KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas State hired Chris Klieman of North Dakota State to lead its football program Monday night, passing the reins from retired Hall of Fame coach Bill Snyder to someone with three Football Championship Subdivision titles but little Big 12 experience.
Klieman was hired to lead the Bison by current Kansas State athletic director Gene Taylor, and was seen as one of the front-runners for the Wildcats' job ever since Snyder announced his retirement.
Klieman agreed to a six-year contract with a base salary of $2.3 million next season, increasing by $200,000 each subsequent season. The deal includes a number of other incentives.
"You know, you work in this profession as long as I have, to have the opportunity to coach at this level, and I know there are going to be some people that would say, 'Am I ready for this?'" Klieman said shortly after the announcement on his weekly radio show. "Football is football, and I know there's a difference between Power-5 and FCS. I know there's a difference between FCS and FBS. But by the same respect, football is football, and we've done really well against those schools."
Taylor initially targeted North Texas coach Seth Littrell, but he announced last week that he would remain with the Mean Green. Attention quickly shifted to Klieman, who has the Bison in the FCS semifinals against South Dakota State on Friday night as they seek a fourth title in five seasons.
Klieman will be allowed to coach the Bison in that game. Whether he would remain with the school for the championship game should North Dakota State advance is still under discussion.
Kansas State will introduce him at a news conference Wednesday.
"I was offered the job and accepted because it's a dream job of mine," Klieman said, "and that happened late, late this afternoon. It was good for me because our kids were already in meetings headed to practice, so I knew things were starting to blow up and my phone was blowing up, but I had an opportunity to talk to our kids. It was a really emotional time for me, a really difficult time, because I love every one of those guys. I truly believe and know in my heart that those kids on that football team are extremely happy for me."
Klieman is only the third coach to lead the Wildcats since 1988, when Snyder was hired off Hayden Fry's staff at Iowa. Snyder turned one of the worst programs in the history of major college football into a perennial contender during his first stint in Manhattan, then returned after a three-year retirement — during which the program slid under Ron Prince — to lead the Wildcats back atop the Big 12.
Snyder has dealt with health problems in recent years, though, including a bout with throat cancer, and he announced after a 5-7 season that he was retiring again. He won 215 games in 27 seasons.
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"I'm so happy and thrilled to follow a legend," Klieman said in a statement. "The opportunity to follow in an icon's footsteps is something I don't take for granted and don't take lightly. I know I have huge shoes to fill and I'm excited to carry on his legacy."
The 51-year-old Klieman is certainly familiar with Snyder and the Wildcats.
Klieman said he grew up going to Snyder's football camps in Waterloo, Iowa, and he played against his Wildcats while at Northern Iowa. He also was the defensive coordinator at North Dakota State when the Bison, then led by Craig Bohl, upset the Wildcats in Manhattan to open the 2013 season.
"This is an absolute dream job," said Klieman, who is 70-13 in six seasons as a head coach, and a gaudy 67-6 with the Bison. "I have prepared my entire life for this opportunity and had great experiences at many institutions, most notably North Dakota State, where we've had unmatched success."
How that success translates to a Power-5 conference remains to be seen.
Klieman spent one season as defensive backs coach at Kansas, but otherwise his experience has been at lower levels. He coached defensive backs at Northern Iowa, Western Illinois and Missouri State, and was the head coach for a season at Loras, before joining the Bison program.
Still, Taylor was impressed enough by Klieman in 2014 to hand him the program when Bohl, who built North Dakota State into a powerhouse, departed for the head coaching job at Wyoming.
"He is a perfect fit for us, both from a personal standpoint and as a head coach," Taylor said. "He is a tremendous teacher who I had the pleasure to hire at NDSU and watched turn into a very successful coach. He will bring a ton of energy and excitement. His teams play extremely hard, disciplined football.
"He's a winner," Taylor said. "That's all he does is win."
His lack of experience at a major university will nevertheless be a difficult sell to a fanbase that has grown accustomed to competing at the highest level. The Wildcats had qualified for eight straight bowl games prior to this season, and they won their second Big 12 title under Snyder in 2012.
The school also has poured more than $200 million into renovating Bill Snyder Family Stadium, making it one of the top stadiums in the league. More upgrades are already planned, including an expansive indoor practice facility and other renovations to the football stadium.
"We're pleased to welcome Coach Klieman," university president Richard Myers said. "We look forward to introducing Coach Klieman to the K-State family and know he will receive the tremendous support."