Kansas State University

A trip to Fargo reveals why Chris Klieman stokes excitement in both K-State and NDSU

K-State coach Chris Klieman walks off the field at North Dakota State for the final time

K-State coach Chris Klieman walks off the field at North Dakota State for the final time
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K-State coach Chris Klieman walks off the field at North Dakota State for the final time

They take football entrances seriously at North Dakota State.

Before the start of every home game they turn off the lights at the Fargodome, blare AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” at ear-piercing decibels, show a pump-up montage on the video boards and then, when you think the place can’t get any louder, the Bison burst out of the locker room and take the field through a giant inflatable helmet.

It’s a sacred ritual. Locals call it the greatest moment in sports. Hyperbole or not, it’s clearly steeped in tradition. The head coach goes first, followed by captains and the rest of the roster. It never changes.

Well, almost never. They did alter the routine once, at Chris Klieman’s request. The reason: The coach wanted to help a player.

Chase Morlock needed a pick-me-up after his father died of cancer in 2016. The former Bison running back left the team for a week to be with his family and still seemed crushed when he returned. The loss hit him hard. Klieman could tell. So he surprised Morlock before the start of North Dakota State’s next game.

That day, Klieman told Morlock he would guide the team onto the field.

“It was one of the most special moments of my life,” Morlock says now. “I can’t thank Coach Klieman enough for that. It meant the world to me and my family. It was pretty incredible. I will never forget the emotions of that moment and the way he embraced me afterward. He was there with us at the hospital, helping in every way he could. Then he did that. We really love our entrance here, so for him to change it for me was very unique.”

Ask current and former North Dakota State players what they like most about Klieman and they don’t talk much about his recruiting or play-calling. They talk about how much he cares.

They call him the ultimate player’s coach. He lets his team listen to music before practice and games, he seeks their input on uniforms, and he teaches them without yelling while also working them to the bone. But that all fades away compared to who he is off the field.

He is the type of person who calls when you get engaged, shows up at your wedding and then jumps for joy at the sight of children.

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Chris Klieman (left) is introduced as the new head coach at K-State Wednesday afternoon. Athletic Director Gene Taylor presented Klienman with a jersey marking the 35th coach at K-State . (December 11, 2018) Bo Rader The Wichita Eagle

“He was all over it when he found out my wife and I were expecting our first child,” former NDSU punter Ben LeCompte said. “If you are a former player and you show up at practice, it doesn’t’ matter what he is doing, he is going to come over and catch up. When he says he cares about his players, he means it. He is one of the most genuine people in this profession.”

Perhaps that is why Klieman has gone 68-6 at North Dakota State and is now closing in on his fourth FCS national championship. Perhaps that is why Kansas State hired him to replace Bill Snyder.

Fond farewell

A funny thing happened when Klieman told his team he was leaving for K-State last week.

His players gave him a standing ovation.

Most of the time, when a football coach leaves for a new job there is venom involved. Players are disappointed and fans are angry. There are usually boos. Not here.

When Klieman walked off the field for the final time following his team’s 44-21 demolition of South Dakota State in the FCS playoffs on Friday, “thank you Klieman” chants broke out all across the Fargodome. Some fans even brought signs.

“There isn’t anybody around here who is mad at him for leaving,” NDSU fan Martin Rud said. “He has earned it. All these seniors are his kids. They love him. The coaches all work good together. You guys are getting a good coach.”

“He’s a good coach, a good mentor and just a good all-around person,” Fargo local Kent Ness added. “He has done so much for North Dakota State. We are just happy he gets to move on to bigger and brighter things.”

North Dakota State fans explain why they respect Chris Klieman

Brent Tehven, a former player and current owner of the popular Herd and Horns bar near campus, went so far as to suggest North Dakota State fans will likely adopt K-State as their second team the same way they did with the Philadelphia Eagles when they drafted former Bison quarterback Carson Wentz.

“K-State just gained a hell of a lot more fans,” Tehven said. “I guarantee you that.”

It would be silly to suggest North Dakota State fans remain loyal to Klieman simply because he has been so successful here. That’s a big part of it, sure. But they also appreciate the way he handled the move to K-State.

He informed his athletic director, Matt Larsen, when K-State first reached out and expressed interest. Then he was open about the process with media, telling the world when he interviewed for the job and laying out a timeline for when the Wildcats expected to make a hire.

That was a welcome change from North Dakota State’s last coaching change. Things got ugly when Craig Bohl left for Wyoming in 2014. He won three national championships with Klieman serving as his defensive coordinator, but you won’t find many Wyoming fans in Fargo these days.

“This was the complete opposite of the Bohl situation,” former NDSU defensive end Cole Jirik said. “That broke on Twitter and the team found out while we were eating. Everyone was blindsided and there was a big uproar. I think Chris decided that day he would never handle it that way. That’s why he was so upfront about everything.”

That made it easy for K-State and North Dakota State to agree to let Klieman coach both schools until the Bison finish their season at the FCS national championship game on Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas.

Some K-State fans were initially upset their new coach took that route, but they seemed to come around after listening to his introductory news conference and watching the NDSU game on Friday. His win the dang day mantra is already a catchphrase in Manhattan.

He has been coaching the Bison by day and recruiting for the Wildcats by night. The next few days, his focus will be entirely on K-State.

When asked how many recruiting visits he had lined up for Saturday, Klieman simply said K-State was “picking me up in the morning and we are rolling.”

Klieman felt the love from local fans during his final home game, but he also sensed K-State fans were supporting him from afar. His face lit up like a Christmas tree at the thought of people watching Friday’s game on TV in the Sunflower State.

“That is pretty cool to have that kind of support from two great fan bases and two great administrations,” Klieman said. “It means the world to me, because I have had unbelievable support for all the years I have been here. I have gotten to know the community. I will do the same thing in Manhattan. I will be out in the community. People will know me and my wife and my kids. I think that is really important. I so appreciate the support I have already received from K-State people.”

A good first impression

Curious K-State fans had to like what they saw from Klieman’s team on Friday.

North Dakota State bludgeoned its rival for 439 rushing yards with a series of punishing runs between the tackles and just enough passes to keep South Dakota State guessing. Showing no interest in running out of bounds, Bison players stiff-armed and trucked their way to seven touchdowns. Easton Stick, a senior quarterback from Omaha whom Klieman described as “the best player in college football,” had 316 total yards and four touchdowns.

Kansas State Wildcats defensive end Wyatt Hubert talks about new Wildcats head coach Chris Klieman after Klieman was introduced during a press conference on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018.

Some NFL coaches have said they study North Dakota State and its offense for ideas at the professional level, because of all the success Wentz had with misdirection and pre-snap movement there. It’s a traditional pro-style system.

Most impressive of all, the Bison appeared to grow more dominant as the game progressed. They were so physical on defense that South Dakota State quarterback Taryn Christion at one point opted to slide rather than risk another big hit, even on third down with a conversion there for the taking. He came up short and the Jackrabbits had to punt.

It’s easy to see why North Dakota State is the gold standard for FCS teams and a regular giant slayer whenever a FBS team is brave enough to schedule a game.

Much has been made of the transition Klieman will face as he makes the jump to the Big 12. It’s fair to wonder if he can handle it. Though Jim Harbaugh (San Diego to Stanford), Frank Beamer (Murray State to Virginia Tech) and Jim Tressel (Youngstown State to Ohio State) all worked out, there are more horror stories than fairy tales.

It’s rare for a coach like Klieman to jump straight to the power-conference level.

Still, it might not be much of a challenge for Klieman. Everything about North Dakota State, from the sellout crowds to the sprawling tailgate scene, screams big-time football.

“I would invite anyone who looks down on North Dakota State because we are a FCS school to come see what we’re all about,” Larsen, the school’s athletic director, said. “That’s a FBS team out there in terms of size, speed and athleticism. We have shown it by winning eight of our last nine against FBS teams, some of them handily. This will be a seamless transition for Chris.”

Here’s a question that might define Klieman’s success at K-State: How does he handle losing?

It’s incredibly unlikely he will go undefeated with the Wildcats next season, given that they are losing star offensive lineman Dalton Risner, lockdown corner Duke Shelley and Alex Barnes, the Big 12’s leading rusher.

Klieman hasn’t lost often in Fargo. With one more victory, he will have four national championships in five seasons.

But he knows how to coach a team after a loss. That much was evident when the Bison started the 2015 season 4-2 with losses to Montana and South Dakota. Imagine Alabama losing two games before Halloween. That’s how people felt in Fargo. There was all-out panic, especially with Wentz breaking a bone in his throwing wrist that required surgery.

North Dakota State looked doomed.

“Coach Klieman handled that unbelievably,” LeCompte said. “He just came in and told us, ‘We’ve got this guy Easton Stick who we think is pretty good. Let’s go win nine straight ball games and a national championship. You can either let these two losses define you or smack adversity in the mouth.’ He was so genuine about it that we all felt like, yeah, we can do this.”

That’s also about the time Klieman began saying win the dang day.

“People say he took the keys to a Ferrari, but that’s not the case,” Jirik said. “Dynasties fall apart all the time. Look what has happened at USC since Pete Carroll left. They’re a mess. Coach Klieman has fought hard to keep this going.”

Klieman kept the team calm and led a turnaround in 2015 that ultimately featured nine consecutive wins. Wentz returned for the national championship game and the Bison won another trophy.

Challenge and love

Player attrition has been a major problem at K-State lately. With nearly 30 players leaving the team for reasons other than graduation over the past two years, Klieman needs to sign a big recruiting class this cycle and likely do the same next year to get the Wildcats back up to maximum scholarship levels.

So it’s worth noting that his current team features 23 seniors, all of which he recruited and convinced to remain at North Dakota State for the long haul.

“I brought them all in here with the promise to their parents they would leave as men with degrees,” Klieman said, “and that’s exactly how they will leave here. When I recruited them I promised two things: I’m going to challenge the heck out of you and I’m going to love you. If you’re willing to do both those things for a kid, he is going to play hard for you and respect you.”

His physical system also helps him on the recruiting trail. They rotate players in and out at North Dakota State during games and let large chunks of the roster see meaningful action. That keeps everyone happy.

Phil Hansen, the team’s radio analyst, marvels at how there is little drop-off from the starters to the backups.

What can K-State players expect from Klieman? Those close to him say the Wildcats should be prepared to work and to have fun.

That seems like an odd mix. Work isn’t supposed to be fun. But Klieman knows how to combine them.

When he senses summer practices are becoming tedious, he will take the team to the swimming pool. When he demands a grueling schedule leading up to a big game, he promises extra time to cool down. And if he sees a player giving max effort, he’s not going to be critical if that player makes a mistake.

North Dakota State players were penalized nine times on Friday, a statistic that would have consumed Snyder, but Klieman simply shrugged them off.

Klieman also relates to players by staying in great physical shape. Klieman, 51, needed a hip replacement a few years back but still works out daily over lunch. A former defensive back at Northern Iowa, he wears dry-fit shirts during games and runs up and down the sideline to congratulate players after big moments.

“Trust the process and embrace him,” Morlock said. “If you give him a shot, he will be there for you more than you can possibly imagine. Just be ready to work, because we have put in more work than you can possibly imagine to get to this level. The fun part comes when you have a group of guys who believe in the process, put in the work and get to play for a championship at the end of the year. That makes it all worth it.”

His team came together for Klieman on Friday. Some thought the distractions of the past week would make it hard for the Bison to play at a high level. Instead, it galvanized them.

“You have to play for the person next to you and for the name on the front of the jersey. That’s what these kids do so well,” Klieman said. “They love their brothers and will do anything for them. It’s going to be the same way in Manhattan.”

Bigger than yourself

North Dakota State didn’t clinch its trip to the national championship game until Friday, but many fans bought tickets and reserved hotels months ago.

That’s how confident they were in this team, which currently stands at 14-0.

Tehven, the former player and bar owner, never misses a championship game. He likes winning and being there for the trophy presentation. But that’s not the real reason he always goes.

The thing he likes most about the FCS championship game is the players’ rally Klieman hosts the day before. There, he asks former players to join the current roster and speaks to the entire group for 10 minutes like they are all about to take the field.

It’s their program. He’s just currently coaching it. Retired alums and star freshmen are equal partners in his eyes.

“He brings the generations together and makes that whole trip feel like you’re involved with something bigger than yourself,” Tehven said. “It’s really special.”

Time will tell what kind of new traditions Klieman has in store for K-State. But it’s a good bet the Wildcats will enjoy them.

After all, he was willing to change a sacred ritual to help one of his players at North Dakota State.

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Kellis Robinett covers Kansas State athletics for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. A winner of more than a dozen national writing awards, he lives in Manhattan with his wife and three children.

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