Sean Snyder Sees Reunion With Bret Bielema at Illinois in 2022 “as an opportunity to learn”

After leaving Southern California, Sean Snyder has found a temporary home working under Bret Bielema to help a new kicker, punter and long snapper in 2022.

By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Football Writer/Analyst

August 4, 2022

(Cover photo courtesy Sean Sewell/USA Today Sports)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Bret Bielema was determined to get reunited with one of college football’s best special teams coaches in way or another and it took a potentially temporary situation for it to happen.
The hiring of Sean Snyder to the Illinois coaching staff for the 2022 season is another other than a traditional filling of a job vacancy. Illinois officially announced the addition of Snyder on July 26 after several weeks of Bielema trying to figure out how to assess, address and ultimately handle the medical situation of Ben Miller and his colon cancer diagnosis.
“As bad as it is timing for Coach Miller and what he’s going through, it’s very positive as of late (for Illinois) and the addition of Sean has been awesome,” said Bielema, who is entering his second season as the Illini head coach.
Having worked as a defensive coordinator for Snyder’s father, Bill, at Kansas State when the younger Snyder was a graduate assistant in 2002-03, Bielema had reached out to Sean Snyder as one of his first calls to be part of the newly-forming Illinois coaching staff but in Dec. 2020, Sean Snyder had a very comfortable gig coaching special teams at the Southern California. Even in the awkwardly strange 2020 season through a worldwide coronavirus pandemic where Pac 12 Conference programs played a six-game regular season, Snyder was at premier program competing for league titles. Less than a year later, Snyder found himself in a precautious situation where his boss, head coach Clay Helton, was fired after just two games into the 2021 campaign and suddenly somebody considered one of the nation’s best special teams coordinators was unsure about his future. Just 2,0000 miles east in Champaign, Ben Miller, the man Bielema ultimately settled on to fill that special teams role, was given drastic life-and-death medical news that went beyond his job or anything on a football field. In March, Miller was diagnosed with colon cancer and would immediately need to begin a round of chemotherapy that would immediately eliminate him from being able to concentrate on his job. At that moment, Bielema and the University of Illinois athletics department placed Miller on medical paid leave and the Illini head coach scrambled to figure out how to organize Miller’s responsibilities in terms of recruiting but also coaching tight ends and special teams within his program.
Miller confirmed in a news release on July 26 that he’s now completed four months of chemotherapy and is scheduled for liver surgery in August.
“Treatment is going as planned, and I'm fortunate to be receiving the very best treatment by world-class physicians,” Miller said in a statement last week.
“Ben and I knew this scenario was a possibility since February,” Bielema said in a statement. “We created a plan together that we are confident will give our student-athletes the best opportunity to succeed, while maintaining his health as the number one priority.”
Once Bielema got the Illini through the 15 spring practices without Miller in a full-time capacity and it was determined that Miller would be needing a second round of chemotherapy in the fall, the Illinois head coach reached out to his former Iowa teammate, Kansas State colleague and friend with an offer.
“I’d say about five weeks ago was when I got a call from Coach Bielema and we sat down to have a chat. Then, I came out to visit with him and that’s where this thing was going (and) first and foremost, the situation with Ben, which is tough,” Sean Snyder said Sunday. “So I got here, had a meeting, came back, had another meeting and decided this would be a good fit and just jumped in.”
Bielema knew that he has always wanted to have Sean Snyder on his staff is his unique skill set as a special teams coordinator. What sets Snyder apart from a vast majority of special teams coordinators throughout the country is, as a former consensus All-American and All-Big Eight first team punter who spent two seasons (1993 and 1994) in the National Football League, he is able to teach, correct and provide immediate expertise feedback to the specialist skill set of kicking. Most special teams coaches didn’t ever kick or punt a football in their life and the specialists in those programs are forced to go through outside consultants and personal coaches they’ve had throughout their careers.
When Miller was hired at Illinois, the first thing he mentioned to media was his comfort level in knowing that All-Big Ten selections Blake Hayes and James McCourt, along with three-year long snapper Ethan Tabel, were mature enough to self-scout and self-correct themselves.
With Illinois breaking in relatively new starters at kicker (Caleb Griffin), punter (Hugh Robertson) and long snapper, Snyder will be able to give immediate corrections and guidance if and when he sees a problem.
“This is what I hope will transition for them really well because they’re all already really good learners and really good adjusters and since we’re able to go with them through this everyday, they’ll gain ground and get better,” Snyder said. “The other thing (my kicking expertise) does is allows us to go through a hump where we’ll try something and we’ll have a bad day but then get it right the next day because it’s a day-to-day process. It’ll never this season be a situation where they get work in during a day and then have to wait two weeks later to get work in again.”
All throughout these phone calls and meetings with Bielema, Snyder was able to stay in communication with Miller to “compare notes” about the players and special teams coaching philosophies of the program.
“We all need to say our prayers for Ben and he’s doing better,” Snyder said. “I know Coach Bielema has made some comments about how he’s doing but I get to constantly stay in communication with Ben and that’s always good.”
Even for a coach with over two decades of experience at the Power Five Conference level, Snyder said the opportunity to come to Illinois, even if in what is currently being talked about publicly as a temporary situation, was “an opportunity to learn”.
“So, I know and hope Ben is back in the saddle and if I come out of this thing having learned, having gained something and am better off for myself, then I’m in great shape,” Snyder said. “That’s the thing. You never stop learning.”

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