The end is in sight for Bill Snyder after cancer battle, if he could only see it
The Kansas State coach may be getting closer to the end of his career, but don't tell him that
The end is not in sight.
For Bill Snyder -- emerging Tuesday publicly for the first time since his throat cancer diagnosis -- that was clear.
But it’s clear the game’s oldest coach at 77 is beginning his 27th spring practice with the Wildcats on the rebound. How high is up? Try as he might to suggest there was nothing to see here, appearances matter.
Snyder looked thinner Tuesday, which wasn’t a surprise. Persons undergoing such cancer treatment typically lose weight. Then they gain it back as their health improves.
But Snyder isn’t your average patient. Kansas State’s coach famously once asked his doctors to figure out a way for him to skip meals. Required nourishment wasted too much time, he surmised. Snyder told me long ago he ate at the end of the day, maybe 1 a.m. That was still going on at least as late as 2014. That’s also not healthy.
“Taco Bell is open at midnight,” Snyder told ESPN.com three years ago. “[My wife’s cooking] is not.”
Snyder drank bottled water Tuesday, instead of his customary coffee. There was no necktie, also customary in these settings. During what hearkened back to his traditional regular-season Tuesday 30-minute availability, Snyder wouldn’t bite on the ultimate question.
Has this cancer battle at least made Manhattan’s Miracle Worker consider his longevity?
“No, I don’t think so,” Snyder said. “Yeah, I’m … That’s nothing I want to get caught off in.”
The truth is, most folks can now see an end to Snyder’s career. It has been glorious and great and long-lasting, but it is coming to a close soon. Isn’t it? The 2017 Wildcats have a returning quarterback (Jesse Ertz), should be picked no lower than third in the Big 12 and are a borderline top-25 team.
The question is, can Snyder see the end? On one hand, he is eight years away from Joe Paterno’s age (85) when the Penn State coach was forced to retire in 2011. On the other, what he is going through is cancer.
“He’s struggling with talking [right now],” said Phil Bennett, longtime K-State defensive coordinator, now at Arizona State. “He told me -- believe it or not -- ‘I want to text.’ “
Snyder’s treatments have concluded. He is expected to recover fully.
“I think the hardest part is just the after effects,” the coach said this week. “That’s what we’re going through right now. “Millions and millions of people have done it, so …”
So … what’s the big deal? Snyder didn’t exactly say that, but his comments are perhaps more evidence that not much has changed. The great man’s default setting remains always “on.”
His approach to operate in almost complete secrecy. He has won two conference titles, been to 18 bowls and come within an overtime of the first BCS title game in 1998 despite never landing a five-star recruit.
And Taco Bell is always open late.
Snyder was diagnosed before the Dec. 28 Texas Bowl. Yes, you’re allowed to be amazed he then beat Texas A&M while fighting cancer. Snyder was treated at both the University of Kansas Cancer Center in Kansas City and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
They will tell you at M.D. Anderson, part of the reason for its rep as the No. 1 cancer hospital is the patients themselves. Those who have the means to travel for their treatment are a reflection of their motivation. That sort of positive outlook benefits the cure rate.
And if there is anyone motivated, it’s Bill Snyder.
One source was led to believe that during at least part of the treatment, Snyder and his wife would drive two hours to Kansas City, then turn right around and head back to Manhattan. The coach then got a few hours in the office each day.
Nearing his final treatment last month, Snyder was in the stands supporting Kansas State at the Big 12 basketball tournament.
That’s why his answer to a question about his full-time presence in the office wasn’t a surprise.
“Some of that remains to be seen,” Snyder said. “I can’t do it if I’m not able to do it.”
In other words, it may not matter if the coach is actually there at the Vanier Football Complex.
“He’s Coach Snyder when he’s here. He’s just not here all the time,” color analyst Stan Weber said. “You can look in their [players’] eyes. The ship is not off course. Everybody in the system knows what to do. The players don’t need a big dose of him to know who’s in charge.”
There are indications the coach even thought he could get through this issue without it becoming public. Over the course of a February weekend, news broke that Snyder was fighting a health issue.
Speculation raged. By Monday, Feb. 13, Snyder released a statement confirming his cancer treatment but, only, it seemed, because he had to.
That his affliction remained unknown even that long is amazing. Can you imagine Jim Harbaugh or Urban Meyer or Nick Saban able to operate under the radar for that long?
It has something to do with being in the middle of Kansas. It also has something to do with the empire Snyder has built. Weber believes -- minus game days -- the program could function on its own for two years in Snyder’s absence.
“He has that much stick,” said Weber, a K-State quarterback in the 1980s before Snyder arrived. “He’s taught people so well, they believe in his philosophy. He really has the future laid out. They have game plans in place for probably most of their opponents next year.”
Really? It’s spring practice in early April.
“Never discount K-State under Bill,” Weber added. “I’m not worried about the team. I’m worried about Bill. We need him there on Saturday. It’s quality control. He knows when he smells something. He knows when there is a gas leak. There is a weed in the garden? Go pull it.”
There are few leaks, gas or otherwise. Playing the Wildcats means facing a legend whose team always seems to overachieve. Former assistant coaches never speak ill of him. Current assistants can’t speak at all. Snyder seldom lets them face the media.
His reputation in the game is best summed up by Arizona State head coach Todd Graham: “That guy, who’s better than him? I think he’s the best coach of the century.”
Bennett tells the story of Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis calling him to get a feel for Snyder’s team in the Texas bowl.
“You must not know our relationship. I’m not going to help you,” said Bennett, who hasn’t been with Snyder since 2001.
K-State rushed for 218 yards, held the ball for almost 33 minutes and Ertz was the game’s MVP. Snyder’s team and won its fourth game in a row. Fifty-one days after his 77th birthday, battling cancer, Snyder clinched his 14th season of at least nine wins.
The coach’s battle is still best summed up in this tweet.
Snyder is well known for randomly firing off letters of admiration to opposing players. However, well wishers turned the tables in this case when they began sending hand-written letters to Snyder.
“We’re talking about thousands of letters,” Snyder said. “I’ve since started hand-writing them [back]. That’s become quite a chore and I’m a little bit behind.”
Once again for Bill Snyder, the end isn’t in sight.
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