MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Listen to this. No, it won’t sound like much. It might not sound like anything at all. But you are never going to get to the heart of Kansas State football searching for bright lights and loud noises. Listen, because this little exchange, innocuous and commonplace as it may seem, just might hold the secret of Kansas State coach Bill Snyder and how his football team is unbeaten and in the front row of the national championship picture and doing the impossible all over again.
“Just how good is this Kansas State team?” a reporter asked Collin Klein, the quarterback, the Heisman candidate, the leader.
“A little bit better than we were yesterday,” Klein said instantly.
* * *
Bill Snyder’s 16 goals for success.
Goal No. 4: Improve.
In so many ways, “miracle” is a spectacularly defective word choice for Bill Snyder’s body of work. Miracle implies magic. Miracle suggests supernatural. Miracle evokes biblical images of mystical wonders, a sea parting, water turning to wine. These have as much to do with Bill Snyder’s achievements at Kansas State as fruit flies have to do with the making of the iPad Mini.
Of course, you can’t blame everyone for using the word “miracle.” What other word is big enough? What word but miracle can begin to describe Bill Snyder turning the most hopeless football program in America into a national power and then, for emphasis, DOING IT AGAIN? It was inconceivable enough the first time, the beta version, when Kansas State emerged as a national title contender in the late 1990s? But now? In 2012? It’s like “Seinfeld” has returned to being the No. 1 show in America, like people are lining up again to see “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” like Bill Clinton once again rules the land.
Well ... yeah ... the nation does have more than one miracle Bill.
Kansas State was widely acknowledged as the worst Division I college football program in America when Snyder took over as head coach before the 1989 season. The Wildcats had not won a single game in 1988. Or 1987. They’d had eight winless seasons since World War II. They had never won a bowl game. They had lost 63 straight games to ranked teams, going back to 1970. No Kansas State coach had ever escaped the school with a winning record.
“Our goal is to get better every day,” Bill Snyder announced when he was hired.
That’s all he announced. That’s all he ever really announced. Miracles? No one seemed more removed from the concept. Everything with Snyder was gritty realities. He put barbed wire around the practice field to keep away spies and the curious. He scoured the country for agreeable patsies to play early in the season. He recruited the junior colleges like nobody else. When he spoke in public -- which he probably did less than any other college football coach -- he carefully formed his words so they did not distract from the only point. Get better every day. That was all.
In his first year, Kansas State won one game. Improvement. The Wildcats had a winning record in his third year -- just their second winning season in more than 20 years. Kansas State won its first ever bowl game in his fifth year. Kansas State was ranked in the Top 10 two years after that (first time), played on New Year’s Day a year after that (first time), and was a fumble away from the national championship game two years after that (obviously, first time).
Improvement. All the time. Then, one day, the improvement stopped. Well, it couldn’t go on forever, right? In 2003 the Wildcats had their seminal win; they crushed No. 1 Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game. But in 2004 the Wildcats had a losing record, first time in more than a decade. In 2005 they had a losing record again. The thing obviously had run its course. Snyder stepped down. He said he wanted to see his grandchildren play Little League. He wanted to read some books. He wanted to help inspire young people in school. He was 66, and he said it was time.
Three years later, with Kansas State having plunged back in the abyss, he came back.
“Our goal is to get better every day,” Bill Snyder announced.
* * *
Goal No. 9: Eliminate mistakes
This time around, Snyder came into the job armed with a plan. He called the blueprint his “16 goals for success.” He had organized the 16 goals during his time away, a compendium of how to build a flourishing football team. This was holy to him; it was his entire philosophy of football and life broken into 16 pieces. You might ask: Why 16 goals? Why not a round number? Why not a catchier number, say, 11 -- which matches the number of players that each team has on a football field. Why not 20, the number that is called “score?”
Why not? Because there are 16 goals. That’s why not.
Snyder obviously thought about this stuff all the time when he wasn’t coaching. It was an odd thing: Snyder was so much more fun to be around in those years away. You could have long and fascinating conversations with him. He seemed so much more well-rounded. He did go to see those grandkids play sports. He did read some of those books he had been putting off. He did get involved in charities and a statewide mentoring program. Heck, he asked about your family -- not out of obligation but because he was genuinely interested. He told stories, he smiled easily, he talked about history and politics and golf and all sorts of things.
Yes, it was obvious to any of us who knew him: He was absolutely miserable.
Well, if not miserable, he was certainly uneasy. He had, for so long, devoted his life to this larger charge of building football teams. There are two particularly telling anecdotes about Snyder from his first stint as Kansas State coach. The first was about the time that he raged and fumed in ways that seemed all out of proportion because his players had been given sticks of butter at mealtime rather than whipped butter. The second: When Kansas State played Nebraska in Japan, Snyder arranged it so that his players would get the shady side of the plane.
Who thinks like that? He considered and brooded and agonized over every detail. How long will it get from hotel the stadium? About 10 minutes? Are you kidding? He wanted to know precisely. Nine minutes? Eleven? He wanted detailed schematics of the team hotel rooms, precise dimensions of the places where they would meet, street-by-street maps of the cities where his teams played, exact caloric content of the meals his players were eating. He drove his coaches crazy because there seemed no boundaries for his attention to detail, no point too fine to escape his concentration. Those coaching staffs – which at one point included Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops – worked themselves sick.
And Snyder worked harder. His Cadillac DeVille never left that parking spot in front of the football offices -- the joke was that when they repaved that parking lot, they did it AROUND his car. This was a man who ate one meal a day. He never saw “Seinfeld.” He never read for pleasure. He never went to movies, obviously. This was a man who went to a psychologist (or hypnotist, depending on who is telling the story) to ask if it would be possible to live without sleep (rather than the three hours a night he was getting).
A mind like that doesn’t just turn off at retirement. Bill Snyder’s mind did not. He thought about what made his teams so successful. He came up with the 16 goals.
And, at the same time, Kansas State football under coach Ron Prince more or less collapsed. Well, as Tim Fitzgerald -- author, editor, radio host and Kansas State maven -- says: “The boat hadn’t sunk, but it was taking on a lot of water.” The team had back-to-back losing seasons. They gave up 50-plus points four times in 2008 and won just two conference games. They were absolutely destroyed by in-state rival Kansas -- the cardinal sin for Kansas State football.
But the fall was about much more than just losing. Kansas State football -- in ways perhaps unique in America -- belongs to the people. Bill Snyder made that so. Kansas State football became the program of the small Kansas towns, of Cuba and Concordia and Bennington and Minneapolis and Winfield and Clay Center and Smith Center. Kansas State football is the topic in Lori’s Cafe, where truck drivers and farmers eat their pie. Kansas State football is what people talk about at the Braum’s Ice Cream and Dairy near Ike’s hometown of Abilene. Kansas State football is a greeting at the Knute Rockne Memorial, at the service area at milepost 97 off Interstate 70: “How about those Wildcats?”
Prince lost the state. Part of it wasn’t his fault: He wasn’t Bill Snyder. He couldn’t be Bill Snyder. But part of it was his fault. He alienated former players. He distanced himself from some of the biggest fans. He tried all sorts of new-fangled things -- heck, the players stopped bench-pressing in their weight-training program. Just stopped. Bench pressing was supposedly outdated. This had something to do with isometrics or hypertrophy or some fancy word. Nobody really understood what was going on.
Well, the players knew.
“We sucked,” Kansas State wide receiver Chris Harper says plainly. “It was because we didn’t put the work in. Our work ethic sucked. The discipline sucked.”
While Kansas was beating up Kansas State in 2008, a Kansas State graduate ran into Bill Snyder in the press box. The grad had a look of disgust on his face. Snyder pulled him aside. Snyder’s look was granite and will.
Snyder growled: “Look at me. OK? We’re going to turn this around.”
Three weeks later, Bill Snyder became head coach at Kansas State again.
* * *
Bill Snyder’s 16 goals.
Goal No. 11: Don’t accept losing.
Goal No. 13: Expect to win.
The first time around, back in 1989, Bill Snyder’s job was extraordinarily difficult, but it wasn’t complicated. When he walked into the football offices, the first thing he saw was the one trophy Kansas State had earned through the years, the runner-up trophy from the 1982 Independence Bowl.
“Hide that immediately, I don’t want to ever see it again,” he told his secretary Joan Friederich, and she hid it.*
*Friederich still works for Snyder -- she’s now called an administrative assistant, though the job remains the same -- and people around the program say she is the lifeblood of Kansas State football.
Yes, the first time around it was a scorched-earth policy. Hide this. Eliminate that. Destroy the other thing. For the teams’ first weight-training session, Snyder had garbage cans placed at each station. Snyder’s right-hand man Bob Cope made the reason clear: You were to work out until you threw up. And when you threw up, you would use the receptacles. By the first game, so many Kansas State players had quit that there were not enough scholarship players to fill the bus. Snyder’s response: “Well, it was a cheap trip.”
When Kansas State almost beat Northern Iowa that first year, a lot of fans felt pretty good about that. When Kansas State beat North Texas -- the Wildcats’ first win in 31 games -- the students tore down the goal posts. Snyder was apoplectic. Oh, he understood that fans were trying to enjoy these small steps. But he saw what this team was facing: Losing wasn’t a habit. It was a state of mind.
Snyder had to break everyone of that -- fans, media, students, players, coaches, administrators, everyone. So he NEVER celebrated a victory. Quite the opposite: Victories seemed to bring out his most irritable side. He almost never praised anyone after victories. And he thundered at any question or statement that gave his team credit for coming close but falling short. “Your team didn’t quit,” one reporter pointed out after a game, leading Snyder to bark perhaps his best quote: “They don’t let you quit.”
That’s how it was the first time around. But the second time, it was very different. Yes, Kansas State had fallen on some hard times. Yes, relationships needed repair, and some basics needed to be reestablished, some habits needed to be broken.
But the challenge was much more complex. The “accept losing” problem had more or less dissipated. This generation of Kansas State fans was not going to tear down goalposts for getting a victory over North Texas ... or Texas ... or really anybody. There would be no parades thrown for “also receiving votes” in the national rankings. Heck, so many of the people around the program were much too young to remember when Kansas State was on the bottom of the college football world.
This time, people wanted Snyder to do what he had already done once. Make Kansas State great again.
It was like people from the Sistine Chapel going to Michelangelo and saying, “Hey, you know, we have some ceiling space in the atrium we’d love for you to look at.”
* * *
Goal No. 2: Unselfishness
Goal No. 3: Unity
Goal No. 12: No self-limitations
At the press conference when Kansas State hired Bill Snyder in November 2008, there was a bizarre sequence. Athletic director Bob Krause began his introduction by saying that the Wildcats were looking for three characteristics in their new coach:
1. A winning track record.
2. Stature to build a good coaching staff.
3. Must understand the Kansas State culture.
At that point, Krause announced that they had found a man with those three qualities ... and it just so happened to be Bill Snyder. I found myself looking around the room to see if this bit made sense to anyone else. We were sitting in a stadium that had been named for Bill Snyder and his family. To get there, we had driven on a highway that had been named for Bill Snyder. A winning track record? Must understand the culture? This seemed to me like Commissioner Gordon holding a press conference to say they had been looking for a superhero who had a car, boat and utility belt shaped like a bat, and it just so happened that Batman met those qualifications.
But, the scene is a good reminder: There was a lot of skepticism about Kansas State rehiring Bill Snyder. It was really almost all skepticism. Snyder was 69 years old. The college football landscape was very different from when he had last coached. Could Snyder adjust to a Big 12 conference that had become this wide-open passing league? Could Kansas State regain its recruiting base against powerhouse Oklahoma and Texas and Arkansas and Nebraska teams? Plus, no one could forget that Snyder’s last two years had been a real struggle.
Snyder himself did not worry about such things. He was reenergized. His hypersensitivity to detail was tingling again. He was armed with his 16 goals for success and a sense of purpose. The Cadillac (now an Escalade) was back in its parking spot. He made his son, Sean, associate head coach, and he brought back his old friend Dana Dimel to help run the offense, and some former players like Mo Latimore and Michael Smith and Joe Bob Clements to help reestablish the Kansas State standards. Everything returned to old. Sundays were for study, Mondays were for meetings, Tuesdays for ferocious practices, Wednesdays for players running the stairs if they missed a class.
Every day, Snyder hammered home the same concepts he always had. Now, though, they had a name. They were the 16 goals for success. Commitment. Unselfishness. Unity. Improvement. Toughness. Discipline. Effort. Enthusiasm. Vigilance. Persistence. Optimism. Ambition. Expectation. Consistency. Leadership. Responsibility.
“It’s not like he uses the numbers of the 16 goals or anything,” Kansas State receiver Curry Sexton says. “I mean he talks about them all the time. But it’s not like he says something like: ‘OK, today we’re talking about No. 9, eliminating mistakes.’ It’s not that official.”
Maybe not. But it’s worth noting that Goal No. 9 on Bill Snyder’s 16 goals of success is indeed “eliminating mistakes,” and Curry Sexton knew that instinctively.
* * *
Goal No. 14: Consistency.
Curry Sexton is one of those small-town Kansas kids, son of a farmer, who grew up with Wildcats’ football being at the very height of his imagination. He knew all the names, memorized all the plays, imagined himself on the field on Saturdays and, of course, idolized Bill Snyder. Now, he’s there, playing for Bill Snyder.
“Yeah, it’s different from what I thought,” he says. “It’s always different on the inside. It’s amazing to see how his mind works.... He’s just so consistent. He is exactly the same all the time. You never go into any situation wondering what’s going to happen. You know. If it’s Monday, you do this. If it’s Friday, you do this. That’s a big thing.”
Snyder’s consistency unquestionably brings players together. Perhaps the greatest mystery about this year’s Kansas State team -- and Snyder’s success as a whole -- is how a hodgepodge of junior college players, transfers and overlooked prospects from 20 different states could come together in Manhattan and become one of America’s best teams. It’s instructive to look at Kansas State’s best players.
Leading rusher: John Hubert, a 5-foot-7 powerhouse who scored 41 touchdowns as a senior in high school but was thought by many to be too small to be a Division-I back.
Leading receiver: Chris Harper, a transfer from Oregon who has already graduated.
Leading tackler: Arthur Brown, an All-America candidate who transferred from Miami to get closer to home (he’s from Wichita, Kan.) and to play for Snyder.
Leader in tackles for loss: Adam Davis, a junior college star from Folkston, Ga. who had to sit out a year with a serious back injury that many thought would end his playing career.
Other stars include linebacker Justin Tuggle (who was a quarterback at Boston College), defensive back Nigel Malone (a junior college transfer) and center B.J. Finney (a former walk-on from Andale, Kan).
Well, you could keep on going down the list. This isn’t a myth. Kansas State really is a team of junior college players, transfers and overlooked recruits. Even the team’s biggest star and Heisman candidate, quarterback Collin Klein, a Ron Prince signing, was lightly recruited out of Colorado and began his career at Kansas State as a special teams player and wide receiver.
So, how does this bunch go into Oklahoma and beat a team some thought the most talented non-Alabama team in America? How does this bunch hold on at Iowa State and then go to West Virginia and crush the Mountaineers? How do they all come together?
“Consistency is really big,” Sexton says. “But it’s a lot of things.” Of course. At least 16.
* * *
Goal No. 16: Responsibility.
Everybody who has ever been around Kansas State football even for a few days knows Robert Lipson. He went to Kansas State in the early 1970s. And, since then, he has never missed a Kansas State conference road game. Not one. His passed 150 straight games sometime last year. He’s always around -- ALWAYS around -- and he’s been written about a lot and talked about a lot and, to be honest, avoided a lot too. Robert will talk your ear off if you let him.
The college football world, though, played a cruel trick on Robert Lipson. When he started this crazy streak, Kansas State was in the Big 8, so none of the road trips were especially daunting. The longest drive was to Colorado -- every bit of eight hours. But the trip to Lincoln, Neb.; Lawrence, Kan.; Norman, Okla.; Columbia, Mo.; even Ames, Iowa -- these really weren’t too bad.
Well, then the Big 8 became the Big 12, and suddenly Austin and Waco were on the schedule. Those required longer drives. And then, the Big 12 blew up. This is what led Robert Lipson to figure out a way to get from Manhattan to Morgantown, W.Va. (“There’s no good way,” Snyder says). That’s 16-plus hours of driving, if you’re scoring at home. Robert somehow beat Kansas State to the team hotel at West Virginia.
“Robert probably has the first car ever made,” Snyder says, a joke, but he’s not really joking. His eyes (could this be?) are a bit teary. He’s talking about what Kansas State football means to people. Robert is unique, but he’s also representative. “Young people, all of us, myself included, we need to have a great appreciation for that, for someone who shows that kind of passion, who makes those kind of sacrifices,” Snyder says.
It’s no wonder that the last of the 16 goals is responsibility. It’s the biggest word for Snyder. Kansas State doesn’t play cutting-edge football. The quarterback draw has been Snyder’s favorite play since he had a Heisman finalist named Michael Bishop at quarterback. It’s his favorite play now too. Kansas State’s defense doesn’t trick the game up with a lot of blitzes and different formations. Snyder has watched more film than any coach east of Belichick the last 20 years, but watching all that film has convinced him that it isn’t the scheme, it’s how well you play the game.
And that’s about responsibility. First, there’s responsibility on the field -- staying in your lane, finishing your block, picking up the blitz, catching the ball in traffic and all that. Second, there’s being responsible for yourself off the field -- staying out of trouble, going to class, studying for tests, preparing for games, all those things.
But for Snyder, the word mostly means being responsible to OTHERS. He talks at length to his players about Robert Lipson driving across the country in the first car ever made to see them play. He talks at length about the people across the state of Kansas who work hard all week and look forward to watching them play on Saturdays. He talks at length about how every player in that room ended up in Manhattan, Kan., for a reason, and they owe something to each other.
“He knows,” Chris Harper says. “When you play for each other, you play hard.”
* * *
They call Collin Klein, “Little Bill.” He is so much like his coach. He speaks earnestly and in clichés. He avoids controversy like poison ivy. He deflects praise, embraces blame and has already graduated. He just got married. He is -- and this is said by everyone from his coaches to his teammates -- the kind of person you would hope your son would become.
It’s an odd thing to hear TEAMMATES say that sort of thing about someone.
“Collin is just one of those people who you look up to,” Sexton says.
He’s also the Heisman frontrunner, at least for this week. How’s he handling it? One thing we people in the media love to do is ask people how they are dealing with “the media.” Klein admits that with Twitter and 24-hour sports television and radio and all that, he is aware of some of the hype.
But he isn’t thinking about it. Lots of people say that. But it’s easy to believe Klein. He says that after all these years, he hears Bill Snyder’s voice in his head. It’s that voice that tells him to not get caught up in hype, that tells him to study carefully that Texas Tech defense, that reminds him to constantly keep two hands on the football when in the pocket.
“Just how good is this Kansas State team?” Klein is asked. This is an easy one. He doesn't even need to wait for Snyder's voice in his head.
“A little bit better than we were yesterday,” he says without a second’s hesitation.
Well it’s the truth. And it’s what matters. At some point earlier this year, a reporter was curious, and he asked Collin Klein if he could actually name Snyder’s 16 goals for success. Klein smiled. He asked back: “Do you want them in numerical or alphabetical order?”