Let me tell you my favorite Bill Snyder story. It’s my favorite because it involves a good friend of mine, Michael Orr, who played for Kansas State in 1989, Snyder’s first year. Michael went to play football at Kansas State when the program was nothing. Less than nothing. They had played in their only bowl game in 1982 (a 14-3 Independence Bowl loss to Wisconsin) and had promptly won 3, 3, 1, 2, 0 and 0 games the next six years. Even Charles Barkley couldn’t say “terrible” with enough oomph to express Kansas State football.
Orr redshirted his freshman year in 1988, the year before Snyder arrived, and he saw some amazing things. He watched Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders run for 320 yards and three touchdowns in what amounted to his Heisman announcement. He sat to the side with the other redshirts when a huge fight broke out in the locker room.
“What were you guys doing?” I often ask Michael.
“You know,” he says, “discussing where we would be transferring.”
And -- my favorite -- he was on the sidelines when Kansas State scored late in the game to take the lead in the final minutes against Tulane. This seemed to be the moment when the Wildcats would break an 18-game winless streak, and everyone was celebrating on the sidelines. Everyone. Really. Everyone. Michael looked up from the celebration and saw that among the celebrators were the Kansas State DEFENSIVE COACHES, who had come down from the press box to join in. Unfortunately the game was still going, Tulane rushed down the field and scored, and Kansas State lost again.
So why did Michael go to Kansas State? And why did he stay? Well, the answer is at the heart of the story. See, Michael is from Paola, a small Kansas town some 45 miles southwest of Kansas City. There are hundreds of Paolas around Kansas -- smaller and more remote the further west you go -- and unless you've been around these small towns a lot, it’s hard to quite grasp what Kansas State means.
See, nobody is saying that Kansas people love Kansas State MORE than Alabama fans love Alabama or Michigan fans love Michigan or Texas fans love Texas. It would be ridiculous to say that. It’s just ... different. It has something to do with autumns in the heartland. The days can feel exactly the same in Kansas, one looking a whole lot like the next for weeks and months at a time. The days can be flat, that cold wind blows, the sky is the color of skim milk. The days blend together and creep along, two-lane highways behind slow-moving trucks. Everything looks dead. The eye searches for some sort of color in the grayness.
The color is what college football can be. No, not every place is full of history and passion like Alabama. Not every team can light up the sky with incandescent uniforms and score every 1.4 seconds like Oregon. Not every team plays for national titles under the watchful eye of Touchdown Jesus like Notre Dame.
But for every team, at every level, there’s this unspoken hope. That’s what makes college football great, beyond the cheating that many assume is happening, beyond the academic facade that so many schools hold up, beyond the way the game is tossed back and forth between big money and television and the bowls. There’s this unspoken hope that a bunch of kids can come together, work harder than others, play sounder than others, get luckier than others and do something magical, something that brings the whole state together.
Kansas State is completely, utterly and entirely self-made. It is a program with no advantages. Kansas is much too small a state to sustain the football recruiting of one major Division I program, and the state has two of them. The television market is tiny. There's no easy way to get to Manhattan, Kan., and no particular reason why you would just end up there. When Bill Snyder took over, the school was widely acknowledged as the worst in Division I college football, and had been for a half century. But, even more telling, that's EXACTLY what you would have expected it to be.
Michael remembered those first workouts, with the garbage cans next to the weight machines for when they threw up. He remembered Snyder telling them again and again that he would make no promises to them except the only one that mattered: They would get better every day. There was something sturdy and consistent about the man. Things began to change.
The story: Michael had come to Kansas State to be a tight end. He liked catching the ball. One day Snyder called Michael into the office and said that Michael was much better suited to be a left tackle. Michael was taken aback -- as mentioned, he liked catching the ball.
“It’s your choice,” Snyder said. “But we feel like you would help the team more as a left tackle.”
“Coach,” Michael said, “I would really like to try and be a tight end.”
“I understand, Michael,” Snyder said. “Like I said, it’s your choice.”
Orr was the third-string tight end. The next day he came to practice ... he was listed fourth string. The day after that, he was listed fifth string. And the day after that he was sixth string, and the team had only five tight ends.
“Coach,” Michael said as he came into Snyder’s office. “I’ve decided I want to be a left tackle.”
“I’m very glad to hear you make that decision,” Snyder said.
There are many reasons why I love that story -- for one, it has a happy ending, Michael ended up a very solid left tackle, and he’s gone on to a happy life as a husband, father and educator. For another, it gets at the heart of how Bill Snyder’s mind works. The ‘“I’m very glad to hear you make that decision,” line -- given without even a hint of a smile -- is probably the most telling one I’ve ever heard about the man who led the greatest turnaround in college football history and then, what the heck, did it again.
But there’s something else: Bill Snyder simply refused to allow Michael Orr to be ordinary. He has refused to allow Kansas State football to be ordinary. This Kansas State team isn’t made up of the big-time recruits at Alabama or Notre Dame or Oregon. It’s a collection of transfers and junior college players and overlooked prospects. It’s a fusion of players from 20-plus states, all over the country, meeting in a small town plopped in the middle of America ... and all of them are playing for themselves, of course, and each other, of course, but also for farmers and truck drivers and teachers and entrepreneurs and restaurant owners and bankers and secretaries and inventors and thousands of others in little places that the players will never see.
That’s at the heart of college football. That Alabama team is extraordinary, and that Oregon team is electrifying and that Notre Dame team has leprechauns protecting it at every turn. But Kansas State is what this thing is all about. I know college football has become about imaginary games being played between these undefeated teams and how experts or computer programs or coaches believe they would turn out. That’s a shame, though. Kansas State is not flashy enough, glitzy enough, celebrated enough or historic enough to win those imaginary games.
But they aren’t really much interested in imaginary games in the middle of Kansas anyway. Kansas State football isn’t about imagination. Kansas State football is all about reality ... and bending it. I once asked Snyder about Michael Orr’s story. He did smile that time, and he said, “Michael just needed a little help to see it.”