FARGO, N.D. — North Dakota State defeated Iowa, straight up and without trickery, on Sept. 17, 2016, at Hawkeye Stadium in Iowa City. Cam Pedersen’s 37-yard field goal as time expired was the difference, but the tale of the game was the fourth quarter. That was when the Bison, the Division I FCS school with 63 scholarships, pushed around the Big Ten’s Hawkeyes and dared the big boys to stop them.
It didn’t happen. The little school physically beat the Hawkeyes, ranked 11th in FBS at the time, at the lines of scrimmage. By the time Pedersen’s kick snuck inside the upright at the south end of the field and set off a celebration in the northeast corner, where several thousand Bison fans were sitting on a wonderful Saturday afternoon, the script was written. The Bison walloped the Hawkeyes.
The stat sheet didn’t lie. NDSU rushed for 239 yards that day, Iowa for 34. The fourth-quarter TD drive that pulled the Bison within 21-20 with 3:41 to play went 15 plays, covered 80 yards and chewed up 8 minutes and 39 seconds off the clock. There was no sleight of hand, only a back-alley mugging.
NDSU’s head coach, Chris Klieman, had a postgame reaction that was different than usual that day. He got choked up, emotional, while talking with the media. A native of Waterloo, Iowa, and a former player at Northern Iowa, this was Klieman’s signature moment. Yes, he’d beaten Iowa State in his first game as the head coach in 2014. But that was the Cyclones and this was Iowa, the state’s powerhouse program, and it meant the world to the coach — even though he’d always say publicly the FCS national titles were his most important victories.
You want the moment when the bigger schools should’ve been knocking down Klieman’s office door in north Fargo? That was it. Yes, those three victories in Frisco, Texas, were good. But this was an FCS school manhandling a top-tier Big Ten school.
You want proof the guy can recruit and coach against the big-time? That seemed to be evidence enough.
There was one guy in the stadium who clearly noticed, even though he already knew what Klieman could do. That would be Gene Taylor, the man who hired Klieman to replace Craig Bohl at NDSU after the 2013 season, who in 2016 was the deputy athletics director at Iowa under Gary Barta.
Taylor had seen what Klieman could do since 2011, when the coach joined Bohl’s staff with the Bison. Taylor saw the defenses Klieman coordinated that beat Colorado State in 2012 and, of course, Kansas State in 2013. Taylor saw all the victories up close, even after he left Fargo. The former AD made his way to Frisco to see the Bison win championships there under Klieman. The two are close.
So perhaps it’s only right that Taylor gave Klieman the opportunity no other FBS school apparently was willing to. Taylor, now the AD at Kansas State, hired Klieman on Monday to be the Wildcats’ new football coach. Klieman replaces Bill Snyder, who did enough in Manhattan to have the stadium and a road named after him. No pressure, Chris.
Klieman deserves this opportunity, despite what some delusional and uninformed Kansas State fans might think. Yes, the Bison are FCS. But in the last several years, and particularly this one, they really aren’t. NDSU is competing as a Group of Five school, and a good one, disguised as an FCS school. The Bison are currently ranked 20th in the Sagarin ratings, ahead of most Power Five schools (including 52nd-ranked Kansas State) and behind only Central Florida in the Group of Five. And Klieman built what he did on 63 scholarships, compared to the 85 FBS schools get.
K-State fans were wrapped up in the idea that the coach from North Texas or Troy or Memphis might somehow be obviously better qualified than Klieman because they play in conferences like the Sun Belt or the American Athletic Conference. They are wrong to dismiss Klieman that easily. Taylor, to his credit, did not.
There will be questions of the new coach, just like there would be for any new guy. They will be questions on steroids for Klieman and Taylor because of the letters FCS. Klieman knows this and he addressed it during an interview on radio station Bison 1660 on Monday night.
“I know there are going to be some people who say, ‘Are you ready for this?’ I think football is football,” Klieman said. “I know there is a difference between Power Five and FCS. I know there is a difference between Group of Five and FCS. But in the same respect, football is football. We’ve done really well against those schools, more importantly from a recruiting aspect.
“That’s going to be the big thing that people are going to talk about. We recruit against Power Fives not on a yearly basis, but on a daily basis and we have a really good plan in place to try to attract and get some of those kids to come play in our system offensively and defensively.”
The proof is on the field, and has been for years. This Bison senior class is Klieman’s first group of recruits. Every player on the field Friday night when the Bison take on South Dakota State in the playoff semifinals has come to NDSU since Klieman was named head coach. Kansas State fans should come to appreciate this. Taylor does, since he’s seen firsthand for years what Klieman can do.