|Bill Snyder is still stodgy but getting the most out of his players and rising in the rankings. (US Presswire)|
MANHATTAN, Kan. -- The shouter of the bunch is Tre Walker. After coach Bill Snyder gives Kansas State its last measured instructions before taking the field, Walker goes Neanderthal in the locker room.
Purp, get ready to roll! Purp, get ready to roll!
Purp being the Wildcats' color purple and, Lord knows, the Wildcats need Neanderthal. Walker, a junior linebacker from suburban Kansas City, is the last voice they hear before going on the field because someone has to raise theirs around this mild-mannered program.
"Really, what he tells you is what he tells us," defensive back Dante Barnett said of his Snyder, who will turn 73 next month.
And what he tells us, is not much in Snyder's fourth decade here. The most secretive program in America, directed by the oldest coach in America (FBS), somehow is also one of the most cuddly. It is the Kremlin painted purple. Oklahoma's Bob Stoops revealed this week that his mentor has a pool and seems to have been an avid swimmer.
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"Sorry, Coach," said Stoops, apologizing for that fleeting look behind the scenes.
It was another Tuesday with Bill this week, a fascinating 30-minute press conference -- hold the sizzle -- followed by a small group of players. They don't answer questions so much as regurgitate clichés. But boy are they well dressed -- blazers with the K-State logos, dress slacks.
You look good, you feel good. You feel good, you play good. But not before putting the media to sleep. When Barnett lifts the veil briefly for a look inside the locker room, it is a Technicolor anecdote in a black-and-white program. But no one in the media much bothers with complaining anymore. The accomplishments have overshadowed access issues. With the exit of both Joe Paterno and Howard Schnellenberger from the game, Snyder has become the dean of college football.
"One of these days, [that's] going to change dramatically," Snyder said with a sly smile.
That's a joke about his coaching mortality -- at least. There were some doubts about Bill Snyder version 2.0, when he rebooted and returned in 2009. Not anymore. Before the biggest game of the year to date against No. 5 Oklahoma on Saturday, he is still the overachiever who believes both sleep and eating are overrated. The coach left the job in 2005 to spend more time with a family he had neglected. How are they now?
"They tell me they're OK," Snyder said.
This week, that mentor continued to refer to the 52-year-old Stoops as "Bobby". Snyder coached him at Iowa and hired him at K-State as an assistant. This week, for the ninth time since Stoops left here to carve out a career of his own in the mid-1990s, they will meet head-to-head.
Against everyone else currently in the Big 12, Snyder is 55-19. Against Stoops he is 1-7.
It's family, it's personal, it's secret, it's on.
A smaller, sleeker Big 12 that was supposed to bruise the Wildcats has made them more dangerous. An early clobbering of Miami -- as well as solid victories against Missouri State and North Texas -- has given the Wildcats the look of a conference darkhorse. Oklahoma and West Virginia have to be favored -- K-State visits both this season -- but plunking down a few Vegas bucks on the Wildcats wouldn't be the dumbest thing to do. They have surprised before.
"That's something we like," safety Jarard Milo said. "A lot of people don't really give us a chance. That's what we look forward to. That gets us fired up."
Since the beginning of 2011, when the league went to 10 teams and began round-robin play, only Oklahoma State (14-2) has a better overall record. (TCU and West Virginia are new this season.) Kansas State is 13-3 heading into its latest test against the Sooners.
The buildup looks familiar. Too familiar. Less than a year since Kansas State was humiliated at home by a superior OU, Kansas State is trying to avoid being humiliated on the road by a superior OU.
The question is the same one asked a year ago: Is either team for real? In 2011, K-State came in 7-0 and ranked 10th. Oklahoma was coming off a home upset by Texas Tech that ruined their season. The Sooners had been No. 1. They took it out on the Wildcats, winning 58-17, which tied tying for the fourth-most points given up by a Snyder-coached team. While the 10-3 season was hailed as Miracle in Manhattan II, that loss stuck like a chicken bone in the Wildcats' throats.
"It was going good at halftime," said Barnett, who watched the game from the stands as a high school senior. "After halftime, I don't know what happened."
Starting in the second quarter, 44 consecutive OU points are what happened.
Now it's up to the usual collection of stars, refugees and overachievers. Quarterback Collin Klein is a year older, bigger and more accurate. Klein might be the best rushing quarterback in the game. It matters more this week that he is completing 73 percent of his passes.
The defense includes at least three jucos, a former walk-on (defensive tackle John Sua), two All-Americans (linebacker Arthur Brown and corner Nigel Malone) and a converted high school quarterback (safety Ty Zimmerman).
Oh, and Justin Tuggle. The senior came to Snyder shortly before the Cotton Bowl in December and asked what he could do to get on the field. Tuggle has transferred from Boston College as a quarterback. The emergence of Klein took care of that pursuit. Tuggle landed at linebacker, a position his father Jessie played for 14 years with Atlanta.
Through three games, a third of his six tackles have been for loss.
"Yes, it probably took some courage on his part ... " Snyder said. "Therefore, maybe in his eyes it might have been admitting failure in a certain area. I didn't see it that way. I appreciated his candor. It demonstrated how badly he wanted to be on the field."
There's some color for you at Kansas State. The color purple. Listen closely, you might even hear Walker go Neanderthal.