The question of whether Kansas State's Bill Snyder is the best coach in America can't reasonably be answered in the affirmative, at least not yet. He's captured just one conference title and no national championships.
It also probably can't be answered with a no, which alone says something about the 72-year-old miracle worker (twice now) that has the Wildcats at 7-0 and ranked eighth in the country. Those are two distinctions K-State has almost no earthly reason to hold.
Of course, many Wildcat fans figure Snyder descended from the heavens, not from a poor, single-parent home over in St. Joseph, Mo. And who can blame them? You can argue no school has fewer resources while facing as daunting a conference as K-State. Snyder has turned the program into a national contender on two different occasions anyway.
His first run was from 1989-2005 and saw the program come a play from reaching the 1998 title game (lost in double overtime of the Big 12 title game to Texas A&M). Then after a three-year "retirement," Snyder returned in 2009 and already has the program back to unlikely prominence.
Kansas State plays host to No. 10 Oklahoma on Saturday, then visits No. 3 Oklahoma State and gets No. 16 Texas A&M back at home. Over the next three weeks Kansas State could muscle its way toward the top of the BCS title game rankings.
That's something no one saw coming. If Kansas State somehow manages to run through this three-week gauntlet, it might forever stamp its low-profile coach as a legend among legends.
"He's done the best job in the toughest situation of any coach I've ever known," Oklahoma coaching icon Barry Switzer said Thursday morning. "I was fortunate to have one of the best traditions in college football. I was selling Oklahoma as a product, and that's what you sell to parents and recruits.
"Bill Snyder doesn't have that. He's built a program, a program with tremendous disadvantages. And then he came back and proved he could do it again, that it wasn't just luck."
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There's a long-held romanticism that the best in any given field isn't working at the biggest in any given field, that there is some hidden, humble genius that can make a mockery of the historic powerhouses of any given industry.
And "best," of course, is an arbitrary concept, even in a sport with a definitive ending and a finite number of wins. Could Nick Saban or Chris Petersen or Bob Stoops or whomever your choice as the game's top coach do what Snyder has done? It's impossible to say. As it would be to argue he couldn't do what they've done.
Snyder isn't much for self-promotion. He merely tolerates the media, which is probably why life in the Little Apple is so appealing. There isn't a whole lot of attention.
Kansas State is a terrific school with a vibrant alumni base and Manhattan is a nice college town near the scenic Flint Hills.
In football terms, however, it's a tough go. It's one of the most isolated campuses in the country – a couple hour drive east to Kansas City. In all other directions are prairies and farms. The state isn't known for producing much football talent – although there are plenty of junior colleges. Budgets have historically lagged behind conference leaders.
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When Snyder took over in 1989 Sports Illustrated dubbed K-State "Futility U," and it wasn't hyperbole. In 93 seasons it had won just 299 games (an average of 3.2 victories a season). The last win had come in October of 1986. The Wildcats had then lost the rest of that season's games and then went winless in 1987 and 1988. Snyder eventually got them to 300 (over lowly North Texas) and then lost the rest, finishing 1-10 in his first year.
From that spot the tireless Snyder kept working. He became famous for eating just one meal a day – usually post midnight when he got home from work, arguing that you can get a lot done by working through breakfast, lunch and dinner. He's particular about perfection, a detail freak who seems to command players attention, effort and respect through the force of his work ethic and obvious football acumen.
From 1993-2000 K-State averaged 10 wins a year. It posted consecutive 11-win seasons in 2002-03. After Kansas State lost 29 consecutive games to local bully Nebraska, Snyder whipped the Huskers five of seven times. In 2005, Snyder, then 66, decided to retire. The renovated football stadium, now 50,000-plus capacity, was named the "Bill Snyder Family Football Stadium."
Bored with retirement and seeing his program in need of a coach, Snyder came back in 2009. He went 6-6, then 7-6 and now, boom, 7-0 and perhaps in control of its title destiny. It's like he just flipped a switch, and while he was known for easy non-conference schedules in the past, this includes a win at a good Miami club. Five of the victories are by a touchdown or less, but hey, a win is a win.
Switzer, 74, watches his old peer and marvels. It's one thing for a Bobby Bowden or Joe Paterno to coach on and on at a powerhouse they've built up. It's another to try to construct something out of nothing. That's always been a young man's game.
"I don't have the passion he does," Switzer said. "And I don't think many do. He's wired up differently."
Snyder's secret, Switzer says, is the ability to identify players with great potential and build a staff with similar scouting abilities.
"It's essential," Switzer said. "When you're coaching at a school that doesn't attract the players that Oklahoma and Texas do, you have to be able to get a good look at players and properly evaluate them because there are going to be some question marks.
"You can't afford to miss on guys. It's easy to recognize an Adrian Peterson, a Billy Sims or a Lee Roy Selmon. It's obvious they're great."
Snyder was the 32nd coach hired by the school in 93 years. No one had much success before him. Then he won big. Then he left and the program fell back a bit (losing seasons in 2007-08). He returned to become the 34th coach hired and the winning has now resumed.
"He's done something really amazing," Switzer said.
Maybe that doesn't make him the best coach in America, but if the Wildcats roar through the next month and continue to play great, like national title contention great, he might not have a bad argument.
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