As the Kansas State Wildcats embark on a new era of football that doesn’t involve Bill Snyder, here’s a question that has sparked debate among fans.
What does a successful first season look like for Chris Klieman?
For now, that’s a tough one to answer.
Replacing a legendary coach that won 215 games, reached 19 bowls and claimed two conference championships won’t be easy. Taking over a team that went 5-7 last season and lost several of its best players to the NFL won’t be a walk in the park, either. No one is expecting the same kind of results Klieman delivered at North Dakota State, where he won four FCS championships in five years. At least not right away.
But he isn’t exactly taking over a rebuilding project. The roster has some holes and years of mediocre recruiting is beginning to show. But the team is filled with hard workers and the locker room culture is solid. K-State fans will melt down if the team goes 2-10.
So what would satisfy most fans in Year 1 of the Klieman era?
A bowl game? A winning season? A better record than the six other coaches athletic director Gene Taylor interviewed for the job? Closing the gap on the best teams in the Big 12, like Oklahoma and Texas? Playing hard? Landing big-time recruits?
Pick one. Pick them all. You could make an argument for each of them.
“Our expectations are to win this year,” Klieman said. “What is winning? We expect to win. We expect to win each week and go 1-0 in a 12-week season. We have got 24 seniors in there and I’m not going to go up to them and say, ‘Hey guys, I appreciate you laying the foundation but now we are rebuilding.’ That isn’t fair to those guys. We expect to put our best foot forward and come up with great plans and have the guys work toward winning every week.”
Welcome to the Big 12
Klieman will look beyond wins and losses in his first season while also pushing for the best possible results. One thing he won’t do: throw out a specific goal for the team’s record.
History suggests that is a healthy approach, as a new coach’s inaugural win total isn’t always indicative of things to come.
The Big 12 has seen 29 new coaches since the conference began play in 1996, and those coaches have combined for a record of 155-209 in Year 1. That means new Big 12 coaches, on average, start out at roughly 5-7.
Some hit the ground running and keep on winning, like Lincoln Riley (12-2) and Mack Brown (9-3).
Some fell on their face and never won much at all, like Dan Hawkins (2-10), Bill Callahan (5-6), Charlie Strong (6-7) and David Beaty (0-12).
Others got off to rocky starts before winning lots of games, like Mike Gundy (4-7), Art Briles (4-8), Matt Rhule (1-11), Mark Mangino (2-10) and Matt Campbell (3-9). And some had success right out of the chute but then faltered, like Paul Rhoads (7-6), Kliff Kingsbury (8-5) and Tommy Tuberville (8-5).
There’s a reason why some say Year 2 is prove-it time for most coaches.
Perhaps the best example of Year 1 unpredictability occurred at K-State with its last two football coaches. Snyder started 1-10 in 1989 and is now in the College Football Hall of Fame. Ron Prince took K-State to a bowl game and finished 7-6 in 2006, but he was fired less than two years later.
One coach was much more successful than the other in his first season, but it took years of perspective to realize it wasn’t the man who had a winning record next to his name.
Winning one game, against North Texas State (as it was called at the time), and staying competitive in a handful of others in 1989 turned out to be more meaningful than anything that happened in 2006, including a dramatic victory over No. 4 Texas.
Turns out Snyder was building a foundation. Prince struggled to maintain it.
Wins and losses will always reign supreme in college football. The old cliché about teams being what their records say they are wouldn’t exist if fans cared about anything else. Still, there is clearly more going on in Year 1 for a new coach.
“I look at more than record whenever I evaluate a new coach,” said Fox Sports analyst Matt Leinart. “There’s so much that goes into it. What kind of program is he taking over? What did the team look like last year? Do the players go hard for him? Is the team getting more competitive?”
“Turning around a program in one year is very tough. But when you see a team coming together and playing harder and improving on their deficiencies from the year before and being more competitive that is a good sign of things to come.”
Apples to oranges
The first Big 12 football meetings of the year were slightly awkward for Taylor, K-State’s athletic director. Two of the other coaches he considered during K-State’s hiring process are now coaching at rival institutions.
Neal Brown, who finished runner up to Klieman, is now at West Virginia. Matt Wells, who Taylor said he would have interviewed had Texas Tech not hired him first, is now in charge of the Red Raiders.
Klieman will lead K-State against both in the coming months.
“It’s part of the business,” Taylor said. “You just kind of say, ‘Hey, you’re a great candidate, great person, great coach. It just didn’t work out for us.’ And now it’s just a matter of can we beat him every time we play him? They are all good people, all quality candidates. I think they all would have been great fits. I just felt more comfortable with Chris based on our personal relationship.”
At the end of the season, Taylor might feel very good or very bad about his first major hire at K-State based on some of those head-to-head matchups.
But Klieman will also be compared to the other coaches Taylor interviewed. According to sources, they were: North Texas coach Seth Littrell, Memphis coach Mike Norvell, former Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren and South Carolina offensive line coach Eric Wolford.
And there will always be a pocket of K-State fans longing for Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
Outshining those names, as well as new KU coach Les Miles, will be important for some.
K-State was picked to finish ninth in the preseason Big 12 poll. The Wildcats have never started lower in the conference’s current 10-team setup.
But that hasn’t stopped K-State players from expecting big things this season. Quarterback Skylar Thompson says reaching a bowl is nothing more than a minor goal for this team. He wants to win a conference championship.
Excitement is also up in practice. Players seem genuinely happy to to take the field, based on how much they dance and joke with each other during warmups. Perhaps those are indications the Wildcats are already buying into their new coach.
K-State recruiting is also on the rise. The Wildcats are on pace to sign their best class in a decade.
“I personally think this is such a great hire and there is a lot of optimism around K-State right now,” Leinart said. “Chris is a winner and he’s competitive and he’s a little older than some of the young guns in this conference. He’s replacing a living legend and you have to have realistic expectations with that, but I am really excited to see what he can do this year. I think there are a lot of cool possibilities for him with this team.”
With all that in mind, it’s still hard to define what a successful season looks like for K-State in 2019.
That’s why Taylor is trying to look at the big picture. He will evaluate a long list of things in Year 1. He wants to see the Wildcats land a strong recruiting class. He also wants to see how K-State plays against certain opponents. The Wildcats couldn’t even stay on the field with Oklahoma and West Virginia last season. Can Klieman close the gap?
Taylor also wants to see consistent improvement and a team that plays like the squads Klieman used to coach at North Dakota State, even if the results are different.
Success may be hard to define in Year 1, but everyone will be looking for something.
“If we win enough games to go to a bowl game, that would be a heck of a start,” Taylor said. “I don’t want to put pressure on him or unrealistic expectations on him. The Big 12 is not easy and there are a lot of new coaches. So we will see what happens. If we are getting it handed to us by every Big 12 team that is not a good indication, and we will have a lot of work to do.”