restricted access 3 Bill Snyder: Miracle in Manhattan
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If you’re not tested, you’re not living. It’s the test that challenges your character. The tougher the job, the greater the reward. —Hall of Fame Coach GEORGE ALLEN 3 BILL SNYDER: Miracle in Manhattan Now in his second stint, Coach Bill Snyder strives to create another “Miracle in Manhattan.”© k a n s a s s tat e u n i v e r s i t y 49 WHEN NEWT GINGRICH WAS ELECTED Speaker of the House, one of his first tasks was to call legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno for advice on how to gracefully replace the old guard on the Hill with fresh blood. Gingrich was seeking Paterno’s advice because the crafty coach was known for reinvigorating his team each year. In 1988, Kansas State University’s president, Jon Wefald, sought similar counsel. His football team had crashed, burned, and was rusting in pieces. Stan Parrish quit as the team’s coach four days into the season , unable to endure what eventually became the 0–11 finish, a school record 30-game winless streak, and a 1–36–1 stretch at the close of the 1980s. The first major college football program to lose 500 games, the Kansas State Wildcats—a.k.a. “Mildcats”—were a national laughingstock. Sports Illustrated proclaimed “Futility U”—with its horrific play before near-empty bleachers—the worst program in the country. “The losing atmosphere was palpable to anyone who came in contact with it,” wrote Dennis Dodd of the Washington Post. “The ugly purple uniforms, the ancient facilities, the pittance of fans. Players’ self-esteem was lower than the team’s place in the standings—which was usually last.” So noncompetitive was K-State that there was a serious move afoot to kick them out of the football-frenzied Big Eight (now the Big 12) Conference. The program had hit rock bottom. “The morale of the players and coaches was terrible,” says former captain Rob Goode, recalling the bad old days. “Being a football player at K-State wasn’t something to be proud of. It was common for players to arrive late to team meetings and practices. There was no discipline on the team. No one believed we could win.” 50 bright triumphs Achieving any modicum of success back then would have seemed miraculous. More than that, pure fantasy. But fantasizing about K-State football had always been rare, and Wildcat fans had never been an especially large or passionate gang. Attendance barely cracked 20,000 per home game—less than half of capacity—in the team’s creaking, rusty stadium. Folks in the isolated college town of Manhattan, known as the Little Apple, were more likely to root for in-state rival Kansas University or any other Big Eight team as they were for the team in their own backyard . Back then, Kansas State was everyone’s second favorite. The skeptics felt it was time for the university to withdraw from collegiate competition, as Wichita State had done, and leave Kansas as the only major college football program in the state. “I don’t believe, as much as you could write about it, you know how bad it was—the facilities, the players on scholarships, the budget,” recalls Bob Stoops, head coach at Oklahoma University and a former K-State assistant. Dr. Wefald, who became Kansas State’s twelfth president in 1986, knew he had to put some bite back into the Wildcats. He understood the symbiotic relationship between football and academics. The gridiron, he argued at the time, “provides an opportunity to look forward to six or seven weekends each fall when the trees are turning and the crops are being harvested. It’s the tail that wags the dog. It’s far too important. Athletics is our window to the world. Like it or not, sports in America are important in determining the reputation of a university.” Yet the distinguished historian, whose interests range from Gen. George Custer to Genghis Khan, knew that turning around his failing football team would be no small accomplishment. He needed a crusader. “There weren’t five people in the Western world who thought we could do it,” Wefald recalls. He charged his then athletic director Steve Miller with finding a miracle worker. Eighteen candidates were interviewed, most displaying “monumental indifference,” says Wefald. Jim Epps, Kansas State’s senior associate athletic director, suggested Miller look at Iowa University, which had rebuilt its program in...