By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Kansas State coach Bill Snyder’s name is not up there in the public consciousness with Rockne, Bryant, Wilkinson, Parseghian, Hayes, Schembechler and Saban, but you can make a case that it should be.
If you take time to study the man, the coach, the job he has done and the influence he has had on college football, it is difficult to deny his place among the coaching deities.
You will get a chance to judge for yourself at 7 p.m. this Saturday when he brings his unbeaten, No. 4 Wildcats to Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium for the first time, coaching a huge game for his team while his opposite number, Dana Holgorsen, will be coaching a do-or-die game on his sideline.
The contrasts between the two coaches and their beliefs are striking. Holgorsen is the young turk at 40, Snyder a pre-World War II baby at 73. Holgorsen plays a wide-open, mile-a-minute passing game out of what’s known as the Air Raid attack, while Snyder is more conservative, coaching a spread option game that leans on ball control and defense.
Which is right? Maybe both.
“Do I think there are schemes out there that are better than others?” Holgorsen said, repeating a question. “Yes, because that is what we are doing. Does that mean in reality, our scheme is better than somebody else’s scheme? No.”
Holgorsen said it comes down to what fits you individually.
“You have to believe in something and commit to something and you have to do it,” he said. “The people who are not successful are the people that try to semi-commit to one scheme and semi-commit to another scheme and kind of mold everything together. That doesn’t typically work.”
That is not what Holgorsen has done, and it isn’t what Snyder has done, either. He is just a product of a different era than Holgorsen, has a different mindset on how he wants to play the game.
“When you believe in something, you just stick to it and do it, and you typically get pretty good at it,” Holgorsen said. “Then it is about getting players that fit it, getting players that understand it, getting players that get in position to make plays and they do. There is a whole bunch of stuff that goes into winning a football game other then what the scheme is.”
So it is that both could be right. Holgorsen, however, is still in a formative stage of his head coaching career, Snyder has proven his theories.
o o o o o o
Raised by his mother, Snyder attended tiny William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., Missouri, and obtained a master’s degree from Eastern New Mexico University in 1965. He went west, working as a graduate assistant at Southern Cal, then became a high school coach in California, meeting up with Hayden Fry at North Texas State in the mid-1970s and accompanying him to Iowa, where he was offensive coordinator until Kansas State hired him after the 1988 season.
There are those who might not necessarily consider that a promotion.
Kansas State was the worst team in college football.
Before his first year at K-State, Sports Illustrated did an article on the school entitled “Futility U” and called it “America’s most hapless team.”
Why not? Kansas State had lost 26 of the previous 27 games it had played when Snyder was hired.
The other game? A tie.
From 1938 to 1988, when he was hired, the Wildcats had just 130 wins in 51 seasons. It had not won a conference title since 1934 and had been to one bowl game in its history, the 1982 Independence Bowl.
Snyder walking into a graveyard of coaches, but he would not accept it. He had known winning under Fry, had his own ideas and was not only a motivator of young men but imaginative in his approach to offensive football.
The turnaround was difficult. There was only one win the first season, that over North Texas State on a TD pass on the final play of the game.
Snyder won five games his second year and then, in 1991, went 7-4, just the second winning season for Kansas State since 1970.
In 1993, the Wildcats played in a bowl game and scored their first bowl victory to make themselves Copper Bowl champions. At K-State you’d have thought they won the Rose Bowl.
Soon going a bowl became a habit, playing in 11 in a row.
More important than that, winning became a habit, and in 1998 Kansas State went 11-0 and had a No. 1 ranking, a decade after it had been dubbed “Futility U.”
In 2003, it won the Big 12 title, beating No. 1 Oklahoma, a team many “experts” were calling the best team the Sooners ever had, 35-7, in the championship game.
Barry Switzer, Oklahoma’s Hall of Fame coach, was so impressed with the way Snyder built the Wildcats into national contenders, he was moved to say:
“He’s not the coach of the year; he’s not the coach of the decade; he’s the coach of the century.”
When two down seasons followed, Snyder decided he would retire, Ron Prince being named to replace him.
o o o o o o
There was only one problem.
No, make that two problems.
The team slid badly under Prince, and Snyder, being somewhat of an obsessive and tense person, could not exist in retirement.
He came back, and here we are again, K-State a dominant force in the Big 12, the only unbeaten left, already owning a victory over Oklahoma.
He goes at it the same way, pressing for perfection to the point that some are critical of the way he goes after it. One who isn’t critical is his quarterback, Collin Klein, who this summer said, “He’s a perfectionist. When did that become such a bad thing?”
o o o o o o
So what is this spread option thing that Snyder runs?
At West Virginia, you ought to be used to it since it’s pretty much the same stuff Rich Rodriguez ran here with Pat White and Steve Slaton.
In fact, Rodriguez and Snyder are closely connected when it comes to the development of this offense that has spread over the years and now is run in some form or another by former Snyder assistant Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and Snyder protégé Urban Meyer at Ohio State.
One might recall that Stoops and Meyer, then at Florida, met in the 2009 national championship game running this same offense, Meyer being responsible for the phenomena that built up around a quarterback named Tim Tebow.
Rodriguez is generally credited with inventing the zone read play out of the shotgun formation, but it is really hazy. Certainly, Rodriguez found a way to take the wishbone and its option principals that included the zone read and combining a passing offense with it.
However, Snyder was developing the zone-read philosophy with his quarterback, Michael Bishop, in the late 1990s and it well could have been that it arrived at the same place quite independently.
Not that it matters how it evolved, but today you see Rodriguez running a form of it in its most modern form along with Meyer, Stoops, Oregon coach Chip Kelly and, of course, Snyder.
Interestingly enough, there were all those years when teams would come into Mountaineer Field and have to solve the spread option as Rodriguez ran it and now the home team has got to find a way to stop Snyder’s version of it in maybe the most important game played at Mountaineer Field since Pitt figured out a solution and beat Rodriguez in 2007.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.