Gene Taylor and Dean Bresciani were the only two people who didn’t believe the sky was falling in Fargo, North Dakota, on Dec. 8, 2013.
Craig Bohl was in the process of leaving town. North Dakota State’s head football coach, Bohl was officially introduced as Wyoming’s newest head coach that day. It was delaying the inevitable. Bohl remained at North Dakota State through the end of the FCS playoffs, resulting in the team’s third-consecutive national championship.
In the meantime, the Bison’s backers fretted about what was to come. Taylor, the school’s athletics director, wasn’t worried. Neither was Bresciani, North Dakota State’s president.
Where others braced for the inevitable slide — a program can only trend downward after winning it all three years in a row — Taylor and Bresciani saw nothing but a blank canvas.
“Gene and I saw it as an exciting opportunity to bring in fresh eyes and fresh enthusiasm,” Bresciani told The Mercury in a phone interview Friday.
Bresciani recalled the Bison had “several options internally” to succeed Bohl.
“Gene and I had to spend a lot of time discussing those internal options and whether we thought we were going to bring somebody in that would be superior to those,” Bresciani said. “Not so much ‘superior’ in the coaching aspect, but understanding the culture of NDSU, the culture of the athletics department and our long-game philosophy. We’re not looking for people to take shortcuts to success. That’s not particularly common in Division I sports. We just concluded that our internal candidate would understand and continue our culture far more than bringing in someone externally to learn our culture.”
Taylor and Bresciani’s bet on the in-house option paid off: They promoted Bohl’s defensive coordinator, Chris Klieman, to the head coaching position. Since then, all Klieman has done is win 67 of the 73 games he’s coached, capturing national titles in 2014, 2015 and 2017. And he has the Bison in the hunt for another: After crushing Colgate 35-0 in a quarterfinal tilt Saturday, North Dakota State is 13-0, just two victories away from yet another FCS title.
All that success also has him on Kansas State’s radar because of a notable recent job opening.
With Taylor now a year and a half into his role as K-State’s athletics director, he’s in the middle of arguably the most important decision he’ll ever make during his time in Manhattan.
Picking the coach to lead the Wildcats in a post-Bill Snyder landscape.
Bresciani said no one is better equipped to make that call than Taylor.
“He’s not a spur-of-the-moment, go-with-it sort of guy,” Bresciani said. “He’s very purposeful, very thoughtful, solicits opinions from as many people as are pertinent to the decision. He’s not a lone cowboy who goes out there and decides things on his own and hopes they work out. He wants his decisions to be sound, and he tests directions he’s going with others to make sure he’s on the right track. And as a result, he pretty consistently makes very good decisions.”
Iowa athletics director Gary Barta, who hired Taylor as the school’s deputy athletics director in 2014, echoed that sentiment.
“First of all, he’s a person you’re immediately comfortable around,” Barta said. “He’s very thoughtful. He doesn’t make rash decisions. He listens well. He’s somebody who, when he’s in the room, people enjoy being around him. That’s the easiest way I can describe him to you. When it comes to making decisions, he’s a problem-solver. He thinks through all the different ways you might go with something, and his great instinct ends up with him being right most of the time.”
For Barta, Taylor’s hire was a godsend. When he created the deputy AD position, Barta wanted the eventual hire to possess three attributes.
A sitting athletics director. A person he “could trust unequivocally in anything I was doing.” And a person with a proven track record of molding a stellar department in every facet, on fields of play and off.
Taylor checked every box.
“I knew him and knew I could trust him, so it was a pretty easy decision,” said Barta, a North Dakota State alum who met Taylor during the latter’s time as athletics director. “It was a no-brainer.”
It wasn’t quite that easy a call when K-State hired Taylor away from Iowa in April 2017. But Amy Button Renz said it was close.
Button Renz, president of the K-State Alumni Association and the chair of the athletics director search committee, said the school “had an incredible applicant pool” from which to choose after John Currie departed for Tennessee. Even so, Button Renz said Taylor’s resume stood out.
“Gene immediately, from the very beginning, was the top,” she said. “I did not know Gene personally, but I knew of Gene and his incredible national reputation for being a man of integrity. Someone who was well-respected by not only the members of the staff at North Dakota State, but the coaches and the donors.”
Taylor’s cogent pick of Klieman — keeping North Dakota State’s football machine humming — didn’t go unnoticed, either.
“Certainly the ability to hire great coaches and have a plan, when you do have an opening, is something that an athletics director search committee is going to consider,” Button Renz said, “but there were many, many factors that went into it.”
Just like Barta’s list at Iowa, Taylor received a seal of approval on every count.
To receive the same from K-State’s fan base, he will need to handle the transition from Snyder to the next coach as deftly as he did four years ago at North Dakota State.
With North Texas head coach Seth Littrell — linked to the K-State job the moment Snyder retired, and a popular pick among fans active on social media and message boards — removing his name from consideration on Friday, talk has turned to Klieman as a potential candidate. Following Saturday’s victory, Klieman told reporters he spoke with K-State officials about the job earlier this week, but said he wasn’t offered the position.
Bresciani said he’s unruffled by the murmurs of Klieman’s contact with K-State. The same goes for Taylor’s familiarity and direct connection with Klieman.
Whether it’s Klieman or someone else, Bresciani is confident Taylor’s instincts will strike gold again.
“He’s not going to make a shortsighted, marginal decision when it comes to continuing the legacy Coach Snyder has built there,” Bresciani said. “He will not be forced into a snap decision or a quick judgment. He’s going to look for the long-term success of Kansas State University and its athletics program, and he’ll make his decision only when he’s comfortable that he’s found the right person for the job.”
Taylor, Barta said, is “more than up” for the enormity of the task in front of him. Barta’s “anxious to see” who Taylor eventually chooses. All that he’s certain of is Taylor will make “the right choice.”
He also imparted advice to K-State’s fan base: Keep an open mind.
“I know whatever decision he makes, there might be some who love it and some who don’t like it. But eventually, my guess is he’ll hire someone who everybody will fall in love with,” he said. “It’s a big task to follow Coach Snyder. He has Hawkeye ties, and he did an amazing job. So whoever gets it will have to prove themselves. But they’ll have to be themselves, too.”
Barta said Taylor will remain true to himself.
That means less style, more substance.
“Fans will just have to wait and see,” Barta said. “They don’t need to worry about winning the press conference; worry about winning next season.
“It’s a big next chapter, and that chapter begins as soon as he makes the decision. They’re not going to win a game the first day a person is hired. It’s going to be a period of time, and a journey.”