When Scottie Hazelton departed Kansas State for Michigan State in February, Joe Klanderman was quietly confident.
Klanderman spent last season as K-State’s safeties coach; it wasn’t surprising he wanted to move up a rung and replace Hazelton as the Wildcats’ defensive coordinator. Having spent time around head coach Chris Klieman — five seasons at North Dakota State (2014-18) and then last fall in Manhattan — Klanderman said that served as an “interview” of sorts for the vacancy.
That means he didn’t have to knock on Klieman’s door to express interest — and Klanderman made sure to note he didn’t “lobby” for a promotion.
“I think (Klieman) knew that I was ready. I certainly feel that I’m ready,” Klanderman said during a Zoom teleconference last month. “It just was how I approached every scenario: I always thought about it through a coordinator’s eyes, even though I wasn’t the coordinator.”
Knowing Klanderman’s interest in the opening went without saying, Klieman set up a meeting. Klieman picked Klanderman’s brain on philosophies: What did he think about the formations the Wildcats ran last year? What could be tweaked in Big 12 games? What was best for the unit going forward?
Klanderman detailed his answers, and with the ink barely dry on Hazelton’s new deal as Michigan’s State’s new defensive coordinator, K-State already had found his replacement. Michigan State officially hired Hazelton on Feb. 28, and three days later, Klieman announced Klanderman’s promotion.
“Joe is one of the best defensive coaches I have ever been around, and he is ready for this role,” Klieman said in a release March 2. “In addition to already having coordinator experience, Joe knows our defense as well as anyone, and it is important to continue to develop our players and keep them in our system. We appreciate what Scottie did for our program this past year and hate to see him leave, but we are excited about our future with Coach Klanderman and the rest of our defensive staff.”
A month and a half later, Klieman didn’t dispute that it was an easy decision to expand Klanderman’s role with the program.
“I was excited for him, because he deserved the opportunity. He’s been a part of an awful lot of national championships and coached an awful lot of football,” Klieman said. “You ask any of those safeties about Joe in a meeting room and there’s not a more detailed, organized guy on our staff as far as just putting the finer details together on a game plan and challenging guys. So I was pleased to be able to elevate him to defensive coordinator.”
It’s not as if Klanderman wasn’t ready for the position before, Klieman said. Klanderman was the defensive coordinator at Minnesota State, his alma mater, from 2007 to 2013. During his Minnesota State tenure, Klanderman coached 26 all-conference first-team honorees and 10 All-Americans.
But when he arrived at North Dakota State, Matt Entz — Klieman’s successor as the Bison’s head coach, going 16-0 and capturing the FCS national championship last season — was already in place as defensive coordinator; Klanderman became NDSU’s defensive backs coach. When he followed Klieman to K-State, Klanderman took over as the safeties coach.
All the while, Klieman observed how Klanderman absorbed everything, interacting with and learning from Entz and Hazelton.
“That’s (one) thing that I so appreciate about Joe: He’s not an ego guy,” Klieman said. “He wants to be a sponge, he wants to learn as much as he can, he wants to have other guys’ input.”
Klanderman still expects Klieman to have plenty of input on the defense. That’s why it helps that they “very much see eye to eye,” Klanderman said.
The benefit of working alongside Klieman the past six seasons means he knows Klieman’s core tenets as well as anyone.
How Klieman wants a team formulated. How he wants players to think. How he wants those in his program to approach every aspect of every day.
“I don’t think there’s anybody else on this earth that can convey that message to the players better than I could,” Klanderman said. “So in that respect, I thought it was the perfect fit.”