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Of legends and legacy

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In Manhattan, Kansas, Bill Snyder did more than just win football games

Baylor v Kansas State Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

So Bill Snyder has retired. Again, and this time probably for good.

It is no small wrench to write about Coach Snyder’s time at Kansas State in the past tense, and I am barely keeping my composure as I type this.

In the days and weeks to come, there will be many paeans and tributes written to his career as a football coach. There will be speculation too, about the future of football at Kansas State, about his successor, about whether he left on his own terms, and perhaps about whether the sour note struck by the 2018 season will tarnish the rest of his extraordinary tenure in Manhattan.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears/I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him//The evil that men do lives after them/The good is oft interred with their bones.

These famous lines are from Mark Anthony’s oration in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. They are essentially a reminder that the legacy of a man—even a famous man who once ruled a kingdom—is quickly forgotten even by those who owe him a huge debt.

It’s safe to say that this will not be Bill Snyder’s fate. He is in no danger of being forgotten by the Kansas State faithful any time soon. After all, this is a fan base that travels on Bill Snyder Highway to watch games at Bill Snyder Family Stadium which features a life-sized statue of the man himself outside the gates.

These are all accolades Snyder has earned honestly and deserved richly. The “greatest turnaround in college football” is well documented. Kansas State went from a program in danger of being ousted from the Big 8 and big time college sports to a program that was a near-constant presence in the Top 25 from much of the 1990s. That he could retire and then come back to do it all again in a much-altered football landscape is perhaps a sign of the timelessness of Snyder’s formula for success: working hard and getting a little better everyday.

The Miracle in Manhattan is an economic triumph too. It’s difficult to say he built the university. It had already existed for more than a century when Snyder first arrived in Manhattan, and it will continue to exist as long as brick-and-mortar institutions remain a cornerstone of the academic experience. But it is impossible to overstate his impact on the city of Manhattan.

The town we know today barely existed when Snyder first came to Kansas State. In 1989, the population was just 25,000 and enrollment at Kansas State had declined by almost 15%. By the year 2000, just over a decade into his first tenure in Manhattan, the population had swelled to nearly 45,000. Local businesses multiplied and grew, and on fall weekends, football brought in not just dollars but civic pride and a sense of success that bled over into the city’s other ventures.

But wins and losses and dollars and cents cannot fully capture what Bill Snyder has meant to the Kansas State community at large. In a sense, Snyder coming to Kansas State was a perfect meeting of the minds, a unique marriage joining a program desperate for change to a mind and personality keen on challenge.

At his introductory press conference, coincidentally (or not?) almost exactly 30 years ago, Snyder spoke about the one thing that was going to help transform Kansas State football. He was going to demand it of the administration, instill it in the players, and beg of it from the fans. He wanted everyone to care.

Snyder sold Kansas State on a simple concept. If you care about something, you will invest the necessary effort and there will be a return on that investment. This was his promise, and in exchange for that promise, he asked the community to buy in.

There may have been skepticism at first, but eventually, the Kansas State community saw their own values reflected in their head coach and in the program’s adherence to faith, family, and football. He preached hard work and attention to detail, and the Kansas State community, already brined in Midwestern work ethic, lapped it up and returned his investment several times over.

True to form, Snyder had seen the possibility of this long before anyone else in the Kansas State community. I wrote the following words back in 2015 when Snyder was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, and they remain just as true today:

There is an oft-repeated story about Snyder. Before he signed on to be the new head coach back in 1989, he took a walk around campus, making small talk with random strangers, and polling passing students about how they liked the school. Snyder remembers that on a freezing cold day in Manhattan, everyone he stopped took the time to chat with him. It was the friendliest campus he’d ever seen, so he came. He stayed. He conquered. He built a program, mentored his players, supported the institution, and came to love the community as if it were his family.

This, then, is his real legacy. Snyder is a legend, not only because he won a lot of games, and not only because he did it the right way, but because he did the thing that matters the most to Kansas State.

He cared.