Bill Snyder’s college coaching debut came three years before we landed on the moon. The president was Lyndon B. Johnson. A gallon of gas cost $0.32. The Beatles, in the words of the late John Lennon, were "more popular than Jesus."
Steve Spurrier, quarterback of the Florida Gators, kicked—yes, kicked—a game-winning 40-yard field goal against Auburn. Weeks later, he won the Heisman. Gus Malzahn, the coach for whom Snyder is currently spending elongated hours game-planning, celebrated his first birthday. It was 1966.
In football, time is insurmountable. It is unbowed. It is a relentless brute that will eventually conquer every player or coach in some capacity, no matter what kind of fight they are able to put up. And yet, in the instance of the 74-year-old Snyder—a throwback in every sense of the word—time has seemingly met its match.
Like a wizard working on variations of spells and acquiring newfangled tricks with his wand, the coach who brought Kansas State back from the dead, retired and then returned to do it again is truly one of a kind.
The man loves football. He eats one meal a day, mainly because it gets in the way of football, refuses to take lunch breaks and still works 18-hour days. When asked a matchup-centric question, you can hear his voice break its normal methodical pace ever so slightly. Even after talking about various ways to start and stop an offense over 50 years, he still seems to genuinely enjoy the long hours and incredible challenges.
His style is anything but orthodox. From his eating habits to variations of the wishbone and beyond to his persistent and unmistakable JUCO recruiting efforts, his impact on the sport he has nurtured will be evident Thursday when Auburn comes to town. And when it comes to embracing challenges, there are few as daunting as this one.
Led by 48-year-old Malzahn, Auburn will be operating with its unique offense led by Nick Marshall, a former JUCO quarterback whom Snyder desperately tried to lure to Manhattan, Kansas, when he excelled at Garden City (Kansas) Community College.
The plan is familiar and diabolical, a page out of one of many of Snyder’s books, with slight variations here and there. The awareness of it all won’t make it any easier to slow down, which is why Kansas State has been deemed a nine-point home underdog, according to Odds Shark.
"We don’t have the personnel to emulate the speed, the quickness, the strength and the size that they present," an honest Snyder said this week while assessing how the Wildcats planned to prepare.
But if there is anyone equipped to slow down Auburn—a powerful blur that hasn’t lost against the spread in a full calendar year and was a minute away from a national championship just eight months ago—Snyder, with his walking encyclopedia of football knowledge and his own bag of tricks, has as good a chance as anyone of derailing the train he helped assemble.
A Brief History Lesson: Six Decades of Success
"There is only one school in the nation that has lost 500 games," Bill Snyder said when he landed the Kansas State job in 1989. ''This is it, and I get to coach it."
Sports Illustrated crowned Kansas State "Futility U" when Snyder, after 23 years of bouncing around as an assistant, finally landed his first college head coaching job in Manhattan. After a stint at North Texas, Snyder migrated north to Iowa, where he served as the offensive coordinator under the legendary Hayden Fry. It was here that his stock began to rise, and Kansas State—in search of football CPR—tapped the 50-year-old to be its next head coach.
At the time Sports Illustrated posted its piece, Kansas State had gone 0-26-1 over its past 27 games. Dating back to 1934, the team had gone to one bowl game. Perhaps even more staggering, the Wildcats had just two winning seasons over the previous 34 years.
While the story was nuclear in nature, it was also deadly accurate. Given Snyder’s overall lack of head coaching experience, expectations were minimal, just like they were for the coaches who came in and failed before him.
But then, without warning, the team started to win. In 1990, just two years after he took over, the Wildcats won five games. The following season, they won seven. In 1993, they won nine. By 1995, Kansas State was rolling.
Less than a decade after taking over a so-called "dead" program, Snyder led Kansas State to an undefeated regular season in 1998 in which they were they voted the No. 1 team in the country.
|Kansas State Season Results (1985-2000)|
|Kansas State Athletics|
Barry Switzer, one of the greatest college football coaches to ever walk this earth, had this to say about Snyder to Tim Layden in a Sports Illustrated piece published in 1998: "Bill Snyder isn't the coach of the year, and he isn't the coach of the decade. He's the coach of the century."
In 2005, Snyder retired from the job after two average seasons, at least by these newfound standards. In 2009, he returned—a move that’s hard to compute given the bridge-burning nature of the business—and led K-State to a 10-win season after only two years. Three years after his return, the Wildcats made a BCS bowl.
In 2013, Snyder, at the age of 73, inked a five-year contract extension to remain with the program. For anyone else, it would have seemed like an absurd bit of business to give a man in his mid-70s a long-term contract.
For Kansas State, it was a no-brainer.
Game Week: Inside the Mind of a Football Wizard
When asked how he plans to slow down Auburn’s offense, Snyder, seated comfortably in his element, his hands locked together, couldn’t help but laugh. It didn’t come across as nervous or anxious, but rather as an honest response to the task ahead.
"You can take your pick," Snyder said. "It’s kind of like throwing at a dart board."
Snyder is back to the chalkboard again, the place where he seems most at home. This is his comfort zone. It’s as if he’s testing his game plan out in the open, just to see how it sounds. He is light on cliches and the obvious, instead throwing out meaty fillets for those who crave X's and O's in their football conversations.
"They have a lot more offense than what people might indicate," Snyder said. "They can do a lot of different things in a lot of different ways. And it’s not just the zone read."
He breaks from Auburn. Someone has asked a question regarding Kansas State’s special teams, and he wasted little time diving headfirst into a response. Over the next few minutes, Snyder provided a crash course on the matter, giving enough material for a chapter in a book. His philosophical approach had a philosophical sound bite to back it up.
"We never step away from its value," Snyder said as the room processed the special teams lesson it just unexpectedly received.
You can see his brain calculate—sharp as ever—as he recalls certain plays, film or players while making comparisons. And with his soothing and unwavering tone, you get a sense that you should be writing all of this down for more than just a quote in a story.
With chaos sweeping into town in the form of the nation’s hottest football program, no human being should be this calm, especially one who is expected to lead a roster composed of about 50 percent walk-ons.
But then you remember everything he’s been through—the unthinkable practice hours and film sessions, critical game scenarios and expectation-less times from a different era—and you realize that Auburn really isn’t all that daunting in terms of the bigger picture. It’s just the next game for a coach who has always been about the next game.
Getting the team to acquire this same mindset is a different matter entirely. It’s also a challenge he’s embracing.
"Their focus has been on the moment, whatever that happens to be. Yesterday it was on yesterday, and today it’s on today," Snyder said. "I’d like to think that they’re enthused about the opportunity and the challenge that lies in front of them, but if you get caught up too much in Thursday night you’re probably not taking care of Monday."
It comes down to the preparation. But it also comes down to balancing confidence—some might even call it arrogance—with just the right amount of nerves to carry you through an abbreviated game week.
"Any football coach in the country wants his players to honestly—and 'honestly' is a valuable word—believe that they will win and can win," Snyder said. "You can expect to win and should have that attitude if you prepare yourself."
Snyder, hands still overlapping, voice unwavering, is back in his comfort zone, comparing Auburn’s offense to ones he’s schemed against and even coached.
He highlights the wishbone and how it has advanced. He also mentions Ell Roberson and Michael Bishop—two quarterbacks he coached more than a decade ago—while searching for the appropriate comparison to Nick Marshall. It comes off as natural and familiar, as if he coached these players yesterday.
The conversation comes full circle, and Snyder provides his own state-of-the-offense assessment of what his team will face Thursday and beyond.
"Football evolves," Snyder said. "Whatever it was will reinvent itself and be back again."
No one would know better. After all, college football’s greatest active historian and walking wizard has reinvented his program—and himself—time and time again.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.