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Kansas State’s berth in Big 12 title game further validates hiring of Chris Klieman

In a snap-judgment world, the temptation in the hiring process for high-profile coaching jobs is to put a premium on making a splash — sometimes even when that might be over substance.

Maybe all the more so when it comes to replacing a legend.

“Win the press conference?” Kansas State athletic director Gene Taylor said with a smile late Saturday night. “I know what you’re saying.”

Taylor, though, didn’t succumb to that when he was seeking Bill Snyder’s successor four years ago.

So what if he was searching for some sort of unicorn to somehow seamlessly step in for the man who engineered the greatest revival in the history of the game and later pulled off an encore version after the disaster of Snyder’s first replacement?

Because he knew the choice was about winning the program, not merely a press conference, he turned to Chris Klieman, then the head coach at North Dakota State.

Never mind that Klieman’s teams had won three out of the previous four national titles and that he shepherded a fourth in five after he took the K-State job.

Skeptics were fixated on his FCS-level head coaching pedigree, and plenty wondered if Taylor was biased or blinded by having promoted him to head coach when he was AD at the school.

As it happened, Klieman made a fine impression at his introductory news conference with his simple but striking #WintheDangDay mantra and deference to Snyder in the crowd.

What he demonstrated in the moment, though, wasn’t so much sizzle as apparent fit.

And he’s been asserting that ever since, punctuated by 15th-ranked K-State’s resounding 47-27 win over Kansas before a crowd of 51,861 on Saturday night at Bill Snyder Family Stadium to secure a berth in the Big 12 title game.

The victory was K-State’s 14th in a row over Kansas, infinitely improved as the Jayhawks are this season.

The Wildcats, who last won the Big 12 title in 2012, will play fourth-ranked TCU on Saturday in Arlington, Texas. The Horned Frogs beat K-State 38-28 earlier in the season, making for what quarterback Will Howard called “unfinished business.”

“It’s about as big an opportunity as you could want at this level,” he said.

And it’s a big statement about the state of the program under Klieman, who now is 29-19 at K-State (9-3) by coaching a methodical, disciplined, three-phase game and cultivating the culture to embrace that.

It’s apt that this game, the apex of his K-State career at least for another week, was won in great part due to special teams play, a second-half defensive shutdown (six points allowed) of the high-octane Jayhawks and a blunt and grinding offensive display over the last 30 minutes:

K-State threw just three times in the second half, completing no passes. And, noted Deuce Vaughn (147 yards rushing, 82 receiving), K-State ran on 26 of its last 27 plays.

“We wanted to make sure that we controlled the line of scrimmage,” said Howard, adding, “They didn’t really have an answer for us.”

All because Taylor had the right answer for them four years ago with the hiring of Klieman.

“I think there were some questions about Chris when we hired him,” Taylor said. “Unfair. But I think at this point those have been pretty much answered.”

Essential to his choice was the way he understood not just what Klieman was all about but how his approach would be contoured to K-State’s needs.

Someone who would have the right frame of mind about replacing Snyder. Someone who was nimble with halftime adjustments and whose teams were known for minimizing their mistakes. Among plenty of other attributes that led to this triumphant moment.

It was K-State’s night, to be sure.

But Kansas’ loss doesn’t negate and shouldn’t even obscure what has been a transformational season for bowl-eligible KU under second-year coach Lance Leipold — who, much like Klieman, has a throwback, low-key, fundamentals-infused coaching persona.

Last week, with his name in the murmur mill for job openings at Nebraska and Wisconsin, among others, Leipold signed a contract extension that reportedly goes through 2029.

That’s a great move by KU athletic director Travis Goff and the Kansas administration:

With KU (6-6) doubling its most wins since 2009 as one simple measure, Leipold is the right man at the right time for the Jayhawks after a series of spectacularly ill-fated hiring decisions that often seemed more focused on making waves (Charlie Weis, Les Miles) than making hay.

But for all the progress and further change this season portends in Lawrence, Saturday became just another Sunflower Meltdown for KU.

The Jayhawks virtually spotted K-State a quick touchdown with a muffed punt, enabled another TD with an astoundingly blown coverage and were repeatedly victimized on third and longs — including what became an 80-yard screen pass to Vaughn on a third-and-11.

Instead of reflecting the season of KU’s enormous strides, the matchup was reminiscent of their broader futility over its previous 13 seasons in general and against the Wildcats in particular.

In that span, KU was 8-106 in Big 12 play and outscored 531-181 (an average score of 41-14) by K-State.

This wasn’t lopsided like so many of those.

But the largely impeccable Wildcats clutched at least a two-score lead from the time a KU holding penalty in the end zone gave them a safety and a 16-7 lead in the first quarter.

And they were entirely in control over the second half on the way to the greatest validation yet of the hiring of Klieman.

“I’m very happy for him,” Taylor said. “I knew he could come in here and get this thing going.”

Asked if it also was fulfilling for him, Taylor laughed and said, “A little bit, a little bit.”

Understated, as ever … just like the right hire was.