When Kansas State coach Bill Snyder talks about family, it’s clear what’s important to him.
When the longtime Wildcats’ coach walked away from the sidelines following the 2005 season and the idea of renaming KSU Stadium was mentioned, it was his wish to name the stadium, Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
He said he retired, the first time, to spend more time with his family.
Snyder then came back to K-State because of his other family, the one that needed his help getting back on track.
And today, it’s the strong bond his football family has, both players and fans, that has the undefeated Wildcats on the track toward a possible national championship — ranked No. 2 in the BCS.
When Snyder speaks about the family of fans that has supported the K-State program over the years, it’s easy to see why he can get choked up at times.
It’s a love affair that started many years ago with record numbers of fans crossing state lines for bowl games and one that’s never been stronger.
That was never more evident than when the Wildcats traveled to Morgantown, W.Va., two weeks ago to play the Mountaineers in a game that stretched the boundaries of the traditional Big 12 footprint.
More than 3,800 fans flocked to Morgantown to watch the Cats defeat West Virginia 55-14 — selling out the entire allotment of tickets K-State had for the game. Fans from more than 20 states made their way to the furthest Big 12 outpost — for K-State football — just as they will next week when the Wildcats travel to Fort Worth, Texas to play TCU.
But there was one fan in particular who caught Snyder’s eye in Morgantown — Robert Lipson, of course. The superfan and Manhattan resident hasn’t missed a K-State road game since the 1970s. His treks across the country to watch the Wildcats are legendary and he wasn’t about to miss the game in Morgantown.
“We’re in West Virginia and getting from here to there — it aint easy,” Snyder said last week. “I don’t care how you go, it aint easy. And who do I see in the hotel when I get there? Robert.
“Bottom line is that he has a passion and it means something to him. Young people, all of us, myself included, we need to have a great appreciation for that — someone who shows that kind of passion for what you do and makes the kind of sacrifices. Robert probably has the first car ever made and it’s probably on its last leg… It’s very meaningful.”
But the Robert sighting was just the beginning of a winning road trip celebrated by the purple-clad faithful.
“We get home and its two in the morning and there’s 200-300 people here, the pep band is here — (K-State director of bands) Frank Tracz, I love him to death, and his staff, all those young people who had things I would have thought they’d rather be doing. And the people from the community who were there, students who I know have a lot going on a Saturday night, were there as well.
“So many people who genuinely care — and our players, I think its important for them to understand that they mean a great deal to a lot of people and they have to develop an appreciation for the people who care so much and do so much for them.”
The K-State players notice and they do appreciate the support. It’s what helps motivate them.
“You see how much they care about every game,” receiver Chris Harper said. “That makes us want to play for them.”
But the Wildcats also play for each other and they’ve formed a bond this season Harper said makes this team and its journey special.
“That’s why we’re so good,” he said. “When you love truly love the guys on your team and care about them, you can go out there and leave everything you got on the field…
“That’s the mindset or shift that program’s had since I’ve been here. We had a lot of guys who didn’t put to put in the work, the guys weren’t close.”
K-State quarterback Collin Klein talks about that all time, saying it starts with Snyder — he practices what he preaches — and it carries over to the team.
“We’re a group that truly cares about each other — on the field — but more importantly off the field,” he said. “We understand that we’re just a bunch of guys here trying to be the very best we can be, just trying to help and serve each other in the process.”
That wasn’t the case when Harper first got to Manhattan, though. He transferred from Oregon after one season so he could return to his home state. The problem, however, is that when he arrived at K-State, the Wildcats were in a state of disarray.
“When (Snyder) first got here, we were terrible,” he said. “We sucked and it’s because we didn’t put the work in. Our work ethic sucked, our discipline. We had guys who wouldn’t even think about going to class. Everything’s changed now, the program has shifted, the work ethic. We do the little things now.”
Doing those little things has meant big things for the Wildcats, who are riding an eight-game winning streak and ranked No. 2 in the current BCS standings.
“Now (Snyder) doesn’t have to focus on those things, guys getting arrested, going to Aggieville on a Saturday night,” Harper said. “It’s making his job easier, and that comes from internal leadership too. You’re not just going to be held accountable by the coaches, but also from the players. That’s something that matters. It’s really big.”