The similarities between North Dakota and Kansas extend far beyond the freezing temperatures across a largely rural state.
Though, don’t tell new Kansas State head football coach Chris Klieman it’s cold here, as the coach joked on Tuesday at a meet-and-greet at Old Chicago in Garden City that his kids were walking around Manhattan in shorts and T-shirts. Klieman and the K-State contingent were making the first stop of four in two days, in what Kansas State called the “Cover Four Tour,” which continued in Dallas Tuesday night and ends in Wichita and then Overland Park on Wednesday.
To his kids, Klieman said, the mid-20s were balmy compared to the below-zero temps seen in Fargo, N.D., where Klieman just finished another national championship season.
But the similarities are more than that. It’s the reputation of playing a physical brand of football that was built at North Dakota State and is now legacy at Kansas State. And it’s the recruiting landscape in each state.
North Dakota has Bismarck and Fargo,” Klieman said, “and there’s Wichita and Kansas City, its surrounding communities, and Manhattan in Kansas. But in the western part of the state, you have to drive quite a ways between schools.
“But the positive thing is a lot of those kids who grew up in western Kansas want to be Wildcats. A lot of those kids in western North Dakota grew up wanting to be Bison.”
That’s a similarity on which Klieman intends to capitalize.
“Whether it’s an 8-man kid, or a small-school, 11-man who was born and raised a Wildcat and wants to play for Kansas State,” he said. “Those are the kids you want. Those are the kids you want in your program because they are the ones who are going to make a difference in the fourth quarter when the game’s on the line.”
K-State signed four Kansans and one Kansas City, Mo., player in the program’s 2019 class — the bulk of which was signed during the early signing period in December, just days after Klieman was announced the next K-State head coach.
Klieman still coached his Bison to an FCS championship on Jan. 5, before taking over at Kansas State full-time.
“I knew this first year recruiting was going to be a challenge,” Klieman said.
The Wildcats finished with 21 overall signees and the eighth-ranked class in the Big 12, according to 247sports.com.
“They obviously signed some, I think, really good kids, but more importantly made some really good inroads with coaches and established some relationships for the 2020 class,” K-State Athletic Director Gene Taylor, who was previously the AD at North Dakota State, said Tuesday.
“I’m excited because we’re already in good position for the 2020 crew,” Klieman said. “You can’t start a class in December, and we did really well in such a short time, but now we get into a full cycle.”
That means a full cycle of evaluating recruits, and their own team. One of the areas the Wildcats were unable to make up for lost time in recruiting was on the junior college trail, signing just two in 2019 — Butler kicker Ty Zentner and Kilgore (Texas) safety Jonathan Alexander, who played at Garden City in 2017.
“That will come as we continue to learn our roster,” Klieman said. “In my opinion, you bring junior college kids in who can help your team right away because they are the older guys ... I also know there’s been a great legacy of junior college success at Kansas State, and we’ll continue that.”
With eight of the nation’s best junior college football programs in the country in K-State’s backyard, it only makes sense, Klieman said.
When the KJCCC eliminated the roster limits for out-of-state players on football rosters in 2016, it expanded the potential talent pool that now had ties to the state of Kansas.
“Without question, the talent is greater,” Klieman said.
Zentner is a Tecumseh product, but Alexander had no ties to the state before playing at GCCC.
Perhaps that tie helped the Wildcats recruit Alexander back into the midwest.
But the elimination also resulted in 80 percent fewer Kansas players on junior college rosters, something that has upset state high school coaches.
“The high school coaches know a lot more about that than I do,” Klieman said, before lamenting the loss in opportunities at the junior college level across the country, citing the elimination of six junior college programs in Arizona the last year.
″ ... that’s a shame,” Klieman said. “Maybe some of the benefit will be some of the Division IIs in the state.”
Regardless of level, Klieman is looking for a certain type of player at Kansas State — and it’s also not different than what his goals were at North Dakota State.
“I’m looking for kids with the great work ethic, the multi-sport athletes, the diamonds in the rough that you’ve got to uncover,” he said. “It’s easy to find the three- or four-star, or five-star, that everybody’s on, but try to find that kid that maybe is a developmental guy, that 6-6, 225-pound kid that you can make to be a 310-pound kid in two or three years.
“Those are the ones that I think there is some correlation between Kansas State and North Dakota State.”