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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
MANHATTAN, Kan. -- The game-clad figure in purple and white jumps out from the billboards along the Kansas prairie, standing apart from the notices for truck stops, ice cream parlors and outlet malls.
The image of Kansas State coach Bill Snyder can be found at several locations along Interstate 70, pointing across expanses of the Sunflower State as he seemingly implores motorists to get out of their cars to hurry into game action.
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|Bill Snyder knows he has his work cut out for him at Kansas State.|
While Snyder says he's uncomfortable with becoming such a front-and-center symbol of the school's intended resurgence, it's understandable why he has become spotlighted so much since his return.
"I'm not a big fan of that," Snyder said. "This is about a program and not Bill Snyder. But maybe I'm in a position where I can help smooth the waters. I'd like to think I could do it without my face being all over billboards. It's not appropriate, because it's never been about Bill Snyder. I'm just a part of it."
On the school's Web site, Snyder's return has been given a prominent constant presence. An advertisement for season tickets harkens that "the Hall of Fame can wait" and "the tradition continues" with Snyder's return to bring the Wildcat program back from its recent doldrums.
As fans and players exit Interstate 70 and head to Manhattan, they turn onto the Bill Snyder Highway. And when they arrive in Manhattan the focal point of the campus is where the Wildcats play their games -- the Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
But even with that exalted status after his legendary career, Snyder was restless during retirement. Those concerns led him to return to coaching after a three-year sabbatical, eager to resume coaching with another challenging rebuilding job facing him.
It won't be easy. When asked about where the Wildcat program is and where he wants it to eventually be, Snyder has a succinct answer.
"I can't see there from here." Snyder said. "It's a long ways from where I would like it to be."
The transformation will go on without quarterback Josh Freeman, who declared for the NFL draft several weeks after Snyder replaced Ron Prince. Freeman was the 17th pick in the first round of the NFL draft last weekend by Tampa Bay.
And during his time away, traditional KSU strengths like the running game and defense have fallen to low standards. Last season, the Wildcats ranked 117th in total defense and 76th in rushing in a disappointing 5-7 season.
Snyder, who is five months shy of his 70th birthday, is familiar with facing similar challenges. He conquered arguably the toughest rebuilding job in college football history when he arrived in 1989. At that time, the Wildcats were the only major college program with 500 losses and had not won in their previous 27 games.
In his next 17 seasons, Snyder directed the Wildcats to three Big 12 championship game appearances, the 2003 Big 12 title and a run of 11 straight bowl games. It was a turnaround known as "The Miracle in Manhattan" that will one day earn him inclusion into the College Football Hall of Fame.
That success seems far away after the struggles for the program under Prince during the past three seasons. The program skidded to a 17-20 record during that time and has made one bowl appearance since the Wildcats' 2003 Big 12 title.
All of that makes Snyder realize he has a big push to return the KSU program back to its exalted previous status.
"The most significant issue we deal with, and what we set out to deal with first and foremost, is a set of values ... that we refer to quite frequently, just to get everybody on the same page in terms of responsibility and discipline and work habits. That takes a little bit of time. We've made some headway, but we're not close to where we need to be."
Kansas State players say that Snyder's first chore was trying to rebuild a sense of cohesion among splintered groups on the team.
"From the first practice, he got all of us together," senior wide receiver Brandon Banks said. "One of our problems in the past is that different parts didn't know each other very well."
The interaction among the teammates was seen as a way to break down invisible barriers that had existed between offensive and defensive team members.
"After every practice, you have to speak to another guy who's not from your area or your unit," Banks said. "You learn something about others, where they come from and how they've gotten here. We're out doing more activities as a team and it's a good thing because it's building our confidence in our teammates."
The Wildcats' recent demise has come at a time when the conference's North Division has never appeared more wide open. Missouri and Kansas both have developed into consistent North Division challengers, taking advantage of recruiting inroads in Texas high schools where Snyder once regularly plucked unheralded prospects like Michael Bishop.
And key former KSU assistants like Bob Stoops and Mark Mangino now are running their own programs at current Big 12 powers Oklahoma and Kansas. Instead of helping build the Wildcat program this time around, both are entrenched and will be battling against their old boss.
Snyder was known for his legendary work ethic during his first stint with the Wildcats. He often delayed eating dinner until well after midnight when he would grab a quick bite and a couple of hours of sleep before returning to start again the next day.
"I don't think that part of it has changed," Snyder said. "I find myself probably putting in a little bit more time than I might have in previous years, if at all possible. I don't think there are any particular concessions when it relates to effort and work habits and focus.
"There's just an awful lot of stuff that's on the fringe of the football field that takes a little time to develop. It's been well-received by the young people in our program, but it's still a learning process."
His coaching staff is packed with six former members of his staff who have a combined 66 years of experience at KSU. All are familiar with his legendary work ethic and attention to detail.
Kansas State president Jon Wefald, who originally hired Snyder as KSU's coach in 1989, is convinced that Snyder is as driven as he was before his retirement.
"Some people that act like they're 40 are 80," Wefald said at a news conference after Snyder returned. "And some people that act like they're 80 are 40. It is mind over matter. You're talking about
somebody that is in very good physical shape and his mind is sharp as a tack, and he is ready to roll."
But after a few weeks working with his new team in spring practice, Snyder realizes that he still has much immediate work in front of him.
"We'll try to put all the pieces of the puzzle together," Snyder said. "We've got a long way to go. It's just going to take some time. But we knew that when we opened the doors. My concerns probably cover the waterfront. I have concerns about perhaps every facet of our program."