Bill Snyder is no longer in charge of the Kansas State football program for the first time since 2008 and taking the helm is (FCS powerhouse) North Dakota State’s head coach, Chris Klieman. There’s been an overwhelming amount of debate all over social media about whether his success at a lower level will translate to Manhattan. I’m still not entirely sure where I sit personally, but I figured a deeper dive into his history and what made him great up north was needed.
Klieman was hired onto (then-HC) Craig Bohl’s staff in 2011 as a DB coach from Northern Iowa. Bohl was in his 9th year and had successfully moved NDSU to FCS from Division II, winning 10 games in both 2006 and 2007. However, he wouldn’t reach that mark again until Klieman’s first season, going 14-1 and winning the FCS national title. It can certainly be debated how much CK factored into this success, but he was promoted to DC the very next year and elevated to HC in 2014 after Bohl departed for the Wyoming job (following his 3rd consecutive national championship). Since taking over, his Bison have won three titles in four seasons (going 67-6 overall) with their eyes on a 4th in 2018 – making this run arguably the most impressive modern dynasty. They haven’t even lost to an FBS school since 2009. However, Klieman only has one season of FBS experience in career (and is a key sticking point with his most fervent detractors). So what does he bring to KSU, exactly?
The KSU locker room has seemed increasingly more toxic every season since 2014. Things have gotten stale and fun is a term that’s rarely used to describe the atmosphere these days while an alarming number of players seem to have exited the program entirely. Enter Klieman.
By all accounts, he’s a guy who has a tremendous feel for his players but isn’t afraid to tell it like is. He also appears to be a very respected individual off the field, having recently been elected to the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Board of Trustees as the FCS representative – a relatively prestigious honor. The reactions from active Wildcat players on twitter – including those from Skylar Thompson, Dalton Schoen, Reggie Walker, Denzel Goolsby, and Blake Lynch among others – only tend to further support this.
He’s noted as a bit of a traditionalist but still seems open to refreshing the straightforward uniform combination preferred by Snyder. It appears he understands the value of program branding and the importance of even seemingly trivial changes like that. That’s only going to help gain more respect from the guys in and around this program.
Offensively, CK’s teams have been generally pro style with multiple sets/looks (and multiple TEs and FBs) that even include a few spread principles (which is a bit of a departure from their virtually exclusive power running/play action concepts). They emphasize fundamental discipline and bullying teams on the OL but also love to incorporate plenty of motion/misdirection (both pre and post-snap) to help generate number advantages on the perimeter while utilizing their TEs to stretch the defense. He’s even relied on well-designed QB runs (a Snyder staple).
They’ve also had a ton of success out of the diamond formation (something KSU used late in the year with positive results). These elements tend to run contrary to most others in the Big 12 and something unique like this is what’s needed for longterm success with KSU’s expected talent levels going forward. I don’t think Klieman is necessarily married to his current philosophies, which makes his OC choice that much more integral.
The defensive side of the ball is CK’s bread and butter. The Bison were always good there under Bohl but have taken it to new levels with Klieman, allowing just over 11 point per game this season. They run a base 4-3 defense that’s designed to keep the ball in front of it while dominating the line of scrimmage and forcing turnovers. It’s not totally dissimilar to the bend-but-don’t-break scheme that Snyder opted to use (with plenty of success) for most all of his 2.0 tenure. In order for it to be successful in this league, I think it’ll need to be modified to some form of 4-3/Nickel hybrid that uses one or more undersized LBs who can cover a vast amount of space.
I’m also interested to see who he keeps on staff and how much those guys influence things (at this point it sounds as though Braet, Seiler, Norwood, and potentially Klein will all be retained).
This is going be the single most program-defining area for CK. He’s made a living finding diamonds in the rough in ND, SD, MN, IA, and MO while often developing them for multiple years before placing them on the field. It’s an effective strategy for a lower level, but I’m concerned how sustainable that is here, especially since he doesn’t have a single player on his current roster from OK or TX. He does recruit Kansas City very heavily (and has a, outstanding reputation there), but I’m not sure that’s going to be enough longterm. I don’t think he needs to drop his northern connections entirely, but he’s going to have to find a way to establish a foothold in the southern states if he wants to land elite talent to mix with the underrated dudes. I think he’s an exceptional X’s and O’s guy, but even one of the greatest tacticians the game has ever seen (Snyder) couldn’t win games when he was starved for talent. I think he’s capable of getting it done, but it’s going to be an extraordinarily tall order.
There has been a plethora of successful power conference coaches who also enjoyed great runs at the FCS level, including guys like Jim Tressel, Brian Kelly, and Jim Harbaugh. Unlike Klieman, though, they all had either extended FBS or NFL experience on their resumes. That doesn’t bode particularly well. The two most similar hires I can find are HOF Frank Beamer (though it should be noted that Va Tech was an Independent when he was hired) and Buffalo’s Lance Leipold. Leipold might be a ray of hope, as he actually made the jump from D-III (non-scholarship) all the way to the MAC, an even bigger leap than FCS to Power 5. He currently has Buffalo in the midst of their greatest season in program history with 10 wins.
I can’t say that I like this hire, especially since CK’s contract is 6 years/$2.8 mil a year average (over a 900% pay increase from his current salary) and the downside risk associated with hiring him is massive relative to other potential (more qualified) candidates. It’s definitely an incredible gamble, and when those fail they tend to fail spectacularly. I don’t know that his winning ways will translate, but we have to hope they will because Gene Taylor just bet the foreseeable future of this football program on him. He’s the Kliemate Change we need.
(Below are some additional links to full NDSU games, for those interested in learning more about what Klieman brings to the table).