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May 30, 2012In front of Bill Snyder, upon his desk, rests a stack of papers and handwritten notes. That's stuff for today. Behind the 72-year-old head coach stands a pair of black binders with "TWO-A-DAY PRACTICES" typewritten upon white labels. That's stuff for the days to come.
It's all the same. Nothing has changed. And the routine, the day-at-a-time approach, is exactly how the oldest active head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision, who owns a 159-83-1 overall record, wants it to be.
Make no mistake, though, the wheels are spinning. They never stop. But Snyder did pause momentarily during what most of America refers to as the lunch hour. On this day, his only noticeable fuel comes from the piping-hot coffee sitting in a Styrofoam cup an arm's length away.
That part apparently hasn't changed, either, for the future College Football Hall-of-Famer who embarks on his 21st season with the Wildcats in the fall.
But today is about recalling the surprise 2011 season that featured the most wins by a K-State team in eight years and the Cotton Bowl berth that went along with it. It's about recounting the steps of a squad that won eight games within one score, the most by a team from a FBS automatic-qualifying league in history, including six victories when tied or trailing in the second half.
Snyder earned the PI Premier Award by Powercat Illustrated as Coach of the Year for the 2011-12 academic year at K-State, his first such honor since the 2003 Big 12 Championship season in which the Wildcats put the college football nation on its ear with a 35-7 win over top-ranked and undefeated Oklahoma one December night in Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium.
Some head coaches go years without reaching 10 wins or a major bowl. Snyder, of course, is no ordinary man. He returned to a downtrodden program prior to the 2009 season to calm the waters and over the course of three seasons smoothed all of the rockiness he found within the Flint Hills into a glassy lake.
"You know I'm not going to sit around trying to define where we're going to be in 10 months, so maybe that's the reason nothing has surprised me, because I didn't have those kinds of expectations or projections," Snyder told Powercat Illustrated for its end-of-the-year awards issue. "It's just a day at a time and that's never changed."
The climb was gradual. From the 6-6 record in 2009 to a 7-6 mark in 2010 and the Wildcats' first bowl appearance in four years to the 10-3 campaign in which the eighth-place team in the preseason Big 12 projections finished only behind Oklahoma State, it's an impressive ascension. The squad doubted again and again, picked as the underdog in eight of its final 10 regular season games, kept winning and winning and ascended to No. 8 in the final BCS Standings. In fact, only one team in the Top 15 of the final BCS Standings didn't receive a single vote in either of the two major preseason polls.
That team, which doubters believed entered with marginal talent and were expected to struggle mightily in the meat of the league season, played deeper into January than any team in K-State history and finished ranked at No. 16 by The Associated Press.
"The young people in our program brought out the best in each other," Snyder said. "When all of those intrinsic values begin to settle in and they begin to take ownership in what we call those 16 goals, when they truly decide that they want to be a part of that, then they're there for each other. They help each other along. They help develop each other and provide the platform for their teammates to succeed."
The visitor suggests to Snyder that the 2011 season was the greatest coaching job of his career. Snyder doesn't openly dispute that claim, at least not now, but he does brush aside claims that perhaps something magical set the team apart from any of the previous squads that he led in Manhattan.
"You could've done this interview going through old notes because I know they say the same thing," he chuckled. "Well, they may have been different than some teams but very similar to others as well, with or without records. The significance of this football team and how I felt about them, if I were to sit down and make comparison, which I really don't, I'd suggest the things that I look at would be what we talk about all the time.
"They learned how to become a consistently-competitive football team, and consistent, in the broad-based vernacular, maybe not the letter of the law, but overall somewhat consistent considering all of the parameters and all of the variables that go into the game of football.
"They became a very determined football team, which was evidenced and their perseverance was really demonstrated by them coming from behind and playing in extremely close ballgames and not giving in when it might've been an easier thing to do. With the word 'family' goes the word 'trust' and that's what they learned to do. They learned to have great faith and great trust in each other and that led to that family environment that they took such great pride in."
It can be argued that the family will be back -- or a strong nucleus of it will be, at least -- behind 17 returning starters, including eight on offense, six on defense and three specialists.
In addition, consider that 27 of 41 returning lettermen on offense and defense (see chart below) have made at least one career start in a K-State uniform. Those players have combined for a total of 257 career starts. That includes 17 on offense (151 combined starts) and 10 on defense (106 starts).
That also includes a total of four returning players that earned either first- or second-team All-Big 12 honors in 2011.
Sophomore wide receiver Tyler Lockett returns after earning Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors. As a kick returner, he set Big 12 and K-State records by averaging a nation-leading 35.2 yards per return during the regular season to earn first-team Walter Camp All-American honors. Senior Collin Klein, who tied a FBS record by rushing for 27 touchdowns as a quarterback, earned first-team All-Big 12 honors as an all-purpose player.
Senior linebacker Arthur Brown, the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year, returns after becoming the first K-State player since 2006 to record at least 100 tackles in a season. Senior cornerback Nigel Malone earned second-team Walter Camp All-American honors after he posted seven interceptions, which tied for third nationally.
However, a couple of interesting twists remain regarding the longevity within the roster. Consider among the offense and defense, senior fullback Braden Wilson, senior wide receiver Chris Harper, senior tight end Travis Tannahill and junior safety Ty Zimmerman are the only returners to start in at least six games in each of the last two seasons.
Only three players on offense and defense -- Wilson, Klein (at wide receiver), and senior safety Thomas Ferguson -- started at least one game in 2009.
Like everything else, the roster has been a building process.
"Most young people would walk through the door and when you ask them about leadership, they say, 'My time will come when I'm a senior,'" Snyder said. "That's not really what we promote. Our young guys, we're constantly trying to promote greater leadership and more leadership from an individual standpoint.
"My feeling is that if the whole room was full of leaders and they understand where the leadership wants to take us, then you've got everybody on board. That's the ultimate goal."
There is a multitude of ways to dissect the roster, no doubt. Judging from the annual Purple and White Spring Game on April 28, it appears several up-and-comers, including a pair of redshirt freshmen offensive linemen in Cody Whitehair and Boston Stiverson, will compete for starting positions in fall camp.
Having ample opportunity to review every repetition from the spring game and the 14 spring workouts leading up to it, Snyder admitted, "It's the same thing -- a work in progress."
"We're maybe a little better at the end of the spring than we were at the beginning of the spring. We still have some areas that we know have to improve, some immensely and in varying degrees."
Snyder's eyes generally don't widen. They did when he was informed that in the 117-year history of K-State football, Klein is the only offensive player to be named a team co-captain three straight years.
Does that make Klein the most consistent leader ever under Snyder? Hold on now. Don' forget that Mark Simoneau and Brooks Barta were also three-time co-captains under Snyder as well.
"I'd have to think long and hard about that," Snyder said. "I do know he's a truly consistent individual. Leadership goes along with it. That happens to be one of his qualities. All of the things that he does are the right things. His leadership has grown over the years. Collin, by nature, isn't a dramatically outgoing individual, not extremely vocal. That's his nature but out of necessity he's developed into that kind of commanding leader in the appropriate way and he's well received in that respect.
"Now, have we had other leaders like that over the years? I'm sure we have."
K-State has encountered its share of skeptics throughout the Snyder era as well. That, too, is a certainty. As usual, the preseason Big 12 coaches' poll is expected to be announced at the annual football media days event in late July. It'll remain an object of intrigue with the addition of TCU and West Virginia this fall. Before that, countless Big 12 and national projections will hit the Internet. Recently, college football expert Phil Steele pegged K-State at no. 37 in his Top 40 Countdown. K-State was nowhere to be found in the preseason Top 25 released by Athlon's. Some believe regardless of the abundance of returning starters, away trips to Oklahoma, TCU and West Virginia will be too much to overcome.
Somebody else recently suggested that Snyder, the 2011 National Coach of the Year and Big 12 Coach of the Year, is the fourth-best coach in the league behind Bob Stoops, Gary Patterson and Mike Gundy.
And, yes, that's stuff that Snyder probably won't even look at.
But Snyder reiterates that the family will change in 2012. The teams always change. And always will. And that's regardless of the number of returning starters.
"Even though you've got X number of returning players who played major roles last year, my experience tells me it doesn't make a difference," he said. "If you have them all back, you're still a different football team than you were the previous year. You're a different family than you were the previous year. That's a given, I think. We will be different. What that means? I can't tell you.
"We might be different in a number of different areas, including, we might be different in terms of being better, we might be different in terms of not being as good, we might be different in terms of who steps up and really helps us lay the foundation for the season. We might be different in terms of where our strengths and weaknesses are.
"Not might be -- we will."
Regardless of the season, some things never change.
And that's exactly how Snyder wants it to be.