When Bill Snyder arrived in Manhattan in the winter of 1988, he knew Kansas State was in trouble.
The K-State football team had lost 26 of its last 27 games, and hadn’t won a game since Oct. 18 of the 1986 season.
Snyder knew something had to change, but even he admitted Monday that he wasn’t sure what would work.
“I found out that we were in some serious trouble,” Snyder said during K-State’s media day. “When I came, we had 47 young people on scholarship, that’s when you could have 95 — we were less than 50 percent — that’s the lowest scholarship count in the history of college football, and we had lost more football games than any program in the history of college football — the only program at that time that had exceeded 500 losses.”
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby remembers those days as well, when he was the athletic director at Northern Iowa and his school marched out of Manhattan with a 10-8 victory in 1989. Bowlsby said there is no comparison between the Wildcats back then and where the program is today.
“It’s almost impossible to know where to start,” he said Monday during media days at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. “The football stadium was old and there weren’t many people in the stands. And the football team wasn’t very good. That, I think, is where Ground Zero is, or where the bedrock is. It was not a good situation, and now it is. I don’t think you can look any further than Bill Snyder’s contribution to it.”
Snyder’s solution, early on, was to setup a meeting with the outgoing seniors of the 1988 team, to get a grasp on the feeling of players within the team, and to make sure they knew they would always be a part of the program going forward.
What he learned, instead, was the deep embarrassment that had developed among football players at K-State. There was no going to Aggieville with classmates on the weekends, no wearing your letterman’s jacket, and no going to class the Monday after games.
The losses went beyond just embarrassment, though, affecting some of the young men at their core, well past the usual mental wear and tear that could go away with time.
“There was a young guy in our program who tried to take his life during that period of time — it had such an impact on him,” Snyder said. “Somebody told me about him, and I was able to find him. I didn’t know my way around here and it was out by the lake, off in one of those little park areas. I went out and found him and he was sitting in his car and he had the hose wrapped around from the exhaust into the automobile and sitting there just getting ready to give his life up.
“And that… that really had an impact on me, all of it did. To think that this silly game that we play has that kind of an impact on the life of young people — I just got a call from that young person who is doing extremely well right now, and so many of the others who have gone on and been able to have quality lives there after. It was very dramatic, and I will never forget those things.”
Now 170 wins, two Big 12 championships and 14 bowl games later, Snyder has created an expectation to win and a family atmosphere within his program marked with far more pride and happiness today than the despair and embarrassment that haunted K-State in the late 1980s.
Fresh off the program’s second Big 12 title, the Wildcats are hoping to continue the momentum created since Snyder’s return to the sidelines in 2009. Secondly, they hope to avoid the letdowns of the 2004 and 2005 seasons that followed the program’s first Big 12 title in 2003.
So far, Snyder said he hasn’t seen any signs that the team will take for granted the results of last season.
“I don’t think that they’ve collectively given me a particular reason to believe that they’ve taken the upcoming season or their performance, their preparation for granted,” he said. “Probably the best way to define that will be after we’ve had a chance to get on the field and compete.”
Perhaps the biggest storyline surrounding the Wildcats this fall rests at the quarterback position. Will it be sophomore Daniel Sams or junior college transfer Jake Waters stepping in to a role previously held by Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein.
During his career, Snyder has served as both a quarterbacks coach and an offensive coordinator, meaning he has had the task of helping choose a quarterback more than just a few times.
Snyder said the one thing he’s learned is to be patient when trying to decide on the starting quarterback.
“I need more information to be able to make that decision, and I think sometimes if you kind of have a sensitivity to who you think might ought to be the guy, sometimes it perhaps clouds your judgment and doesn’t allow you to give a fair assessment,” he said. “I think it’s best reserved for the right time, and the right time isn’t here yet.”
So far, Snyder said all he has to make an assessment on the two QBs are three practices and handful of meetings that have taken place since fall camp got underway last week. To this point, he said both are as equal as he described them to be in the spring, and the decision will be a tough one.
“I think both of them are being very competitive,” Snyder said. “I think both are working diligently, their work habits are extremely good, I think they are studying the system. I think both are attempting to provide quality leadership.”
The Wildcats will open the season with two new coaches — Andre Coleman replaced Michael Smith as the wide receivers coach and Blake Seiler took over for Joe Bob Clements at defensive ends. Snyder said both have been great additions to the staff, and it kept the number of former K-State players on staff at five, which he takes great pride in.
Snyder also took a moment to comment on the work done on the West Stadium Center within the past year. The stadium will officially reopen on Aug. 30 for the Wildcat’s season-opening game against North Dakota State. Snyder has had a unique view of the progress from his office.
“I think the progress has been excellent,” he said. “I have a great appreciation for those 200 and some odd workers that worked diligently and worked long and hard hours, seven days a week.”