Kansas St Iowa St Football Bill Snyder

Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder walks on the field for the game against Iowa State in Ames, Iowa, on Nov. 24. It turned out to be the final game of Snyder’s 27-year career with the Wildcats.

It’s been told so many times, it’s easy to tune out the story of what Bill Snyder accomplished at K-State. I have a different way of approaching that story, starting with a question.

What was his big idea?

The answer: He changed the meaning of a crucial word.

Before Bill took over in 1989, the state of K-State football was so horrific that nobody bothered to care.

The fact that so many people this fall got so worked up about whether Bill would retire or not, and who his successor might be, is a reflection of what Bill created. I repeat: Nobody cared. A 5-7 season would have been a bolt out of the blue. Now nearly everybody cares, obsesses about minutia; some consider 5-7 an affront to humanity. That’s a titanic shift in attitude involving tens of thousands of people, at minimum.

But the most interesting and important accomplishment is another powerful bit of intellectual sorcery: Bill Snyder redefined the word “goal,” and he got an entire organization to buy it. I think that mental shift is the basis of everything else.

Let me have Bob Shoop and Susan Scott, authors of “Leadership Lessons from Bill Snyder,” spell out what I mean. Those authors wrote in their 1999 book:

“One of the most extraordinary aspects of Coach Snyder’s philosophy and the success that flows out of it, is his definition of a goal. For many people a goal is a specific, measurable end product. For Snyder, a goal is actually the adoption of a process. His goal is to make continuous improvement.”

There is no prize. There’s no trophy. There’s no end point at all: The reward, such as it is, is in the doing of exactly what needs to be done.

I don’t mean to say that Bill Snyder invented that concept. In a sense, it is the Protestant Ethic: The idea that we are all saved by our good works, and therefore we can’t really ever stop working. We can’t just win the ballgame, throw a blowout party, repent for our sins, and repeat. We have to keep working toward salvation: We have to prove it every minute of every day, and prove it all night.

Sound familiar? Get a little better every day. Keep sawing wood. Keep rowing the boat.

Bill codified this version of “goal” in his “16 Goals for Success,” which are in fact not goals at all but rather values and commands. The values include commitment, enthusiasm, self-discipline and consistency. The imperatives include “Be Tough” and “Never Give Up,” and “Improve Every Day.”

Those represent important ideas themselves. But the unspoken game here was to drive home the idea that a “goal” is a never-ending path of self-improvement and discipline.

He did it.

For an entire generation, inside of a major organization, he bent human nature to his will by redefining that one word. He probably never saw it that way; he just saw it as putting one foot in front of the other. Which is exactly how he did it.

Seaton is publisher and editor in chief.

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