When Bill Snyder first arrived at Kansas State, he carried rather improbable recruiting hopes, given the dilapidated state of the program.
“I really thought, ‘We’re going to go compete for every 5-star and 4-star player out there,'” Snyder said in a phone interview with ESPN.com. “Reality hit home rather quickly.”
That reality forced Snyder to scrap his pie-in-the-sky vision of luring blue-chippers to Manhattan.
He replaced that with a practical yet unconventional master plan built on unearthing prospects other schools would be to prone to overlook.
That recruiting strategy proved to be a pillar for Snyder’s “Manhattan Miracle.” It’s one that, even going into Snyder’s 26th season, continues to defy recruiting rankings and exceed expectations.
“If we spent so much time with the particular level of high school or community college player … that we just weren’t going to get for a variety of reasons … we weren’t going to be able to spend the kind of time with the players the next level down,” Snyder said. “When I say next level, I’m not talking about skill, I’m talking about low-profile. Other schools don’t spend so much time with them. And yet my thinking was, they could be every bit as good.
“So in the early years, we directed our attention to that level of player.”
That playbook has evolved in small ways over the years, but the essential tenets remain the same: to prioritize potential prospects who might have gone overlooked for a number of reasons. Vet the heck out of them. Then diligently and tirelessly cultivate relationships at thousands of high schools for when the next diamond in the rough surfaces.
“That’s kind of the foundation,” Snyder said. “And we’ve gotten so many good young guys through it.”
Indeed, the Wildcats have thrived off such hidden gems who have been passed over by other programs for, according to Snyder, four primary reasons.
- They hail from remote small towns.
- They don’t go to the combine camps put on by recruiting services.
- They’re lacking in a measurable, such as wingspan or 40 time.
- They’ve yet to peak in football because they’ve played other sports.
“A lot of places are so high-profile in regards to high school football, like the state of Texas; they have high-profile programs there that are football 24/7, year-round,” Snyder said. “The state of Kansas is the perfect example; it doesn’t allow for kids to be involved in football all year. These young guys are playing two, three, four sports. They do everything.
“Consequently, they are still quite a ways from where their prominent performance level can be. If you find those type of guys and do a good job working with them, they can get to the same level.”
Eight years ago, nobody else believed Curry Sexton could get to such a level.
Sexton grew up in the small Kansas town of Abilene. He never bothered with combine camps. He was 5-foot-10. And besides quarterbacking the football team, Sexton played basketball and ran track.
As a result, he went virtually unrecruited.
But Sexton had a productive prep career. Underscoring his work ethic and intelligence, he had an invitation to play football for Harvard.
At the same time, Sexton’s Abilene teammate, Cody Whitehair, was also being disregarded. Whitehair was a two-way monster for Abilene, recording 140 pancake blocks and 15 sacks as a senior. But with no platform to get noticed, he was given just two stars.
“If Cody had lived in Dallas, he would’ve had 40 offers,” Sexton said. “He would’ve been a huge recruit.”
Snyder capitalized on Whitehair’s obscurity and took a gamble on Sexton’s potential.
Eventually, Whitehair became an All-Big 12 offensive tackle. Sexton was an All-Big 12, 1,000-yard receiver.
“K-State seems to be one of the very few Power-5 schools that considers guys who lack prototypical size and speed and values who they think can be good football players,” Sexton said.
From the beginning, Snyder has also valued fostering relationships with as many high school coaches as possible, no matter how small the school.
“We try to get into places where other people don’t go,” Snyder said. “People fly into Kansas City, they fly into Wichita. But there are a lot of small areas that just involve too much travel.”
Snyder said he and his staff annually touch base with every school in Kansas, and thousands more within key recruiting regions outside the state.
“In so many of them that becomes a telephone call and maybe not a physical visit,” Snyder said. “But we personally get into as many as we can.”
One of Snyder’s first such phone calls went to Roger Barta, who was the coach at Smith Center, tucked in a tiny Kansas town just south of the Nebraska border. At first, Barta assumed Snyder worked for a recruiting service.
Turned out, the phone call would pay dividends.
Barta’s son Brooks didn’t have great speed, but he could read plays and get to ball-carriers. He eventually became Snyder’s first all-conference defender. Later, Snyder would pluck two more future all-league defenders out of Smith Center in linebacker Mark Simoneau and tackle Justin Montgomery.
“They have a way of finding kids in small schools,” said Brooks Barta, now the coach at Holton High in Kansas. “It’s hard for colleges to reach kids in rural areas. But they take the time to do it.”
This season, one of Brooks’ former players, Trent Tanking, is set to become a starting linebacker for K-State; just last year, the Wildcats signed Brooks’ son, Mason.
“Every spring, a K-State coach would stop by knowing full well we didn’t have anybody that could help them,” Roger Barta said. “No other big schools would do that. When you have a good one, everybody wanted to be your friend. But because K-State always stopped by, they always knew who coming up had a chance to be good. They worked at it.”
Under Snyder, the Wildcats have also toiled to project work ethic and intangibles.
One Big 12 coach marveled at all the people K-State assistants chat with in visiting a player’s high school. Those conversations begin with the coaches, but they carry over to principals, teachers, secretaries and, in some cases, even those who serve food in the cafeteria.
“It’s not all about physical talent, 40 times, bench presses, all those kinds of numbers,” Snyder said. “It doesn’t meant they’re insignificant, because they’re not insignificant. But that value system that young people do or do not possess is highly significant to me. You can take guys that might not have that extreme talent, but you see the capacity to develop. Whether they’ll invest the time, that’s a big thing for us.
“We love the guy that rolls up his sleeve and competes and has that toughness about him.”
Perhaps that’s why Snyder has also prospered with so many walk-ons such as Jordy Nelson, who earned a scholarship, then turned himself into an All-Pro wideout for the Packers.
“He’s recruited guys that not only were productive but had that self-motivation and work ethic to get better,” former Butler Community College coach Troy Morrell said. “Even with jucos, K-State always stood out with how they researched back to the high school, to get a good feel for what a kid is about.”
Such vetting convinced Snyder to take a chance on juco cornerback D.J. Reed, whose academic background knocked him off the radar of other FBS schools.
“He had things going on, family issues,” Snyder said. “But we did a thorough investigation and came to appreciate the kind of young person he was. He was able to convince me that he would do everything he could to gain his eligibility academically, and he did.”
Last season, Reed was named Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year.
“We have so many young guys that don’t have the same opportunities, where we see that value system,” Snyder said. “They’ve got so much upside to them.”
The upside of the overlooked has rarely manifested in recruiting ranks. Two months ago, K-State again finished with one of the nation’s lowest-ranked recruiting classes.
But even without the blue-chippers he once dreamed of landing, Snyder’s recruiting playbook continues to defy. Continues to exceed.
Continues to win.