Chris Klieman and his staff had one of their finest moments in NDSU history. They quadrupled the size of the defending champion target on their back, overcame the loss of a starting quarterback and loss two games in the regular season. It was a formula made for a setback season at NDSU, but their leaders wouldn’t allow it to happen. At the center of it all was the head coach and his determination for a fifth-consecutive FCS crown.
After the completion of his second season as the head coach of the football team, Chris Klieman has entered rare territory. This season, he won his second FCS Championship as head coach in two years. Of the 30 head coaches in NDSU football history, only Earle Solomonson and Klieman have won back-to-back championships in their first two seasons at the helm.
In 1985, Solomonson inherited a team filled with star players that would go on to win three championships in four seasons. When Klieman took over after NDSU’s third-straight championship, he had to overcome the loss of 24 seniors and in the beginning of this season, he needed to replace seven starters on defense.
The past two years haven’t been a bed of roses either. Doubts swirled around the Bison football program and questions were raised as to whether NDSU’s Championship run was most likely over. But, as is the mark of a true champion, Klieman refused to allow his team and coaching staff to remain satisfied. In the fight to remain at the top, Klieman has reflected his attitude for perpetually finding new and innovative ways to keep his program hungry for the next championship.
Through fullbacks and tight ends coach Tyler Roehl’s relationship with New York Giants’ safety and former Bison Craig Dahl, Roehl met with performance coach Ben Newman and knew this was the guy Klieman needed to keep the Bison success moving forward.
Chis Klieman: Well, anybody who works with Craig Dahl and what Craig Dahl has meant to Bison Football, I thought was somebody we wanted to hear from. Tyler Roehl, who’s good friends with Craig, kind of hooked up with him and we ended up bringing Ben in last spring. I got a chance to visit with him for maybe half an hour, 45 minutes up here and then he went down and visited with our team. Just a dynamic guy. He’s somebody that commands the room and he hit it off with our guys right away. It was really cool.
Some of the things that he just talked about was attacking the process, max effort pays off and some of the things that we used all season long. Ben wanted to keep coming back. We wanted to always have him come back during the season, but he’s a busy guy. I didn’t want to interrupt what he was doing. He wanted to come back. He came back for UND, came back for a playoff game and ended up coming back for the Championship Game. Each time, he came to practices and came to their meals and their meetings and had a chance to address our football team every time. He did a phenomenal job.
Bison Illustrated: So he got to know some of the student-athletes well on a personal level?
CK: Absolutely. I don’t know which ones individually he did or didn’t, but everybody knew who he was.
BI: Newman told us he has 90 speaking gigs per year. Were you surprised after the USD loss that he would send that inspirational video even though he couldn’t be in Fargo personally?
CK: No, just because of how much he hit it off with our guys and how much he hit it off with our staff. He’s a genuine guy. We have a genuine staff here, just as far as we want to learn from him. I think he wanted to be around us and learn as much as he could from us. Just because of how well we had similar personalities, myself and him. Tyler Roehl and him. Some of the guys on our team. I just think he was so impressed with what he saw when he came here, not only from our guys but from our community, from the fan support, being able to see a game in the Fargodome. What he saw on Friday afternoon, with the alumni practice we had down in Frisco, just blew him away. As well as seeing our fans down in Frisco. The guy was in tears after the game. It was one of the neatest things he’s ever seen. For him to say it was one of the neatest things he’s ever been a part of, with the amount of things he’s been a part of and a number of people he’s been a part of, it was pretty special to me.
BI: Why does it seem like this program is constantly finding a new way to find an edge of your opponents?
CK: Well, we’re always looking to. That’s one thing. If you stay the same, you’re not moving forward. You can either be green and growing or ripe and dying. We are always trying to find new ways. I think these are lifelong things that our guys are going to enjoy and our guys are going to look back on. If it can help those guys now in school, in working life 10 years from now, whatever our young men are doing. If we can offer it to our guys, I think it’s our obligation to be able to do that as coaches.
Last year, it was Stuart Munsch. It was Rear Admiral Stuart Munsch that came to our indoor football practice in 2014. This year it was Ben Newman. I think success helps that. People probably reach out to us as well. “I want to see what you guys are doing here.”
When asked what he’ll remember most from the 2015 football season, Klieman was quick to mention the adversity the team had to overcome. Adversity – one of the most cliché buzzwords in the talking-to-the-media handbook. In this instance, it’s the only term to describe a season filled with highs and lows.
The Bison football team has overcome injuries in the past, specifically, an injury-riddled wide receiver position in 2011, safety Colten Heagle in 2012, senior leader Grant Olson in 2013, and Travis Beck on Senior Day in 2014. But the Bison had never overcome the loss of a quarterback poised to hear his name called by Roger Goodell in the first round of the NFL Draft.
The loss of their starting quarterback wasn’t the only piece of adversity that could’ve quickly shut the door on NDSU’s five-peat. A season-opening loss to Montana in Missoula, Mont., on national television, derailed any thought it was going to be an easy road back to Frisco, Texas.
Reality struck once again against South Dakota, a team that hadn’t beaten NDSU in Fargo since Klieman was 10 years old.
CK: Well, because I didn’t think we played our best, and I didn’t think, our kids always gave great effort, but I didn’t think our focus was very good. We had just come off a win against Northern Iowa, which is an emotional win. Previous to that, we came off an emotional win against South Dakota State. Previous to that, we came off an emotional win over UND. We had what are perceived to be our three biggest rivals in three straight weeks and then we play USD. We just didn’t have great focus. The guys played hard. They made a great effort, but they didn’t have great focus. If you don’t have great focus throughout a week, it’ll catch up to you on Saturday. The message was pretty stern on Monday after the USD game of, “We still have the season in front of us, but, unless we reenergize our focus and make sure we know each week you can lose to anybody, we’re going to end up having a not very good season.” Now we’re really at that defining moment. We’re at playoff mode at 4-2. We’re going on the road for two tough road games with a brand new quarterback.
The emphasis we put on there was, just win the dang day. Meaning, I don’t think we had a great prep week leading up to USD so we were just getting through that week to get to that game. Whereas, for that moment on that Monday, it was just “win the day.” We were going to go out and practice and win Monday, then we’re going to go out and practice our tail off and win Tuesday, and if you bank enough good days, you’ll be ready to play on Saturday. From that moment on, we banked great days Monday through Friday. There was never a week where I said, “A, we’re not prepared or B, we weren’t focused to play.” I knew, every Saturday, we could have lost any game, but we were always prepared mentally and physically.
BI: Wentz goes down that week. This football team has overcome injuries and that’s not anything new to this program, but losing their starting quarterback might be a little bit different. Does that make Easton Stick’s performance that much more remarkable, the way he came in?
CK: Absolutely. Credit Easton for being ready to step right in. And when I say that, he prepared like a starting quarterback games one through six. He prepared like he was going to start and play every play against Montana, play every play against Weber, UND and so forth. The guy is so meticulous and so driven and detail-oriented. He was prepared that if Carson had an ankle injury, he was ready to play a whole game. So I knew when it was his time, the stage wouldn’t be too big for him, and he was going to be prepared. Now, how do you perform and execute?
An 8-0 record eased any doubts about Stick’s ability to perform and execute. The rest, well, as they say, is history.
Wentz returned for the championship game against Jacksonville State, and the defense played possessed while they routed the number one team in the country, 37-10, winning their fifth consecutive FCS national championship. The Bison found their edge and were rewarded by completing a championship run that stacks up to the finest runs in sports history.