EDITOR’S NOTE: In the two weeks leading up to the 2017 college football season, Franchise columnist and co-host John E. Hoover previews the Big 12 Conference. Today’s final installment: Kansas State.
On the front of their helmets, the word “FAMILY.”
Emblazoned on a special 4 x 4 block of wood players carry onto the field before every game, the word “FAMILY.”
Hanging over the exit onto that field before every game, the word “FAMILY.”
Included in the name of Kansas State’s stadium itself, Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
And waiting in the wings to take the reins at K-State — someday, maybe — is Snyder’s own family, his son, longtime KSU assistant and former Wildcat punter Sean Snyder.
In Sean The Wizard of Manhattan trusts, but as the 77-year-old head coach’s career ultimately winds down (let’s face it, he’s already retired once and last spring endured grueling treatments for throat cancer), there may be a power struggle underway, a sort of succession to the crown fraught with political intrigue.
Former athletic director John Currie had the issue sitting on his desk for years before he decided this year to take the Tennessee job. Now it’s Gene Taylor’s problem to address.
“This is all I’m going to say about it,” Bill Snyder said at Big 12 Media Days. “He’s more than as successful a special teams coordinator as there is in the country. That’s year in and year out. Not just on occasion, but year in and year out.
“He’s also director of operations, and if you look at the list of responsibilities, it entails anything and everything that you think a head coach would be doing. He’s doing that, again, year in and year out. Put those two things together. There’s a football aspect of it, and a leadership management responsibility that goes along with it, and that pretty much encompasses what head coaches do.”
Might Snyder follow the example of his former aide, Bob Stoops, who took his summertime retention bonus and then unexpectedly retired in June, fortifying his own desire to all but appoint Lincoln Riley his successor? Maybe one day soon Snyder will call it quits just as an upcoming football season draws close and the coaching carousel has been stilled and Taylor’s best option to keep things rolling is to promote Sean Snyder.
Or maybe not. Maybe 2017 will simply be just another season in Snyder’s epochal tenure.
“We take every season virtually the same,” Snyder said. “There’s slight changes here and there, and we take every single day, you know, virtually the same way and every season the same way and every game the same way. We try to remain consistent. We try to base everything we do on a minute-to-minute environment, and the basis of the program really is to find ways to get better every single minute that we possibly can.”
That’s a perfect description of Kansas State football since Snyder arrived in 1989.
He’s one of just four coaches to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame while he’s still coaching. He’s one of just six coaches to reach 200 career victories at one school.
The Wildcats were 9-4 in 2016 and will win again this season, largely because Bill Snyder is their coach. But they’ll also win because Jesse Ertz is their quarterback, and because their defense has three starters back in the secondary and three starters back on the line.
K-State was picked third in the Big 12 race this year, and is the team most likely to challenge Oklahoma and Oklahoma State for a spot in the Big 12 title game. That’s the kind of respect given a team that returns eight starters on offense (four on the line) and six on defense and has played in seven consecutive Bowl games (including last year’s victory over Texas A&M in the Texas Bowl).
The Wildcats, however, may have become accustomed to the underdog’s role. Can they be successful when everyone thinks they’re supposed to be?
“Well, I’m not naive to the fact that the players certainly are going to pay attention to that,” Snyder said. “I mean, they read everything that’s put out. If you can get it on any type of social media outlet, they’re going to see it, I guarantee you that. We flew down here (to Frisco, Texas) in the plane for an hour and 20 minutes or so, and all five of them … are buried in their phones.
“We’ve never approached a season any differently, one any differently than another, whether that be right or wrong. And the idea that, if you do have a certain number of people returning — which we have a reasonably large number returning players, starters in the program — it’s not about who you have back or how many you have back. It’s really about how you prepare yourself game by game. That’s the important thing for us. My caution to our players and to anybody that would listen would be not take anything for granted. You still have to do it. The old adage, ‘You still have to play the game.’ You still have to practice every single day.”
In Ertz, Snyder’s offense is in good hands. He had only one 200-yard passing game last season, and three times his completion percentage was below .500. Suffering a shoulder injury in a midseason game against Oklahoma, Ertz threw for just 1,755 yards and nine touchdowns, and his average of 135 yards per game ranked ninth among Big 12 quarterbacks.
But Ertz also ranked eighth among Big 12 runners, gaining 1,012 yards and 12 touchdowns as K-State set a school record with 5.27 rushing yards per carry. He’s nearly the ideal tool to run Snyder’s offense: a smart, patient, tough runner who’s quicker and stronger than he looks. He is also still coming back from that surgery.
“You know, I’m awful pleased with Jesse in a lot of different ways,” Snyder said. “First and foremost, Jesse is a tremendous young man. He’s another one of those young guys that possesses a great core value system. He’s a hard worker. He’s disciplined. He’s dedicated. He cares. He’s a great teammate with his teammates. … He’s a captain in our program.
“From a physical standpoint, I saw him throw in the spring, and I thought he came back and threw well. Since that time, he’s gotten stronger and stronger and stronger, and I think he readily admits right now that he’s throwing the ball better than he ever has. The players tell me in their workouts that he’s throwing the ball as hard and accurately as he has at any time in his career that they can remember.
“He’s totally recovered.”
“He looks great,” said defensive back D.J. Reed. “He’s throwing the ball better than I have ever seen.”
Ertz’s passing numbers might be up this year, too, because he has four of his top six receivers back, plus the addition of Cal transfer Carlos Strickland, a once-dynamic high school prospect who’s now a third-year college sophomore that has yet to play.
Three starters back on the line (All-Big 12 senior center Reid Najvar went down for the year early in camp), plus All-Big 12 tight end Dayton Valentine and two-time All-Big 12 fullback Winston Dimel mean K-State will be as physical as ever. That’s a plus for Tulsa Union junior Justin Silmon, who ran for 210 of his 464 yards in the final two games of the season and may emerge as the starting running back.
First-team All-Big 12 tackle Will Geary, 12-game starting tackle Trey Dishon and Big 12 defensive freshman of the year Reggie Walker anchor a punishing defensive line, and 13-game starter Kendall Adams, ballhawk corner Duke Shelley and Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year D.J. Reed fortify one of the Big 12’s top secondary units.
“There are a lot of things,” Ertz said, “to be excited about.”
Ertz clearly expects a big season at K-State, but his feeling goes beyond just football.
“I feel like all the players on the team are really close,” he said.
One might say they’re a family.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.