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Without his work, something is missing for Kansas State coach Bill Snyder

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Kansas State fans give well wishes to Bill Snyder (0:48)

During Kansas State's game against Iowa State, Wildcats fans send well wishes to coach Bill Snyder, who recently announced he is battling throat cancer. (0:48)

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Endings are all around him, slapping him in the face like a cold prairie wind. Last week, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder attended the funeral of former Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes. The service was filled with old stories and laughs, because Dykes, who was 79, didn't want anyone to be sad at his funeral. Former Texas coach Mack Brown regaled the crowd with a tale of Dykes playing golf, tobacco spit dripping from his mouth. All around Snyder were his old foes -- wrinkled, rested and retired.

Snyder's face is thin and pale. He has completed his final treatment for throat cancer, the prognosis is good, and people around him say things like, "He's moving in a positive direction," phrases you use for an athlete who won't be down for long. Doctors tell him it will take weeks before he regains some of his strength and energy, but Snyder doesn't wait. He has to be at every practice, even though it's spring, even though he's 77 and the oldest coach in college football.

All around him, things are changing. People are moving on. Del Miller, one of the loyal assistants with Snyder when he arrived at Kansas State back in 1989, recently announced his retirement from K-State. Miller has pictures of his grandkids near his desk, and he wants to actually see them in person. He's going to travel and play golf and enjoy life before his body won't let him. Miller is 66, 11 years younger than Snyder.

Sometimes, Miller gets asked how long Snyder will keep going at this, and he honestly doesn't know. Miller wouldn't be surprised if Snyder is coaching at Kansas State in 10 years, assuming his health is OK. There is nobody like Snyder left anymore. No more legacies. Frank Beamer retired from Virginia Tech; Penn State's Joe Paterno was disgraced and died. Now, slowly, Snyder's friends are disappearing.

"The difference between he and I," Miller says, "is that this is everything to him. For me, this is an important part, but there are a lot of other things out there that I enjoy doing. I don't think he has that. What he does here is probably as much fun [to him] as maybe if I go out and play golf.

"This is his life."

Snyder felt the lump on his neck on a flight back from New York in early December. He went home and had the growth biopsied, and when he found out it was cancer, he told his son Sean.

Sean is the oldest of Snyder's five kids, a former All-American punter who works beside his dad as K-State's associate head coach. Over the years, Sean has seen his dad make a few cringe-worthy health choices. Snyder is famous for eating only one meal a day, late at night, because it saves him time, and eating makes him sleepy and sluggish, and how the heck can he run a football program if he's tired? That meal, by the way, would often consist of chicken fingers or Taco Bell.

But now Snyder had cancer, and this wasn't some quirk his son could overlook. Sean wanted him to start treatments immediately. Bill had other ideas. He wanted to wait until after his team played in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 28.

"He didn't want to abandon them during the bowl game," Sean said.

Eventually, Sean understood. Snyder started his treatments after the bowl game, and if he had his druthers, nobody would have found out about it. He's a notoriously private man who declined to be interviewed for this story, most likely because it was about him. People who've worked with him for decades didn't know for months that he was sick.

Rumors started swirling in February, and Kansas State had to issue a statement. Snyder told his team around that time, in a meeting room on the fourth floor of the football complex. Players were predictably stunned. Some of them didn't know what to say. Linebacker Trent Tanking said they eventually told him not to worry, that they wouldn't slack off while he was getting his treatments.

"I'm not going to tell you what he said; that's kind of personal," Tanking said. "He let us know that that's kind of what he expected of us, and he was proud of us for reacting that way."

Players and coaches say they haven't noticed a dramatic change in his daily routine. He was long known as a micromanager, but as Snyder got older, he began to do more delegating. He had to.

Now, with cancer, Snyder has been forced to let go even more. The man who never stopped for lunch now takes breaks in the middle of the day to build his strength. He cannot fast until midnight anymore; he drinks high-calorie shakes during the day.

Former Wildcats offensive lineman Michael Orr was in Manhattan, Kansas, recently taking his son to junior recruiting day. Orr wasn't sure what to expect. Snyder, who had undergone a treatment the previous day, said he didn't know how long he'd be able to speak, but he'd give it a try.

"He looks older than he did before," Orr said. "He looks like he's been through treatment.

"He spoke to us parents and the kids for probably 20 minutes, and then he came back and spoke to the parents for probably 30 more minutes."

He was never a large man, never said a lot, and with his gray hair and large thin-rimmed glasses, Snyder kind of looked like an accountant. But everybody knew the coach was tough. One summer, during two-a-days about 15 years ago, Snyder sensed the Wildcats were starting to wilt after multiple days practicing in 100-degree heat. So he casually walked out to practice one afternoon wearing a winter parka, zipped all the way up.

The practice lasted two hours, and so did the coat.

"I couldn't tell you what the heat index was," former K-State assistant Greg Peterson said. "It was probably 120, and he doesn't waver. The kids come out and see him zipped up and think, 'What's Coach Snyder doing?' Well, he's proving a point. He says we can all be tough, the heat is no big deal, and we're going to practice anyway, so let's go to work. And we had a great practice that day."

Manhattan, in 1989, was not for the weak. Before Snyder arrived that season, Kansas State hadn't won a game since October 1986 and was generally known as the worst football program in the country. The team was divided. In the fall of '88, Orr witnessed a locker-room brawl that started when one player basically got up in front of everyone and told them that they all stunk. Orr, a true freshman at the time, just sat there as fists flailed and chaos ensued.

"Somebody said, 'Well, what were you doing?'" Orr recalled. "I was a redshirt freshman, I was 18 years old, and I was sitting on the side with helmet on and my pads on saying, 'What school are you going to transfer to?'"

Snyder never talked about winning back then. Even baby steps seemed unrealistic. All he talked about was doing things right. His assistants ran those players into the ground that first year, and some of them dropped football as if it were 8 a.m. calculus. Orr figures Snyder wanted to weed out the ones who didn't want to be there. Today, Miller says they weren't trying to get players to leave -- no way did they want half of a roster -- but they just wanted them to work harder. To work like Snyder did.

The Wildcats won a game that first year, beating North Texas State in a squeaker, and won five more in 1990. Facilities were laughable back then. Miller says the school, in an effort to save money, painted its own Wildcats logo on the AstroTurf instead of having it professionally done. Miller thinks they used oil paint.

"It was like an ice-skating rink," he said.

At one point, in the middle of renovations to a building, money ran out.

"Coach said, 'I tell you what. I will put my house up for collateral. Let's keep building,'" Miller said. "So they built it."

The Wildcats cracked the top 20 by the end of the 1993 season and made it to 11 straight bowl games. Decades changed, but Snyder never really did. Even today, he still demands his players take their earrings off in the football facility and tuck their long hair in their helmets.

Some players don't like the rules and leave. In 2015, several highly touted junior-college transfers quit the team in the offseason. The disenchantment, for at least one of them, was in part because of Snyder's arcane guidelines. Manhattan and Snyder aren't for everyone. There is no easy way to get to the Little Apple, a town of about 54,000 that sits as an oasis between winding rural roads. Kansas coach David Beaty is convinced Manhattan has a bustling regional airport because of Bill Snyder. In the old days, most recruits would have to get off a plane in Kansas City and drive two hours to get there.

Snyder doesn't get the five-star recruits. He gets juco players and guys like Tanking, a walk-on from tiny Holton, Kansas. Tanking loves that Snyder remembered his parents' names and always pulled him aside after he made a big play and told him, "Great job." He loves that he can always go into Snyder's office and talk.

But Snyder hasn't always pushed the right buttons. In 2005, he had a talented team with great hopes. That team started 4-1 but then lost the next five. Two of the losses were last-minute gut punches. K-State was out of bowl contention for the first time in more than a decade. Snyder never blames the players, so he figured this one was on him. Maybe he was losing touch with this generation.

In mid-November, with the Wildcats 4-6, Snyder decided to retire before the season finale against Missouri. His assistants had no idea he was even considering it.

"I can remember coming in off the practice field ... when he made the announcement," Peterson said. "The coaches and players in that locker room were kind of in disbelief, because we thought he was going to coach forever."

One of Snyder's best friends is former PGA player Jim Colbert. Back in the 1970s, Colbert finished tied for fourth at the Masters. It's interesting that Snyder chose a golfer to be in his very small circle. Snyder, to put it gently, is not good at golf.

Colbert tried to work with Snyder after the coach retired in 2005. They tried left-handed; they tried right-handed. Their efforts were futile. Snyder struggled with pretty much everything in those early-retirement days. He did some volunteer work, mentored some kids and helped out the governor. He went to some golf tournaments with Colbert and even took a trip to Hawaii with his wife, Sharon. But something was missing. He missed the players, the long hours -- his old life.

"It wasn't too long after [he retired] that he changed his mind," Colbert said. "But it was too late."

Former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne could sense Snyder's frustration during their post-retirement conversations. Osborne dealt with many of the same feelings when he retired after the 1997 season. Osborne, at least, had the opportunity to go out with a national championship. But he also felt regret. He said he'd promised one of his assistants, Frank Solich, that he'd retire at a certain time, and that time had come.

But Osborne, in hindsight, wasn't ready. He was used to going full speed, seven days a week, and then everything came to a screeching halt. The first two or three years were the hardest, he said. But then the pangs mostly went away because he was too busy to think about it. He became a U.S. congressman, ran for governor and later became Nebraska's athletic director. Osborne just turned 80 and still works full time running a mentorship program for kids called Teammates.

When Snyder was retired, he used to watch practice. He could never be a casual observer. One day, he was in the skybox with Colbert and pointed out an assistant coach working with then-quarterback Josh Freeman.

"Who's that coach?" Snyder asked. "He's doing a heck of a job."

The assistant was James Franklin, who is now Penn State's head coach.

Things did not go well in the transition from Snyder to head coach Ron Prince, who was 36 when he was hired. Prince's first team went 7-6, but the program fell apart from there, and he was fired in 2008. Snyder was hired back 19 days later.

He rarely shows it, but Snyder is thrilled to be back. He led the Wildcats to the Big 12 championship in 2012 and a No. 1 ranking for a brief time that season. He has taken them to seven straight bowl games. So there was no way cancer would keep Snyder from coming back for the 2017 season. This is his baby. He likes this team, which was so young last year, and the Wildcats are expected to be in the top 25. He wasn't going to miss this.

But he is aware of his limitations. On April 11, Snyder missed a weekly spring news conference to go to a follow-up doctor's appointment in Kansas City. It's the first time he has missed a news conference in 26 years.

"He's [77]," Colbert said. "If you don't think [death doesn't] pop in your mind ... I go downstairs, and I'm in shape. I can see myself face-planting. You see all these stories of people falling down. You know, there's a mortality. You do [think about it]. I promise you. Not that you dwell on it.

"I mean, there's not a day that goes by that I don't go, 'How old am I?' I don't act that old, but I'm sure he's had those thoughts."

Two years ago, a plane full of Big 12 coaches took off from Dallas to Connecticut for interviews at ESPN. It was July, before the intensity of the season began, and for a moment, they were just a bunch of men in polo shirts kicking back, drinking beers, low-keying it.

All except for Snyder. He pulled his table down, grabbed a giant notebook and started scribbling away.

"Coach, come on," someone hollered. "You can't give us an inch, can ya?"

Beaty said he'll never forget it.

"I mean, the plane doesn't take off, and the notebook's out. It just reaffirms why he's been as good as he's been. He's always working. He's always trying to find a way to get better."


Last week, Sean Snyder was on the phone around 9 p.m. on a Friday. He knew someone wanted to talk about his dad, and the younger Snyder loves doing that.

When Bill couldn't make that news conference in early April, Sean filled in for him. The elder Snyder has stated publicly that he'd like Sean to be his successor.

The job nobody wanted back in the 1980s is far more attractive now. When Jim Leavitt was hired as Oregon's defensive coordinator in December, he had it written in his contract that he won't be required to pay Oregon any buyout if he leaves to become the head coach at Kansas State. Leavitt downplays the move, saying it was merely sentimental.

"That's where I started," said Leavitt, who was an assistant under Snyder in the early 1990s. "Those are my roots."

Leavitt said when Snyder does decide to retire, there will be plenty of qualified candidates, including Sean.

When Sean was a kid, his dad missed many events -- football games, proms, a lot of firsts -- though he always managed to call his children to tell them he was thinking of them. Now they're together, all the time, and Sean doesn't want it to end.

Sean said he was on "pins and needles" when his father underwent tests this past winter. He is not used to seeing Bill Snyder tired or sick or down.

In March, just after a treatment, Bill went to Kansas City to watch K-State play in the Big 12 basketball tournament. He wanted to support the team, Sean says. But if you looked closely enough, there were probably some notes nearby. He is always working.

Sean laughs when reporters try to figure out the deep meaning behind his father. One national outlet recently took note that Snyder brought water, not his customary coffee, to a news conference. Surely, it must have meant something, maybe that he was slowing down.

Sean said his dad carries a bottle of water around now because he needs to stay hydrated.

"Over the years, everybody is continually trying to figure out what the immortal things are about him," Sean said. "It's not like he gets up in the morning and there's all these different things that are going through his mind. I mean, he's going to get up and he's going to start his life. And starting his life every day happens to be at the football complex. It happens to be helping develop young men into grown men.

"That's what keeps him young."