By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - No disrespect to Hayden Fry, but the greatest turnaround in the history of college football wasn’t orchestrated by his genius, but rather by the genius of one of his former assistant coaches.
As great as Fry’s rebuilding job was at Iowa, it wasn’t as shocking or as improbable as Bill Snyder’s miraculous turnaround at Kansas State
Iowa at least had some tradition in football when Fry took over in 1979, whereas Kansas State had been horrible throughout, a football grave yard located in the middle of nowhere when Snyder was hired almost exactly 30 years ago to this day.
It was considered a hopeless cause when Snyder was hired shortly after the 1988 regular season and some of his friends and coaching colleagues worried that he was making a huge mistake by leaving Iowa where he had been Fry’s offensive coordinator since 1979.
But little did they know that Snyder was about to launch an incredible near three-decade run of success that would make him a legend, and similar to what Fry became at Iowa.
And now that legend will step away from the game that has consumed most of his life as Kansas State announced Snyder’s retirement on Sunday.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz also held a press conference on Sunday to discuss the upcoming matchup with Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl and was asked to comment about Snyder’s career.
Ferentz worked with Snyder as a member of Fry’s staff at Iowa for eight seasons in the 1980s. Ferentz credits Snyder for helping to convince Fry to hire him as a little-known offensive line coach in 1981.
Ferentz was just 25 years old when he interviewed for the Iowa job.
“Can't say enough about the job he did (at Kansas State), but more importantly, more personally to me and the other guys will say the same thing, the role that he had here,” Ferentz said of the 79-year old Snyder. “I think I got hired because of him. I think he told Coach Fry, you know, let's not go with an older guy. Let's go with this younger guy; he doesn't know any better. So I think that's how I got hired here. I never asked, but I think that's how it all worked out.”
Ferentz told the media the story of how he first learned that Snyder was leaving Iowa to become the head coach at Kansas State.
“It's funny, I used to live about two baseball throws behind here, and I remember we had that week off,” Ferentz said. “My wife and I and our family had gone up to see her family. So we pulled in the driveway with our little woody wagon, a Cutlass Sierra wagon. I was unloading the car and Mary said "Hey, Bill is on the phone." I said, "That's great. Let me unload the car and I'll come in.
“She said, "No, he needs to talk to you," and that's when I found out he was going to K-State. I thought he was absolutely crazy. But Bill is crazy, so I'll go for the record; that it took a crazy person to go down there.”
Ferentz saw up close just how woeful Kansas State was in football when Iowa pounded the Wildcats 45-10 in the second game of the 1988 season in Manhattan, Kan.
The 1988 season would prove to be Snyder’s last at Iowa as he would be hired by Kansas State shortly after the season to do what was considered next to impossible.
“It was not a good program at that time and it took somebody who is really fanatical and outstanding to do what he did, and what he's built there, it's unreal,” Ferentz said.
Snyder went 215-117-1 over 27 seasons at Kansas State, including a 128-89-1 record in the Big 12, with two conference titles. The Wildcats, however, finished just 5-7 this year and missed out on a bowl for just the fourth time since 1992 under Snyder.
So maybe it was time for a change because even Bill Snyder, who has battled throat cancer, can’t outlast time or devise a strategy to beat it.
Snyder already tried to retire in 2006, but the Kansas State football program quickly unraveled without him. So he agreed to come back in 2009 and rebuild it again, which he did.
It seemed odd that Snyder wasn’t quoted in Kansas State’s release, nor was he interviewed by the local media on Sunday.
It is no secret that Snyder wants his son, Sean Snyder, to replace him as head coach, but that request has been met with resistance.
You hope that Snyder is leaving on his terms, but you wonder because to say in a release that Snyder is announcing his retirement without him actually saying it in the release is peculiar.
It would be a shame if Snyder didn’t leave on his terms because Kansas State owes so much to him in gratitude.
The program fell apart so quickly during his first retirement that Snyder barely had time to learn a new hobby.
Football is Snyder’s hobby, in addition to being his job and life-long passion.
It is everything to Snyder, and he has given everything back to the sport with a work ethic and focus that is unmatched.
You might beat Bill Snyder, but you'll never out-work him.
There are stories about fellow coaches who have tried to arrive at work before Snyder or leave after him only to fail because Snyder usually arrives before the sun rises and leaves long after it has set. He is a grinder in every sense of the word, his knowledge of the game matched by his work ethic.
Those close to Snyder call him a football genius who is obsessed with football and with coaching it. Snyder’s life has been consumed by football and his friends say he doesn’t have many interests outside of football and his family.
Snyder and Fry will forever be linked by their coaching ties and by their reputations as master rebuilders.
But they are vastly different in terms of personality.
Fry was the center of attention the moment he walked into a room, tall, confident and filled with wit and funny catches phrases, while Snyder speaks softly and is hardly known for his sense of humor.
But there is more to Bill Snyder than just football and family.
There is a side to him that former Iowa assistant coach Don Patterson describes as being a devoted and loyal friend.
They coached together at Iowa for a decade under Fry and have remained close friends.
Snyder wanted Patterson to join him at Kansas State 30 years ago, but Patterson chose to stay at Iowa, mostly because he was promoted to quarterbacks and receivers coach.
Snyder understood Patterson's decision, but Patterson still found a way to help Snyder later in life by doing some analytics for Kansas State football after Patterson had retired from coaching in 2015.
"I am proud to call Bill Snyder a friend," Patterson said. "
Snyder is known for writing letters of appreciation and admiration to a wide range of people, from opponents whose performance had made an impression to colleagues and friends to almost anybody who takes the time to reach out to him.
He even responds to wedding invitations.
Snyder has been writing letters, as many as 12 per day, since the 1960s. His voice might be soft and unassuming, but his pen is loud and impactful.
Snyder strived for excellence in preparation, execution and attitude, and when he saw others display those qualities, it would inspire to him to reach out with praise and respect in the form of a hand-written letter.
So often we hear or say when reflecting on somebody who has achieved greatness that there never will be another person like them to where it has almost become cliche.
But with Bill Snyder, it might be true.
He is part of arguably the greatest coaching tree in the history of college football and the architect of arguably the greatest turnaround in college football.
The amount of coaching talent on Fry’s staff at Iowa in the 1980s was incredible.
But now most of them have either retired or stepped away from coaching.
Coaches often say that their goal is to leave a job in a better place than when they started.
Bill Snyder achieved that goal perhaps better than anybody in the history of college football.