Gene Taylor was driving around the farm country of northeast Kansas on Thursday — two days before perhaps what will be his most scrutinized college football season opener.
“Seeing donors,” Taylor said from his phone.
Those donors, plus anyone who is a fan of Kansas State football, will be a bit more anxious for this season’s opening game when the Wildcats host Nicholls State (La.) on Saturday night. Gone is coaching legend Bill Snyder. Present is former North Dakota State head coach Chris Klieman, who was hired to replace Snyder last December.
Making the bold decision to hire a coach from a Division I FCS school to a Power Five conference job was none other than Taylor — the former NDSU athletic director now at Kansas State in the same capacity.
Fans were understandably skeptical when Klieman was hired over candidates with major-college experience. It doesn’t happen often when a head coach from a lower division jumps into the big time. Notables who proved it can be done were Frank Beamer from Murray State to Virginia Tech, Jim Harbaugh from San Diego to Stanford, Brian Kelly from Grand Valley State to Cincinnati and Jim Tressel from Youngstown State to Ohio State.
“I have always felt Chris can make the adjustment,” Taylor said. “Replacing coach Snyder is not easy no matter who it was.”
Taylor has routinely relied on patience during his 18 years as a college athletic director, but that trait could certainly be tested as Klieman takes over a team that is expected to win only four of 12 games this season, according to numerous prognosticators.
Klieman should start his major college coaching career with a 2-0 record — with a win Saturday over a Nicholls State team that won a game in the FCS playoffs last year and another home win over a Bowling Green team that went 3-9 last year.
If you are a realist, which Taylor claims to be, Kansas State will probably win only two more games the rest of the season. Welcome to big-time college football with probable losses to Mississippi State, Oklahoma State, Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech and Iowa State. Kansas and West Virginia could very well be Kansas State’s only Big 12 wins.
If you are an optimist, which Klieman certainly has been since winning Kansas State fans over with his “win the dang day” mantra, Kansas State could very well post an upset or two, win five or six games and possibly return to a bowl game.
“Chris is going into this thing expecting to win … he’s got good players,” Taylor said. “I have never put a number on things. But I think as long as we stay healthy, I think we have a chance to be pretty good. But if we have some guys go down with injuries at key positions, we could have a tough season.”
Depth is always a concern for a football coach. But probably even more so this year with Klieman — who at NDSU quickly learned that quality depth is what separates a national championship team from the rest of the field. Depth is a big reason the Bison have won seven of the past eight FCS national titles.
Kansas State has a formidable defensive line, but it lost starting linebacker Justin Hughes to a season-ending injury during spring practice. There could be some question marks in the secondary as well.
New offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham, who came from NDSU with Klieman, will try to improve an offense that ranked last in the Big 12 last season in both scoring offense (22.5) and total offense (344.7). The Wildcats do have quarterback Skylar Thompson and the bulk of its offensive line returning. But unlike a loaded backfield that Klieman became used to at NDSU, the Wildcats lost their top four running backs.
“Our fans have liked what they have heard and seen so far from Chris,” Taylor said. “He shook hands with a ton of people. His message was always consistent and his energy was always there. And that’s what people like with Chris.”
Time will tell if they like what they see on the football field. But with Taylor as his boss and friend, time is currently on Klieman’s side.
“I remember when Craig had a couple of rough years and everybody was freaking out,” Taylor said, referring to former Bison head coach Craig Bohl, who went on to win three national titles at NDSU before leaving for Wyoming. “The biggest thing, no matter what happens this year or the next, is not to panic. Good coaches usually figure things out and I know Chris is a very good coach.
“The one thing I do know, it is going to be kind of cool watching Chris run out of that tunnel before Saturday night’s game.”