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Family Conflict: Head and Heart Collide over K-State’s Football Future

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Some of us are not going to get what we want. Can we find it within ourselves to live with that?

We’re not even sure Bill knows what’s going on at this point.
Whether or not Bill Snyder has walked off the field for the last time, fans have all gained great memories from his investment at K-State.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
NOTE: The objective of this post is not to convince anyone to accept a particular viewpoint. It is also not intended to gin up yet another pointless feud. Rather, it is a retrospective, aiming to illuminate the inner conflict of fans, to remind us of wonderful (and painful) experiences we all share, and to suggest that, in the end, we will all learn to accept whatever decisions Coach Snyder and the athletic director make about the future of Kansas State football.

It’s a peerless Fall Saturday in 1998, and I’m waiting with my folks and my sister at Triangle Park, just north of Varney’s Bookstore in Aggieville, for the next shuttle bus to KSU Stadium. One pulls to the curb, and the pack of fans crowds aboard. The bus door closes just before the group ahead of us can get on.

“Damn bandwagon fans,” grouses an elderly gentleman in a freshly-purchased Powercat jacket. “I liked it better before all these pretenders started showing up.”

Five minutes later another bus arrives, and we climb on. As it turns from Moro to 12th Street, then onto Anderson Avenue, I single out an enthusiastic purple-clad passenger across the aisle and ask him what year he graduated. “Oh, I didn’t go to school here,” he says. “I’m just a big fan of college football.”

I made a habit of asking people this question on gameday shuttle rides. A surprising number admitted that they were not alumni. Just college football fans who believed they might be part of something magical if they jumped aboard. There were your bandwagon fans, I thought, internally puffing myself up about being a cut above these interlopers. This account executive from Leawood, a few years older than I, could play dress-up all he wanted. We were the true fans. Us. The ones who suffered.

Looking back, I realize this was unfair. I had not really suffered, because I had paid very little attention to K-State football before the ‘90s. Nobody did. None of us were football fans until Bill Snyder made us fans. K-State graduates or not, we are all bandwagon fans.

Someone on Facebook or Twitter or elsewhere in the no-nuance universe of this era will undoubtedly protest that he or she by-God was a fan, never missed a game, had front row seats and front-row parking going back to Jim Dickey’s time. People making those complaints tend to hold a deep and sincere belief that their ownership in K-State football is somehow greater than the stake of those who latched on only after success started to come. And how dare these newcomers come along and criticize what these steadfast few helped lay the cornerstones to build!

They are not completely wrong. Those few who can boast devotion tracing back to the dark days probably are more invested. We absolutely owe special deference to the forefathers of K-State football—all of them: Bill Snyder and the host of assistant coaches over the years (including, reluctantly, Bob Stoops and the other turncoats of ‘98), former athletic director Steve Miller, who kept after Snyder until he relented and accepted the job, and early donors who contributed their hard-earned treasure to support the longest of long-shots and were instrumental in the football turnaround. Their investment should be honored and their opinions heard. Their input about the future of the program should be taken into account.

But that does not mean they are the only ones with a stake in the future. The rest should not be treated like uninvested bandwagoners. Is this really a “family,” as athletic department marketing insists? Or is it a domineering patriarchy that hears only one view on how things ought to be? If #Family is more than a marketing scheme, there should be room for disagreement and debate. In the end, whether our particular opinion prevails or not, we should willingly get on board with trying to make the future as successful as the past that brought us all together, brought new members to the family, and gave us all so much joy. Whatever this week brings, there is more to accomplish, more to achieve, more pride to be found.

It’s 1986, and I am attending an ice cream social in the university president’s backyard. It is Jon Wefald’s first year at K-State, but few students are talking about him. A few more are talking about Stan Parrish, the new head football coach and offensive wizard that K-State had managed to lure from Marshall.

We all know now which newcomer left an indelible mark on the university, and which washed out after three miserable years. At the time, you might have gotten even odds on both men.

I have only two real memories associated with football during my five years as a student, and neither has anything to do with a game on the field. On the morning after the KU game my freshman year, I stayed late to restock the beer cooler in the convenience store at the southeast corner of Aggieville, where I had somewhat miraculously survived a raucous graveyard shift the night before. As I walked back to the dorms at 9:00 that morning, crews were sweeping up and replacing broken glass. Not a single windowpane on Moro had survived the night. A Volkswagen Beetle had been overturned and torched. For the second time in two years, Kansas State made national headlines not for the play of its team on the field (though the Wildcats had beaten KU, 29-12), but for the hooliganism of its students. I was perplexed then that sports could beget such mayhem. I still am.

A few months later that school year, I had just turned out my light in Haymaker Hall and climbed into bed late one Friday night when something crashed against my door so violently that I thought it might crumble out of its frame. Then I heard another crash and another, moving away from my room. By the time I had stepped out to investigate, a group of four guys was standing halfway down the hall, laughing drunkenly, while the football player who had head-butted eight or so dorm room doors lay on the hallway tile, unconscious. He had bet the others that he could head-butt every door up and down the 9th floor hallway without knocking himself out. He lost, obviously. A habit ingrained from his time on the Parrish teams, no doubt.

In those years students could get into football games free at the end of the first quarter. Some went just to hear the band at halftime, then left. Far more paid no attention whatsoever. I never attended a game while I was a student. I loved K-State. But football? It was the sorriest of sideshows. A reason to riot over rare victories (or ties) against similarly inept outfits and to make sucker bets with meatheads. But to watch the game? Waste of time. Free of charge, and still overpriced.

As long as he has a new windbreaker, he’s good.
Will 2017’s Cactus Bowl Trophy be Bill Snyder’s last post-season award?
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It’s December of 1993, and I’ve just finished coaching a holiday practice session with my high school basketball team. My assistant coach asks whether I think the Wildcats will win the Copper Bowl. I shrug. “I doubt it.”

I have watched enough games to know Coach Snyder has turned a corner and that the team is competitive now. But K-State has never won a bowl game. I know nothing about Wyoming’s program or personnel. But I know K-State’s history. I cannot fathom that the team I willfully ignored through five years of study is good enough to win a bowl game. It is not what we do, not part of our culture.

I’m watching on television that night as K-State takes out all the frustrations of its past on the Cowboys, walloping them, 52-17. 40,000 purple-clad Kansans cheer in Tucson. It is not just a victory. It’s an exorcism. Demons vanquished, never again will the Wildcats be a disappointment, a punchline.

Problem with fandom is, disappointment always lurks.

The Copper Bowl was the first of eleven straight bowl appearances. K-State’s culture became associated with a rabid fan base that traveled in droves every holiday season to support their team. After the catharsis of that first postseason win, it felt as if a steady climb would inevitably lead to the summit.

In 1997, Snyder led the Wildcats to an 11-1 regular season and a victory over Donovan McNabb’s Syracuse Orangemen in the Fiesta Bowl. Nebraska, the only team to beat the Wildcats in that last year before the BCS system was fully implemented, won a share of the national championship. The ‘Huskers were the last remaining hurdle. And we were going to jump over them.

Though the next year was K-State’s greatest season, 1998 is also the source of its greatest heartache. Undefeated and leading Texas A&M by 15 in the second half of the league championship game, only needing to hold on to secure a spot in the first national championship game, the team faltered. They lost in overtime, fell all the way to the Alamo Bowl, then played as if they did not want to be there. For all but the one champion, sports fandom always ends in disappointment. We didn’t want to hear it, though. Truth was no comfort. Not when we had come from so impossibly far to get so tantalizingly close.

Moments like the end of the 1998 season make me wonder why we are fans in the first place. Why invest so much energy and attach such importance to games between people we don’t even know? Institutional pride, sure. But that non-alum Leawood account executive was surely as heartbroken as I was that night in the Edward Jones Dome. We had the chance to see something unprecedented and totally unexpected. More importantly, we all had a chance to share it. Instead, we share the collective numbness of missing an opportunity that may never again present itself to K-State. Nobody in 1989—save maybe Bill Snyder himself—believed Kansas State would ever sniff such an opportunity in the first place. To rise from where K-State did and to get that close, only to have the impossible dream yanked away like Charlie Brown’s football, was unspeakably cruel.

In the Spring of 1990, when the athletic department had placed table toppers in the Union Stateroom extolling the accomplishments of league foe Colorado and insisting that K-State could mirror or even surpass those accomplishments, I sat with some classmates and mocked them. Colorado has the mountains, we said. Nebraska and Oklahoma have tradition. What the hell do we have?

We had Bill Snyder. By 1998 he had guided the team to five consecutive bowl games. He had created a tradition. He had come oh, so close to getting us to the top of the mountain. Now, could he gather himself and do it again? Could we fans shunt aside our disappointment and have faith enough to stay along for the ride?

It’s December 2003, and I’m at Rusty’s Last Chance, Overland Park, helping my sister sell K-State gear before the Big 12 title game. An OU fan is trying to pick fights, bellowing, Cliff Clavin-like, for all to hear about how this Sooners team is the greatest assembly of football talent and coaching in the history of the NCAA. ESPN analysts had said so, after all. K-State is just a pointless speed bump on the Sooners’ road to glory, and we are all wasting our time and money going to the game. His group and another on the other side of the bar take turns shouting “Boomer!”….”Sooner!” back and forth, nauseatingly.

Later, the bartender shouts that the guy and his party skipped out on a $300 bar tab. A squad of a dozen K-State fans rushes to the parking lot, surrounds their SUV and refuses to let them leave until they come back in to settle up. “Make sure you tip the lady, too,” orders one of the ‘Cat fans, his thumbs hooked through his beltloops as he looms over the proceedings.

My seats at Arrowhead are in the second row of the club level. OU’s players infuriate K-State’s crowd by bulling their way through the band’s piccolo section before the game. The Sooner fans next to me laugh it up. Oklahoma scores first, and we have to endure “Boomer Sooner” for what seems like the fiftieth time already. I want to gouge out my eardrums.

But gradually inconceivable, wonderful things happen. Ell Roberson connects with James Terry while the OU defensive backs crash into each other. Darren Sproles goes supernova. The defense puts fear on the face of OU quarterback Jason White, and Ted Sims caps off the night with a pick-six and a victory lap in front of the Sooner bench. Angry Oklahoma fans leave early, while K-Staters in unparalleled reverie toss bags of Doritos Gold around the stadium like Frisbees. The game ends as a 35-7 rout of the supposed best team ever.

In the parking lot, bitter Oklahomans remind us that at least they didn’t lose to Marshall. They don’t score any fights, though. K-State has broken through. The Wildcats have beaten the talking head-anointed “best team ever in college football.” And they had left no doubt about which was the better team that night.

It takes two hours to get out of the parking lot. Even the traffic snarl is euphoric. I get home after 2:30. I watch late-night recaps. I rewind the VCR and watch the game again.

A few weeks later, it all unravels in scandal and team division and a loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Fandom can be so unforgiving.

Fans also lose touch, sometimes, with what drew them to the program in the first place.

That 2003 championship game felt like a second springboard. But 2004 was a disappointment, and 2005 was worse. Fans are quick to forget yesterday’s achievements when today’s results don’t measure up to some nebulous standard, and there were calls for Snyder to move on. A former student of mine complained, “Thanks for ruining my senior year, Snyder!”

Coach Snyder believed he had lost the team, that his message no longer resonated with youth who had grown up in the emerging digital age. He announced his retirement, scored an improbable upset of Missouri in the last game of the season, and rode out of the stadium, freshly christened in his name, on the shoulders of his players. I cried. Everyone cried, a little. Right thing for the program or not, an era had passed.

Ron Prince came next, with bold and daring bluster, sideline-stomping arrogance, and no clue how to manage the personalities of coaches or to consistently motivate players to perform. A 6-7 finish, followed by two 5-7 campaigns that included embarrassing losses to KU, drove him out. The Wildcats were mediocre. And mediocre is just a way-station on the road back to Futility U.

A coaching search ensued, but ultimately Bill Snyder returned, rejuvenated and determined to calm the waters. Because “who else could it be,” President Wefald proclaimed.

Snyder wasn’t finished making memories. Calm the waters he did, and then some. In his second season back, K-State was bowl eligible again. In 2012, behind Collin Klein, the Wildcats won a second league title.

Like last time, results have declined since reaching that league pinnacle. Which leads us to today.

I’m in my living room, watching K-State finish off a tenth straight win over the Jayhawks. I complain hypocritically about the empty seats at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. I’m not there, either. Circumstances in my life have changed. But I could be there, if I wanted to. For a run of several years, I never missed a Sunflower Showdown, even if the game was in Lawrence.

The win is a relief, and it comes about through the kind of statistical anomalies that have marked victories in Snyder’s second run. The Wildcats did not dominate the game. They rarely do that anymore. They did not outgain the opponent, and they caught breaks with penalties and some drops by KU receivers. But they bottled up Kansas’ best player, Pooka Williams, and played relatively mistake-free football. It’s just enough to secure the win. But, even with KU coach David Beaty already notified of his termination at season’s end, there is a sense that it will not be good enough much longer. Kansas has been the worst program in the conference for a decade. And now, the margin between K-State and KU is impossibly, unacceptably close.

There was a time when close wins against bottom-half opponents really would have been enough. Cause for celebration, even. Not anymore. Not for many of us. The trend is down, we say. Close wins of the past have become close losses today. The team lacks talent on the field and in the pipeline. Coach Snyder should have left after 2012, when the team was on a high. You’ve heard it all.

I understand the impatience, the discontent. Fans want more. They “deserve” more, as they themselves remind us. But I also understand those who say the cold calculus of measuring present results and assessing future expectations to decide whether Coach Snyder should stay just feels wrong. He’s not a volunteer, entitled to stay as long as he wants. He is compensated handsomely, and he himself surely expects better results than he has been able to achieve in recent years. But neither is he some dispensable rabble to be discarded without a moment’s regret.

I also understand some people’s reluctance to force out the one coach who proved it was possible to win in Manhattan and who allowed us to puff out our chests at the likes of Oklahoma and Nebraska for the first time. Some of that reluctance surely comes from the oversold and by no means unique “family” theme of the program. But realize, to a whole generation of fans who annually packed up the SUV and followed the team on December and January bowl trips, the accomplishments of K-State football under coach Snyder are inextricably intertwined with actual family. We all have a lot of memories wrapped up in what has been done on the north end of campus over the past thirty years. We should be reluctant to let that go and concerned about whether the succession plan will achieve results as meaningful as the Snyder plan has.

Since the disappointing meltdown in Ames, I have contemplated my own feelings on Coach Snyder’s uncertain future with the program. The fully objective side of my fandom does not believe he has the energy or vision any longer to recruit and field a team that will consistently compete for championships. That analytical side also believes that the framework of facilities and fan support that he helped put in place make it possible to elevate the team behind new leadership. If that calculation devoid of emotion were all that mattered, it would be an easy decision to suggest he move on.

But that harsh, results-only analysis feels heartless to me, considering the difference Coach Snyder has made. The emotional side of the decision is much more complicated. With the help of his supporting cast, Bill Snyder did something I once derided as impossible and a waste of the university’s effort and resources. I was completely wrong, on both counts. He made K-State a winner, and in the process, rejuvenated the school and contributed meaningfully to the growth and expansion of Manhattan and the surrounding area. He gave me memories I never expected to have, all of them connected in one way or another to my family. He instilled a sense of pride in K-Staters everywhere, and his programs introduced what we all tacitly accept now as the “K-State way.”

Whether today or next year or some year in the near future, we know Coach Snyder’s term will come to an end. While I respect the opinions of those viewing the matter through a wholly analytical prism, it would not be soul-crushing to me if he returned for a last hurrah. I’m trying not to let sports be soul-crushing, anyway, an endeavor that I fear we all fail at far too often.

My greatest hope is that when the decision comes—whenever that is, whatever it is—we will all be able unite behind it and support the program next year and beyond, no matter who is on the sidelines. Family shouldn’t squabble. And we should all appreciate what—or who—brought us together in the first place.