Big 12 football: Why Kansas State coach Chris Klieman gave up being a made man to replace a legend
ARLINGTON, Texas — Chris Klieman always wanted to coach major-college football.
He grew up in Iowa when Hayden Fry was coaching the Hawkeyes and Earle Bruce was leading the Cyclones. Being the head coach at a program like Iowa or Iowa State was Klieman’s childhood dream.
But last winter when the opportunity to turn hopes to reality, no one would’ve blamed Klieman if he stayed put. He was the head coach at North Dakota State, the premier program in FCS, what we used to know as Division I-AA. He was soon to be the winner of four of five national titles. He was a made man.
He could’ve stayed in Fargo, a place his family loved, with a team he loved and become a legend like Larry Kehres at Mount Union in Ohio or John Gagliardi at St. John’s in Minnesota.
Instead, Klieman is replacing a legend, taking over at Kansas State and following in the footsteps of Bill Snyder.
“One of the most synonymous names in college football history, not just at Kansas State but anywhere,” Klieman said of Snyder. “What Coach did at Kansas State was nothing short of remarkable, and I’m going to feed off that.”
Wildcat Nation sure hopes so.
Earlier this week during his first Big 12 football media days, Klieman showed the genuine, engaging personality that has already connected with K-State fans. They roared during the public introduction of Klieman and his staff at a men’s basketball game in February. They packed Catbacker events around the state this summer. They have adopted his catchphrase “win the dang day,” even putting it on T-shirts.
While winning hearts this offseason has been important — K-State fans were initially sour about not hiring Brent Venables or Jim Leavitt or someone else with ties to the program — the most vital job will be winning games. Even though the Wildcats struggled last season, they had been to eight consecutive bowls before that. That has been the standard since the 1990s because of Snyder.
It’s impossible to fully articulate how he transformed that program, but in his 27 seasons, K-State won an average of eight games a year.
In the program’s other 80 seasons, it won at least eight games only twice.
Klieman has a unique appreciation for just how far the program has come. The first home game Snyder coached at K-State was against Northern Iowa in 1989. Klieman was a junior on that Panthers team, which bested the Wildcats and ruined Snyder’s debut.
“There was nobody there,” Klieman said of the crowd that day. “But he didn’t care. He was going to stick with the plan.
“That’s something I will for sure take with me. We’re going to have some growing pains — there’s no doubt about that — but I’m going to stick with the plan that I know has been successful for us.”
As an assistant, Klieman was part of three consecutive FCS national championships at North Dakota State from 2011-13. Then he took over the program as head coach and won four more crowns.
When Snyder announced his retirement, Klieman felt like Kansas State would be a fit. The program had a vibe similar to North Dakota State. The university’s location and land-grant-college roots were familiar to Klieman as well. It also didn’t hurt that the athletic director at K-State was Gene Taylor, his former boss at North Dakota State.
“I knew when Coach retired … I’d have an opportunity,” Klieman said. “Would I get the job? I didn’t know. But I was going to have an opportunity.”
The opportunity became an offer captured on video and shared on social media.
Taylor: “How would you like to be the next head football coach at Kansas State University?”
Klieman: “I’d be so jacked to be the next head football coach at Kansas State. I’d be so thrilled.”
Taylor: “You’re going to be following a legend. You know that, right?”
Klieman: “I do know that I’m following an icon that I have a ton of respect for and followed my whole career.”
He might have followed Snyder’s career from afar, but now Klieman is following after him. Klieman has Snyder’s old office looking over the stadium that carries the Snyder family name.
It’s heady stuff.
But Klieman sees positives, not negatives in following Snyder.
“We have great facilities. We have a great infrastructure. We have a great culture because of what Coach did,” Klieman said. “I know I’m not going to fill his shoes. I’m just trying to continue in his legacy but doing it our own way.
“I just want him to … be proud of the product that’s out on the field.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.
About the series
Four Big 12 schools have new football coaches this year, and The Oklahoman is doing a four-part series on these newcomers:
Thursday: West Virginia’s Neal Brown
Friday: Kansas State's Chris Klieman
Saturday: Texas Tech's Matt Wells
Sunday: Kansas' Les Miles
Chris Klieman file
Hometown: Waterloo, Iowa
Family: Wife, Rhonda; children Devin, Colby, Haley
Playing experience: Northern Iowa, DB (1986-90)
Coaching experience: Northern Iowa, DB (1991-93); Western Illinois, DB (1994-96); Kansas, DB (1997); Missouri State, DB (1999); Loras College (Iowa), DC (2002-04) and HC (2005); Northern Iowa, DB (2006-10); North Dakota State, DB (2011), DC (2012-13) and HC (2014-18)
Head coaching record: 72-13
Top accomplishment: Led North Dakota State to the FCS national title four of the past five seasons, including an undefeated title last season.