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Friday, July 11, 2014

K-State Wildcats' resurgence is part of Bill Snyder's model for consistency

BY KELLIS ROBINETT
The Wichita Eagle

MANHATTAN — Before any Kansas State football player can get to know Bill Snyder on a personal level, he must first learn what he stands for.

That's not an easy process. It takes patience, effort and resolve.

But Snyder wastes little time helping everyone within his program understand. Newcomers are handed a list of 16 core values to live by. They are often referred to as Snyder's 16 goals, and include unselfishness, enthusiasm, leadership and responsibility.

He bombards them with sayings such as "keep rowing the boat" and "keep sawing wood," emphasizing the importance of constant improvement. He wants players to take advantage of practice — work as hard between games as you do during them.

Nowhere does his list mention things most recruits want to hear, such as winning a conference championship, going to bowl games or being ranked in the top 25. Never has he predicted the Wildcats to contend for a national championship.

Yet those methods are the pillars of K-State's success. They worked more than 20 years ago, when he turned a floundering football program into a perennial 11-win team and they are still working today. Three seasons into his second rebuilding process in Manhattan, he has the Wildcats 6-0, ranked 12th and on their way to a breakthrough season.

"It's all there in his message," defensive end Jordan Voelker said. "It's a great message. I think some people have trouble interpreting it, because it is somewhat monotonous. His big thing is improving every week.

"But it makes total sense. He doesn't want you to look at the next opponent. He wants you to focus on getting better. He wants you to do what it takes to win, and let the games take care of themselves. That's what we've done, and that's why we're here."

Snyder's teachings are rubbing off on his team perhaps now more than ever. The 72-year-old coach has led a group that was thought to have marginal talent at best to national relevance as it prepares for Saturday's 11 a.m. kickoff at Kansas.

Outside of junior linebacker Arthur Brown, the Wildcats don't have a single five-star high school prospect on their roster. And he came to K-State as a transfer who struggled mightily at Miami. Snyder values his walk-ons, and recruits junior colleges with tenacity. For the most part, K-State is made up of players other teams didn't want. But they all wanted to play for Snyder.

At times, such as a come-from-behind win over Eastern Kentucky in the opener, a lack of talent has shown. But desire has always been noticeable. The team is steadily improving.

Though few are producing eye-popping statistics, and K-State has had to win its past four games in resourceful fashion while being outgained by opponents, no one is complaining.

"I'm not so sure that statistics win ballgames for you," Snyder said.

Staying poised and dedicating yourself to Snyder's ways — now that's a different story.

"We have been able to avoid beating ourselves in most instances," Snyder said. "We haven't put ourselves in extremely bad positions. We've been a little more disciplined during the season. That has allowed us not to make mistakes that put your football team in jeopardy. I think they have the spirit, passion and belief in what they're doing. They're doing it and they play together very well."

As the season has progressed, several players are benefiting from that bond. Some are in the running for all-conference honors.

Brown, who leads the team with 45 tackles, could receive All-America honors. Defensive tackle Ray Kibble isn't far behind, and quarterback Collin Klein, running back John Hubert and wide receiver Chris Harper are picking up acclaim by the week.

Snyder has reached out to all five in some fashion. Though many wonder how he can relate to college players, each of them attribute their strong play to one-on-one meetings with their coach.

Brown says Snyder helped him develop as a man. Kibble says he prevented him from flunking out of school.

While all players receive occasional texts from Snyder, and appreciate the fact that he has embraced technology by carrying around an iPad, they enjoy good old conversation most of all.

He is always honest and direct with his commentary, and his halftime adjustments have been masterful all season. During last week's game against Texas Tech, players entered the locker room at halftime trailing 28-20. They had allowed the Red Raiders nearly 400 yards of offense. Things looked bleak.

But no one panicked. Players remained confident, listened to Snyder's revised gameplan and dominated the second half on their way to a 41-34 victory.

They trusted him, and good results followed. No wonder players look to him as a mentor.

"He's always going to do what is best for you and the team," cornerback Nigel Malone said. "I can't speak for a lot of people but he's definitely got me in the right mindset to do everything right. That's a mindset that I feel like I've had, but him preaching it so much and putting a great emphasis on it has gotten us to the point where we know we've got to do things the right way. We can't have no let ups."

From afar, people are taking notice. National analysts are once again referring to Snyder as one of the top coaches in the business. He is the odds-on favorite to win Big 12 Coach of the Year.

Up close, some say it feels like the good ol' days. After K-State won at Miami, athletic director John Currie said that much was obvious.

"We have one of the best coaches in college football," Currie said. "Everyone realizes what a tremendous leader we have in Bill Snyder."

The signs have always been there. Now that players see his demands match his personality, they are more noticeable.

This season is just a reminder.

"We came in as one of the worst teams in the nation," Voelker said. "People were only picking us to win two games in the Big 12, and now look at what we're doing. It's not the greatest turnaround in college football history, but it's pretty awesome."

Check Kellis Robinett's K-State blog at blogs.kansas.com/kstated. Reach him at krobinett@wichitaeagle.com.

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