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An "Outliers" Analysis: Bill Snyder

Three years ago, when Bill Snyder returned to retake the reins of the program he'd resurrected after the spectacular failure of Ron Prince, TB examined the chances of Snyder's success in his second stint. Now that's it's an unqualified success, let's take a look back in time...

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Many of you have probably read the book "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell. If you have, great, the introduction of this post will be review for you. If you haven't, I recommend it. It's a fascinating look at why ultra-successful people are ultra-successful people, and how there's more to success than merely hard work and natural ability.

Obviously, none of you read this site to hear my thoughts on a book that has nothing to do with football, so I will relate the analysis from "Outliers" to a topic we all care about. Specifically, the "Outliers" analysis applies to Bill Snyder in a fascinating way.


In "Outliers," Gladwell examines several different groups of people or individuals who were either ultra-successful or went from rags to riches, and by riches I don't mean a "mere" six-figure salary, but true, lasting wealth. Included in the analysis are Candian hockey players, software magnates such as Bill Joy and Bill Gates, The Beatles, geniuses such as Chris Langan -- whom you've probably never heard of -- and Robert Oppenheimer, who I hope you have learned about extensively. It also includes a look at why Jewish lawyers in New York City made billions when corporate takeovers became fashionable, why pilots from Korea and other countries with high respect for authority are (or were) more likely to crash, why Asians are better at math (and what we can learn from it), and why a school in the middle of one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Bronx is teaching its students to be math wizards. It also explains that, if you spend 10,000 hours truly practicing something, you are almost certain to be exceptionally good at it.

If you're thinking by now that it's painfully obvious how all of these things work, and that answer is "hard work" and "natural talent," you're not alone. It's common in America to think that those who get ahead are simply smarter than others, or they simply work harder than others. To some extent, that's true. Clearly, Bill Gates and Bill Joy are a lot smarter than I am. Also, those who are tremendously successful are not only intelligent, but hard-working. These people put in long hours to get where they are.

However, the book attacks the conception that "merely" being smart and also working hard is the road to being a true outlier. It may make one a very successful person, but it probably will not make you a billionaire and an internationally known figure like a Bill Gates. No, to become a true outlier, you have to get a few breaks along the way, and you have to make the most of those breaks in addition to being very smart and working very hard. To take but two examples from the book, professional hockey players from Canada are disproportionately born in the first three months of the year. This is no accident, and it's not because being born in January, February, or March endows a Canadian child with super-hockey powers; it's because the age cutoff for the premier junior hockey leagues in Canada is January 1. Thus, those who are born early in the year are significantly older, for their age, than those who are born in November of December. This means they are bigger and stronger, get chosen to be on the elite teams, which in turn means more practice time and better coaching, and before you know it, you have elite hockey teams with as many as two-thirds or three-fourths of their players born in the first three months of the year.

Another example is Bill Joy, who wrote many software programs in the 1970s that are still in use today, and Bill Gates, whose story we probably all know pretty well. To boil it down to its barest essence, Joy and Gates had access to computers at a time when such access was very rare, they were very smart, and they worked their asses off at mastering the art of "computer programming" at a time when that was an almost unheard-of skill. Not only were they smart and motivated, but they caught lucky breaks by being born at the right time -- they ended up in college in the early-to-mid-1970s, about the time the computer revolution truly began -- and they had access to computers at a time when such access was neither prevalent nor cheap.

K-State Background

That's a long introduction to get to the real substance of this post. We all know the back story of K-State football, but for our readers from the outside, here is a recap. For decades, Kansas State football was a true outlier. It was an outlier, however, for the wrong reasons. Instead of being an outlier in the sense of something to be admired, it was scorned. Sports Illustrated named us Futility U in the late 1980s. In the darkest days of the program, the 1980s, it was not unfathomable that the school would drop football altogether, much the way another state school in Kansas, Wichita State, had done.

Kansas State was the first school in the nation to "achieve" 500 losses. Between 1960 and 1988, K-State was 1-37 against Nebraska. From 1937 to to 1988, the Cats were 2-49 against Oklahoma. Of course, those were powerhouse programs, but the Wildcats' record of futility even against mediocre schools historically is pretty bad. Against KU, never known historically as anything but thoroughly mediocre, K-State was an abysmal 9-27-2 from 1950 to 1988.

You've noticed the measurement of records in the previous paragraph was to 1988 in all instances, and that was obviously because Bill Snyder took over at K-State in 1988. A look at the three years prior to Snyder's arrival illustrate starkly how dire the situation was when he took over. From 1986-1988, the Wildcats were 2-30-1. During that stretch, K-State lost to teams such as Northern Iowa, Austin Peay, Army, Tulsa (twice) and Tulane. In sharp contrast, the K-State basketball team was regarded as one of the better programs in the nation at the time, producing great players such as Rolando Blackman and Mitch Richmond in the 1980s and, as of 1989, having won more Big 8 titles than any other school. Despite that achievement on the basketball court, however, the Big 8 nearly dismissed K-State from the conference because it was simply so incredibly bad at football. No matter how casually we throw around the question of who we would dismiss from the Big 12, or any other conference for that matter, evicting a school from a major conference such as the Big 8 is nothing to be taken lightly. Had K-State been tossed out of the Big 8, the university certainly would have folded its football program and today would be considered equivalent to a Fort Hays State or Emporia State.

Anyway, along comes this assistant coach from Iowa in 1989. Bill Snyder is considered nothing short of a genius when it comes to coaching an offense. During film study at Iowa, he would spend two minutes describing a pass play, and the quarterback wouldn't even have reached the point where the ball was released. When K-State athletic director Steve Miller called legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler to ask him his opinion about Snyder, Schembechler said "hire him, get him the fuck out of this conference." At the height of his powers in the mid-to-late 1990s, Snyder developed a revolutionary offensive system using a dual-threat quarterback that nearly got his program to the national title game in 1998. The basics of that system have been developed and adapted by Urban Meyer and Rich Rodriguez, two of the most respected offensive minds in the game today.

At this point, it's important to note just how incredible K-State's turnaround was. Many historically bad programs have hired outstanding coaches that directed them to some level of success. Northwestern was terrible before Gary Barnett took over. After a few years of slow improvement, Barnett and the Wildcats exploded to win the Big 10 in 1995 and tied for the conference crown in 1996. By virtue of the 1995 title, Northwestern played in the Rose Bowl, losing to USC. However, just as quickly as Northwestern ascended, it fell back to earth just as quickly, falling to a combined 8-16 the next two years before Barnett bolted for Colorado.

Similarly, Wake Forest has in recent years enjoyed some success after, it could be argued, the Demon Deacons inherited K-State's crown as Futility U. Jim Grobe has taken Wake to four bowl games, notched five winning seasons in eight years, and in 2006 won the ACC championship with an 11-3 season that included an Orange Bowl loss to Louisville.

These are stories of historically bad programs who have enjoyed some measure of success. But they pale in comparison to what Snyder accomplished at K-State. In Snyder's first stint at K-State, the Wildcats won the Big 12 North division three times, won one Big 12 championship, played in two BCS bowl games, notching a 1-1 record, played in 11 bowls games (going 6-5), won 10 or more games in a year seven times, and but for a fourth-quarter meltdown in 1998, would have played in the national championship game. That impressive tally also doesn't include the BCS game in which the Cats should have played in 1998, an injustice so impressive that some believe Bill Snyder haunts the BCS because of it.

In other words, not only did Snyder turn K-State around, he turned it around and attached it to a rocket going the other direction. In the late 1980s, K-State was undoubtedly the worst program in the country. In the late 1990s, K-State was one of the best programs in the country. The question is, how did it happen?

As we've already established, Snyder was an offensive genius. He was also an incredibly hard worker. Oftentimes he would spend 16 or 17 hours per day in the office, and sometimes as many as 19 or 20. Once, he asked a hynotist if it was possible to become hypnotized and thereby squeeze an entire night's sleep into one hour. He ate one meal per day. He exercised in his office while watching film.

Clearly, then, Snyder has the intelligence and the work ethic down. But using the "Outliers" analysis, that would only seem to explain a modest turnaround at K-State, from utterly terrible to somewhat competent. It's what has happened at Northwestern and Wake Forest. So maybe we need to look a little bit deeper, to see if Snyder got some lucky breaks that he took advantage of in building K-State into a powerhouse program in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The first factor that is fairly clear is Snyder's eye for assistant coaching talent. Among Snyder's former assistants are Bob Stoops, Mike Stoops, Mark Mangino, Jim Leavitt, Bret Bielema, Brent Venables, Phil Bennett, and many others. It's doubtful any other college coach could name such an illustrious roster of trainees. As much as we give credit to Snyder -- and believe me, he deserves it -- no coach succeeds without good assistant coaches.

Another factor is the environment Snyder walked into. The Big 8 was certainly a power conference, but it wasn't stacked from top to bottom the way today's SEC is. Nebraska and Oklahoma were true powerhouses, but after them, Colorado was a solid program and everyone else was some shade of mediocre. It was an environment in which a program could be built if assistant coaches and players were willing to buy into Snyder's system, and go through the punishment he required in the form of hard work.

Had Snyder taken over at K-State in 1996, when the Big 12 was formed, would he have built the program he eventually did, or would it have been merely a Northwestern or Wake Forest? It's impossible to answer such a theoretical question, but at best the answer is only "maybe." By the time the Big 8 became a deeper, stronger conference, Snyder had already established a foothold as a coach and K-State as a program on the rise. Thus, the addition of teams like Texas and Texas A&M was not as intimidating as it might have been if K-State was still Futility U. Further, the Wildcats benefited from the fact that Texas in the mid-1990s was not the Texas of today. Sure, the Longhorns were a solid football program, but they hadn't won a national title in a quarter-century and were not considered a peer of the Nebraskas, Miamis and Florida States of the day. While the merger of the Big 8 and the four schools from the SWC immediately produced a solid conference, it was not an unstoppable juggernaut. In some ways, this environment was the perfect incubator for further success at K-State. It gave Snyder the chance to match his program up against some nationally known programs each season on a biggest stage -- I'm thinking of the television markets in Houston and Dallas -- but it wasn't an insurmountable hill like some may believe the SEC or Big 12 South is today.

One final thing that is often overlooked in assessing Snyder's success at K-State is a very simple thing: He stayed. Whereas Barnett bolted for Colorado after only seven seasons, Snyder stayed at K-State for seventeen seasons. What's more, he stayed at K-State despite the fact that, by all rights, he should have left; in fact, major K-State boosters, such as Jim Colbert, urged him to leave the school when offers from bigger and deeper-pocketed schools rolled in, because they believed things wouldn't get better than 9-3 and a Copper Bowl win at K-State.

What does it all mean for Snyder's second stint?

So we've seen that not only was Snyder a brilliant football coach who worked hard, he also took advantage of the fortunate breaks that came his way. This is what separates him from merely successful football coaches and makes him a true outlier, and in the book of any K-State fan, hall-of-fame material. But now that he's back, the question is, of course: Can he replicate what happened earlier?

On the assistant coaching front, there's a mixed bag. Snyder hit a home run in luring Vic Koenning from Clemson to Manhattan, as Koenning is established as a solid defensive coordinator. The other defensive coordinator, Chris Cosh, is more of a question mark. His defenses at Maryland were nothing to write home about, but they were a damned site better than what we've seen at K-State. Co-offensive coordinator Dana Dimel was a pretty spectacular failure as a head coach at Houston, but was on Snyder's staff from the beginning through 1996, which was the time period in which the foundation was laid for the spectacular success later. The other offensive coordinator, Del Miller, is a big question mark. True, he was the offensive coordinator in 2003 when K-State won the Big 12, but it would have been hard to screw up an offense directed by Ell Roberson and Darren Sproles behind a powerful offensive line. Also, Miller was the OC at San Diego State the last three years, and that didn't exactly work out well. In the lower ranks of coaches, Joe Bob Clements returns as defensive ends coach and recruiting coordinator. His previous term was from 2003-2005, which encompasses the highest high of Snyder's first run and the lowest lows in the 2004-05 seasons. Snyder also imports Charlie Dickey from Utah as an offensive line coach. Dickey was a part of the staff at Utah during last season's undefeated season.

The conference environment into which Snyder walks is different this time around, as well. No longer are Missouri and KU doormats, but no longer are Nebraska and Colorado nationally recognized programs, either. There is now a South division of which to speak, and Oklahoma seems unlikely to descend to the days of Howard Schnellenberger and John Blake anytime soon. Texas is again a national power, having won a national title in 2005 and ranking among the favorites to do so again this season. Texas Tech is one of the most consistent programs in the country. Oklahoma State seems poised for a breakout season. On the other hand, Texas A&M is less than a shadow of its former self.

Taking all that into consideration, the best answer to the question of how Snyder will do this time around is a resounding "Who knows?!" On the one hand, he's not starting in as deep of a hole as he was in 1989. Of course, the conference is deeper this time around, and Snyder likely doesn't have the next generation of Stoopses, Leavitts, Manginos, and Venableses on his staff.

To tie it all back to the original "Outliers" analysis, we should look at what some are saying about Snyder's return. A lot of people are writing this off as a failure before it begins, because most coaches who return to a school where they enjoyed previous success fail to reproduce that success the second time around. However, there's nothing mystical about this. It's not like Snyder stopped being a good coach or forgot how to work hard. But this time around, the opportunities that made spectacular success in Manhattan possible the first time around may not be present. Of course, they may be present, but in a different guise that we don't currently recognize. Given what we know, it's highly unlikely that Snyder will return K-State to winning 11 games per season and consistently ranking among the top 10 or 15 teams in the country. But it's not impossible and, given sufficient time, it is actually likely that he can return the Wildcats to some modest level of success, such as winning eight or nine games in a season and occasionally competing for a division title in a weakened North. Hard work and intelligence are the basics for at least a moderate level of success. To become a true outlier for the second time, Snyder will need some opportunities along the way.