Last week, Bill Snyder reminded Kansas State fans what they already know yet don’t want to think about.
Someday, he won’t be coaching the Wildcats anymore.
When that day comes, K-State officials will face a critical crossroads -- perhaps the most important one in program history. Overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Snyder transformed K-State from a perennial doormat into a consistent winner. But whether it remains relevant will hinge heavily on the Wildcats getting the next hire right.
In Manhattan, it’s been no secret who Snyder, 75, thinks his heir should be. And during a visit to ESPN last week, he reiterated to ESPN’s Brett McMurphy that whenever he retires, he wants his son Sean to replace him.
"I have a strong belief, and my preference is Sean," Snyder said. “I have great confidence in him.”
Snyder will -- and should -- have significant influence in determining who K-State’s next coach will be. After all, a statue of his likeness greets fans as they walk into a stadium that is named after him. If any coach has earned the right to help pick his successor, it’s Snyder.
But the buck won’t stop with him. That will fall on K-State president Kirk Schulz and athletic director John Currie. And it will be their charge to pinpoint the delicate balance between handpicking the coach they believe can best carry on Snyder’s winning tradition while also not alienating Snyder himself.
Schulz and Currie could sidestep the latter completely by honoring Snyder's preference and tabbing Sean. The former All-American K-State punter has been involved with the program for the past 21 years, the last 19 as K-State’s director of football operations. Still, Sean Snyder’s actual coaching experience is relatively limited. This will be just his fifth year as an associate head coach and special teams coordinator. Under Sean, the Wildcats have been stellar on special teams. But it would be unusual for anyone to jump to a Power 5 head-coaching position without experience as a coordinator.
Nevertheless, Snyder believes it's his son’s extensive background operating inside the program that makes him the most qualified.
"He knows more about our football program than anyone,” Bill Snyder said. “He runs our program.”
Yet while Sean Snyder has the longest tenure at K-State of anyone after his father, he won’t be the only contender for the job.
And though it still has its challenges, K-State is a more attractive job today than it was the first time Bill Snyder retired in 2006.
Since then, the school has renovated its stadium. And this fall, K-State will introduce the $65 million Vanier Football Complex, complete with a new weight room, new locker room and new coaches offices. The stability Snyder has brought during his un-retirement in 2009 has allowed K-State to upgrade its facilities while positioning itself to attract more accomplished candidates than it could in 2006.
Having been K-State's head coach since 1989, Snyder has produced a large and impressive coaching tree, which includes Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Arkansas' Bret Bielema. Both, however, are entrenched at their current schools, leaving the Wildcats without a clear next-in-line outside candidate from the Snyder tree. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has been passed on before. Jim Leavitt has only recently worked his way back into coaching as an assistant at Colorado after being accused of striking a player at South Florida. And Mark Mangino had a great run at Kansas, but was out of coaching in the FBS for four years before returning as Iowa State’s offensive coordinator last year.
A K-State graduate was also named the national coach of the year last season. But it would be a herculean task for the Wildcats to snatch Gary Patterson from TCU.
That's why K-State’s pool of candidates might not necessarily be restricted to the Snyder tree. But if the Wildcats went in that direction, they'd have to get Snyder to sign off.
Whoever the next coach is, he's going to be under considerable pressure to keep winning at the level Wildcats fans have grown accustomed to under Snyder. But on top of that, imagine the added strain coaching in Bill Snyder Family Stadium, when Bill Snyder doesn't want you there, or doesn't think you should be there.
That doesn’t seem like a sustainable formula. Or a winning one, either.
The Wildcats have gotten a glimpse of life without Snyder before, and it wasn’t pretty. When he first retired in 2006, K-State went outside the Snyder tree and hired Ron Prince, who went 7-6, 5-7 and 5-7 over three seasons before being fired.
The Wildcats can’t afford to mess up in picking a coach again. After all, Snyder won’t be available to restore them to relevancy a third time.
It's critical the Wildcats nail the next hire. But just as critical, whether it's Sean Snyder or someone else, is that the next hire includes Bill Snyder's blessing, too.