Back to Basics
The Columbia Missourian
By Matt Harris
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Quin Snyder will tell you this isn’t a redemption story. Don’t go thinking he was desperately searching for one last chance to make good on his potential.
This interview is not a confession, either. He’s made plenty of mea culpas.
People have decided what they want to believe about him, and there is no sense in fretting over it. “You get to a point where (with) everything that’s said about you there’s a certain perception that you just get tired of fighting,” he says.
The game he loves is easy and, theoretically, so is teaching it, but he knows better. Perception creates the reality.
Sometimes, this reality can be messy and complex. Perceived behaviors, as much as wins and losses, can make or break careers.
If anyone knows this, it is Snyder. People’s perceptions labeled him a coaching prodigy and carried him from a 32-year-old assistant at Duke to the head coach at Missouri. Trained by a coaching legend, Mike Krzyzewski, he was expected to replace another legend, Norm Stewart.
Seven years later, his performance and fans’ perceptions also led to his resignation after several losing seasons, an NCAA investigation and sanctions, and fans asking how things went awry.
The program and fans have tried to move on. But the pace has been lurching at times. Mike Anderson was hired to replace Snyder, but he has had to slowly implement his up-tempo style with a roster of players recruited by his predecessor. In 2008, the team failed to make the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight year.
Fans, in response, have been slow to fill Mizzou Arena.
Meanwhile, Snyder laid low. He went back to North Carolina for 16 months and thought about his future. The controversy and disappointment had taken their toll. But one thing was never in doubt.
“I wasn’t filled with that kind of angst,” he says about coaching. “There was never a doubt I loved the game. It was just a question of ‘Do you want to have that life again?’”
In spring 2007, he reached a decision. He wanted to return.
On one condition: His next job would need to be simple, uncluttered. He loved coaching college basketball, but he hated the extra roles he had to play. There was recruiting. There was keeping players in line and shooing them to class. There was the sense of obligation to their families. There were the booster club fundraisers. There were the basketball camps.
There were too many responsibilities taking his attention away from the court.
“You know, all those things that create a job that’s not always what it appears,” Snyder says.
His next job would be exactly as it appeared: making his players and his team better.
The job would come from the unlikeliest of places — the NBA Development League. In June 2007, Snyder was introduced as the head coach of the Austin Toros, replacing former NBA great Dennis Johnson, who died of a heart attack four months earlier.
It’s the NBA’s minor leagues, a purgatory for players toiling away in hopes of reaching the pros — even if it’s just for a 10-day contract.
The crowds are small, the pay is meager and the notoriety is nonexistent. It’s a league where rosters are in flux, and the outlook of players ranges from jaded to hopeful.
Quin Snyder knows there is no glamour here. He likes it that way.
“If you like coaching, that’s what you’re doing,” Snyder says. “I like the environment. It’s an environment where there aren’t a lot of distractions, and that works for me on a lot of levels.”
A NEW ENVIRONMENT
There isn’t much to divert Snyder’s attention on this Saturday in March.
Tucked behind a faux adobe wall, Tingley Coliseum is a working man’s gym that sits between a dog track, the training ring and hitching posts for stables.
Used for hosting rodeos, it has no frills inside. A layer of dust coats every fixture. Heating ducts are exposed. Slab concrete walls are covered by corrugated metal panels.
It’s a far cry from the more polished venues that Snyder is used to, but that doesn’t bother him.
“I don’t care what we travel in, I don’t care where we play,” he says. “We could practice in a YMCA. You know, what you like about the game is there, and if you approach the other stuff the right way, it’s great.”
This is a league where bus trips can still be routine. The venues are sometimes far from the buzz of a metropolis in places such as Boise, Idaho; Bismarck, N.D.; McAllen, Texas; and Sioux Falls, S.D. You learn to make do. That explains why Snyder took it in stride when the shower in his hotel room broke on one road trip, leaving him unable to clean up before a game.
“You’ve got all kinds of stories like that,” he says, laughing.
Besides, he’s got more pressing concerns. The Austin Toros are tired. It’s been a long week with another week of games ahead in this former trading outpost.
Three days earlier, they beat the Development League’s top team, the Idaho Stampede, with just seven of their 10 players. The team’s leading scorer, Keith Langford, left the team a week earlier to take a contract in Italy.
“That’s kind of the way it is,” Snyder says. “You don’t always know what you’re going to have on a given day.”
The players are stiff and their shoulders slumped. No smiles here, only the occasional face-contorting yawn.
It’s reflected in their play. On a sailing outlet pass, guard DerMarr Johnson only waves his arm as the ball lands out of bounds. He trots to retrieve the ball and plods back onto the floor.
Snyder looks tired, too. There are a couple of days’ worth of stubble on his chin, and the slight rasp in his voice is more pronounced. He mills about on the floor, arms crossed, softly calling out offensive sets.
Roy Rogers, the Toros’ assistant, does most of the talking. Occasionally, Snyder strolls over and repositions a player, providing a one-sentence explanation.
The Toros will tell you that nothing is ever constant in this league except change. The core of the team remains, with a rotating cast working its way through. At times, the turnover and uncertainty become frustrating.
“It’s not one of those things you want to say or show as a player,” guard Squeaky Johnson says. “You never know what your playing time is going to be. You always got to make the most of your playing time, whether it’s five minutes, 20 minutes or 30 minutes. You just never know.”
The box score of the San Antonio Spurs, which owns the Toros, is in high demand. So is the injury report. Curiosity in the struggles or physical ills of their NBA counterparts has a place here. The misfortune of one player can spell opportunity for another.
“It isn’t something you hope for,” guard Marcus Williams says with a shrug. “But every guy here wants to prove himself, and you only get a few chances to do that.”
Most players just want a 10-day NBA contract, an extended chance to prove their worth. In reality, even those who land a contract will likely be sent back to the Development League, with only a glimpse at their ultimate goal.
Snyder’s job is to quell anxiety, doubt and disappointment while teaching a variation of the Spurs’ system. One part counselor, another part teacher.
“I told them up front, ‘Look, I know none of you guys want to play for me,’” Snyder says. “There’s a naivete that takes place in college that quickly becomes a stark reality here.”
SO MUCH PROMISE, SO MANY EXPECTATIONS
Like his players, Snyder knows about disappointment. About not living up to expectations.
He’ll give you a peek at how it has changed him, but just don’t expect it to be a fully formed picture.
After practice and after his players have shuffled off to the locker room, Snyder sits courtside and says it’s fine to discuss the past. But remember, this isn’t a confession.
He rubs his neck. He fidgets in his seat. At times, apprehension creeps into his voice. He runs his fingers through his hair. He starts to speak then abruptly stops to collect his thoughts before continuing.
Even now, he says he didn’t want to be the focus of the story at Missouri.
There’s an assumption that people like being the center of attention when good things are being said about them, Snyder says.
“That wasn’t it for me. In fact, some of that really made me uncomfortable.”
The story line though, was perfect. For some fans, Snyder embodied change. He was a high school All-American. He had dual law and business degrees from Duke. With his pedigree, he could re-invigorate a program that had started to lag under a gruff native son, Norm Stewart.
His potential persuaded Missouri Athletic Director Mike Alden to hire him over the likes of Bill Self and John Calipari — two coaches who guided their teams to the national title game in April.
But to others there was too much polish. Granted, Snyder seemed to have the potential, but he was short on experience. To others, he exuded a certain arrogance. Besides, Norm got Missouri. He played baseball and basketball for the Tigers, helping the former program win a national title in 1954. He won nine Big 8 championships. He did commercials for local businesses. He ate at Booche’s. He understood the rivalry with Kansas because he had lived it for close to 50 years.
Snyder says he wanted no part in such comparisons.
“Immediately, you can’t win if you’re in my position,” he says. “From the minute I got there, there was this clash.”
Either way, the only way to appease both sides was to win, to build a juggernaut. It all made for great theater with slick hair, designer suits and glossy-covered player development programs.
While the entertainment value was appealing to fans and the press, Snyder said such caricatures were excessive.
“That stuff is not what I want to be,” he says. “Those things are just stories.”
“I remember my mom getting interviewed and sending pictures of me climbing a tree when I was a kid, and I’m thinking, ‘Mom, what are you doing?’ Once that happens you’re inevitably going to disappoint.”
His tenure offered ample evidence for the beliefs of both factions.
Snyder led his first four teams to the NCAA tournament, including the Elite Eight in 2002. Those teams were stockpiled with recruits considered among the best in the nation. Mizzou Arena was built and opened under his tenure.
But it was never quite enough.
Those same teams, backed by lofty preseason rankings, would burst out of the gate but look listless by mid-January. There were losses to Belmont and Davidson, in 2003 and 2004, where his teams played sloppily and dispassionately. The Tigers finished higher than sixth in the Big 12 only once. Often, they needed late-season surges to make the tournament. To make matters worse, they lost the last game at the Hearnes Center to Kansas.
In 2004 and 2005, the Tigers mustered National Invitation Tournament appearances but lost in the first round both times.
Fans were divided.
Some grew convinced that running the program was beyond Snyder’s grasp.
Others chalked it up to a young coach getting acclimated.
Ricky Clemons changed all that.
Snyder took a chance that ultimately was his undoing. In the spring of 2003, the transfer guard was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend. That summer, Clemons crashed an ATV on the lawn of then-UM System President Elson Floyd’s home while on work release. His jailhouse conversations with the wives of athletic department and school administrators only added to the embarrassment.
The scandal included allegations of improper payments and grew when it was revealed Snyder had given Clemons apparel. It got worse when an NCAA investigation, finished in 2004, found that assistant coach Tony Harvey had given money to Clemons, a charge that was later withdrawn. It also detailed how MU coaches made improper phone calls to Jason Conley, a guard who transferred from the Virginia Military Institute.
The program lost three scholarships, making it hard to replace starters like Rickey Paulding, Arthur Johnson and Travon Bryant.
Snyder’s last three years were a constant struggle: A struggle to keep players from buying into the hype. A struggle to shield them from criticism. A struggle to win enough games to stay employed.
“You’re fighting for your life for a two-, three-year period, daily,” Snyder says. “Every game grinding it out.”
He was at his best when he was a soothing presence. His intensity had always been a power source. But soon the wattage began to overload the system.
Paulding, one of Snyder’s first recruits and former Tiger star, agrees with his coach.
“To see his face at practice was to show us that it wasn’t affecting him,” he says. “I mean, his main focus was basketball, but he managed to show up every day with a smile on his face and show us it wasn’t affecting him.”
Snyder knew it was getting to be too much. Grit your teeth and bear it, he told himself. “Fight it out and never relent,” became Snyder’s mantra.
“You start trying to hold on tighter and tighter and work your way through it thinking, ‘I’m a competitor, and I’m not going to let up,’” he says.
The tide of events was too strong. His last season was one where the world could not be kept out. Every night was a test, a judgment of his self-worth.
He finally relented. On Feb. 10, 2006, Snyder resigned in the midst of a 10-11 season and a six-game losing streak. No longer would he be a distraction.
But even his departure came with controversy. Word leaked that Athletic Director Mike Alden might have directed Gary Link, a broadcaster and special assistant, to offer Snyder a choice: resign or be fired at the season’s end. That, too, prompted investigations on the part of MU Chancellor Brady Deaton and the UM System. Both found lax communications within the athletic department.
Those investigations found that no such directive was given, but it revealed that the relationship between Snyder and Alden had been rocky, with Alden reportedly expressing frustration at Snyder for shunning public events.
But that is in the past. Snyder says he came to terms with the events long ago. But that doesn’t diminish the question at hand.
Does he resent what happened?
This question gives him pause. His brow furrows, and he looks away.
“Do I resent it?” he says to himself.
“You know, I never really bothered to tell how I feel about it,” he says. “Everybody, they say, has their own reality. Everybody’s got their own truth. People can differ somewhat on that, and others can never really be convinced.”
This doesn’t really answer the question. He says again he doesn’t want the story to be about him. Yes, it was painful and it took its toll.
But no one will really know the story.
“I wanted to win. I mean, shit, we were good,” he says with a chuckle. “Even when things started to go haywire, it’s just surreal to think back. No one has any idea except me.”
THE DECISION TO RETURN
Coaching is simpler now.
The Toros’ job is about as far removed from high profile as one can get.
Deep in the heart of Texas, Snyder is no longer the story. And that’s OK with him.
But oddly enough, he didn’t snatch up the job when it was offered.
The question arose for him again: Do you want that life again?
One thing was certain: He wanted a change of scenery. He moved from North Carolina to Austin, Texas. But not for basketball. The town had won him over when the Tigers hit the road to play the Texas Longhorns. Snyder had friends there.
Matters in his personal life were resolved. He and his wife, Helen, had finalized their divorce. Custody had been worked out for their son, Owen, who is 5 now.
But Snyder missed the game. Whatever soul searching was required had been completed. The sidelines were where he wanted to be.
An old friend wanted to give Snyder a chance.
David Khan has known Quin Snyder for 15 years. Kahn, the former general manager for the Indiana Pacers, met the coach in 1993. At the time, Snyder was 26 and an assistant to then-Los Angeles Clippers coach Larry Brown.
Even now, Kahn will tell you that Snyder is destined for greatness.
“He has all the tools you need,” Kahn says. “He has intensity, he has ambition — and I mean that in the good sense — and he has drive.”
“He’s not lacking in anything,” he adds.
The two men had stayed in touch over the years after Snyder left the Clippers to return to Duke for his law and business degrees. As Snyder began to climb the coaching ladder, Kahn began to start up and purchase NBA Development League teams, including the Austin Toros.
After Snyder resigned at Missouri, the two talked about what Snyder would do next. He wasn’t keen on a fast return.
He wasn’t 32 anymore and past the days of holing himself up in a rented house with his assistant coaches for several months, as he did when he arrived in Columbia.
His next job needed to be stripped of all the responsibilities he had in Columbia: No recruiting. No fundraisers. No unending list of public appearances.
“What he said to me, and I think it rung true, was that he was looking to return to the sport in its purest form,” Kahn says.
No problem. Kahn told Snyder there was a front office to handle roster moves and scouting. There was a six-month off-season and no jet-setting to amateur scouting tournaments around the nation. No stroking the egos of 18-year-olds.
Still, Snyder wanted to think it over.
“It was probably May” when Kahn called, Snyder says. “At the time I said, ‘Just let me think about it.’ That’s when I began to get serious about it.”
Even before the Spurs bought the Toros, they were on board with hiring Snyder.
R.C. Buford, the general manager of the Spurs, has known Snyder for more than 20 years. Both of them were assistants to Brown in Los Angeles.
Kahn is convinced the proximity of San Antonio to Austin and the presence of Buford were an added attraction for Snyder.
“He knew he had the ability to tap into the organization from time to time,” Kahn says.
“Getting serious” for Snyder meant turning to people he trusted, those friends and coaches whom he knew from Duke.
Bob Bender, a former Duke assistant now with the Atlanta Hawks, got a call. Billy King, the former general manager for the Philadelphia 76ers, was on the list. Of course, coach Krzyzewski got a word in edgewise on the idea.
Danny Ferry was on the list, too. Now the general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, he has known Snyder for 20 years, as a teammate and a coach. They arrived as freshmen together in 1986. They went to three Final Fours. Snyder, at the point, ran the show that centered on Ferry.
While Ferry pursued a 10-year career in the NBA, Snyder took up coaching.
During their conversations, Ferry made it clear he thought the Development League would be a good fit for Snyder. It would force him to experience and coach through constant change. The NBA game presents coaches with so many more decisions under a faster pace.
Yet Ferry understood Snyder’s hesitancy.
“The life change was the thing that he had gone through and the freedom (of his) time,” Ferry says. “But all along, I very much felt he had coaching in his heart.”
The kind words bolstered Snyder’s resolve. The Spurs organization was first class. You don’t win four NBA titles without knowing how to run a team. It doesn’t work to make rash decisions.
“R.C. called me to ask, ‘You know what are you thinking?’” Snyder says. “It kind of fit together in such a way that was like, ‘This is just right.’”
The support system is stunning when compared with other Development League teams. Dell Demps, the Spurs’ pro personnel director, is constantly in touch. The team hired Rogers, who has played in the NBA and coached in the D-League, as an assistant coach for Snyder.
There is an implicit message for Snyder: Do what you do best and develop players. He’s done his best to oblige. At this point in the season, the team is sitting atop the Southwest Division and pointed toward the playoffs.
“I’m doing as good a job as I can,” he says. “I’ve been unbelievably hungry with the game. I’ve enjoyed that.”
IN HIS ELEMENT
In a dimly lit hallway outside the visitors locker room, Snyder tries to steal a few quiet moments before tipoff.
While a coach on the road never has an office, the situation at Tingley seems extreme. Snyder, his bag at his feet, hunches his reedy 6-foot-3 frame over a binder in his lap.
The binder serves as a desk for the yellow notecards he is flipping through. On each one is a sequence for offense or defense. He leans in close to read and makes a note on another page.
The sound of a photographer snapping photos of him causes him to look up.
“I don’t have an office. I have a chair,” he says.
The Toros will struggle to put away the Thunderbirds all night. Double-digit leads are built, then erased just as easily.
The concern he had at practice has become a reality. The Toros are yielding too many lay-ups and failing to keep Albuquerque off the offensive glass. At times, his team is overrun as a Thunderbirds player drives hell-bent to the basket only to shovel off a pass to an open teammate.
With four minutes left in the fourth quarter, a 15-point lead has evaporated.
Snyder can only watch in disbelief, squatting on the sideline with his angular jaw clenched. Whatever patience he has left is wearing thin, and the cursing under his breath becomes louder.
A tip-in by the Thunderbirds’ Julius Hodge would seem to be the final straw. Hodge, an amazing leaper, flew in from the right wing and jumped over two Toros players for the basket. The score is now 111-110, Austin.
Despite the bright-eyed frustration on his face, Snyder steps out onto the floor with Rogers to discuss the proper course of action. His arms flail slightly, fall limp and come to rest on his hips. There is no bellowing, just a sigh as he returns to the huddle.
You wait for the explosion, but it never comes.
“Does anyone feel like boxing out,” he says dryly. “I’ll gladly take all comers.”
Bombastic blowups don’t work here. Snyder says his players know what to do. They just need to be reminded every once in a while.
The Toros are having some success. Their smaller post players and quicker guards have posed problems for the Thunderbirds. On some possessions, seams open in the defense, letting players like Cheyne Gadson and Marcus Williams slip to the rim.
Snyder is not coy. “This is where we put our foot on their throats,” he says. “If you see an opening, I want you to attack.”
Gadson takes the words to heart. On the first possession after the timeout, he jumps into the passing lane for a steal and lay-up.
It’s 113-110, Austin.
Snyder rises from his seat, nods his head and pumps his fist.
“Good,” he shouts. “Now get back and defend.”
Snyder tells his team to keep the ball out of the hands of Kevin Pittsnogle. The tattooed West Virginian has made a name for himself as a big man who can shoot the 3-point shot.
Sure enough the Thunderbirds fire a pass to their center at the top of the arc. Turning quickly, he hoists up a shot with 15.8 seconds left. It clanks off the back iron.
Gadson collects the rebound and is promptly fouled. His two free-throws sew up a 119-114 win.
After the game, in the same dimly lit hallway, Snyder and Rogers talk in hushed tones. Their gestures and facial expression change form, but the words can’t be heard. For all intents and purposes, they’re mimes in suits.
Snyder tosses his rumpled suit jacket over the back of the chair he had been sitting in earlier. He rubs his temple and closes his eyes. Rogers whispers something in his ear and then ducks into the locker room.
Snyder opens his eyes. He casts a glance at Perri Travillion, the Toros’ media representative and points to the box score in his hands.
“Marcus was just unbelievable tonight,” he says with a smile. “I mean, the guy is getting it figured out.”
He proceeds to explain what Travillion should point out when she does her game write-up. “Him,” Snyder says pointing at the sheet, “he didn’t give us much.”
With a skip in his step, he enters the locker room.
“You can’t get him to come down after a win,” Travillion says when Snyder is out of sight. “It’s like a buzz for him.”
It’s the buzz that Snyder craves now. The simple pleasure in reveling in a win, and the success of his players is what sustains him.
He’s learned what he can do without. There are perceptions here. He is judged by the product on the floor.
This makes you wonder. What lessons did he take away from Missouri?
It could be said that he was a little too young. Maybe he wanted to win a little too much. Snyder will have none of that.
“I was at a point in my life where I wanted to be head coach for a lot of reasons,” he says. “Fact is, I was ready, and I believe I was ready. Were there things I needed to improve on, were there things I hadn’t experienced as an assistant? Absolutely.
“But it’s pretty hard to find anybody that’s an assistant coach that has that package without being a head coach,” he adds.
Mistakes are inevitable. He is still making them today. The difference is that when he blows a timeout in the Development League, there is no one there to see it.
In hindsight, he says he should have stopped trying to fight and taken an honest look at the situation.
“I didn’t ever stop to say, ‘This isn’t right,’” Snyder says. “I just wanted to beat it. In the end, there was this tipping point where no matter what you did, it wasn’t going back.”
He’s tried to make amends. There is some part of him that still feels his players went through too much. He knows the situation was hard and the burden too much to carry.
As a reminder, he still wears a black wristband from his last season in Columbia. Then there are the phone calls and the e-mails to the players who have moved on.
“I know those two years were really tough on him,” Ricky Paulding says. “He’s done a lot for me, and if he ever needed me to do something in the future, I would do it if I could.”
And Snyder has learned to look beyond the court for his identity. He is a father now, sharing custody of his son, Owen, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., with his ex-wife. The Toros’ schedule often lets Owen visit Snyder in Austin. A six-month offseason means the two of them can spend parts of the summer together.
The year off gave him the time to form a bond strong enough to survive his return to coaching.
“It made me feel more comfortable about coming here and not being with him day to day,” Snyder says. “I began to believe that we were going to have a great relationship — that there was a foundation for that.”
Most importantly, Snyder has learned to fail. It’s a lesson that his profession would prefer most of its members avoid. But, often, it touches every coach to a varying degree.
“I think all of us are not immune from failures and difficulties,” David Kahn says. “Nonetheless, I think he has emerged stronger than ever, and I could tell when I hired him that he was re-energized.”
Kahn even has a bold prediction to share. And don’t tell him it’s absurd.
“I have absolutely no doubt that Quin Snyder will be an NBA head coach,” he says. “No doubt whatsoever.”
Snyder says he is not worried about such predictions. He loves his job now. He doesn’t want to get caught up in the expectations or perceptions of others.
Everybody in the Development League is looking to move on, but Snyder is content.
“I’m in the present, and I’m in a good place,” he says. “If those things evolve, they evolve. If they don’t, they don’t. It’s not going to impact (me), I’m going to do as good a job as I can.”
ONE GAME DOWN, ANOTHER GAME AHEAD
Snyder is sapped.
Just after 10 p.m., the Toros begin to leave the building and head toward hotel vans idling behind Tingley.
Cheyne Gadson, Justin Bowen and DerMarr Johnson are stealing a few minutes of sleep before the van pulls away.
Squeaky Johnson catches this sight as he walks up. “Look at these clowns, man,” he says.
He climbs in and slides next to Andre Barrett, whose head bobs along to the bass of the music on his headphones. Another day, and hopefully another step closer, to their dreams.
Inside, Snyder is taking a few moments for himself before pulling his roll-along suitcase out the door.
He is tired but satisfied.
“This is it, right here,” he says. “You saw it out there. You saw what I was talking about. These guys are right there on the edge, they’re on the verge.”
With that, he strides to the door and out into the chilly New Mexico air. As an attendant takes his bag, Snyder again crumples his frame into the van next to forward Ian Mahinmi.
Just before the door is shut, he looks out and says, “Thanks for coming out guys, I’ll see you around.”