Chris Klieman chuckled at the question.
What is it like to replace a man whose name literally is part of your home stadium? Klieman, in his first season as Kansas State’s coach, said he hoped the reporter was “making more of it than it is.” After all, Klieman understands the enormity of the task at hand: succeeding Bill Snyder.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach, and I think Coach has a tremendous amount of respect for what we did at NDSU,” Klieman said. “I think it is the right fit — I know it is the right fit at Kansas State. But I can’t get caught up in all that. If I get caught up in all that, then I’m not focused on my job, which is to make sure that we put a great product out there every Saturday and continue to stack good days upon good days.”
During his 27-year tenure coaching the Wildcats, Snyder won more than 200 games en route to a place in the College Football Hall of Fame. That’s not to mention his pair of Big 12 titles and numerous bowl berths. Though he won’t be on the sideline in Manhattan any longer, he’s still around Manhattan. He said he plans to watch every home game from the suite where his family sat for so many years, looking down to the field where he led the program with a watchful eye. Snyder left Klieman notes. And Klieman talks to Snyder’s son, Sean Snyder, often. But the elder Snyder has let Klieman begin to put his own stamp on K-State’s football program.
Which he’s thankful for.
“It’s more him just giving me my space. I appreciate him for that, to be honest with you,” Klieman said. “He’s going to let me do this my way, or ‘our way’ as a staff. I’m excited, because the infrastructure we have is because of him.”
Yet this isn’t the first time Klieman’s been tasked with succeeding a coach with a stellar track record. In fact, it’s his second time in as many jobs. When Klieman took the reins at North Dakota State after the 2013 season, he followed Craig Bohl. The Bison won the FCS national championship three years in a row before Bohl departed for Wyoming. Klieman had no trouble continuing North Dakota’s State run of success — and in some ways, remarkably, improving upon it.
In five years as the Bison’s head coach, Klieman won four national championships. The lone year he didn’t, North Dakota State fell in the national semifinals — to the eventual champion, James Madison.
In all, Klieman went 69-6 in five seasons, a sparkling 92% win rate.
Looking back on it, Klieman said the experience of following Bohl will pay dividends now, especially with so many K-State supporters unsure how their program will fare without the only man who ever consistently won in Manhattan.
“It makes it more manageable because I know what to expect. I never worried what that guy thinks of me, that guy thinks of me, that guy thinks of me,” said Klieman, pointing his finger at invisible people in the crowd to illustrate his argument. “I’ve got to live with myself every night. I’ve got to put my head down knowing that I’ve given everything I can every day. I’m going to be fine. But following Craig and them saying, ‘You’ve got to win national championships,’ well (here), you’ve got to continue to try to win Big 12 championships and go to bowl games. That’s why we’re in this profession: to be the best.”
Klieman embraces it because he had countless opportunities to leave North Dakota State. Yes, he interviewed for a handful of openings. But he never got to the point where he made an official visit to campus. Nor was he ever close to taking another job. That he willingly accepts the challenge of following Snyder is because of the feeling he got from K-State, and specifically, his prior relationship with athletics director Gene Taylor, who hired him at North Dakota State.
And there already are some similarities between Snyder and Klieman. A subtle one: the name of K-State’s offense. Or in this case, a lack thereof. No “Air Raid” or “Fun ‘n’ Gun” here. Like Snyder, Klieman said it’s just “the K-State offense.”
Still, there is one major difference between the beginning of Klieman’s North Dakota State tenure and his new one at K-State: Bohl left town. Snyder, even if he’s removed himself from the day-to-day goings on at the football complex, remains a presence. For some, that might be a cause for stress. Klieman takes the opposite approach. He’s “glad” Snyder is around.
“He loves the community. Manhattan is why he came, the people are why he came, the people are why he stayed,” Klieman said. “I think it’s great. I hope he’s around a lot.”
For all Snyder did to lift K-State’s program from near-death to respectability, Klieman said his predecessor is entitled to everything his success entails.
“Shoot, he built the empire,” Klieman said. “I think he deserves to sit and watch and see what happens with it. I’m excited for it.”