Seattle Times Staff Reporter
After 32 years under Norm Stewart, Missouri is adjusting to Quin Snyder's unlimited eagerness and fresh, new-age coaching style. But the `boy coach' is eager to smash perceptions that he's more looks than substance.
COLUMBIA, Mo. - Quin Snyder needed a challenge so he took this one sight unseen, without a thought about the spartan offices, the dilapidated arena or the fact he was replacing a legend who had coached here for as long as he had been alive.
"I knew I wanted to be a head coach," Snyder says.
Now he's got it and forgive everyone if this all seems to be going too fast. But he wants to do everything - all at once. New offices. New systems. New attitudes. New players. Plenty of new players. Less than eight months after arriving here, he has already attracted a core of recruits so good that the shouts of anguish and fear are coming not only from the older, established brethren of his own conference, but from the adjoining leagues as well.
This is such a shock, for they never have done things too quickly around the University of Missouri. Progress usually only came after a long study, a task force and a few years to gripe about the move. We are in Missouri, after all; you have to show them. Which is how the Mizzou Tigers came to have a single basketball coach for 32 seasons.
Norm Stewart is gone now, retired (some say pushed) off to Palm Springs, Calif., for an eternity of tee times and endless summer bliss. Norm was country - old-fashioned and plain speaking. He suited Missouri fine, won 634 games and kept the program good enough to keep himself around.
This Quin Snyder, of Mercer Island, is nothing like Norm Stewart.
He is a million things at once: spontaneous, controlled. Studious and determined. He has ideas. Tons of ideas. He spills them all out for his assistants and his friends in the business. They listen and nod, try to understand what he is saying and then reply as Washington Coach Bob Bender, who recruited him to Duke always does: "Gee, sounds great, Quin. Let me know how it works."
Don't worry, they'll find out soon enough.
That's because he's been burning to do this, to have a program of his own, in which he can prove his postulates and install the systems he has drawn up. It doesn't matter that it happened to be here, in Columbia, Mo., a four-Wal-Mart town off the interstate run from St. Louis to Kansas City and exactly 1,000 miles from his beloved Duke, with its tranquil pathways and gothic buildings.
It could have been almost anywhere. Only 14 years have passed since he left Mercer Island High School as the first McDonald's All-American in state history. For some, 14 years is hardly enough time to build the life experiences necessary to take over a major basketball program and be responsible for every victory, every loss and the futures of 15 college students whose parents have signed over their children's lives. For Snyder, it was an eternity.
"He was so hungry for the chance to be a head coach," says Delaware Coach Mike Brey, another former Duke assistant who coached Snyder in college. "He has attacked that challenge with passion. I don't know if anyone can attack it with the same passion."
In a post-practice moment, Snyder drops into a chair behind his desk. He is tired. For almost two hours, he has run the court with his players, shouting out plays and screens and formations. So much to teach. So much to make them understand. As he speaks, he leans forward across the smooth, empty top of the table, splaying his arms in front of himself, trying to explain the internal forces that have pushed him to this place.
"I want to be innovative," he says. "Generally, if you look at sports, coaches need to do that. I learned a long time ago to live my life myself. If I tried to meet somebody else's standard, I wouldn't make it. You can't do it."
What Missouri has here might just be the most fascinating story in all of college basketball. A young coach, just 33, with a head bursting full of new ideas, yearning to change the world of basketball coaching and pull along anyone who wants to come for the ride. It could be remarkable.
Only Missouri hasn't quite gotten it yet.
Missouri, it seems, can't get past the look.
And this is the thing that frustrates Snyder the most: this fascination with his hair. It's a brown, stringy weave of waving locks, perhaps lightly touched with a fingerful of gel. The portraits of him focus on the look, obsessing about the coiffure and the stark cheekbones that would make a model drool. He is painted as a new-age Phil Jackson kind of leader, the type who will pull out a guitar and sing about feelings, merely because he has said he wants to get to know his players as people before he tries to attack them as a coach.
Mostly, it seems, the state's enchantment with him is as a boy coach. The one whose jacket cuffs dangle a little too long because the wrists are narrow and the hands stretch long and delicate and slender.
Bring this up and Snyder's face clouds.
"The things people have written about are things that are not substantive," he says. "I have no interest in these things."
Can't they see it? Don't they know what's going on in this office, with a coach so bright that he has both law and MBA degrees from Duke? With team talks so relevant and carefully concocted, that associate coach John Hammond will hear Snyder utter an anecdote and say to himself "I wonder where he got that?" If only they could listen to the words of the people around him, the people like Missouri Athletic Director Mike Alden, who sits back in a chair, gazes at a picture of him and Quin from the April day Snyder was hired and says: "He's broadened my horizons on how to be able to coach."
Substantive? Interesting? Here's what Quin Snyder thinks is substantive and interesting. He leaps up from his desk and races over to a bookcase and pulls down a small manual that looks professionally produced, complete with the school's logo. He made it himself. Inside, are pages upon pages of techniques for individual workouts that are permitted by the NCAA in the weeks before practice begins.
"We try to identify every potential situation that could arise on the court," he says. "Ball handling, shooting, whatever it is. All these things make up the fundamentals. If you teach these things, theoretically, there is no hole in your game."
This is the scholar in Snyder. His background is a strange apprenticeship for becoming a big-time college coach. But the skills he has learned have become invaluable. His approach is to teach. Perhaps this comes from his father, Gary, the athletic director at Mercer Island for years, or maybe Ed Pepple, the school's longtime basketball coach. Quin Snyder is insistent that every practice has a lesson, that every day contain some kind experience that will prepare his players for life once basketball is finished. Given his own post-basketball days, it's easy to trust he is sincere.
He reaches his players this way, through teaching. He recruits them on the promise that he will make them better. Josh Kroenke, the son of the billionaire owner of the St. Louis Rams, and a top-100 prospect last year, agreed to come after Snyder flew to his prep school in New Hampshire and spent his whole visit conducting a tutorial - even moving the chairs around to demonstrate - on the moves he would teach the shooting guard.
"The nice thing was, he didn't try to sell me the school," Kroenke says. "He just told me how he was going to coach me. It makes him very easy to talk to. Some coaches will call and they'll have nothing to say. Coach Snyder always seems to have something to say. He'd talk about anything, what he was going to do with the arena or PlayStation, just anything."
It is increasingly harder in this day and age for coaches to get their players to listen. Which is why Alden was so intrigued by Snyder. He wanted a reasonably young coach who could relate to today's athlete but "wouldn't become their buddy." He made all the calls, ringing up the appropriate important names: Mike Krzyzewski, Snyder's boss at Duke; C.M. Newton, the athletic director at Kentucky; Bob Fredrick, the AD at Kansas; Lute Olson, the coach at Texas; and Rick Barnes, the coach at Texas. Every one gave him the same response.
They said the person he'd want was Quin Snyder.
But even after the recommendations ("he's really, really smart" Krzyzewski told Alden), the Missouri athletic director could not have understood how deeply Snyder prepares, how every idea would be typed on paper, placed into a report and neatly bound like an official business document. Why would he? To the rest of the country, Quin Snyder was the boy coach, more haircut than leader of men.
"This is just how my mind works," Snyder says, dropping one of his workout plans onto a shelf, then spinning to a laptop computer on his desk. "I've always been very analytical. But I'm also very scattered. I know if I get structure I can put the random thoughts into a regular pattern."
Follow him if you can. He seems to be doing 1,000 things at once. In the course of an interview wrapped around practice, he talks with each assistant coach, checks messages on his computer, coaches the first few moments of practice and calls home. He does almost all of this while still talking. Even his second marriage began with this pattern. He became engaged to Helen Redwine days before accepting the Missouri job. They were married in September.
"I'll be honest, I think he's probably changed some these days," Hammond says. "When he first got here, it was a little more of a Coach "Q." I think the players are realizing now that he is the head coach. I think he's become Coach Snyder to them."
When told this, Quin laughs.
"I think I'm still Coach Q," he says. "Metaphorically speaking that has probably happened, though. That's OK. That's good. You can't force those things, they have to come in the right setting. I'm aware of that process all the time. Because of my age, I think I'm very easy going. I'm very approachable and that makes things complicated."
Moments later, as if to prove his point, he chastises his players for failing to set screens. They stop practice and he drops a not-too-subtle hint that there will be minutes for players who are determined to set picks.
"Everyone wants to imitate success," senior Jeff Hafer says. "He's a great role model if you want to be successful. I'm eager to walk into the gym every day, ready to learn more. Because I know I'm going to learn something that will improve my game and my life, basically."
The push now is togetherness. It seeps into every one of Snyder's lessons. The other day he startled his players by telling them, "In the Bible it says `If you give, you will receive.' " They listened but they were baffled. Their coach was even quoting scripture?
"My way is they're going to be together, they're going to be unselfish," Snyder says. "You have to have that. But you have to make them believe you are making them better. I felt it was important when I first got here to get a handle on these guys. You have to know the pressure points to have them come together as a team.
"For one player it might be incredibly easy for him to get up at 6 a.m. to lift weights, but it might be hard to get him to screen and roll. You need to learn these things."
Yes, he loves to coach. You can see it in practice as he runs the floor with his players, rolling up the sleeves of his sweat-soaked shirt when the gym gets too warm. Chances are, he probably would have wound up doing this someday. As Brey says, "He just kept hanging around the basketball." But there was a time when Snyder was just as certain he was walking away from sports.
That was in 1995 and he had just finished his law and business degrees and was applying for jobs and at least one prestigious fellowship in venture capital. He had plenty of chances at good positions. His pedigree would open the doors. His grades and skills, people who know him say, would have gotten the posts. But as he put together the applications for the fellowship, he noticed he kept drawing correlations to basketball. Somehow, the game seemed to be tugging him back, refusing to let him go.
Confused, he returned to Seattle for a while to contemplate his next move. He stayed, for a few days, with Bender. In the course of their conversation, Snyder happened to mention the possibility of coaching. "Right then, I knew he was interested," Bender said. "I could tell by the way he asked the questions."
Bender urged him to talk to Krzyzewski, for whom Snyder had been working as an office assistant and part-time coach. Krzyzewski hired him to replace Brey, who was leaving for Delaware. Soon, Snyder was handling much of Duke's recruiting and doing quite well. Last season, for instance, he lured many of the players the Blue Devils brought in this fall - a class considered the best in the country.
Still, when Snyder's name came up as a possible head-coaching candidate early this spring, so did the comments about his age and hair. He was labeled a "recruiter," a tag that infuriated him.
"You are talking about two different things, people's impressions of who I am, and who I am," he says.
He even produced a 10-page business proposal (professionally done, of course) that explained his theories and what he wanted to achieve as a coach. The point was to show school administrators that not only could he handle the responsibilities of his own program, he was going to design his own way of doing the job.
But Notre Dame, Vanderbilt and San Diego State, the first three schools to interview him, wanted men with head-coaching experience. So, it was with some detachment, that he went to the Missouri interview in a conference room at the airport in Detroit. It was the talk that would change his life, yet he first dropped off his rental car from a Duke recruiting trip, then purchased a Payday and a Mountain Dew while the Tiger contingent waited.
Prepared to defend his abilities again, he was instead asked about a drill one of the people on the Missouri search committee watched him teaching at the Final Four. It was the crossover dribble, the signature move of Allen Iverson. And for the next half-hour, Snyder told the Missouri search committee about the crossover dribble - what it was, how to teach it, when to use it. By the time he was done, he had sold them on the thing others were having so much trouble understanding.
That he could indeed coach.
"He was explaining it to a neophyte like myself and he made me understand it," Alden says. "We all walked out of there not only understanding why but how you do it. It qualified all the things we had heard about him."
So he has found his place now. Right here in the heartland, where - team togetherness or not - you'd better beat Kansas at least once a season or they'll run you out of town.
There have been some bumps already - a tip to a St. Louis newspaper that led to the self-reporting of a possible NCAA recruiting violation when the Tigers flew two recruits and their mothers on a private jet (only recruits are allowed on private planes). The tempest was squelched when the NCAA cleared Missouri of wrongdoing.
The team Snyder has inherited is a flawed one, without much of a power game. Two weeks ago, he lost to Wisconsin in the first game he ever coached, but then responded with victories over Princeton, UNC Asheville, Western Carolina and Morgan State. Even some of those were close calls. The remainder of the schedule gets tougher with games against Kentucky, Indiana, Iowa and Illinois before conference play begins.
"It is a rush," he says. "It's like juggling. You have all these different balls in the air and you just have to be mindful that there are some bigger balls and you can't let those drop."
This is the test. The boy coach has his job and his chance to smash all the perceptions about looks and hair and everything that doesn't matter. After 32 years, Norm Stewart is gone and there's a fresh, new canvas on the easel. The paints are in Quin Snyder's hands and he's painting now. Big, broad brush strokes, signing the corner so everyone knows this is his creation.
"It's a long season," Bender says with a small chuckle of experience. "What I want to see and think would be interesting to see is if in the course of being a head coach that his enthusiasm will drain a little. Sometimes, all the old tried and true ways don't seem so bad in the middle of the heat. He might turn to something his dad used to do or Coach Pepple did."
Maybe, if he stopped to think about it, Quin Snyder would agree. But these are the heady first days of a new regime at a place that doesn't know much about new. This is his time now. And he's much too busy to worry about anything but making it all work.
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