teams so well, a magnificent edifice that stands — for some brief period of time — as a monument to order, to discipline, to effort, and, most of all, to the coach. But men like Bill Snyder are not martyrs, either: they are paid handsomely to coach a sport, and any sacrifices they make in terms of family, faith, or otherwise are not for us, but for them. Instead they are like all artists: appreciate the work, and let others who know them better judge the man. All I know is Snyder paints a hell of a picture.

  • I’d be interested in reading something about the schemes Snyder runs. He’s always so successful, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a piece about either the offensive or defensive schemes of K-State, either in the 90s or now (I also confess I’d probably love a breakdown of K-State’s schemes under Ron Prince as much or more as a piece on Snyder’s).

  • smartfootball

    They actually do a great job on offense schematically, much more than they are given credit. They mix a lot of traditional stuff — power, iso, zones — with unbalanced sets a la Stanford but also some newfangled ideas like jet sweeps while reading the backside defensive tackle, etc. It’s a nice mix. Passing game is simple but effective.

    I haven’t studied their defense as closely but under their current DC it seems to be almost all zone (to fit with the kind of athletes they get, it’s not Alabama), primarily with a four across look where they can either play some kind of quarter-quarter-half look to get the safety in the run game or spin down a safety to get an eighth in the box, but otherwise keep the corners off, give up short stuff, and make you beat them by being disciplined. They also don’t miss tackles. Against heavy formations I’ve seen them go down to a true 4-4 type look, but again I haven’t studied their defense in great detail.

  • Straspocolypse

    One strong area he focuses on are the players he gets to play for him. He has 3 criteria for his players: He must be Honest, He must Genuinely Care about others and he must work to Improve every day. That has more impact than any scheme he is running. And a great life lesson for all.

  • dave frederick

    Nice piece, Chris. Did anyone else notice the similarities to John Wooden while reading the piece? The styles seem extremely similar. There is a famous story about how Wooden’s first practice of the year started with the team putting on socks together and how practice wouldn’t begin until everyone had done it correctly. Like Snyder, Wooden only coached high quality men.

  • BlueJayTX

    Let’s not pour out the anointing oils for the Snyder’s beatification just yet. I recall the great Michael Bishop who could not read and write, basically, and was hailed as a great player and person. (Bishop did not go to A&M or Texas because he could not pass their entry requirements–which were not high for athletes.) The story of Ell Roberson is more telling because at the 2004 Fiesta Bowl, he was suspended very briefly, played most of the game, and after they lost he was denied his Big 12 ring. That was chicken scratch. Either suspend him for the game, or give him the ring.

    Snyder is a great coach, but he does well recruiting the junior colleges and finding the hidden gems, but to call him a great moral teacher and one who pushes academics and ethics smacks of the idol worship most Penn Staters were guilty of prior to Joe Paterno’s fall.

  • Also, he was one of the first coaches to run the spread with a running QB, in the late 90s. Michael Bishop was his first running QB,

  • And, also like artists, they are frequently tragic in achieving their great heights.

  • T42YS

    Ha. Typical butthurt, jealous KU fan.

  • BlueJayTX

    What is funny is that I am not a Jayhawk fan, nor did I go there, nor have I ever visited Lawrence. My local high school mascot is the Bluejays so that is why I chose this handle. Oiler was already taken.

    All that written, don’t be surprised if Snyder isn’t quite the “marble man” that his acolytes have made him out to be a few years after his final exit from KSU. Like Lubbock, Pullman, and Starkville, Manhattan, Kan is hard to recruit players to. I would not be surprised if there are some shenanigans in KSU’s recruiting practices, but speculation aside, Snyder is a great recruiter of the junior college ranks and the hidden gems he can develop. He clearly has an eye for talent. Whether there were extra benefits or payola time will judge.

  • John Butler

    Sure would like to see his coaching shoes!

  • James Taglienti

    Snyder did not run the spread in the 1990’s with Bishop. They were a power option team very similar to Nebraska during that time period. I don’t recall Snyder ever going to 10 personnel.

  • James Taglienti

    As I recall, Roberson was punished at that Fiesta Bowl because he was accused of rape by an ex-girlfriend there visiting him. It turned out she was just a psychotic ex. Snyder suspended him for having pre-marital sex and took him off scholarship for the Spring semester of that year.

    Bishop could not go to A&M because he could not pass the exit exam for Texas junior college students.

  • BlueJayTX

    Snyder allowed him to play and then took him off of scholarship and denied Roberson his ring. Doesn’t sit well with me. I would assume that Snyder knew the particulars, wanted him to play in the bowl, KSU lost, and then revoked his scholarship after Snyder had used him up, and it didn’t matter because of Roberson’s exhausted eligibility.

    As for the school bit, Bishop was never accused of being the next Plato or Einstein.

    Probably just have to agree to disagree over Snyder. Great coach and recruiter–no doubt about that–but it is the exaltation of the man that bothers me.

  • CoachBo

    The elevation of Snyder to sainthood aside, this is a good summary of how he attacks and the most significant thing to note is that how he attacks is fluid. He once was considered one of the pioneers of the passing game, and in the early 90s used some run and shoot principles. Today, his QB is an adequate passer at best and he’s got a big, physical line. Hence the change.
    Snyder is not a coach with a system; rather he builds a system to the talent he can recruit and develop. I think that’s where the greatness of Bill Snyder lies.

  • skylights

    Shenanigans? I wish. Have you seen our team recruiting rankings? We rank near the bottom of the BCS schools.