Archive for Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Fly Route

November 17, 2005

I was a junior at Kansas State, a rookie reporter in every sense of the phrase, and for the first time in my short career, I was sitting at a K-State football press conference.

And I was nervous.

The Wildcats were fresh off a then-unconceivable 6-6 season and the news of the day was that the ongoing quarterback controversy was coming to an end.

Reporters at K-State's weekly press conferences usually can get a jump on any breaking news concerning the depth chart, and we had a jump that Tuesday. The season's first game was less than a week away, and Wildcat head coach Bill Snyder was about to name Marc Dunn the starter over Ell Roberson.

Snyder came in the room and sat down at a table in the front. Working for the Kansas State Collegian for two-and-a-half years and the Topeka Capital-Journal for another 18 months, I saw the ritual dozens of times.

The press gathers early every Tuesday afternoon during football season and enjoys a catered meal in K-State's Vanier football complex.

Slowly people migrate away from the food and toward chairs set up in a semi-circle around Snyder's table.

Snyder walks in the room and immediately conversation stops and the crowd shuffles to set tape recorders and microphones in front of the coach.

And that day, at my first press conference, my heart was pounding like a drum.

The first topic was the quarterback controversy, Snyder explained, uncharacteristically not waiting for a question. Dunn was the man. He had upstaged Roberson in practice and would start the season opener.

That was it. That's the story, no more questions on the topic, he stated.

But somewhere, some how, I found the nerve to open my mouth. I thought I had formulated a good question, and somehow I beat everyone else to the punch, asking the first real question of the day.

"Do you think quarterback can be a strength of this team?" I popped off.

Snyder slowly looked over at me.

I had never met him before and had never asked him anything. I had seen him a million times, of course, and had been close enough to touch him on several occasions -- few more memorable than my trip to his and my own first bowl game, the 1993 Copper Bowl when my family and I went to a pep rally and wound up standing about two feet from my heroes Bill Snyder, Chad May and Andre Coleman.

He had no idea who I was when I asked that question. Today, I think he might. All young reporters approach their first press conference with a bit of starry-eyed optimism. As a reporter at K-State, I got to interview the players and the coaches I had grown up idolizing.

But, everyone overcomes that at some point. You realize they're just people and you're a reporter with a job.

I never overcame that sense with Snyder, however. I attended many more press conferences and asked many more questions. I woke up early every Sunday morning last season and went to a little-attended press conference that was considerably more low-key than the Tuesday afternoon affair.

No meal, no semi-circle, just two or three other reporters showed up. Usually those of us assigned to the Sunday event had mustered every ounce of want-to we had to scrape ourselves out of bed after a long night in Aggieville, and Snyder often didn't look like he had gotten a lot more sleep.

Gone were the suits, the ties and any Saturday game day apparel. Snyder dressed comfortable, like he was set to sit on the couch and watch game tape until he fell asleep, and he was as straight forward as you'd ever find him.

Once I asked him, in the midst of an ugly season, if he'd had enough time to plan his Halloween costume. A smile spread across his face and he just laughed.

But we hadn't established any sort of relationship when I spoke up at my first press conference.

"That's all I want to say about quarterbacks," Snyder told the media, approximately two seconds before I beat the rest of the press to the first question.

"Can quarterback still be a strength of this team?"

He looked over, slowly. Every other head in the room whipped over to join him, and finally he answered.

"I thought I said no more questions."

Gulp.

My face felt like it caught fire.

Then that smile spread across his face, and he answered. Probably 10 more quarterback-related questions followed, and he happily answered them all.

Snyder always had a terrible reputation with the media because all too often he didn't smile and answer a question he probably didn't want to. He had different rules for his team on just about everything and many found him eccentric.

But I found a man that played to win and he did everything in his power, exploited every loophole and dedicated every ounce of his will to achieve that goal.

I loved how hard he worked.

I loved the way his teams played.

I loved the chances he took, the way he wasn't afraid to run five-wide in front of Chad May against the undefeatable Nebraska Cornhuskers in the early 1990s, then had the guts, the brains and the power to completely change his style of football and practically reinvent the quarterback-run game with Michael Bishop in 1997.

Bill Snyder announced his retirement Tuesday and it was an emotional blow for K-Staters around the country.

I love that Snyder left on his own terms. No one with a brain was calling for his job and no one who truly bleeds purple ever would.

I love that I had the chance to work with Bill Snyder, to go to his press conferences to ask stupid questions and have him answer them with a smile.

I love all the success he brought my university and all the happiness his teams brought me, my family and my friends.

K-State football may be great again someday, and it may be good soon, but it will never be the same.

Snyder left for all the right reasons -- his family, his relationships and his university. I always had respect for the man and never have I had more than I do today. I think he may be right in all of his reasons, that his departure may in some way be best in the long run.

Nevertheless, I will very, very much miss Bill Snyder.

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