- Ivan Maisel, College Football Senior Writer
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MANHATTAN, Kan. -- It was just one moment, a wisecrack tossed out on a blindingly sunny, early spring afternoon, yet it captured everything that has changed in Kansas State football under new head coach Ron Prince.
Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, walking among the Wildcat players as they engaged in prepractice stretching, turned and addressed the few hundred students and faculty in the stands at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
"If anybody sees Jordy catch a ball today, cheer!" Morris said, referring to junior wide receiver Jordy Nelson. "It will be his first one."
Nelson led Kansas State last fall with 45 receptions, eight of them for touchdowns. He is the best athlete on the team, a former Kansas high school sprint and long-jump champion.
Morris looked at the men in striped shirts standing on the sideline.
"Have the officials seen Jordy catch a ball?" he asked. "I haven't. Seriously!"
Morris walked over and placed a ball in front of Nelson as he stretched.
Do you see the changes? Can you feel them? There is a 29-year-old defensive coordinator. There is teasing, with the affection and familiarity it implies humming just below the surface. There are fans in the stands at practice.
The windows have been thrown open at Kansas State. A fresh breeze is blowing through the Vanier Football Complex. It is Prague Spring, with no threat of troops. God bless Bill Snyder, who breathed life into a football body left for dead, who provided self-respect and pride to a national laughingstock. Snyder won 136 games and one Big 12 championship in 17 seasons. But he could be as hard and demanding as a prairie winter. Snyder's idea of connecting with his players was to say, "Run it again." He and his team operated behind closed doors. Snyder retired in November at age 66 as a man of his time, a coach who saw cell phones as an extravagance, who didn't know how to use e-mail.
The players aren't impolitic enough to say they welcome the change. But if tone of voice or body language counts for anything, they are more comfortable.
Playing for Snyder, said senior linebacker Brandon Archer, "There was a definite coach-player relationship there: 'You're the coach. I'm the player.' "
"It was more authoritarian," chimed in senior running back Thomas Clayton.
"If you were talking to Coach Snyder," Archer continued, "either something had to be done, or you were in trouble. Coach Prince's door is open at all times. You can say hello, watch TV."
"There's a new energy level," Nelson said. "Everybody realizes you got another chance. There's not really a depth chart."
"Before," Clayton said, "a lot of guys felt like they had dug themselves in a hole."
"They're all positive," Nelson said of the coaches. "We have a new mentality. They will tell you what you're doing and say, 'Let's get it right.' They support achievement."
Oh, yeah -- midway through practice, after Nelson made a catch, he ran over and delivered the ball to Morris.
Teaching central to Prince's approach
Prince is in a delicate situation. He is a young man, 36, replacing an older one, a neophyte replacing a legend, a talker replacing a man who communicated neither easily nor well. Prince will expound at length on the coaching theories to which he subscribes. He is excited by them, and he talks about them with such insight and detail that when he tells you he is, at heart, a teacher, he is being redundant. It's evident in his voice.
The fact is that Prince's methods are as different from Snyder's as the text message is from the telegram. But Prince will not allow himself to be pigeonholed as an agent of change for change's sake, as -- gasp -- a rebuilder. Prince will not brook any comment that can be twisted, no matter how perversely, into criticism of his predecessor.
"I think people get confused in styles and processes," Prince said. "If you just think about the differences in our ages, I think that maybe addresses the styles and processes. I think our core values we have a lot more in common than we do different."
"Everybody thinks coaching is wearing a bad-looking sweat suit and yelling and cussing a lot, and demanding and being demeaning and being this curmudgeon. I might have been that coach when I got to some of these places I coached in the past. I tried to grow out of that."
It is a measure of Prince's respect for Snyder, and also of his political astuteness. So even as Prince remodels The House That Snyder Built, the innocent suggestion that he is new school to Snyder's old school turns Prince's countenance from sunlight to storm.
"People make that statement, but I think I'm very old school," Prince said. He grew up in Junction City, 20 miles from here, the son of a noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Riley. "He was born in 1918," Prince said of his father, Ernest. "Growing up as a military kid, particularly in an NCO's house, there's not a lot of foolishness going on."
Yet there is no drill sergeant in Prince. Take his response when a wide receiver walked away from Prince. Walked.
"I need more enthusiasm, understand?" Prince called after him. The coach gave three quick claps. "In everything you do."
During a kick-blocking drill, Carlos Alsup scooped a ball off the turf and took off the down the right sideline with the ball in his left arm.
"Which arm do we want the ball in?" Prince shouted at him. "Outside!"
In neither incident did Prince castigate the player. He didn't tell them what they did wrong. He told them what to do. It sounds like a subtle distinction. Not to Prince. That subtlety defines him as a coach.
"Everybody thinks coaching is wearing a bad-looking sweat suit and yelling and cussing a lot, and demanding and being demeaning and being this curmudgeon," Prince said. "I might have been that coach when I got to some of these places I coached in the past. I tried to grow out of that."
Prince did so at Virginia, where he progressed under head coach Al Groh from offensive line coach to offensive coordinator. Prince made All-Americans out of guard Elton Brown (2004) and tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, who will be one of the first players to two-step with commissioner Paul Tagliabue on the NFL draft stage Saturday.
"I'm not saying that I'm [former California Gov.] Jerry Brown, some moonbeam, Pollyanna guy," Prince said. "I'm not suggesting that. I'm pretty damn demanding. Anybody who's been around me at Virginia or anywhere else will tell you that. But I think what I learned was that these young people will really perform for you in ways that are really remarkable if they know you care about them and are on their side. You got to know what the hell you're talking about, too."
Prince thinks it's not only an effective method of coaching but that, with today's student-athlete, it's imperative.
"It's the most sophisticated generation of our lifetime," Prince said. "It's not just technology, but how they know what to do with it. They know as much about what's going on in Fallujah [Iraq] as they do their own hometowns. Because of all that, they are very cynical and skeptical. This is a generation of kids that, unlike me, most of them do not have a mom and a dad who is [a] biological parent raising them. They know heartbreak. They know pain. They know disappointment. I try to explain things to them so that they can have confidence in themselves. If you want to be tough, do tough things. Then you're confident of your toughness. If you want to be mentally sharp, then do things that require that. That's what the approach has been with these kids, because if I come out here and tell them, 'You stink,' 'You suck,' 'You're not going to do this or that,' I don't know if that reaches kids these days."
So Prince hired a young staff. He retained Kansas State legend Mo Latimore, 57, as defensive line coach, but the average age of the eight coaches that Prince brought with him matches his own: 36.
And Prince celebrates. On the first day that not one player in the program missed a class, Prince sent out what he described as "an e-mail blast" to everyone associated with the program to let them know it. When a player makes an A on a test, Prince announces it to the team.
His coaches are subject to similar treatment. Prince is an inveterate reader, always on the hunt for tips about leadership. "Good to Great" is his bible. He loved the lessons that he learned about George Washington in "1776," the latest bestseller from David McCullough. He devoured "The Oz Principle," a leadership tome that uses L. Frank Baum's series about a Kansas girl named Dorothy as a framework.
The homeboy in Prince is convinced that his return to Kansas will be central to his success.
"As Midwestern people, sometimes we're a little insecure because we don't live on the coast," Prince said. "We almost project on ourselves that maybe we're not quite as sophisticated, that sort of thing. What my message has been coming back is a lot of things people are dealing with in certain parts of the country, we figured out here long ago."
Prince launched into a short history lesson that began with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, progressed through the raids by Confederate guerillas from Missouri into Kansas, stopped off at William Jennings Bryan, the populist who never quite got elected president, and ended at Kansas State Hall of Famer Veryl Switzer, an African-American star for the Wildcats in the early 1950s.
"This has always been a populist state, going back to William Jennings Bryan, and it's all about people here," Prince said. "People here are not garish or ostentatious. They just aren't. You just don't see a lot of opulence, even if people have some measure of financial or other success. People here are really, truly content-of-character people."
He takes pride in his upbringing as an Army brat, exposed to the ways of that most egalitarian of American institutions. In Junction City, Prince said, no one cared what color you were, or what nationality your ancestors may have been. He is a black head coach in a sport where that remains sadly noteworthy.
"I think the people out here appreciate that a small-town kid from the state kind of went away and had a chance to come back and be the head coach," Prince said. "I think people here kind of dig that. They get that. And I think in some ways they all feel better because of it."
Prince hasn't won a game yet. But Kansas State knows that he is home. It is written on the breeze that has blown through Wildcats football.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ron Prince has yet to register his first win at Kansas State, but it's obvious that the coach has injected a new energy into Wildcats football.