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How Michael Bishop Broke Bill Snyder

Michael Bishop was an otherworldly talent, brought K-State almost to the top of the highest mountain...and broke Bill Snyder in the process.

Michael Bishop
Bishop changed everything at K-State. For better or worse.

Let’s start back in December 1998. The Kansas State Wildcats are number one in the Coaches Poll — and number three in the rankings of the inaugural season of the BCS — heading into the Big 12 Championship game. They are led by near-otherworldly quarterback Michael Bishop, a rare breed of signal-caller with both an incredible arm and the speed and running ability of a top-flight running back. All K-State has to do is the same thing they’ve done in the previous 11 games that season. Win.

It’s 2018, and we have yet another quarterback controversy. Skylar Thompson plays well. He’s got a big and pretty accurate arm and can run decently for a QB. He sees the field well (when he’s not looking over his shoulder), and his teammates seem to like him. Alex Delton plays well too, at least when he’s got some room to run. He showcased his skill-set in the romp over UCLA in the 2017 Cactus Bowl, putting up 158 yards and 3 TDs on 20 carries. He can run very well, but struggles making reads and the throws needed to survive in Division 1 in 2018. Thompson is clearly the better of the two QBs in 2018, at least from an overall perspective. Everyone sees it, except head coach Bill Snyder, who continually holds Thompson to a significantly higher standard than Delton. The different way he speaks about the two young men is wildly obvious.

But no one can seem to understand why Coach favors one so much more over the other.

But after the loss to Texas, something came up that cleared the picture. For the last 5+ years, we’ve been operating under the assumption that Snyder and his staff were stuck trying to recreate the Collin Klein offense. After all, he’s one of the most successful QB’s in K-State history. But Klein was a bruiser, an elite talent that could run and throw, but his running was like a fullback, and his collegiate throwing wasn’t always pretty. He wasn’t even favored in 2011 before the season started, according to a player that was there at the time (and a tweet that has since been deleted):

Travis Tannahill tweet screenshot

So what is the answer? What has Snyder actually been looking for?

Bill Snyder was the quarterbacks coach at Iowa before coming to K-State. He was most well-known for tutoring Chuck Long, the man who set all but one of the Hawkeye passing records by the time he graduated in 1985. Snyder was a passing guru. He brought that to K-State in 1989, and every team from 1989 to 1996 featured a heavy passing attack on offense. In the early 1990’s when Nebraska and Colorado and Oklahoma were romping over the nation with power running attacks, Snyder saw the best way to beat defenses built to stop those offenses was to do something completely different, to throw out of 3 and 4 receiver sets, to play up tempo, and throw those teams off balance. And it worked. From 1-10 to 5-6, 7-5, 5-6, and then finally the beautiful 1993 season when it all clicked.

1993 was a season unlike any other at K-State. Quarterback Chad May led a fairly up-tempo (for the time) spread passing attack that featured NFL-level receivers like Kevin Lockett and Andre Coleman. They could score in bunches, putting up over 30 points in six of their twelve games. They won the school’s first bowl game, a 52-17 romp over Wyoming in the Copper Bowl. They won more games than any team at K-State had ever won before, and finished the season ranked for the first time in school history. But they couldn’t beat Nebraska or Colorado, and so couldn’t win the Big 8 Conference. 1994-1996 was much of the same, going 9-2 in the regular season with May, Brian Kavanaugh, and Matt Miller leading spread passing attacks in their year’s, but none of them could beat Nebraska or Colorado. Four-straight seasons of 9+ wins. For Wildcat fans that was more than any had ever dreamed before.

The 1997 recruiting class went well for Bill Snyder and his staff. He raided the junior colleges, then a foreign concept for a major-division program, looking for elite talent to complement the pieces already in place. Several highly talented players came to K-State that year, but none bigger than Michael Bishop. Bishop, a Galveston, TX native came to K-State from Blinn Junior College where he had just led the Buccaneers to two-straight 12-0 records and NJCAA national championships. Bishop had offers from many major programs, but all wanted him to play defensive back or something other than QB. Except Bill Snyder, who saw that something special in Bishop and wanted him to play quarterback. So Bishop signed with K-State, and quickly earned the starting job heading into the 1997 season.

Bishop changed everything for Bill Snyder and Kansas State. He could throw all over the field and run like a gazelle. He was also a leader, the kind of guy that other guys want to play football with. And he was a winner. In 1997 he led the team to a victory that hadn’t happened yet, beating Colorado 37-20; but they still couldn’t beat Nebraska. Then in 1998 it all came together. The offense put up 66, 73, 48, and 62 points in their first four games, then after beating Colorado 16-9 in Boulder, the Cats put up 52, 52, 54, and 49 points. Then the unthinkable happened. Nov. 14th, 1998, K-State beat Nebraska 40-30 behind Bishop's heroics. The mountain conquered, the Cats capped off their perfect regular season with a 31-25 win over Missouri. The Wildcats were the sole Big 12 North champs, and K-State’s first conference title since 1934 was in reach, they just needed to beat Texas A&M.

And the Wildcats were on pace to do so, but after going up 17-3 in the second quarter, fate hit: the news that Miami had upset UCLA (slotted higher than K-State in the BCS) came over the stadium PA, announcing to the Wildcats that their shot at a national title was all but secured. And then the wheels fell off. The Wildcats fell in heartbreaking fashion in overtime and were relegated to the Alamo Bowl, where they would lose to Purdue.

1999 and 2000 were great years for K-State football. Two more 11-win seasons and two bowl victories led by Jonathan Beasley. Beasley was a solid QB, with a good arm and decent running ability, but he was no Bishop. He didn’t excite the fans and the coaches the way Bishop did. He won, but he wasn’t “pretty”. But there was another kid from Texas on the roster, a fast and savvy runner with a cannon for an arm. He redshirted in 1999, and rode the bench in 2000. But 2001 was his year, except that the staff had also brought in a juco QB to compete.

Marc Dunn had just won the NJCAA Offensive Player of the Year award and broke the NJCAA all-time passing record with 4,001 yards. He was a passing QB, geared for an offense like the Wildcats ran from 1989-1996. He played well, threw the ball efficiently.

Ell Roberson was the guy. He was brought in to be Michael Bishop 2.0. He had the same tools, the same skills. But he was young and unproven.

2001 was, relatively, a disaster for the Wildcats. 6-6, and a QB controversy all year. Snyder and the fans wanted Roberson, but he was young and mistake prone. And while the Cats made a bowl, it wasn’t a good year.

But 2002 turned things back around, and the Wildcats were again an 11-win team. Roberson took command of the offense, and the results followed. In 2003 K-State faced some early-season struggles when Roberson was injured, but the Cats overcame and Roberson, coupled with an incredible season from Darren Sproles, took the team to some new heights. A win over Nebraska in Lincoln gave the Cats the Big 12 North title and another shot at a championship. But this time the Wildcats were the underdog, facing the juggernaut Oklahoma Sooners. And this time, the Wildcats threw the stunner, blowing-out OU 35-7 behind Roberson’s stellar performance. But Ell got himself into trouble, and while he was later exonerated, he missed part of the Fiesta Bowl, and the Wildcats were never the same.

In 2004 and 2005, Snyder had failed to find an adequate QB to replace Roberson, and so other stars languished under a slew of athletes through the QB position. The closest might have been Dylan Meier, the fleet-footed QB from Pittsburg, KS. But Meier could never stay healthy for more than a few games at a time.

At the end of the 2005 season, Snyder retired.

In 2009 Snyder returned, and made a winning team out of the talent left behind by Ron Prince’s miserable tutelage of the Wildcat football program. But he was missing a quarterback. He got kind of what he wanted in 2009 when Grant Gregory was sent by Jim Leavitt transferred from USF before the season. Gregory was a battering ram, but worked for the QB-focused run-based offense that Snyder had been running since 1997. There was a better QB on the roster, the much-maligned Carson Coffman. Coffman was recruited to play in Prince’s pro-passing offense, and had the tools for that offense. He was accurate, he could read the field, and he could make all the throws needed for Division 1 football. Except he was slow.

In 2010 Snyder had no other option. Coffman started and dragged one of the worst defenses K-State had seen in 20 years to a 6-win season and a bowl bid. Except there was still controversy, as Collin Klein came out of the shadows to start against Texas and pulled off what is now known as The Great Kleining of Texas; a game where the Texas quarterbacks threw more passes to K-State than Klein did (CK went 2-4, UT’s QB’s threw 5 INTs).

In 2010 Snyder and the staff recruited another fleet-footed QB, Samuel Lamur, from junior college. Athletic, with a big arm, Lamur lacked accuracy and the ability to fully run Snyder’s offense. Collin Klein, recruited under Ron Prince to play wide receiver/tight end, had command of the offense, and could run and throw. He just wasn’t “pretty” doing it.

Klein won out, and eventually led his team to the precipice again; winning a Big 12 title in 2012 and put his team in a position to go to the national title before falling late in the season to Baylor and dropping out of contention.

2013, another QB controversy. Daniel Sams, a fleet-footed QB from Louisiana was brought in during the 2011 recruiting cycle and was Klein’s understudy through 2012. Jake Waters, a passing QB was recruited in 2012, and came to K-State after leading his JUCO team to a NJCAA national championship. Sams was electric running the football, and could throw deep, but he lacked the ability to run anything complex in the playbook. He also struggled getting the ball to K-State’s truly elite playmaker on offense, WR Tyler Lockett. Waters could throw all over the field, and could run decently well, but he wasn’t electric...unless he was throwing deep bombs to Lockett. Snyder finally relented in 2013, and Waters took over for good and led his team to a bowl victory in 2013, and then had things geared up for another Big 12 championship run in 2014 until a injury during a victory against OU in Norman limited his ability to fully spread the field.

2015, another QB controversy. Jesse Ertz was the presumed starter. He looked a lot like Collin Klein, but with maybe a better arm. But there was a hot-shot recruit, this time from Kansas on the roster. Alex Delton was a highly-rated recruit, and was lighting running the ball. Be he struggled throwing, and during his senior season at high school looked down-right pedestrian when a new coach came in and changed the offense from an option-run offense to a spread passing offense. Both got injured early in the very first game of the season, and 2015 turned into a disaster.

2016, Jesse Ertz took hold of the reins and didn’t let go. Ertz led K-State to a bowl victory, and then headed into 2017 with big visions. But Ertz again got hurt, opening the road again for Delton. Delton played well enough in his starts, but also showed he had a serious flaw. While his running ability is matchless, he is sub-par as a throwing QB. Delton was also knocked out twice running, pushing another freshman phenom into the spotlight. Skylar Thompson came in and played well, and picked up a three big wins to end the season and secure another bowl destination. But the waters got muddied when Thompson looked mediocre to start the bowl game and Delton came in and ran it all over UCLA in route to MVP honors.

Which brings us to 2018.

So what is Snyder looking for? He often claims they build the offense around the players they have, but the product on the field has not mirrored that least until his hand is forced. With both Waters and Thompson, Snyder has had a QB capable of running the offense he ran at K-State in his early years, but continues to try to run them into the ground with a zone-read offense that doesn’t fit their skills. Klein and Ertz were effective, but not exactly “pretty”.

It was all unclear until the aforementioned tweet. Tannahill’s statement gives us a clear picture of exactly what Snyder keeps looking for, regardless of the actual talents of the players that he has.

Snyder has spent the last 20 years trying to recreate Michael Bishop.

It’s been his quest since Bishop, in all his fantastic glory, led K-State to almost the top of the highest mountain. Bishop broke Snyder for future quarterbacks. Bishop, his elite speed coupled with an NFL-level arm and his innate ability to lead. Bishop was near-perfection at QB for K-State. And now it’s all that Snyder wants.

Snyder has led successful teams in different systems, but he can’t see past Michael Bishop. Beasley and Klein were happy accidents, the right guy in the right place to win a lot of games. But it wasn’t exactly what Snyder wanted. It’s become clear that Snyder has spent the past 20 years trying to recreate 1998 and Michael Bishop.

He got so very close in 2003 with Ell Roberson. Roberson did nearly everything that Bishop did, and even brought Snyder his first conference title. But he also caused grief for the program, a black mark that Snyder hasn’t forgiven.

So Snyder has spent every season since trying to find Bishop, but in a humble, quiet guy who won’t tarnish his program again. Evridge, Gregory, Coffman, Klein, and Waters were the leaders he wanted, but not the players. Lamur and Sams couldn’t run the offense. Delton can’t throw well enough to keep defenses honest. Ertz was maybe a little too cocky, too outspoken (and injury-prone). Thompson very likely may be the same inside the program (we have nothing to confirm that).

And just look at who is in the recruiting pipeline. Chris Herron is another Texan that is electric on the ground and has the ability to throw downfield. He’s from Houston, like Roberson, and could easily be Snyder’s next, and possibly final, bid to recreate Michael Bishop.

Michael Bishop was great. That is not in question. He was a miracle for Kansas State, and took K-State over the hump from really good to truly great. But he just missed out on making K-State elite, just missed out on putting the cherry on top of Snyder’s Miracle. But Snyder finally got a taste of the promised land, and much like a drug addict after their first high, has spent all the time after trying to recreate that same experience, eschewing all others except when he can no longer avoid it. Snyder has found his drug of choice, and nothing else compares.

Bishop broke Snyder, and now, 20 years later, it’s finally to a point where the cracks can no longer be covered up. No amount of message control can cover up that Snyder needs his fix, and is willing to throw talented players aside to get it. It’s only become more apparent the last few years as Snyder’s own personal filter has started to degrade. It’s as though he feels the end approaching ever quicker and is on a mission to finally recreate his greatest success once and for all before he retires for good.