Sean Snyder loves Kansas State. He loves Manhattan. But after 26 years at K-State, split between the athletics department and the football program, Snyder left for a position at Southern California earlier this month.
The reason isn’t complicated.
“I have a strong passion to be on the field as a coach, and that opportunity wasn’t there for me at K-State. This was,” Snyder, now the Trojans’ special teams coordinator, told The Mercury in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon, marking his first extended comments on his new position and the year since his father retired as K-State’s head football coach. “It’s a phenomenal opportunity, but my passion for coaching young men and being on the field and being able to coach them there in that walk of life of what they do, that’s been a strong passion I’ve had and enjoyed. I just wasn’t ready to give that up. So the opportunity presented itself, and I jumped on it and took it.”
Snyder served as the Wildcats’ special teams coordinator and associate head coach from 2011 to 2018, working on the staff of his Hall of Fame father, Bill Snyder.
During that time, K-State’s special teams annually ranked among the best units in the country in a variety of areas, setting or tying eight school records, while 20 specialists and returners etched their names at the top of the program’s record book in individual categories. In five consecutive seasons (2013-17),the Wildcats trotted out the Big 12’s first-team kick returner, the longest streak in conference history. In sum, Snyder helped players to 27 total All-America honors and 21 All-Big 12 accolades.
Those accomplishments earned Snyder acclaim around the country, and he won national college football writer Phil Steele’s Special Teams Coordinator of the Year award in 2015 and 2017. The website FootballScoop also picked Snyder as its Special Teams Coordinator of the Year in 2015.
Things changed after Bill Snyder’s retirement in December 2018. After new coach Chris Klieman took over, Sean Snyder was moved into a new role: senior special teams analyst. Though analysts still are staff members, the biggest difference between the position and Snyder’s former job is that he wasn’t permitted to coach players on the practice field or on gamedays.
That, he said, was the toughest aspect of the transition from his father’s staff to Klieman’s.
“Through the course of the year, it was all good. The only setback was not being on the field coaching,” Snyder said. “In an analyst role, there’s only so much you can do to help out. The good thing was, I was able to help out there, especially in the return game. So I thought that was productive, and I was able to contribute in some form or fashion. But it just wasn’t enough.”
He’ll have his fill in Los Angeles.
He was hired to shore up a unit that has struggled immensely in recent seasons, particularly on kickoff return coverage. The Trojans ranked last in the 130-team FBS in kickoff return coverage last season, giving up 29.78 yards per kickoff and allowing two touchdowns. One of those scores came in the team’s Holiday Bowl 49-24 loss to Iowa. A day later, USC head coach Clay Helton fired special teams coordinator John Baxter.
Snyder hopes that after he implements his system and gets special teams headed in the right direction, “avenues for some other things” might open up for him to assist with on the field.
Just not yet.
“The No. 1 focus right now is special teams. I don’t have time right now to focus on anything else,” he said. “I’ve got to get all of my stuff put into play. Right now, my focus is on getting to know the players here.”
Even if a part of him remains in Manhattan. Snyder admits he initially had “mixed feelings” about leaving and that finally departing K-State was “tough” on him. Snyder and his family haven’t yet determined whether they all will move to Los Angeles or what they will do with their Manhattan home.
“My heart and soul will always be a Wildcat,” he said. “It was just the right time for me to go. This opportunity, there was no way I could turn this down. There’s a head coach here who I think has a lot of great things ahead of him. He’s a tremendous person. He’s very honorable. The coaching staff that he has here is a great coaching staff. They’re all great people. They all want what’s best for the program and the student-athletes.”
In that way, it reminds him of K-State.
“It really fits what I’ve grown up in in my coaching world,” Snyder said. “So leaving, I knew at some point in my career that I was going to have to do that to better my career. That opportunity just happened to (come) a couple weeks ago.”
Snyder confirmed that before he accepted the job at USC, he had explored whether to “go north to Nebraska,” where he was a rumored candidate for a special teams opening with the Cornhuskers. He also said he interviewed for a similar vacancy at Texas, which instead went on to hire Jay Boulware as its associate head coach special teams/tight ends coach.
Yet Snyder always had an eye on USC. Though he didn’t know Helton, Snyder had “some acquaintances in the business” who did. From there, Snyder and Helton began to converse.
“It slowly grew,” Snyder said, “and here we are.”
And what a place it is. Though USC hasn’t had the type of seasons it’s wanted the past two years — going just 13-12 in that span, which included a 5-7 showing in 2018 — the Trojans are among the most tradition-rich programs in the sport.
“When you get out here and start walking through (buildings) and seeing all the national titles and Heismans and all the players who have been through this program in the history of the program, it really is unbelievable,” Snyder said. “If you follow football, you know it’s there. But until you walk through the building and see it firsthand, it kind of takes you back a bit.”
Helton’s name routinely appears in stories centered around head coaches (allegedly) being on the hot seat.
Snyder couldn’t care less.
“If we listen to outside noise, none of us would have a job,” he said with a laugh. “At the end of the day, we as coaches focus on what we can control. That’s what you’re doing as a coach and growing as a coach and also how you can contribute and help these young men grow as student-athletes.”
Bill Snyder’s role
Multiple times every week the past year, Snyder sat down with his father over a cup of coffee. They would discuss what should be the next step in Sean Snyder’s coaching career.
Bill Snyder, his son said, was the perfect “sounding board” to bounce things off of.
“A lot of the things we’ve talked about over all the years were kind of accumulating into this move,” Sean said. “Basically, our dialogue was me running my thoughts (by) him. He would kind of direct me in where those thoughts were going. It was, ‘Have you thought about this? Have you thought about this?’ So it was really good. They were really great conversations. He was just trying to make sure that I was thinking about all the right things, which was wonderful.”
While the younger Snyder concedes he “talked to dad an awful lot” about potential coaching opportunities, the Hall of Famer wasn’t the only person he sought out for advice. There were other coaches — albeit ones he didn’t name — Snyder said he contacted to gauge their opinions.
His father just happens to be the most prominent.
Despite all Bill Snyder’s success — the 200-plus victories, the two Big 12 championships and countless other accolades he earned during his 27 years as K-State’s head coach — Sean said his father ultimately took a hands-off approach.
“He wasn’t going to push me one way or the other,” Sean said. “He knew that this was a decision that I needed to make, especially since I’ve spent my entire career at K-State.”
Sean Snyder: Father ‘starting to settle’ into retirement
Make no mistake: Sean Snyder said his father still “absolutely loves coaching.” In the most recent comments on his retirement, which came after a celebration of his career in August, the elder Snyder said he wasn’t “100% at ease” with a whistle no longer dangling from his neck. Compared to his first retirement, following the Wildcats’ 2005 season, Bill Snyder said it the second go-round was “taking a little bit longer” to get his arms around.
“I think about it from time to time,” Bill Snyder told reporters, “and it just seems as though, for whatever reason, I haven’t gotten through it as well as I did the last time.”
Sean Snyder said that is beginning to change.
“I think he’s starting to settle in,” Sean said. “I think things are going well. Obviously, me being happy and being in a place I’m enjoying, I think that’s made a big impact as well, so he doesn’t have a concern about where my future lies.”
Klieman ‘did a really good job,’ Snyder says
The inability to offer instruction directly to players last year was “difficult,” Snyder said. It didn’t affect his relationship with Klieman or the Wildcats’ new assistants, however, saying he “made some great new friends” in the process.
Taking Klieman’s debut season in totality — an 8-5 record, setting a record for most victories by a first-year coach, which included the only regular-season win over a College Football Playoff participant — Snyder praised his father’s successor.
“I thought he did a really good job,” Snyder said. “(He) obviously came out with a pretty decent season. I think he’s a good person, a good guy.”
Snyder also believes last year is a sign of things to come for the Wildcats.
“I think he’s got a really bright staff,” Snyder said. “I think the future there is going to be good for him.”
Even if he’s no longer part of the coaching staff, Snyder said he’ll forever be grateful for K-State and its fan base.
Some of whom he now counts among his inner circle of friends.
“One of the things that I think is a very valuable thing at K-State is we’ve had so many people so close to the program who have supported it from the days where there wasn’t any money in the program to the days now where there is,” Snyder said. “Those people have become very dear friends.”
The 1,500 miles that now separates Snyder from the Little Apple is just that — distance, which can’t dim his fond feelings for the town.
“Manhattan is a very special place. Always will be,” Snyder said. I can’t be more thankful for how all those people have been involved with us — with myself and the program — and I’ve got great gratitude for all of them.”