People who care about their craft borrow ideas and resources wherever they can find them in order to get better at what they do. Having worked in college for almost twenty years, I’m obviously very interested in student development. I grew up loving sports and I, like many others, find inspiration and occasional good advice in that area. It happened again about a week ago.
Recently, Bill Snyder, head football coach for Kansas State University made headlines with his comments about college football “selling out.” He voiced his opinion in the wake of the NCAA’s voting to permit the new super division of the biggest football schools. Snyder has been talking about this matter for a while – the big money associated with TV contracts, the palatial stadiums, the obscene amounts of money made on merchandising. He even fretted about how roomy his office is compared to the cramped quarters of many faculty offices.
In all the hoopla and hype over college sports, who, ironically, gets lost? The players. They’re students. And it really does seem to bother Coach Snyder.
It would be easy to dismiss this talk as hypocritical chatter by a big-time coach. After all, K-State has followed suit, sunk a bunch of money into their athletic facilities, and appear to be trying to keep up with the football Joneses (no offense to the Joneses). This is a challenge many NCAA schools face. If you want to play that game, you’ve got to find ways to stay in the game. But in this case, there’s more to the story and, strangely enough, it inspires me to work hard at student development in campus ministry.
(Full disclosure: I am an alumnus of Kansas State University who likes to follow Coach Snyder and the ‘Cats. I’m a purple bigot.)
If you follow college sports, you know that every year pundits rank the recruiting classes of football programs. Already for 2015 you can find them. The top five classes? Alabama, Texas A&M, Clemson, South Carolina, Florida State. If you follow year to year, you know that the same eight or ten teams are almost always at the top of the list. And they’re in the hunt for the national championship every year. One gets the sense, therefore, that recruiting the top-ranked players is necessary to have perennial top-ranked teams.
What criteria are used in ranking players? Speed, strength and agility tests relative to playing position render critical information for coaches. Their high school record (how many tackles, touchdown passes, yards gained, interceptions, games won, etc.) count heavily; their high school coaches’ strong recommendations and promoting also matter. You can see how a player stacks up to other players at a given position by the number of stars next to his name. If you recruit a bunch of top-ranked players, then voila(!) you have a top-ranked recruiting class.
While the Alabamas and Oklahomas always have elite recruiting classes, where does K-State’s class typically rank? They don’t even crack the top 50. This just doesn’t seem to matter to Coach Snyder. Yet, by the end of the season, his team has put together another incredible run, winding up ranked at least in the top 25 and usually considerably higher.
To put the matter in rather bald terms, K-State takes lower ranked, lesser known players every year and turns them into super achievers. Clearly, Coach Snyder and his crew know how to develop players. K-State fans, don’t hate me for saying it: I would not trade what Bill Snyder’s program does for players for all the national championships in the world.
One can always feel suspicious about the difference between image and reality, but it really does look to me like Coach Snyder and his staff are much more interested in the players as people, in the non-tangibles, like teachability, character and commitment rather than freakish talent. Of course, these guys have talent, but, for whatever reason, they either don’t have the gaudy numbers or attract a lot of attention. Think about this: 3 of the team’s captains for this upcoming season started as walk-ons. (They’re also all Kansas natives.) I think this is truly an amazing story and in the blinding glitz of big time college football, it goes largely unnoticed to fans and prognosticators. While the rest of us are all agog about some five-star recruit, Coach Snyder and his staff are working their unsung “youngsters” into yet another great team.
So, working in a culture consumed by dollars from TV contracts, merchandising, by fan obsessions and fickleness in which we lose track of the fact that the Johnny Manziels of the world are fantastic talents, but still little more than boys in highly trained bodies, the Bill Snyders and the K-States of the world are doing it old school, out of the glare of shallow and short attention spans – developing people while developing players.
Of course, coaching a college football team is almost nothing like campus ministry, but this example inspires me. It makes me want to work hard; to give full attention to every student who sits in my office or otherwise crosses my path. Football is a game. Discipleship is life. I should be as committed to developing students as any coach is to developing players.