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Chris Klieman Hired: Why it may work ... and may not

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Power 5 teams rarely hire head coaches directly from the FCS level, as K-State has done with Chris Klieman. Will this work out in Manhattan?

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Kansas State has hired North Dakota State head coach Chris Klieman to replace Bill Snyder. Initial reaction among Wildcat fans was decidedly negative, which was curious given that national opinion was decidedly positive.

Klieman joined North Dakota State as a defensive backs coach in 2011, the first of the Bison’s national title seasons. He was promoted to head coach in 2014 when Craig Bohl left for Wyoming. Since then, his record is 67-6 and the Bison have won three more national titles. They are in position to add a fourth this season.

Before we get into whether this will “work out” for K-State, we should define what “working out” means. By results, the last nine seasons with Bill Snyder provide a decent picture of what K-State should aspire to. K-State is 79-49 (51-37) with one Big 12 championship and eight bowl appearances, including one Fiesta and one Cotton, in the last nine seasons. There were two 10+ win seasons along with two nine-win seasons. If that’s your program’s standard, then you’re doing better than most of the country.

Klieman’s records makes this hire seem like a no-brainer, but there are no guarantees in coaching hires. So here are three reasons why Klieman may work out … and two reasons he may not.

Why This Might Work

All He Does Is Win

Klieman has won 92 percent of his games. I don’t care who sets the foundation,* you don’t win that many games on autopilot. And Klieman is well past a full recruiting cycle into his own tenure, so the program is his. There’s no sign of dropoff. They’ve won the Missouri Valley every year of his tenure and have never fallen short of the FCS semifinals.

*For those still skeptical, let me know how Frank Solich did in Lincoln.

North Dakota State Is An Outlier

There’s more to the numbers above. Not only does North Dakota State dominate on its level, they’ve shown they’re one of the best 40 or 50 programs in the country regardless of classification. NDSU is 20th in Sagarin’s college football rankings this year and has consistently ranked in the top 30 or 40 over the course of its dynasty.

Then there are the wins over FBS teams. Since 2011, NDSU has defeated Minnesota, Colorado State, K-State, Iowa State and Iowa. All of those wins were on the road.

It’s not a stretch to say that NDSU has had a better program than K-State since 2015. Ignore the classifications.

Identity

Whoever follows Bill Snyder in Manhattan will have to be comfortable in his own skin. Fans, donors and media will be quick to second guess decisions by only the third new coach we’ve had around here in 30 years.

Under Bohl and Klieman, few teams have had more rock-solid identities than NDSU. They win in the trenches, are fundamentally sound and tackle like NFL players on defense, and are physical and efficient, if not exactly flashy, on offense.

Why This Might Not Work

Program Management

Notice that I didn’t say recruiting, although that’s part of program management. I’ll get to that in a minute.

At the P5 level, the staffs are larger, the coordinators more ambitious, and the competition more intense. Klieman has spent exactly one season in an FBS program, and that was more than 20 years ago at KU. Can he manage a larger staff, with bigger egos, and under a bigger microscope?

Recruiting falls here, too, but my concern may not be the same as most. Klieman already has a team in Fargo that can play with just about anybody in the Big 12 other than Oklahoma and Texas. But most of his players there are from the northern Great Plains and upper Midwest, particularly Minnesota. That’s not to say that he can’t draw those kids here, but is playing in the Big 12 a bigger draw than competing for national titles at NDSU?

Other questions: Can he win recruiting battles in Kansas? K-State has been atrocious in the state the last few years, with even Iowa State swooping in and stealing kids. There will never be enough Kansas kids to sustain our program, but if we can keep the good ones here and away from Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Nebraska and the rest, then we’ll have a better chance.

Can he establish ties in new recruiting areas? It’s not reasonable to assume that his teams will be built wholly with North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin kids. He’ll probably still get some of those guys. K-State gets players from places like Georgia, after all, because recruiting is about relationships. But Klieman will probably have to retain or hire someone on staff who can recruit in Texas and other areas NDSU hasn’t recruited. Notably, he has two starters and five total players on this team from the Kansas City area. Expanding those ties and winning recruiting battles in KC with Mizzou, Nebraska, KU and others will be a priority.

Overall, finding the sweet spot between overshooting for higher-end prospects and relying solely on coaching up lesser athletes will be crucial. Scouting and evaluating overlooked prospects and then developing them into better players than others expected will always be key at K-State. But those evaluations have to be correct and raising the program’s ceiling requires finding a few stars along the way.

Cultural Installation

Football is about technique and tactics, but culture and expectations matter, too. Klieman is not an adherent of any flashy modern system on either side. His defense is based in the old Tampa 2, and offensively they deploy a physical running game that sets up an opportunistic passing game. It’s old-school football with some modern window dressing.

But culture is a tricky and transient thing. Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins left Boise State and found that they weren’t able to reinvent the Boise State Way at different programs. But Chris Peterson seems to have succeeded in doing so at Washington. Can Klieman get buy-in from the current players at K-State and set a winning foundation for the future? We’ll see.