A line stretched well past the podium at the conclusion of the Missouri Western Student-Athlete Honors Banquet, waiting to grab a quick moment with a city icon.
Bill Snyder drew a considerable crowd after the ceremony at Fulkerson Center, and he obliged each request with picture poses and willing conversation.
Even though Mr. Snyder went to Western — then St. Joseph Junior College — for just one year, the St. Joseph native drew a lengthy standing ovation before his brief speech Monday night, indicative of the heights to which he’s ascended in the 50-plus years since leaving town.
“As far as native sons go, I think we can place him at the top of the list,” said former Western athletic director Charlie Burri, who introduced the hall of fame Kansas State head coach as the Distinguished Alumni award winner.
Mr. Snyder doesn’t make many trips back to St. Joseph — maybe one or two a year, the 74-year old Lafayette High School alum estimated — but knows what began his climb toward national prominence.
“It truly was an honor for me. I just love coming back to St. Joseph. I have so many fond memories here,” said Mr. Snyder, a five-time national coach of the year in 22 seasons in Manhattan, Kan. “It truly is home. There were so many wonderful people that had such a dramatic influence on my life, and it all happened here. So this was kind of the foundation for my life.”
During a speech to a gathering of sharply dressed Western athletes, coaches, administrators and fans, Mr. Snyder reflected briefly on an unlikely journey that spawned from humble circumstances — a one-room apartment in town — in an effort to illustrate how immediate influences can transform an existence.
Crediting his mother as well as several St. Joseph teachers and coaches — including Helen Cronkite, mother of Walter Cronkite, who taught him at Washington Elementary School — who helped him begin a rare route to stardom, Mr. Snyder attempted to use his address to illustrate how surrounding himself with “people who want to make your life better” remains a directive he relays to his Wildcats teams.
Before beginning his head-coaching career at multiple California high schools in the 1960s and early ’70s, Snyder’s first field experience came for $6,000 as a jack-of-all-trades — assistant coach for numerous sports, Spanish teacher and bus driver — role at Gallatin High in 1962 amid a three-year stint as a defensive back for William Jewell, where he transferred after a season at St. Joseph Junior College in 1958.
After a decade as Iowa’s offensive coordinator, Mr. Snyder became a household name by orchestrating a historic turnaround at Kansas State, one of the worst programs in college football. Since a 1-10 debut in 1989, Mr. Snyder’s guided the Wildcats to a 177-80-1 mark and 15 bowl games.
But his remarks mentioned no such accolades. Instead, he focused on the importance of a positive life nucleus that allowed for his unlikely emergence and the one his local alma mater’s undergone in the past half-century. One that grew from a junior college to an NAIA school to one that regularly deploys some of Division II’s best teams.
“I’m so proud with what has taken place here at Missouri Western. The growth, what the community has meant to Missouri Western and how it embraced the university. It’s grown immensely and it looks like it’s gonna continue to grow,” said Mr. Snyder, who gingerly walked off stage with his left foot in a walking boot stemming from a winter foot surgery.
“To be such a young university, it’s amazing what has taken place.”