On Dec. 12, 2018, Chris Klieman was introduced as the 35th head football coach for the Kansas State football team. Flash forward to August of 2020, Klieman is preparing to enter his second season with the Wildcats, but in a completely unprecedented scenario that no one could have predicted.
In his first season as head coach, Klieman went through more than some coaches do in several years, both on and off the field. From an upset victory over a top-five ranked team, to battling an pandemic within the team, and even standing up for his players during their fight against social injustices.
“It’s nothing like anyone of us has done, as head coaches, assistant coaches, from the NFL, to Division 1, to Division 3, to high school,” Klieman said. “There’s not a Coaching 101 for any of us, but there’s not a Player 101 manual either. We just want to progress the program forward.”
After legendary head coach Bill Snyder retired and Klieman was brought in to replace the savior of K-State football, many fans and media outlets questioned the decision to bring in a coach from the Football Championship Subdivision.
Less than a month after the announcement of his hiring, Klieman was on top of the FCS world one final time, hoisting his fourth FCS national championship trophy in five years at North Dakota State — one of the most dominant FCS teams of the 2010s. His tenure at NDSU was over now though, and his time to rebuild a K-State team that finished the previous season 5-7 had begun.
From “Win the Dang Day” to “Pound the Stone,” Klieman quickly began to change the culture at K-State.
“[Pound the Stone is] continuing to build on the great legacy that is Kansas State football,” Klieman said. “Kansas State has a tremendous tradition here, built by coach Snyder, and we’re trying to continue to build upon that legacy.”
After much skepticism during the offseason, including being picked second to last in the conference in the Big 12 preseason poll, Klieman and the Wildcats finally got their first opportunity to prove the doubters wrong, throttling Nicholls State in their season opener 49-14.
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Progressing through the season the Wildcats had ups and downs, but doubts began to press in again after a 1-2 start for K-State in conference play going into one of their most vigorous matchups of the season — No. 5 Oklahoma.
As 23.5 point home underdogs, K-State shocked the college football world, defeating Oklahoma at home for the first time since 1996 and giving Klieman his signature win with the Wildcats in his first year.
“We told them before the game that we belonged on this stage,” Klieman said after the win. “We in the locker room knew we were continuing to get better, and it doesn’t always show up on Saturday’s, but when we click we know we have a really good football team”
Finishing out the regular season winning three of their last five games, the Wildcats earned an invitation to the Liberty Bowl after missing out on bowl season the year prior. In a hard-fought game against Navy, the Wildcats lost in a heartbreaker 20-17, putting Klieman’s first-year record at 8-5.
After a successful first season, nothing could have prepared Klieman for what would happen in the offseason.
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the United States in March, all in-person football activities were suspended until further notice. It was not until June that the team could return and begin voluntary workouts.
Six days after voluntary practices started, 14 athletes tested positive for the virus, leading to a temporary pause on voluntary workouts for 14 days.
“The kids that did test positive had mild symptoms,” Klieman said. “We were fortunate that nobody got really sick, but they learned lessons. I think they learned that nobody is immune to this. If you are in the wrong situation and don’t protect yourself, you have the potential to get the virus. It only takes one.”
While in the middle of the 14-day hiatus the team was once again put in the spotlight. After a K-State student posted a controversial tweet, many football players began to speak out. They said that they would not play unless action was taken by the university.
Soon the entire program was halted, with athletes across the team speaking out for change. During all of this, Klieman supported his players.
“Our program and our coaches will continue to be part of the solution when it comes to racial injustice,” Klieman said in a tweet in June. “I love our players and they know I have their backs.”
Once demands were met the team returned to their workouts.
Klieman was then met with one more challenge at the end of the summer — the possibility that there would not be a football season. As the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences both decided to cancel their seasons, K-State football was up in the air for the 2020 season.
“It’s been really hard on the guys, all the uncertainty, the mental strain and anxiety of not having answers,” Klieman said. “That’s the one time as a football coach where you don’t have answers to give them. You have to control what you can control.”
After waiting for answers, the team got what they wanted to hear — the thumbs up for playing Big 12 football in the fall.
Now, as Klieman prepares the Wildcats for his second season as head coach, he feels comfortable with his team. Even after all the pressure that was put on his shoulders throughout his first year.
“You always feel pressure from within, but no, it’s much more comfortable. It’s like Skylar [Thompson] or anyone who has been in the system for a year,” Klieman said. “You know how things work, you know more people in the facility and so I think all of us as coaches feel much more comfortable in year two.”
For the moment, K-State will open up its 2020 season against Arkansas State at home on Sept. 12, allowing Klieman to add even more onto his legacy at K-State.