WACO, Texas - The old man with the silver hair and the judge’s demeanor waited what must seem like three lifetimes for this wonderful heartbreak. Who could know what this feels like? Bill Snyder takes a sip of coffee. Lots of cream, no sugar. Just like always.
He does this after every game, sipping out of a small white cup the same now as back when his Kansas State football team was trucking toward a chance at the most improbable national championship in college football history. A Baylor fan screams SIC ‘EM!
“They took the fight to us,” Snyder says. “And I didn’t have them well enough prepared for it.”
Out there, on the other side of these concrete walls, people are going bonkers. They won’t leave the field until an hour or so after Baylor’s 52-24 boot-to-the-neck win over Kansas State is over.
This was a perfect season and a dream 24 years in the making, now gone. Kaput. Killed by a team whose only previous conference win came over Kansas. With it, one of the great coaching careers college football has ever seen will almost certainly end without the accomplishment that would’ve forced everyone else to think of Snyder the way we do in the Midwest.
Fourteen years ago, it was Michael Bishop’s fumble and Sirr Parker’s touchdown and a loss in the Big 12 championship that gut-punched K-State so hard that Snyder said it felt worse than a death in the family.
This weekend, it was a string of silly mistakes by a K-State team proven to know better, and one of Snyder’s closest friends inventing a defense that drained the Wildcats’ biggest dreams.
Just like back then, a shocking K-State loss changes college football. The national title picture no longer includes the Wildcats. The Heisman Trophy race is no longer led by Collin Klein.
Snyder won’t see this as a failure. He can’t. Football coaches don’t think that way. He told his guys the only failures in life are giving up. Not trying. Not caring. He wants them to embrace this disappointment, to hug the hurt and turn it into anger. Focused anger.
“Get it behind us,” Snyder says. “Move on. They still have the opportunity to do some tremendous things.”
He’s right, of course. K-State can still win its second conference championship by beating Texas in two weeks, and with it an argument against the guys from 1998 as the best team in school history. That’s the wonderful part of this. In time, it will mean more than it does right now, when the bigger picture of a team better than most anyone expected stumbled so agonizingly close to what we all came to see as a realistic chance at the national title. That’s the heartbreak in this.
Alabama’s loss last weekend put K-State in full control of what nobody thought possible when Snyder took over in 1988, turning this weekend into an effective national championship quarterfinal. Oregon losing should have only solidified K-State’s place.
Snyder is already famous for leading the greatest turnaround ever in college football. He dragged so-called Futility U to national relevance, retired, then came back at 69 years old and did it all over again. His legacy is secure, his name on the stadium, and as long as they play football at K-State, the coaches will be compared to Snyder. There was a time this would’ve been enough. If you’re a K-State fan, you remember this, four years ago, when Snyder came out of retirement and said he mostly just wanted to “calm the waters.” Back then, that was ambitious enough. Build the program back to respectability.
But there has never been “enough” for Snyder. Those closest to him have come to understand this. The people who hired him back in 1988 only wanted four or five wins a year, enough to take the program out of the punchlines and away from the talk about being booted out of the Big Eight. K-State won five games in Snyder’s second season, seven in his third and went to a bowl game in fifth. Snyder made 11 straight bowl games, enough that he eventually recruited kids who grew up knowing a world where K-State was always good at football. But that wasn’t enough. It never is with hypercompetitive men like Snyder.
When K-State pushed into the top 10 in the national polls last year, that old feeling came back. The competitive juices is what it’s usually called. Snyder wanted more. Of course he did. He returned most of last year’s team, and when the Wildcats won in Norman and blew West Virginia out in Morgantown, and Alabama lost it all seemed possible.
This crazy, impossible story of an understated man turning college football garbage into gold might have the Hollywood ending after all. He tried not to think about it, but that’s only human nature. He tried not to let his players think about it, but good luck with that. Snyder says now only that “we just didn’t handle it as well as we should have, and that’s my responsibility.” College football is an unpredictable minx like that. If it were two years from now, when the four-team playoff is in, the Wildcats might still have a chance. As it stands, the series of breaks they’d need is long enough to be virtually impossible.
K-State played its way to within two games of a shot at the program’s first national title. That’s all gone now, and Snyder can’t expect to get this opportunity again. He made it easier for the next guy. Now, that will have to be enough.