Vahe Gregorian

Kansas State coach Chris Klieman wins the dang day in a big way against Oklahoma

To appreciate unranked Kansas State’s flabbergasting 48-41 victory over No. 5 Oklahoma on Saturday at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, let’s first consider some historical perspective.

It was K-State’s first win over a top 10 team since beating No. 6 Oklahoma in 2012, first over a top 5 team since 2006 against Texas and first over OU in Manhattan since 1996 — the inaugural year of the Big 12.

For that matter, it ended a four-game losing streak against the Sooners during which the Wildcats were outscored 186-66 after getting crunched 51-14 last season.

But the immediate context is even more telling and pertinent:

The program that Snyder improbably had resuscitated twice, including quite miraculously the first time, clearly had come to need rejuvenation and modernization and fresh imagination.

It had stagnated and even sagged the last few years (5-7 overall and 3-6 in conference play last season and 17-19 in conference play the last four years), and it was, alas, time for a proud legend to step back — with all the awkward associated trappings of that scenario.

And now, thanks to athletic director Gene Taylor having the ability to deftly shepherd along a complicated transition … and the wisdom and conviction to turn to a man (Chris Klieman) whose capabilities and fit for the job Taylor trusted even as knee-jerk skeptics questioned the decision … the program suddenly has a relevance and resonance it hasn’t known in years.

Now, that aspect of national attention could be fleeting, just like it was after K-State started 3-0 with a win at Mississippi State before losing its first two Big 12 games.

Heck, who knows if the Wildcats will even beat improving-but-confounding Kansas next week?

But even if this season remains to be defined and we’re years away from knowing what his ultimate legacy will be, there should be scant doubt that Klieman absolutely just gets it.

FCS level or not, you don’t win four national titles in your first five seasons as a head coach at North Dakota State without that “it” factor. You don’t embrace replacing an iconic figure in coaching history without a certain something. And you also don’t handle that with the nimble mixture of respect for Snyder and self-respect for your own beliefs without an innately winning way.

It wasn’t just that Klieman won the news conference when he was introduced with his “win the dang day” mantra and lively persona to match.

It’s that he understands the game, including recruiting, and exudes a unique mix of command presence and refreshing animation.

“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 in his office soon after the Mississippi State game, later adding, “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.”

Count the ways he’s brought it: From a zeal for recruiting … to a lively social media presence previously lacking … to emphasizing positive reinforcement and the personal touch and more access … to his reliance on motivational speaker/performance coach Ben Newman (whose “pound the stone” mantra, complete with a sledgehammer, resonated with the team)

But let’s get back to context: Saturday was an amazing day for Kansas State football, one to pause and savor, but Klieman undoubtedly will remain acutely conscious of the rest of the season.

Surely, he’ll laud such performances as quarterback Skylar Thompson’s (four rushing touchdowns, 213 passing yards). And he’ll see coachable moments in how OU unleashed a furious fourth-quarter comeback after being down 48-23.

And he’ll be cognizant of the fortune that an onside kick initially ruled OU’s ball was correctly overturned when a replay review identified an Oklahoma player touching the ball a foot or so too soon.

In fact, here’s betting by Monday he’ll be saying something exactly like he did after the 31-24 win at Mississippi State game rebutted last year’s 31-10 thrashing by the Bulldogs.

Excited as he might have been, he laughed and said, “If that’s all we think about …”

Just the same, pardon us while we think about this one a while: a momentous game in which the Wildcats (5-2) reset the intrigue and parameters for this season by beating a previously unbeaten team that was in the hunt for the College Football Playoffs.

When I recently asked Klieman if he had hesitated to take over for someone of Snyder’s stature, he smiled and said not at all “because somebody had to take the job.”

Not just anybody, it seems, with Klieman’s team winning the dang day Saturday like no K-State team had in years and with every early reason to believe there is more to come.



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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.
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