MANHATTAN — Gene Taylor began his remarks by thanking everybody involved in the search for Kansas State’s new football coach.
There were search committee members Jill Shields and Kenny Lannou — “I tell you what, they were rock stars” — and Ventura Partners, the firm he hired to help navigate through the process. His senior athletic staff and recently retired head coach Bill Snyder got shoutouts as well.
“I also had a lot of advisers throughout the process,” he said, drawing a laugh from media members and dignitaries assembled at the Vanier Family Football Complex on Wednesday for new coach Chris Klieman’s introductory news conference. “I want to thank all of our fans.
“I’m still going through my emails. I’ve got about 300 or so; I’m down to about 120.”
Not nearly all of them were favorable at first after Taylor and K-State announced Monday night that they had hired Klieman, a hugely successful Football Championship Subdivision coach at North Dakota State, but one with no FBS experience. But as time passed, Taylor said, the responses grew more and more positive.
Taylor took the job as K-State athletics director in 2017 knowing full well that he would someday be hiring the Wildcats’ next football coach. Snyder, 79, had retired once in 2005 after overseeing the “Miracle in Manhattan” and came back three years later to guide the Wildcats for another decade.
Taylor also knew that his own legacy was riding on identifying the right man for the job.
That it turned out to be Klieman made sense on several levels. First of all, it was Taylor who promoted Klieman from defensive coordinator to head coach at North Dakota State in 2013, when Taylor was AD at that school.
Though he left shortly thereafter to become deputy athletic director at Iowa, Taylor’s confidence in Klieman was rewarded with three FCS national championships in five seasons. The unbeaten Bison will play South Dakota State in Friday’s semifinals in pursuit of a fourth.
“I think the trust between a head coach and the AD are very, very important,” Taylor said. “The comfort level to be able to work together each day, because it is going to be a lot of pressure.
“We’re going to face some challenges. I hope we win every game next year, but we’ve got to make sure we trust each other that we’re going to work through it together.”
That immediately gave Klieman a leg up.
“My comfort level early, I don’t have to learn that,” Taylor added. “When he comes in and asks something, I’m going to know it’s important, otherwise he wouldn’t ask.
“If I say, ‘Hey, coach, I’m not sure I can help you out with that,’ he’s going to be OK with that. That’s really important.”
Klieman echoed that sentiment.
“Gene Taylor and I have a long relationship and have known each other since 2011,” Klieman said. “I’ve been around him, I trust him (and) I love him.
“I know he is going to challenge me, but I can’t thank him enough for taking another opportunity and taking another chance on a guy that when I was going to become the coach at North Dakota State had only been a defensive coordinator.”
So when Snyder stepped down on Dec. 2, he convened an eight-day process, assisted by Shields, K-State’s deputy AD and senior woman administrator, and Lannou, senior associate AD for communications and public relations.
Many of the preliminary interviews took place early last week in New York during the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame events, affording easy access to a number of candidates.
Taylor said the committee interviewed seven individuals during the process, not all in New York. The initial list, according to a source, included Klieman, Troy’s Neal Brown, Memphis’ Mike Norvell and North Texas’ Seth Littrell.
“We started Sunday, finished on Thursday, so we did one a day, one time we did two,” Taylor said. “Every time we finished, we just said, ‘OK, where does this guy fit?’ and at the end when it was all done, we got together again and said, ’OK, let’s kind of go over who our group is and there were a couple of guys that they pulled out early.
“It was more of a conversation, and we kept coming back to fit. Who’s got the best fit for us right now?”
Taylor also sought Snyder’s input, which he said was “invaluable.”
He asked Snyder’s opinion on various candidates, and if Snyder didn’t know them personally, he contacted people who did.
“As it got towards the end, I said, ‘OK coach, here’s what I’m thinking,’ ” Taylor said. “He said, ‘I like this guy and this guy, but this guy would be really good, too.’
“So him kind of accepting what my final decision was was really important.”
The committee eventually narrowed its list to three, with Brown and Norvell believed to be the other finalists.
“I talked to both candidates that we had kind of narrowed it down to Saturday and Sunday night, gave them another chance to give me their last spiel,” Taylor said.
He cautioned Klieman that there might be some backlash if he hired an FCS coach with virtually zero experience at the Power Five conference level. Klieman’s response convinced him more than ever that he had his man.
“He said, ’Gene, I’m ready. I want to be there and we’ll get through it, give me a chance. Eventually we’ll find a way to get it turned around. I’ll call every season ticket holder that canceled — I’ll do whatever you need,” Taylor recalled. “Obviously I don’t think we’ll have to do that.”