MORGANTOWN, W.V. – Here in an era of new-wave offenses and gimmick defenses, of tricked-up uniforms and fortysomething coaching geniuses of the month, seven rows of Kansas State football players dressed in traditional purple and white stood postgame on the 30-yard line, linked arms and began walking off the field in unison. They did it, because … well, because the great-grandfather in charge says it's important.
"We come on the field as a team," said wide receiver Chris Harper, "we leave as a team."
The scoreboard read Kansas State 55, West Virginia 14, a beat-down so epic there was a traffic jam outside the stadium in the third quarter as all the Mountaineer fans chased taillights for a country road to take them home.
Pretty much all that remained of Milan Puskar Stadium was a throng of purple-clad Wildcat backers losing their minds over what just transpired here, what keeps transpiring across this glorious now 7-0 season and what might still transpire – Heisman trophies and BCS title games included.
After the players had marched off and were finally freed to celebrate with the fans, Bill Snyder, the 73-year-old patriarch of the Miracle in Manhattan 2.0, came walking off, waving kindly to the chants of his name. He wasn't going to stop for the party, because that isn't his way, and it was after 11 p.m. and he was looking for a cup of coffee – cream, no sugar.
"Don't you guys have a deadline to meet or something?" he said to the big media contingent at his news conference later. "Gee whiz."
He is a man of discipline and values and fundamentals and schedule, and the more his fourth-ranked Wildcats win, the more attention they demand; lengthy media sessions becoming a sleep-delaying byproduct.
"Bill, do you get tired …" began a question about the perception that Kansas State lacks talent.
"Yes," Snyder laughed, cutting it off.
Across the coaching ranks of the Big 12 the feeling is mutual. Oh, you bet they are tired, tired of trying to explain how they and their big contracts and resource-rich programs and star-studded rosters keep getting their tail kicked by that nice, soft-spoken man in the simple purple windbreaker.
There is no one more respected than Bill Snyder, no one who exudes day-in, day-out class like Snyder. He still sends hand-written notes to opposing coaches complimenting them on various aspects of their teams.
Yet at some point everyone gets tired of being shown up by what was once a football graveyard. Rivals coaches thought they were done with him in 2005 when he retired after a run that defied probability, when arguably the worst major conference job in America was a double-overtime loss in the 1998 Big 12 title game from playing for the title.
Then Snyder got restless in retirement and decided to return to resurrect the program again, to coach in a building already named after him. That was 3½ seasons ago. Now Kansas State has triumphed in its toughest road tests – here and at Oklahoma – and features a brilliant quarterback in Collin Klein, an opportunistic defense and a group of players who simply believe.
Believe in each other. Believe in their coach. Believe in all these silly, hokey ideals such as linking arms and marching off a field together like some military operation. The Cat Pack is an old Snyder ritual, required anytime the team leaves the field, be it pregame, halftime or after victory or defeat, home or away.
"I didn't like it when I first got here," Harper admitted.
The custom seemed dated. But soon, just like the rest of his teammates, Harper understood what it meant because he came to understand that everything means something with Bill Snyder.
"A lot of people say we don't have those four- and five-star recruits," said defensive back Ty Zimmerman, a former walk-on from little Junction City, Kan., who's now a two-time All Big 12 honoree. "But we do a good job sticking together, being there for each other. It gets everybody together."
Snyder runs his program based on 16 goals, fairly simple concepts such as "Responsibility," "Expect to Win," "Eliminate Mistakes" and so on. Another is "No Self-Limitations," a creed that tends to build up players into more than others once expected from them.
It's from there that a team of often lightly recruited or overlooked players is capable of laying woodshed beatings on the powers of the Big 12, capable of rolling into the Appalachians and scoring on its first eight possessions against the nation's 13th-ranked team while harassing former Heisman favorite Geno Smith into four sacks, two interceptions and a week (at least) of nightmares.
This wasn't just some upset (although the odds said so). This was a mismatch.
"No self-limitations," Snyder said. "There shouldn't be for me, there shouldn't be for any of our players. However you may or may not have been today, tomorrow there isn't any reason you can't be better. That's just what we do."
Everyone wants to know how Snyder does it. How he does what no one else has ever done. How he gets K-State to climb this high.
"You talk about the 16 goals," he said. "I believe our players embrace those values, and that's true to what they are. They are the same values that you teach your son or your daughter. It's not rocket science. It's just things I believe personally, and I think our players do, that allow people to become successful whether its life, business, community."
It carries over to little things like during road trips when he encourages players to leave thank you notes to the housekeeping staff of the team hotel. Or it's honoring themselves, their family and their school by dressing in business casual unison after the game – gray slacks, white shirt, black blazer with a power cat logo. Or it's making all goals team goals, although even Snyder was willing to bend when the Wildcats secondary ended Smith's NCAA record streak without an interception by grabbing two.
"I told them if they got a third, we'd stop the game for a pep rally," Snyder said.
"He did say that on the sideline," laughed Zimmerman. "We came up short. A lot of people think he's out of date, but he can really relate to the younger guys."
"He's funnier than people think," Harper said.
Mostly, Snyder tunes into the timeless motivation of men wanting to be better men, players wanting to be better players and teams wanting to win championships. Everyone here knows there is no margin for error, that they aren't sure-bet NFL stars, so it becomes a group thing.
Klein, once rated the 106th-best quarterback recruit in the country by Scout.com, is now a Heisman contender, delivering an astounding stat line here Saturday, completing 19 of 21 passes for 323 yards and three TDs while rushing for 41 yards and four TDs. His top receiver was Tyler Lockett, undersized and overlooked, who torched the Mountaineers for nine of those catches, 194 of those yards and two of those TDs.
"They teach us to run routes," Lockett said. "That's what they teach us every day: run routes, run routes, run routes. We may not have the speed, we may not have the size, but we can run routes."
It sounds simple. Snyder makes it look easy. The plan is the plan, the commandments are the commandments. Commit to it, and eventually scoreboards spin, opposing fans try to beat the traffic and even the BCS can't ignore this little team in purple.
Mostly, it's finding the people who see Kansas State not as some distant outpost amidst the wheat fields, but as a land of opportunity, a chance to be part of something bigger than themselves – a moment in time to step out of this era of flash, flair and empty hype to a program where a humble old man, late on a glorious Saturday night can lead a team linked arm-in-arm off the field, toward their delirious fans and toward a season of everything.
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