The 10 nominees for the Football Writers Association of America Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award made for a deserving lot. Brian Kelly has Notre Dame undefeated and on the brink of its first national championship since 1988. Bill O’Brien inherited one of the most difficult situations imaginable, yet led Penn State to a surprising eight-win campaign. Kevin Sumlin guided Texas A&M into the brave new world of the SEC, and all he did was beat No. 1, win 10 games and develop a Heisman quarterback.
Yet, the most impressive feat of any head coach for my vote was Bill Snyder’s Big 12 championship and 11-win season at the ripe old age of 73. Snyder’s run that started in 2011 and culminating this season defies convention. Lightning isn’t supposed to strike in the same place twice, but Snyder summoned bolts to the most unlikely of locations a pair of times.
He took over a Kansas State program in 1989 that was more than a rebuilding project. K-State was a perpetual Big 8 cellar dweller with all of one bowl appearance prior to his arrival. Perennial losing was steeped in the culture, but Snyder erased that attitude. He did the unthinkable when he built Wildcat football into a program playing in the postseason every year.
A Big 12 championship in 2003 ensured Snyder’s place in college football history, and would cement his name on K-State’s football stadium. He had a tangible legacy, but left under circumstances that just didn’t fit. Snyder’s last two seasons the first without a bowl appearance since 1992. With conference rivals Oklahoma and Texas playing for BCS championships, the game had seemingly passed by Snyder.
His return in 2009 after the failed Ron Prince era seemed like a desperation move from K-State brass. College football hadn’t become less competitive, less of a younger man’s game in Snyder’s three years away. Quite the opposite; offenses became increasingly potent, defenders grew faster and stronger, recruiting got uglier.
Coming back to the sidelines was supposed to sully Snyder’s legacy. Apparently, he didn’t get the memo.
A coach who cut his teeth in the California desert at little Indio High School four decades earlier has proven that an old coach can learn new tricks. He brought the Wildcats back to .500, then a return to the postseason — its first since he left the game. His third season back saw K-State win 10 games and reach the Cotton Bowl.
Still, the season was disparaged. The Wildcats played opponents too close to be legit. A lopsided loss to Arkansas supposedly exposed K-State. The nondescript players wearing purple-and-silver who outplayed their recruiting star rankings couldn’t maintain their magic any longer.
Snyder proved critics wrong again. Converted wide receiver-into-quarterback Collin Klein thrived in Dana Dimel and Del Miller’s system, reaching the Heisman Trophy presentation after leading the Wildcats to 40.7 points per game. Klein is the face of the 2012 Wildcats’ motley crew of under-recruited overachievers, but hardly the only.
The theme of playing beyond anticipation carried over onto defense. In a conference loaded with uptempo offenses, KSU thrived with a stingy unit on the opposite side of the ball. The Wildcats ranked No. 21 nationally in points allowed, surrounded by opponents ranked in the top 15 of scoring.
K-State may have fallen short of playing for a BCS championship, but Snyder’s second logic-defying Big 12 championship is the biggest coaching accomplishment of 2012. Should Snyder choose to walk away from the game, he does so with the conclusion to his career he deserves.