How Kansas State used Twitter to charm fans after hiring Chris Klieman

Kansas State athletic director Gene Taylor, right, believed in new coach Chris Klieman but knew he'd have to convince some disappointed fans. AP Photo/Orlin Wagner

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Gene Taylor smiled and leaned back in his office chair to glance out the third-floor window into the football stadium at Kansas State, with its artificial surface glazed with ice on this February morning.

He stopped for a split-second, turned back to the questioner and nodded in agreement.

Two months earlier, K-State was without a coach as Taylor assessed candidates in the wake of Bill Snyder's decision to retire after 27 seasons and 215 victories. The situation for the second-year athletic director was tenuous. Taylor had to move quickly, navigating with an anxious fan base and an unsteady football staff.

His response to the query that gave Taylor a moment of pause is, undeniably, yes. He can see the irony here in the method that K-State used to shift the narrative on his hire of new coach Chris Klieman.

"We took advantage of the ability to show our fans a side of the football program that I think they were hungry to see," Taylor said.

Once outlawed under old-school Snyder, the Wildcats' aggressive and imaginative social media tactics and new level of transparency in the hours and days after the introduction of Klieman saved the school from trying to dig out of a hole before its new coach finished his work in the FCS playoffs.

In the aftermath of their decidedly new-school Twitter blitz, Taylor said, fan sentiment "flipped 180 degrees."

Looking back, it's impressive that he and the school have managed this transition -- rife with potholes -- so well as the Wildcats move toward March 6, the opening of spring practice.

Let's just say that Kansas State fans weren't thrilled on Dec. 10 with Taylor's decision to replace Snyder by tapping an old friend, Klieman, whom Taylor elevated in 2013 from defensive coordinator to head coach at North Dakota State.

"Their expectations started with Brent Venables and went from there," Taylor said of the highly paid Clemson defensive coordinator, ex-Kansas State linebacker and assistant coach. "And Chris was probably at the bottom of their list."

And now? Well, take note of the noise inside Bramlage Coliseum on Feb. 5 at halftime of K-State's victory over rival Kansas in men's basketball. Klieman and his staff took the floor, and the coach grabbed the mic. He delivered a rousing minute or so of words, capped by his exclamatory catchphrase.

"Win the dang day."

The place erupted. Taylor, climbing the arena stairs to a suite with a group of consultants, stopped to admire the work of his coach.

"It was a big stage for him," the AD said. "A big moment. I thought he did great. Actually, I was very proud of that."

At Kansas State, which can't match the resources of Big 12 foes Oklahoma and Texas, it's essential for every wing of the program -- inside and outside the football complex -- to help steer in one direction.

It's happening for the 51-year-old Klieman, who this month signed the final seven of 23 recruits in his first class, which ranks 55th nationally and eighth in the Big 12. It rated on signing day as the Wildcats' best class in six years, but they expect better results in competition. Klieman's history indicates that he knows how to make it work.

"I'm smart enough to realize we still have to win," Klieman said.

Just having reached this point before Klieman's first spring, it seems the Wildcats have already won something.

Snyder almost retired a year earlier.

"He was really struggling," Taylor said of the iconic coach, who battled throat cancer in 2017.

Kansas State languished in his return, slipping to 5-7, its first losing record under Snyder since 2005, when he initially retired, only to return after three seasons. The Wildcats on Nov. 24 blew a lead at Iowa State in the season finale, which was hugely disappointing, and Snyder told Taylor a few hours later that he'd make a call on his future in the upcoming week.

Emotions spanned a wide spectrum.

"No one really knew what would happen," said Taylor Braet, K-State director of football recruiting.

By Wednesday of that week, Snyder, at age 79, said he needed a little more time. The conversation was difficult for Taylor, he said, but he told Snyder that he had to know soon. By the end of the week, Snyder reached a decision. K-State announced the coach's retirement on Dec. 2.

Kansas State fans, meanwhile, grew more restless. Taylor felt it. Their concerns mattered to him. He looked at several coaches and interviewed Klieman on Dec. 6, just ahead of the FCS quarterfinal as NDSU aimed for a fourth championship in five years since Taylor promoted the coach to replace Craig Bohl.

Even before Taylor chose Klieman to lead a program for the second time, the athletic director offered a warning.

"I said, 'Chris, if I go with you, the reaction may not be the greatest.'"

Klieman said he understood. His experience above the FCS level included only the 1997 season at Kansas as a defensive assistant. Kansas State fans did not know him.

"I'm a big believer that football is football," Klieman said. "It's still about your message, your belief in kids, how you attack on a daily basis. I really felt if I could get in front of those people and explain my vision, we would flip them."

And so it began. On Dec. 10, Taylor called Klieman about an hour before NDSU wrapped practice in advance of the FCS semifinal against South Dakota State.

As Taylor offered the job, K-State captured it on video. Then the Wildcats went to work socially, posting Klieman's excited reaction on Twitter.

Later that Monday, a Kansas State video crew documented Klieman's trip from Fargo, North Dakota, to Manhattan as Klieman saw the stadium -- from the sky -- for the first time after he said yes to Taylor.

"A wow moment," Klieman said. "That was surreal."

K-State accelerated from there, producing an all-access video of Klieman's first 48 hours on the job and multiple lighthearted, holiday-themed clips.

Taylor's email inbox transformed from a hot mess into something just short of a lovefest.

"I knew Chris well enough to know that once people heard him talk and saw him, they were going to like him," Taylor said. "That's just Chris."

The campaign persisted. Braet, elevated to assistant coach before Klieman completed his staff, traveled with the head coach to see recruits. They posted selfies on the first journey away from Manhattan.

"We were driving around, talking to kids on FaceTime," Braet said. "I was sitting in the back of the SUV, and I think my eyes were turning into hearts. I was just melting."

Keep in mind, it constituted a whole new world for Kansas State. Snyder did not approve of stunts on social media -- ever -- or even much in the way of creativity. And really, he didn't need any of it. Snyder's reputation preceded him. His record provided all the credibility required and more.

But with Klieman, despite those four FCS titles and the Carson Wentz jersey that hangs on the wall of the head coach's office, the game had changed.

"Kansas State's got a great brand," Klieman said. "We need to get it out there."

Collin Klein finished third in the 2012 Heisman Trophy balloting behind Johnny Manziel and Manti Te'o. He spent the past two seasons on staff under Snyder, his former coach, and was elevated to co-offensive coordinator in 2018.

The 10 days after K-State lost to Iowa State in November, Klein said, "felt like a month." That was all before Taylor got on the phone with Klieman to make an offer.

"This is why faith is so important to me," Klein said. "I was obviously hoping and wanting to stay here but at the same time understanding that everything happens for a reason."

If Klieman had a quarterbacks coach from NDSU whom he wanted to bring to Kansas State, Klein said, he had no control over it. So he put his head down and worked, texting Klieman to ask about a recruit or wishing him well in the playoffs before the two coaches had spent time together.

After North Dakota State beat SDSU on Dec. 14, Klieman came back to Kansas and took Klein on a recruiting trip. They stopped in Kansas City to see running back CJ Price. In the car before they went inside, Klieman asked Klein to join his staff.

"Oh, my gosh, it was a great feeling," Klein said.

Klein nearly lost his composure. But the former QB quickly regrouped; they had work to complete with a recruit who had yet to commit to the Wildcats. In remembering that moment, Klein said it captures how his connection with Klieman developed so suddenly.

"Even in the short time we have worked together and known each other," Klein said, "I have so much respect for him in how he leads and how he runs our program. I think we got pretty close pretty fast. We both want the same thing. We both want to be the best."

Klieman studied Klein at work with recruits and their parents.

"Just class," Klieman said. "That's the first thing I'd say about Collin Klein. Tremendous class. Tremendous character. He's a Wildcat through and through. It was an easy decision [to retain him]."

Klieman, in fact, said he felt like he succeeded in recruiting Klein to stay on board.

Their relationship represents what much of Kansas State is feeling about Klieman in these early days -- and vice versa.

"He's really honest and really genuine," said Hank Jacobs, the director of football operations under Klieman at North Dakota State and now at K-State. "I think the way he interacts with his own family, you can tell how he feels about this place."

Klieman's son, Devin, a junior who transferred to K-State last month, has attended staff meetings in the early weeks of this offseason.

"He wants his players to see that," Jacobs said.

Klieman wants the Wildcats to feel the same things that he feels. That Klein feels. That Taylor felt about Klieman five years ago. That recruits and the K-State fans are starting to feel about the coach. That Klieman's North Dakota State players felt when he gathered the team at the end of practice on Dec. 10 to announce that he had accepted the job at Kansas State.

"They gave him a round of applause," Jacobs said. "I was bawling my eyes out."

When an episode just as dramatic goes down in Manhattan, we can only hope that the newly empowered K-State social media team is there to share it.