FRISCO, Texas — Chris Klieman did his best cowboy impression Saturday, riding off into the Texas sunset after winning the girl. Or, in this case, a trophy. And just like in a good old western movie, those watching couldn't help but smile a little bit and maybe get a lump in the throat as the movie faded to black.
As the cliche goes, a Hollywood script writer couldn't have come up with anything better. The coach, in his last game, trying to go out on top with a championship and perfect season.
That's exactly the ending we got. Klieman and his North Dakota State football team provided perfection on a glorious afternoon at Toyota Stadium, packed to the gills again by the beer-loving herd from the north wearing yellow, by beating Eastern Washington 38-24 for the Football Championship Subdivision national title.
These senior-laden Bison finished 15-0, an unblemished season just like the Bison of 2013. This team vaulted itself into the discussion as one of the greatest FCS teams in history, just like the seniors and Klieman talked about last July when they gathered for a preseason dinner. Reality met destiny.
This was a movie that had to end just so, and it did. Klieman, the popular coach who is leaving NDSU for a new job at Kansas State, won the big game. It was clinched when his most popular senior, quarterback Easton Stick, dashed 46 yards for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to secure the outcome.
Stick slowed down as he approached the end zone, seeming to savor the moment, before crossing the goal line and thrusting both hands into the air as a wide smile came across his face. The winningest quarterback in FCS would go out a winner.
A perfect ending.
"Fifteen and oh. To end it with a national championship. Boy, it doesn't end any better than that. The story is complete," Klieman said.
Klieman will head to Manhattan, Kan., and the big-time, his time in Fargo ended with a powerhouse program somehow left in better shape than when he inherited it. The Bison were 69-6 with four national titles in five years with Klieman as head coach and 112-8 with seven championships in the eight years since he joined the program as an assistant under Craig Bohl.
"Holy cow, that's something movies are made out of, dreams are made of and books are written about," Klieman said. "It's ... 112 wins and eight losses and seven national championships? I pinch myself every day."
The coach did it seemingly without making many enemies in Fargo. The subplot of his dalliance with Kansas State, coming in the middle of the playoffs, was handled nearly flawlessly by Klieman, NDSU and K-State. He was so beloved by his team, players gave Klieman a standing ovation when he told them he took the job with the Wildcats.
Heck, he thanked Fargo reporters at the conclusion of his postgame press conference Saturday and said local media was one of the reasons the Bison have been so successful. No, seriously. He said that.
Maybe that was the comic relief part of the movie.
"He's an unbelievable coach. One of the smartest people I've been around when you talk about football," Stick said. "But I think more importantly, he's a father to all of us. A great role model. He does things the right way. Just really thankful for him giving all of us the opportunity to be a part of this place and for him allowing us to get to know his family and be a part of his family. We're forever indebted to him for what he's done for all of us. And we love him."
Klieman, sitting to Stick's left, got emotional listening to those words, giving us the tear-jerker portion of the script. Senior linebacker Levi Jordheim and senior receiver Darrius Shepherd were to Stick's right on the podium, nodding their heads as the quarterback spoke.
"I spend a ton of time with Easton, was in all three of these guys' homes visiting with their parents. I told them that I would take care of them and they've taken care of me," Klieman said. "I've been so blessed to be a part of this program and they've done way more for me than I will ever do for them. I'll be forever indebted to those guys."
What comes next for NDSU and its new coach, Matt Entz, will be the eagerly awaited sequel to the Bison story. How can Entz live up to Klieman and Bohl? How can the next quarterback, likely young Trey Lance, live up to Stick, Carson Wentz and Brock Jensen? Imagine trying to be the next John Wayne.
"The program is in great hands, guys," Klieman said. "The culture is established. We kind of passed the torch from the seniors to the juniors just now in the locker room."
Senior defensive end Stanley Jones described what transpired as "surreal." Hard to argue.
"That's the word I've been thinking of because this is just a special moment for all of us. It's just awesome," Jones said.
Shepherd used another word worth noting: Legacy. He used it when asked about sending off Klieman with a victory in his last game.
"It's been like a movie. I'm glad he's been able to leave his legacy like that," Shepherd said. "He deserves it. We're next excited for his next steps at K-State."
Happy trails, coach.