Vahe Gregorian

Having Snyder’s endorsement isn’t a bad place to start for new K-State coach Klieman

Chris Klieman is introduced as the new football coach at Kansas State

Chris Klieman was introduced as the 35th football coach of the Kansas State Wildcats on Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2018, replacing Bill Snyder, who had coached the Wildcats for 27 years.
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Chris Klieman was introduced as the 35th football coach of the Kansas State Wildcats on Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2018, replacing Bill Snyder, who had coached the Wildcats for 27 years.

Even if you’re as favorably disposed as we are toward the hiring of Chris Klieman as Kansas State’s football coach, the truth is this: There is no way to predict how this will work out beyond the choice of whether to believe in his pedigree and extend the benefit of the doubt to Klieman and the smart and capable people who hired him.

But in the spirit of Klieman’s #WintheDangDay mantra, he sure was 1-0 after his introductory news conference on Wednesday.

That was in no small part because of Klieman and the K-State administration’s appreciation of iconic former coach Bill Snyder and, in fact, because of the gracious participation of Snyder. His very presence made for an endorsement that wasn’t guaranteed amid the murky circumstances of his recent retirement.

The official announcement of Snyder stepping down came with no statement from the 79-year-old Snyder, who has yet to publicly comment on leaving the job just months after signing a five-year contract extension and days after a 5-7 finish to the 2018 season. For that matter, he declined to be interviewed on Wednesday, calling it Klieman’s day.

Still, his appearance spoke volumes about his apparent intention to help with the transition despite his longtime hopes that son Sean would follow him in the work that revitalized K-State’s identity well beyond the football field. Snyder’s blessing may not be a necessity in what comes next, but it certainly could help put the success in succession by getting some conflicted K-State fans on board.

Who knows, maybe down the road we’ll find out Snyder made like late President George H.W. Bush did for successor Bill Clinton by leaving one of his prized handwritten notes for Klieman on the desk Snyder cleared out the other day. Amid all this commotion now, Klieman said he’d only been in his office a few moments, just long enough to enjoy the view.

While Klieman’s greatest challenges figure to be in recruiting and player development, not just the optics of following a legend, he also would benefit from unity of support when he takes over full-time after he finishes his quest to guide North Dakota State to a fourth FCS national championship in his five seasons as head coach.

Kansas State Wildcats quarterback Skylar Thompson says players are "on board" with new coach Chris Klieman after Klieman was introduced at a press conference on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018.

At this crossroads for a program that was twice resuscitated by Snyder and reflected his considerable will for most of the last 30 years, Klieman will face a balancing act that goes beyond the obvious one of running two programs for what he hopes will be a few more weeks.

He also will be called on to at once honor the recent past while building toward the future and imposing his own influence on the present. You could see signs of each aspect already, from ongoing discussions he’ll have with Sean Snyder about being part of the staff to entertaining the idea of some changes in uniforms to his willingness to have K-State social media publicly share video of some of his first meeting with KSU players.

That was a refreshing change, one that seemed to strike a chord with fans and something Snyder never would have allowed.

“I think that’s part of where we’re at in 2018,” Klieman said. “You need to have social media out there. You need to be out there continuing to sell the brand, continuing to talk about the brand. It brings viewership, it brings more young kids involved to say, ‘Boy, I want to take a look at Kansas State.’ Absolutely, we have to have that.”

But through it all, Klieman conveyed something between reverence for and deference to Snyder, who was 215-117-1 at K-State.

When he entered the news conference, he appeared to wave to Snyder, who smiled then and on several occasions throughout.

“I know the shoes that I have to fill, Coach,” Klieman later said, looking his way. “You’re a legend. You’re an icon. I look up to you. I’m going to continue to ask you questions. I’m going to bounce ideas off you.

“Because you are Kansas State football. And I’m so excited to continue on with your legacy. And I’m going to make you proud, Coach. I promise you that.”

It resonated as respectful, smart and sincere from Klieman. He recalled that as a child in Waterloo, Iowa, he’d attended University of Iowa football camps and received some quarterbacking instruction from Snyder, an Iowa assistant coach before he engineered the most profound revival in college football history.

He’s followed him somewhat ever since, including as a Northern Iowa player in 1989 when the Panthers beat K-State 10-8 in Snyder’s first home game and in 2013 as NDSU defensive coordinator when the Bison upset the Wildcats 24-21.

That was the same day, as it happens, that a statue of Snyder was dedicated at the stadium that bears his name.

Klieman understands the stakes.

“I know it’s tough to follow, but I’m excited about the challenge,” said Klieman, noting Snyder had told him how much he loved watching his team play. “And I’m pretty confident I have the support of Coach Snyder. And when you have the support of the legend that you’re following, boy, it opens up more doors for you.”

Snyder, whom Taylor said “deserved every penny” of a $3 million buyout for what he’s done for the school, will continue to be around K-State as a “special ambassador” at an annual salary of $250,000. The specifics of the role are a work in progress.

But whether it was in his new capacity or just his choice, Snyder’s “invaluable” input in the hiring of Klieman, as noted by Taylor, and his ambassadorial role on Wednesday were meaningful for all concerned.

Especially since Snyder still seems to be processing this profound change in his life that may or may not have completely been his idea.

When Klieman was asked during the news conference about the possible burden of following someone of Snyder’s stature, for instance, he seemed to misinterpret the question as suggesting the Snyders might have reason to resent him.

“They’re not going to have animosity,” he said. “They want this place to be successful just like I do, and so I know they’re going to help me.”

One way or another, Taylor suggested this might be a difficult time for Snyder.

“I imagine if you really drilled down, he’d say it’s been hard,” Taylor said. “It’s just hard to walk from something you’ve built … It’s hard to walk away from something you love.”

He added, “I wouldn’t expect anything less, but how he’s handled it has been phenomenal.”

And part of a 1-0 start for Klieman, who knows he’ll have to “stack up” a lot of those days to ultimately succeed in this job.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.