Vahe Gregorian

Unfazed by shadow of Bill Snyder, Chris Klieman has rejuvenated K-State football

This never became “Snyderville,” exactly. But between the Bill Snyder Highway into town off Interstate 70 and the Bill Snyder Family Stadium with the accompanying statue of the remarkable football coach who breathed life into a once-dormant program and somehow revived it a second time, his image looms large and indelibly.

For that matter, the shadow almost literally towers over the main lobby of the Vanier Family Football Complex, where he is depicted in black and white from the occasion of his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in a display further adorned by his accomplishments and 16 goals for success.

Illuminated in the foreground, in full color, is a larger-than-life image of his successor, Chris Klieman, whose task in replacing Snyder might itself be considered larger than life after much of the last 30 years.

But Klieman didn’t flinch at the prospect of replacing the legend, whose retirement was announced in December with the program clearly stalled (5-7 in 2018, 17-19 in Big 12 play the last four years) and the need for a reset evident.

He didn’t hesitate, he said smiling, “because somebody had to take the job.”

Plenty wondered in the moment if Klieman was the right somebody and scoffed at his tremendous pedigree at North Dakota State since it was at the FCS level. And we’re ultimately years away from knowing how this will work out and what his regime will come to mean.

It also might be remembered that Snyder’s first successor, Ron Prince, was 3-0 before his teams lost 20 of the next 34 and the program regressed and Snyder was summoned back to “calm the waters.”

But entering K-State’s Big 12 opener on Saturday at Oklahoma State, this particular 3-0 start looks a lot more like a staunch foundation than fool’s gold.

It was a fine sign to be fundamentally sound and methodically dissect Nicholls and Bowling Green by an aggregate score of 101-14. It was another statement altogether to go on the road to beat Mississippi State 31-24 only a year after the Bulldogs had thrashed the Wildcats 31-10 in Manhattan.

When it was suggested the transition had appeared rather seamless, Klieman laughed and said, “It’s not seamless, I’m just going to tell you. We’re three games into it, and that’s it. I’m excited that we’re 3-0, don’t get me wrong …

“But if that’s all we think about …”

Just the same, Klieman figures having a vision and teaching blocking and tackling is the same at every level. And he already has given people following the program much to think about.

Beyond the fact that the No. 24 Wildcats are ranked in The Associated Press poll for the first time since 2017, K-State has a reanimated aura around it:

From fresh music and videos on game day … to a lively social media presence previously lacking … to Klieman’s inclination toward positive reinforcement and a personal touch and more access … to his adherence to motivational speaker/performance coach Ben Newman (whose “pound the stone” mantra, complete with a sledgehammer, resonated with the team)

The rejuvenation can be traced back to Klieman, whose “win the dang day” slogan won a quick hashtag and his introductory news conference and still resonates.

While Klieman says he “couldn’t tell you” where he picked that term up since it came during what he called the “blur phase” of taking over at K-State and coaching NDSU to its fourth national title in five years, the impetus behind it is obvious.

“I don’t care if I’m an assistant, a coordinator or a head coach, I’ve always been an energy guy around the players and around people, because I think that’s infectious and I think guys take to that and guys get excited,” he said.

Even allowing as how “there are times to be subdued as well,” he added, “Energy sells. I don’t care if it’s to the media, to players, to coaches to fans, to recruits, all that stuff. … You’re the face of the program, and you have to have terrific energy all the time. In good times and in bad.”

When human nature strikes and the temptation to slow down lurks, he said, “You’ve got to fight through those days, and you’ve got to be ultra-competitive on those days.”

Growing up in Waterloo, Iowa, competition was everything — whether as a young wrestler or playing pickup football, basketball and baseball every dang day. His interest in sports was perhaps stoked by his father, Bob, a longtime coach and high school basketball referee his son often accompanied to games.

“I learned a lot about how to deal with officials because of him being an official,” he said, laughing and adding, “and what you can get away with and what you can’t get away with more than anything.”

Before he went on to play football at Northern Iowa, he didn’t know that he’d even be a coach … let alone that his path ultimately would entwine with Snyder, whom Klieman remembered from Hayden Fry’s University of Iowa football camps he attended when Snyder was an assistant coach there.

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Sitting in Snyder’s former office overlooking the stadium bearing his predecessor’s name, he conveys deep appreciation of Snyder and reverence for what he accomplished.

Other than three handwritten notes he’s received over the months from Snyder, wishing him well one way or another, they’ve had little contact — something Klieman seems to figure is a legend’s way of making room in his shadow.

“I have the utmost respect for him,” Klieman said. “And I think he does for us.”

After all … somebody had to follow him.

“I knew it was going to be a challenge,” Klieman said. “But I knew the infrastructure was in place here, I knew the leadership was in place here with (Gene Taylor, the athletic director for whom Klieman worked at North Dakota State).

“I was ready for a new challenge. It was time for a new journey, a new adventure.”

For him and Kansas State, one that couldn’t be going better so far … but with the greatest challenges still ahead.

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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.