Watching Kansas State play football under Bill Snyder isn’t a throwback or act in nostalgia. That would be the easy storyline. Bill Snyder is old; his teams play old football; the results are wholesome and redolent of an idyllic time when people did not run devious spread offenses, and instead won with giant two-star lummoxes at quarterback who were more grit than glamour.
That is not accurate, and has never been accurate about Kansas State, or Bill Snyder, or about any part of the story behind K-State improbably becoming a good football team after decades as the nation’s designated Worst Program Ever. There’s some of that Midwestern, old-timey detail for color’s sake, sure. There are the handwritten letters in purple ink, written on the diagonal because Snyder is a lefty. He has a completely sincere and unironic fascination with Pinocchio; his Twitter account is mostly team updates, appreciative photos of his family, and opining about only eating salad. Snyder called earrings “ear-screws” in his first meeting with players in 1989. (His players were not to wear them with their ties and blazers.)
Folksy does not beat what should be a more physically talented Texas A&M team in an exhibition game rematch of an old Big 12 matchup. Snyder’s standard working day in K-State’s 1990s run was sixteen hours. It’s less now, but not by a huge margin. At one point as a young assistant, he attempted to have a hypnotist work with him to compress six hours of sleep into one—so he could work more, and watch more tape, something he used to do while working out on the Stairmaster in his house. His film breakdowns of passing plays could take days, his practices lasted three and a half hours. Snyder eats once a day because, in his own words, “ You can get a lot done during the lunch hour, and shortly after that I realized that if it works during lunch, it works during dinner."
He was such a ruthless playcaller at Iowa that Bo Schembechler, when asked about Snyder by Kansas State administrators during their hiring process, said: "Hire him, get him the f--- out of this conference."
Bill Snyder’s mean as hell in service of his job, and this should never, ever be forgotten when watching Kansas State. The other thing, though, is how simple a lot of what they do is. Note; not old, or outdated, or even quaint for quaint’s sake. Manhattan, Kansas is not on the moon, but it does share gas and electric utility lines with it, and rivals Lubbock for sheer literal and mental distance from major population centers. So Kansas State has always gone after community college players and the understarred or tweener recruits, and done it through endless scouting and midnight film sessions. It’s only half a joke when we say that Kansas State is beating up on someone again with a converted TE out of a 500 person community college south of Topeka playing quarterback, because K-State has done something like this on multiple occasions.
Kansas State also doesn’t really try to do anything they can’t do. Defensively, they have a weird knack for rarely getting out of position, and even in the defense-averse Big 12 led the league in most statistical categories. The Wildcats run the hell out of the ball, often with schemes that ask their linemen to make simple but very effective blocks. They don’t run a whole lot of plays, but run the ones they do with little, well-executed variations.
The best possible and most K-State of all these: Unlike every other team in the known universe in 2016, K-State runs the pop pass frequently without getting a penalty for ineligible man downfield—as they did last night against Texas A&M at a crucial point in the game.
They will devolve into a single wing when they have to, provided they have that sort of tight end-looking guy at quarterback, so yeah: some things about a team coached by a 77 year old guy do fit the stereotype.
But watching K-State work last night reminded us of a few things. One, that dumping water on a very old man is not a good idea, and that professionals plan ahead by filling the Gatorade bucket with confetti.
Two: that simple can be completely deadly when it’s done with precision and discipline. There are times in a game when Kansas State doesn’t even really appear to realize there’s a playclock, really. The crucial thing is that they’re also waiting on you, the less patient, possibly more talented but definitely not more organized opponent, to try something. You’ll probably make a mistake, and then Kansas State will turn that mistake into points, and then you’ll get that handwritten letter in purple from an old man who just really respects you as an opponent.
Three: that getting to that point, even for an 8-4 team whose pretty good season will be largely ignored outside of the state of Kansas, required an insane lifetime’s worth of work that destroyed Bill Snyder’s first marriage before he ever got to Manhattan, and left other coaches in awe/fear of his ability to stave off sleep, hunger, and things other, weaker humans need. We don’t know if you should even admire that or condemn it. It’s more like something you document as remarkable as a thing of nature, or maybe as an unnatural thing. Here is K-State, a team that should not be good—and here is the obsessive who, for some reason or another, decided to spend his life coaching a game there like it was the only thing in the world worth doing.