The dust had barely settled on North Dakota State earning their fourth straight trip to Frisco. First year Head Coach Chris Klieman sat in his postgame press conference following a 35–3 win over Sam Houston State almost one year to the day from being named the 30th head coach in Bison history. His excitement was visible. “Hey, we’re going to Frisco, heckuva deal,” began Klieman. “I’m so excited for our guys.” He should be excited. It’s been quite the year for Klieman and it’s been quite the year for the Bison.
For some fans and pundits, the sky was falling 13 months ago. Former Head Coach Craig Bohl announced he was leaving for Wyoming. Nearly the entire coaching staff went with Bohl, with the exceptions of Klieman, Conor Riley and Nick Goeser. There wasn’t much time to celebrate the third straight national championship when they got back to Fargo. Losing 24 seniors leaves a noticeable gap in your roster. Klieman, Riley and Goeser had to restock the cupboard and hold together a recruiting class faced with a new coaching staff only weeks away from national signing day. Oh, and by the way, Klieman would have to build that new coaching staff, largely from scratch. The Bison introduced new coaches, including both offensive and defensive coordinators, new faces, including a new quarterback and most of the offensive line. So much change, same old Bison. Klieman and his staff picked up where their predecessors left off, and then some.
- Hold together the 2014 recruiting class? Check. Twenty-nine players signed up, including 19 to national letters of intent. Just as important, no current players transferred from the program.
- Big win over a power conference FBS opponent to open the season? Check. The Bison ran all over Big XII opponent Iowa State 34–14, giving us a preview of what was in store.
- A second straight visit from ESPN’s College GameDay? Check. Kirk Herbstreit, Chris Fowler, Lee Corso, Desmond Howard, Lee Fitting and crew were back in Fargo, welcomed by a crowd several thousand stronger as compared to their inaugural appearance.
- Dakota Marker staying in Fargo? Check. The Bison beat the Jacks twice in 2014, including an unforgettable 27–24 victory in the opening round of the playoffs. That’s seven straight wins against SDSU for those scoring at home
- Another Missouri Valley Football Conference title? Check. NDSU added a fourth straight conference title to the banner hanging in the FargoDome. The undisputed heavyweight conference of the FCS, five MVFC teams qualified for the playoffs, with NDSU and Illinois State battling for conference supremacy in the national championship game.
- Home field advantage throughout those FCS playoffs? Check. The road to Frisco would run through Fargo with two of the games nationally televised on ESPN and ESPN2. Which leads us to a fourth straight trip to Frisco for a shot at an unprecedented fourth straight national championship. Check and check! Like I said, it’s been quite the year for Klieman and the Bison.
It’s tough to imagine the weight on Klieman’s shoulders entering his first year replacing a two-time national coach of the year and larger-than-life figure like Bohl. There’s an old adage in sports that goes something like this: Never be the guy who follows “the guy.” The expectations are sky high. The memory of the departed coach is too fresh. Any loss or stumble, no matter how small, can become glaring, especially in a market where the media and public have an almost unquenchable thirst for all things Bison. No matter, Klieman has shown no signs of being a new head coach. Maybe the singular exception, and de minimis at that, was when he admitted after the win in Ames, Iowa, that he needed to let his defensive coordinator do his job rather than getting too involved in calling the plays. And even on that point, Klieman acknowledged it without the rest of us being any the wiser. We never would have known had he not brought it up. It’s like telling a pitcher in the eighth who’s tossing a perfect game the three balls he threw in the first inning before striking out the leadoff hitter are cause for concern. Other coaches never would have admitted that. Klieman is different. He’s handled his job with remarkable grace, poise and skill. He’s proven a perfect fit for Fargo, NDSU, North Dakota and the larger national audience that’s become familiar with the Bison over the last few years. Without taking anything away from his predecessor, Klieman has become “the guy” in his own right. His staff has also proved exceptional, and they deserve mentioning. From coordinators Tim Polasek and Matt Entz, to Goeser and Riley, Jamar Cain, Atif Austin, North Dakota native Randy Hedberg, Joe Klanderman, the former great Bison running back Tyler Roehl and through Joey Blackmore and Hank Jacobs, Bison Pride is strong as ever thanks to their tireless efforts. Making matters worse for the rest of the FCS, and those who thought NDSU might need a few years to rebuild, this staff gelled in less than 12 months and shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, they’re only getting stronger. Case in point – hours after beating the Bearkats to secure another trip to Frisco, they had a banner recruiting day, earning verbal commitments from four highly-touted recruits atop their lists of potential 2015 signees. How big was it? Polasek tweeted of the day: “Best Day Recruiting in NDSU History, by the staff! Love it!” It was noted by many that these recruits chose NDSU over several FBS programs, including Wyoming. The future is bright for NDSU Football. They certainly have the right leader in place. “I’m excited for our whole program, for all the new guys I brought in, I’m excited for our seniors, our new players who haven’t gone (to Frisco),” Klieman said after the win over SHSU. “This isn’t about me at all, this is about our program. I’m just blessed to be the guy who’s leading this.” Right back at you, coach. Bison Nation is blessed that you’re the guy who’s leading this. Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!
Swanson is a native of Maddock, N.D., a proud NDSU alum and a life-long Bison fan.