The news sent shockwaves through the Kansas State locker room, if not the entire Big 12. In February, Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder announced that he had been diagnosed with throat cancer.
To the K-State family – and it’s a family in every sense, right down to the Bill Snyder Family Stadium name plastered on the side of the Wildcats’ football home – the revelation felt a little like the Incredible Hulk announcing that his muscles had vanished.
Coach Snyder – really? The dean of the Big 12? K-State’s forever coach? Is it possible that he’s not invincible?
“When he announced that he had throat cancer, that was tough for all of us to take,” said K-State running back Alex Barnes. “But we know Coach Snyder is a tough man and he’s going to get through it.”
So far, Barnes’ prognosis seems to be right on target. Snyder underwent more than 30 treatments for his cancer from January through May. He still participated in spring drills in Manhattan as normal. His assistant coaches and players said that they didn’t spot much difference, though some observers noted that Snyder tended to drink more bottled water than the coffee he used to gulp down like air.
Asked about his health at the Big 12’s media days in late July, the ever-gentlemanly Snyder uncurled a smile and answered, “Well, I’m doing fine. I mean, the recovery is ongoing, obviously, but I’m doing fine, getting around fine. Don’t have any issues right now other than trying to prepare for the season. But that’s always an ongoing issue. That’s 365 (days) a year.”
Still, those at Kansas State naturally worried. When sophomore tight end Dayton Valentine learned of Snyder’s diagnosis, it triggered a feeling of fear and a series of painful memories. When Valentine was 15 years old, he lost his father Jeff to colon cancer.
“It’s something when it’s affected you and your family personally, and then Coach – the head coach of your football team – is almost like a father figure, too,” Valentine said. “So, definitely, it was something that I had to take in a little bit and think about.”
At age 77, Snyder is older than Baylor coach Matt Rhule (42) and Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley (33) are combined. His place as one of the game’s legendary figures is secure. The turnaround that K-State made under Snyder should go down as one of college football’s all-time great reclamation projects. When he took over as coach in 1989, the Wildcats had not won a game in nearly three years. Sports Illustrated labeled Kansas State as “Futility U.”
By 1991, K-State had ascended to a 7-4 record, the program’s second winning season since 1970. And the winning stuck. In the years since, the Wildcats have claimed a pair of Big 12 championships and have qualified for 18 bowl games under Snyder’s watch, which includes a pair of stints interrupted by a brief retirement from 2006-08.
But the Kansas State players view Snyder as far more than a gridiron tactician.
“Not only is he our football coach, but you could say life coach as well,” Valentine said. “Just the values that are instilled in you from the beginning that are expected to stay with you, if you lose them, you’re going to figure it out quick, because you’re going to be in trouble.
“I think it’s just one of those where maybe you don’t necessarily notice it as much when you’re going through it. But when it’s over, when you’ve been in the program a while, you really do respect all the things that he’s done for his players.”
Each year, Snyder administers a survey to his team, asking the players to list their individual, team, educational and faith-based goals. It’s a way to get them to think about life beyond football.
But it doesn’t stop there. After the players submit their surveys, Snyder meets with each one individually to evaluate those goals and help map out a plan of action to seeing them through.
It’s the essence of Bill Snyder. The man is known for being meticulously organized, for maintaining a tireless work ethic even into his golden years. He famously once declared that he considered eating a nuisance, because it took too much time, and was trying to figure out a way to limit his eating to just one meal a day.
So perhaps he is the ideal opponent to take on cancer.
Clearly, Snyder isn’t bulletproof. The treatments he underwent sapped his strength and took away some weight. Though he is doing better, he isn’t out of the woods yet.
But there is no way he’ll surrender without a fight. That’s not in Bill Snyder’s DNA.
“It was something where his mindset right off the bat through the whole thing, what he had to tell us was just, ‘Yeah, he’s got this.’ You know what I mean?” Valentine said. “That was reassuring.”