Gene Taylor’s candor separates him from others in his position.
The opposite of the stuffy, button-down businessman vibe so many athletics directors give off — and sometimes, go out of their way to portray to the public — Taylor is down-to-earth. If someone didn’t know he’s Kansas State’s athletics director, it probably isn’t the first job a stranger would guess he holds. So it should come as no surprise that Taylor tackled every question about the coaching search following Bill Snyder’s retirement head on.
Following the announcement that he had hired Chris Klieman to succeed Snyder, Taylor received criticism from some fans. The disapproval didn’t center on any one aspect. It ranged from the disbelief that K-State couldn’t “hire a bigger name than an FCS coach” (albeit one with unparalleled success at almost any level) to the fact that they felt Klieman was a foregone conclusion the moment Taylor became AD.
It is this accusation — that Taylor went for the “easy hire,” that he simply tabbed his “friend,” that there was some kind of years-in-waiting nepotism involved — that bothers him to no end.
“Any time you’re in a public position, if you tell people things like that don’t get to you, they’d be lying to you,” he said. “I still have a lot of personal pride and a lot of personal integrity that it’s (frustrating) when somebody attacks you. But I had to be reminded by some of my friends and my family (saying), ‘Dad, honey, whoever, that’s Twitter. That’s what Twitter is about.’ I had to be reminded.”
As the days went on, most of the naysayers seemed to change their tune. From Taylor’s vantage point, the number of fans who are “really excited” about Klieman greatly exceeds what it was in January.
“It’s definitely in a pretty good place,” he said. “I don’t hear as many people now who say, ‘You know, I’m not so sure about Klieman.’”
But to know exactly how Taylor and the football program got to this point of overwhelming positivity about Klieman, one has to rewind more than eight months ago.
The timing was fortuitous.
Just days after Snyder’s retirement became official last December, Taylor flew to New York City for the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame ceremonies, where then-senior right tackle Dalton Risner was to be recognized as one of 13 finalists for the William V. Campbell Trophy, known unofficially as “the academic Heisman.” Risner’s honor was the official reason Taylor was in the Big Apple; it also provided cover for him and other members of the coaching search committee to conduct interviews without the prying eyes of the public following their every move.
“We knew we weren’t going to interview here,” Taylor said. “Whether we were going to fly around the country and go see people was all going to be based on timing. ... And (being in New York City) made it way less noticeable. You can get lost in New York pretty easily, right? Unless we’re interviewing Nick Saban, with most of the coaches we brought in, most people from the New York City area would go, ‘Eh.’ Or they’d figure he was there because of the Hall of Fame (ceremonies.) So it did take a lot more stress out by doing it there.”
Speaking of stress, Taylor said he felt less of it than one might expect given the gravity of the situation: replacing one of the most well-known coaches in the history of college football. The reason for his lack of worries? The benefit of time. Taylor took the AD job knowing full well that one day, Snyder wouldn’t be K-State’s coach any longer. So Taylor braced for that reality.
“I was able to prepare for a couple of years and knew it was coming,” he said. “I think that helped as opposed to Coach (Snyder) just walking in one day and saying, ‘I’m done.’ We had a pretty good plan in terms of — not knowing that he was going to do it (last) year — just knowing every year, we kind of talked about, ‘OK, what’s the process?’ We always were looking at candidates in terms of evaluating them as potential coaches. That was in place before, so I was a lot more prepared both mentally and strategically than I would have been.”
Kenny Lannou, an associate AD who also heads K-State’s communications department, was a member of the search committee. He sat in on every interview and constantly was around Taylor. Not once did he notice a change in Taylor’s behavior.
“Gene was Gene,” Lannou said. “He’s very even-keeled.”
In his role, Lannou said Taylor wanted the opinions of the entire room, which also included Jill Shields and Chad Chatlos, who works for the search firm K-State used, Ventura Partners. Lannou said the other members of the committee served as “a sounding board” for Taylor.
“We also all recognized that Gene’s the boss and it’s his decision,” Lannou said. “That’s why we knew Gene was going to make the right decision: He’s the one who’s had the success doing this and the experience doing it.”
Lannou’s everyday job — keeping his ear to the ground with matters related to the football program, be it from the fan base or media members — came in handy. When rumors swirled about coaches K-State might have interviewed, and where they might be on the pecking order, Lannou kept Taylor informed.
“What ended up happening was Coach Klieman’s name surfaced before we publicly announced. It was while the process was going on,” Lannou said. “So there was some noise from fan types — and not really even from media types, because media types seemed to think the same thing we did: that it was a really good hire and a really good fit. But I think it was beneficial with me being close to Gene at that point knowing that there is some noise out there. I think that was part of my role in the process: just to make sure that he’s aware of that.”
That also led to what may be the biggest factor in winning over any Klieman detractors: The Wildcats showcased who he is as a person, and how he interacted with players. That started with filming the phone call Taylor made to officially offer Klieman the position. It followed with another video of Klieman boarding a plane in Fargo, North Dakota, and flying over Manhattan, the lights at Bill Snyder Family Stadium guiding him to his new home. That behind-the-scenes access hasn’t let up since.
For all the magic Snyder made in his 27 seasons as head coach, peeling back the purple curtain to see how the wizard worked wasn’t part of it.
Klieman taking the opposite approach went a long way toward winning over his critics.
“(It was like), ‘OK, well there’s maybe some people who are a little uneasy here. How do we combat that?’” said Lannou, reflecting on the immediate aftermath of the hire. “The best way to do that is to show our fans what we found out in the process: Coach Klieman is the perfect fit for us. So how can we show that to them? That’s what really catapulted the launch of the hire is showing him as a person, with the access that we had, really getting into those rooms and spaces that our fans really never have seen before.”
Taylor deemed it “a fair question.”
It’s the query that Klieman’s hire ultimately pivots around: How often does Taylor ponder that his K-State legacy — and in all likelihood, his employment — is contingent upon Klieman’s success or failure?
“It’s one that I think about: ‘What if it doesn’t work or if it takes a little longer than everybody is willing to accept?’” Taylor said. “I think because of the history, there’s still some people going, ‘Oh man, I hope we didn’t hire another Ron Prince.’ Because we had that where Bill left, Ron came in, we struggled and then Bill had to come back and save it. Well, Bill’s probably not going to come back and save it this time. So yeah, I think everybody’s got that on the back of their mind and in the pit of their stomach. So if we struggle out of the gate or it takes a couple of years, I think there’s going to be that pressure.”
But a reasonable timeline and reality rarely run parallel. Taylor’s hope, realistically, is that the Wildcats are back regularly playing in bowl games and battling it out among the top half of the 10-team Big 12 within “a couple years.” And in Year 3, he wants to see K-State competing for a conference title.
Just don’t let Klieman know that.
“If I say this, Chris is gonna go, ‘What? You don’t think I can get it done the first year?’” Taylor said.
That’s why Taylor said he’s never had a conversation with Klieman about both their jobs riding on K-State’s win-loss record in the coming years. It’s because Taylor said it isn’t needed.
“We both know,” he said. “But he’s a pretty confident guy. If you ask him what his expectations are, he’s not going to tell you ‘win four or five games.’ That’s just who he is and that’s who he’s always been as a coach.”
It reminded him of the first time he hired Klieman, in fact.
After then-North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl informed the school he was leaving to take the Wyoming job, Taylor wanted to move quickly. His top two candidates? The Bison’s two coordinators. Klieman ran the defense while Brent Vigen guided the offense. Vigen made it easier than Taylor expected. On a day Taylor interviewed both coordinators back to back, Vigen went first. During that interview, he thanked Taylor for his interest, but said he planned to join Bohl at Wyoming. Vigen wanted the chance to coach at the FBS level.
Klieman was taken aback; Taylor said he knew Klieman felt Vigen was the favored candidate — and “he probably was,” Taylor admitted.
“So Chris walks in and I said, ‘Well, your competition just said he wasn’t interested,’” Taylor said. “Chris was like, ‘Oh shoot. I wasn’t quite prepared to give you an answer,’ because he thought I was going to tell him I just hired the guy before him.”
So they rescheduled the interview for the night of North Dakota State’s FCS playoff quarterfinal game against Coastal Carolina. After the Bison rolled to a 48-14 victory at the Fargodome, Klieman and Taylor convened in the basement of the AD’s home. The meeting started at approximately 11 p.m. They talked for nearly four hours as Klieman went through his plan for the program, which eventually would go on to win its third straight national championship weeks later. (The same team that came into Bill Snyder Stadium and beat K-State 24-21 on Aug. 30, 2013.) The Bison had 25 seniors on that squad. All projections had them barely ekeing into the playoffs — if that — the following season. Another national title seemed unfathomable.
But given Bohl’s stellar track record, and particularly leaving on such a high note, meant a sub-par 2014 campaign wouldn’t cut it, and Taylor let Klieman know as much.
“I looked at him and I said, ‘Chris, you know the expectation here isn’t just to win seven or eight games and get into the playoffs. It’s to win a national championship,'” Taylor said.
Then that confidence Taylor’s come to expect from Klieman bubbled to the surface.
“He said, ‘Gene, not only will we win one, we’ll win multiple national championships under my leadership,’” Taylor recalled. “I said, ‘OK.’ I shook his hand and offered him the job.”
As Taylor walked back upstairs, his wife hadn’t gone to sleep. She wanted to know whether Taylor had found his new head coach.
“I said, ‘Yeah, but I think he’s nuts. He thinks he’s going to win three or four more national championships. I think he’s got a rude awakening, but I hope we can win a couple,’” Taylor said. “And sure enough, he goes on to win four out of (the next) five. ... So that’s the kind of confidence he has. That’s Chris. He’s not going to tell you, ‘We’re only going to win three or four games this year.’ His expectation is to go out and win every game. Now is that realistic? I don’t know. But that’s how he’s going to coach the team.”
The excitement Taylor alluded to isn’t limited to the fan base. Players have that same enthusiasm. So does Lannou.
“I just have a little more excitement because I’ve gotten to know Coach really well,” he said. “I think he’s a tremendous coach, a tremendous person and a great fit. I think what he did at North Dakota State and how he built it is similar to what’s been successful here. And again, that all goes back to why he was the best choice for this position. For me, it’s just exciting to be a part of it and to have a little bit more of a bigger role in the everyday aspect of the program than before.”
Taylor felt the same way. Yes, his competitive juices start flowing any time a new season arrives. He’s just more amped than usual this year.
“I’ve known Chris for a long time and I want him to be successful,” he said. “It’s the hire that I made, ultimately. It’s going to be fun to see him come out to a sold-out stadium. That’s going to be pretty exciting.”
Klieman, much like his predecessor, had little interest in making one game a bigger deal than it actually is. When one reporter wanted to know what the opener will mean for Klieman, the coach responded that he’d “let you know Saturday at six o’clock.” Klieman was more focused on what he needed to accomplish the rest of the week, wanting to peak on gameday.
It’s an answer that would make Snyder proud.
Now it’s on Klieman to repeat that feat — just with on-field results instead of words. Do that, and he’ll avoid any “Ron Prince 2.0” comparisons popping up. Do that, and he’ll make anyone who questioned Taylor’s judgment initially look foolish. They say time heals all wounds, but winning is a nice salve, too. If Klieman wins at anywhere close to the rate of his predecessor, he’ll also win the hearts of any holdouts frustrated Snyder no longer is on the sideline at the stadium bearing his name.
Taylor likely would agree — that’s the honest truth.