MANHATTAN, Kan. -- It doesn't seem like too long ago to Chris Klieman that he was basking in his promotion from defensive coordinator to head coach at Division III Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, making $55,000 a year and "didn't know what I was going to do with all that money."
Now, less than 15 years later, he's following a legend at Kansas State, and his approach is very simple. He's going to be the same guy he has always been, the same guy who grinded his way through the Division III ranks, the same guy who won four of the past five FCS national championships at North Dakota State and the same guy who has been a bit of a good-luck charm on the coaches' clinic speaking circuit.
Dabo Swinney reached out to Klieman in the spring of 2015 to speak at the Clemson coaches' clinic, and the Tigers went to the College Football Playoff that season and lost in the national title game to Alabama. The next season, they won their first national championship in 35 years.
Swinney hadn't met Klieman, but "liked his style" and was even more impressed with the results. Klieman was in demand because of the way North Dakota State was dominating the FCS ranks and how good it had been on defense.
"We have a lot in common, and both of us are relationship-driven," Swinney said. "We're all striving for consistency, and how can you not respect the consistency they've had in their football program? The culture they built there was much like ours, and we wanted to bring in coach Klieman to talk about all of the things that had made NDSU so successful."
That next spring, Kirby Smart reached out to Klieman to speak at Georgia's 2017 coaches' clinic, and the Dawgs won their first SEC championship in 12 years that season and played in the College Football Playoff National Championship game. And then last spring, Brian Kelly came calling, and sure enough, Notre Dame went unbeaten during the 2018 regular season and made the CFP.
"I was like, 'Hey, the dollar amount's gotta go up,'" joked Klieman, whose first full-time job as an assistant coach was at Western Illinois in 1994 making $15,000 a year.
Of course, the next question becomes: Where did he speak this past spring?
"Right here at Kansas State, and the expectations have gotten higher already," Klieman said laughing.
And that's not to say he's promising a CFP appearance in his first season in Manhattan after taking over for Hall of Famer Bill Snyder, although Klieman knows plenty about the pressure of playoff football.
He was a part of all seven of North Dakota State's national titles, the most in FCS history. But what Klieman is promising is that his expectations are no different at the FBS level than they were at the FCS level, and that's to build a program capable of competing with anybody.
"My thought was that I could have stayed at North Dakota State for a long time, but I don't know how much more we could have done there," said Klieman, who thinks he probably wouldn't have gotten a shot at Kansas State had athletic director Gene Taylor not also been Klieman's AD at North Dakota State.
"I go back to the one year we didn't win the title [at NDSU], and it was miserable, just miserable. We beat Iowa that year at Iowa and then get beat by a dang good James Madison team in the FCS semifinals in a one-score game, and it was miserable. You kept getting from people all over town, 'Tough season, Coach.' So it's always going to be: What have you done for me lately?
"It's just that this is a much bigger scale here at Kansas State."
One thing you're not going to hear from Klieman is any rhetoric about putting his own stamp on the K-State program. In his mind, it's not "his" program.
"I'm really not a big 'my' or 'I' guy," Klieman said. "You'll never hear me say, 'My football team.' I don't agree with that. It's our football team, the players' football team, the coaches' football team, the former players' football team. I tell the guys all the time that they need to get invested. It's their program, and I'm going to give them an opportunity to invest in the program and take ownership in the program.
"To do it our way, the most important part is getting these kids to understand they have to take ownership."
Senior defensive end Reggie Walker said Klieman's approach has taken some getting used to after everything being so regimented and structured under Snyder, but it's also not like any of the players are complaining, either.
"When Coach (Klieman) makes a decision, he will come ask us," said Walker, nodding approvingly. "Before, we always did what coach Snyder said. Now, we have a say, a chance to express what we think. That's ... a lot different than it used to be."
The K-State players already had done their homework on Klieman before he arrived and liked what they heard.
"We texted a couple of guys on [NDSU's] team and were face-timing them when we heard it was going to be Coach Klieman, and the first thing they said was, 'You guys are getting one of the most real coaches we've ever been around,'" Walker recounted.
Junior quarterback Skylar Thompson said the players' interaction with Klieman has only expedited the buy-in. In fact, Thompson is already adjusting his class schedule so that he can watch tape with Klieman during the mornings.
"Guys realize we are part of a new era of K-State football, and we want that transition to be a good one and be that team that gets Coach Klieman off to a successful start. That just tells you the kind of respect the players already have for him," said Thompson, whose second scholarship offer out of high school was from Klieman and North Dakota State.
"It was a pretty tough situation he came into, lots of expectations. But he has not shown one sign of being scared of the opportunity. He completely respects what Coach Snyder did here, and he knows what he's stepping into. He's been himself from the get-go. It's a lot of fun, and guys are recharged. I think you're going to see that in the way we play."
And for the record, Klieman is again booked for next spring on the coaches' clinic speaking circuit. He won't have to leave campus.