SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg provides his opinion of the top three programs in the history of college football.
MANHATTAN, Kan. – Just inside the entrance to the head coach’s office, a rectangular acrylic block sits on a table. Suspended inside: five national championship rings. If you miss those, two more sets are displayed — one with six rings, the other with seven.
Chris Klieman says — and he has said this many times in the last few months — “football is football.” He long ago wearied of the recurring questions, since he was hired last December as Kansas State’s coach, about the adjustment to the FBS level. Or whether his success at North Dakota State is, well, never mind replicable — if it’s even applicable.
“I am tired of it, to be honest with you,” he says, because if football is football no matter the level, then the biggest difference so far between Fargo, North Dakota, and Manhattan, Kansas, has been that he’s learning the ins and outs of Kansas State.
Three games in, there’s no discernible difference in results. His catchphrase, “Win the dang day,” has translated so seamlessly that a better question might be how Kansas State found a coach whose first team resembles what we grew used to seeing in Bill Snyder’s better seasons.
No one, including Klieman, is predicting national titles at Kansas State – he won four FCS national championships in five seasons as North Dakota State’s head coach, and three more as an assistant before that – but the Wildcats are 3-0 (extending Klieman’s personal winning streak to 24). In a 31-24 victory at Mississippi State on Sept. 14, the Wildcats were significantly better than their SEC opponent (a reversal from a 31-10 loss to Mississippi State last season in Manhattan). Seventeen points by Mississippi State were essentially gift-wrapped after K-State mistakes.
“We will clean those errors up,” Klieman promises, and he says they’ll have to be better beginning this week, when the Wildcats begin Big 12 play at Oklahoma State. But he also recognizes: “It was a pivotal win for our program early in our tenure.”
It was also an emphatic answer to those annoying questions.
“The game at this level is no different than the game at his (former) level,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy says. “… Maybe he’s got different things that he didn’t deal with there that he does here, but the actual X’s and O’s are the same.”
At least so far, the winning is, too – which has helped ease the transition from a legend. Klieman has asked his players to “embrace change,” and it probably should go for K-State fans as well. Still, Snyder’s presence looms.
In the main lobby of the Vanier Family Football Complex, a giant image of Klieman dominates a wall. This is standard fare for college football programs, of course, highlighting the coach as a “7-time National Champion,” but at Kansas State, some finesse is necessary. Next to Klieman’s image is one of “Hall of Fame Head coach Bill Snyder,” along with Snyder’s 16 “Goals for Success.”
“I know why we have all the nice stuff we have,” Klieman (pronounced “kly-mun”) says. “It’s due to him.”
He waves his hand toward the office window, which looks into Bill Snyder Family Stadium. But he might as well have indicated the entire campus. Or the town. In building a successful football program from a laughingstock, Snyder’s impact on the school and the region is intangible and perhaps incalculable, but very real. If you doubt it, understand that many here give a lot of credit for Manhattan’s regional commercial airport to Snyder.
“None of that makes me uncomfortable,” Klieman says.
Snyder, who declined an interview request, still lives in town. Klieman says they don’t regularly communicate, “but I don’t think there’s anything to read into that,” he adds. “In my mind, it’s just him allowing me to have my space.”
A prolific note-writer, Snyder has written several to his successor – including well-wishes when Klieman was hired last December. He wrote with congratulations last January when North Dakota State won the FCS national championship, then again with more encouragement last month, just before the season kicked off.
Klieman’s situation is not entirely dissimilar from his previous stop. He was promoted to head coach at North Dakota State after Craig Bohl left the school for Wyoming. The Bison had won three consecutive national championships. Klieman’s teams won four national titles in five seasons – and the year they lost in the national semifinals was seen by some fans as a disappointment.
If expectations at Kansas State weren’t immediately high – the Wildcats were 5-7 in Snyder’s final season – the legacy of winning he left remains the standard, and the way he won in two stints totaling 27 years is essentially the only way anyone associated with K-State football has known.
Klieman’s not doing things differently just to be different, but he’ll put his own stamp on the program. One very visible example is, well, that the program is more visible. Snyder was notoriously secretive and closed; Klieman has opened up more access to media and the public.
“I tell the guys, ‘Change is inevitable,’” he says. “You’re gonna have a new job. You’re gonna have a different girlfriend. Embrace the change. Learn from change. I think our guys have done a nice job of that.”
In some important ways, though, what we’ve seen from Kansas State is reminiscent of the recent past. The schemes are different, but like Snyder’s teams, these Wildcats appear to be aggressive and tough, efficient and smart. They haven’t committed a turnover yet in 210 offensive plays. They’re averaging 280 rushing yards (and Klieman says they’re still installing the offense).
Clearly, those rings and other memorabilia from North Dakota State (including a signed Carson Wentz jersey) in Klieman’s office aren’t about validation.
“It’s a chance for recruits, or anybody coming in to say, ‘Holy cow, that’s pretty cool,’” Klieman says.
So is what’s happened so far this season. It’s very early. The degree of difficulty is about to increase. But the first three games of Klieman’s tenure – and especially that win in Starkville – show plenty of promise for the future, and seem like indicators of something important:
Good football is good football.