Commentary

Bill Snyder bridges generation gap

Originally Published: October 28, 2011
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Bill Snyder said he hasn't changed. He is the same person, the same demanding head coach, as in his first tenure at Kansas State. He arrived in 1989 and all he did was raise the Wildcats from the dead. Snyder won 136 games in 17 seasons. That's the same number of victories the 15 coaches preceding him won collectively dating to 1935.

Snyder did it with a work ethic borrowed from the Depression, an attention to detail borrowed from the Marines, and a persona borrowed from the Sahara Desert: dry, unyielding, humorless. Snyder, as Tim Layden profiled him in Sports Illustrated in 1998, ate one meal a day. He preferred to work through lunch, and liked that so much, he worked through dinner, too.

[+] EnlargeBill Snyder
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesBill Snyder has led the Wildcats to a 7-0 start.

In his last two seasons, 2004 and 2005, Snyder went 4-7 and 5-6. He was 66 years old. He was done. Kansas State named its stadium after him. Snyder insisted it be named the Bill Snyder Family Stadium. He wanted to honor the blood relatives who had sacrificed so much as he worked. He wanted to honor the coaches, players, staff and fans who made the Wildcats matter again.

"I learned that life after football really can be pretty good," Snyder said in a phone interview Wednesday night.

Snyder said that three years into his second tenure at Kansas State. His team plays in the stadium with his name on it. The Wildcats are an unexpected 7-0 with No. 9 Oklahoma coming to Manhattan, Kan.

His successor, Ron Prince, couldn't rise above mediocrity. Once upon a time, Kansas State yearned for mediocrity. Snyder changed the standard. Kansas State ran Prince off after three years and brought Snyder back for the 2009 season. Life after football, as pretty good as it was, didn't measure up to what Snyder missed.

He missed working with his players. When Snyder ticks off the qualities he likes in his team, he sounds as if he's coaching BSA, as in the Boy Scouts of America, not KSU.

"It's just a bunch of young guys, no real standout individuals," Snyder said, "guys that play together, care about each other, work pretty hard and try to do the right things. I think they play with discipline -- most of the time, not always. They're pretty good about not beating themselves."

The scoutmaster of Troop 7-0 has been teaching those values his entire professional career.

"That's what our program has really always been about," Snyder said, "just the intrinsic values -- responsibility and accountability and discipline and toughness and hard work and caring about each other and appropriate attitudes -- all those things that we would teach our children."

Snyder is 72 years old, old enough that he refers to his players as "youngsters," a word that I'm guessing has never been uttered on MTV. He says he is doing things the way he has always done them.

And how is that? Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema worked as co-defensive coordinator for Snyder in 2002-03.

"He's a detail guy," Bielema said on the Oct. 11 ESPNU College Football podcast. "I remember, we were sitting in a staff meeting in my first year with him. We were going through the coaching manual, and he was teaching us how to shave. I'm like, 'This guy's got some detail to him.'"

No, really.

"He was going over office policy," Bielema said. "'You've got to wear a collared shirt. I want you to wear dress shoes. Of course, I want you to shave every day. But if you left in the morning and you haven't shaved, there are disposable razors for you to use in the locker room at the noon hour.' And he basically recommended using an upward stroke instead of a downward stroke because sometimes the razors weren't all that good. I love it, because that is vintage Bill Snyder, a guy I love every day because of it."

[+] EnlargeTate and Bill Snyder
Scott Weaver/K-State Athletics Communications Snyder's grandson, Tate, is following in his father's and grandfather's footsteps.

Snyder's son Sean, an All-America punter for Kansas State in his father's first tenure and now an assistant on the Wildcats' staff, said his father has not changed in how he deals with the coaches, staff or players. But Sean does detect something in his father's approach to the public since he returned from his retirement (sabbatical?).

"Maybe he's just a little softer with his direction or his tone," Sean said. "… He's not had the rigors of it on a day-to-day basis for a little while. He got a chance to rest, got his wheels back underneath and got going. I guess everything has kind of been refreshed."

Bill Snyder professes not to know.

"I really don't see myself necessarily as being a great deal different," Snyder said. "That's fully a perception on my part. I think it would be how [others] actually see me and I haven't asked any of our people here. I might not want to hear the answer."

That's it right there. Snyder cracked a joke. Actually, that's the second level of openness. The first is that he consented to the phone interview at all. This from a coach who, in 1998, made his Heisman candidate of a quarterback, Michael Bishop, unavailable for interviews after Bishop led Kansas State to a 40-30 defeat of Nebraska, its first victory over the Huskers in 30 years.

"I don't feel tremendously different," Snyder said. "That's what 72 years will do to you. Make you not quite aware of how you are as opposed to how you used to be."

He also is aware that most of his current squad came into this world after Snyder first arrived at Kansas State. The kids have changed, he said. His message to them has not. He went over it Wednesday night.

"'If you genuinely care," Snyder said, "if you're a good person, if this is important to you, if you have discipline about yourself, if you're a responsible person, if you're a hardworking person, and you're a respectful person, then you and I will have no generation gap whatsoever. We'll get along absolutely great. If you don't possess those values, then we're going to have a problem regardless of whether the separation is 50 years or five."

And when I repeated Bielema's recollection to Snyder, he erupted with laughter. No, really.

"I think he was telling you a story," Snyder said between guffaws. "I'm not sure there's much truth to that."

It was good to hear him laugh.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com