By John Leonhardt
Eastbay Team Sales Staff Writer
When the clock hit triple zeroes in last season's National Championship game, the North Dakota State (NDSU) Bison became the first team to cap off four straight championships in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) level.
It was Chris Klieman's first season as NDSU head coach. He spent the previous three seasons as the team's defensive backs coach and two as defensive coordinator. Stepping into the head coach role for a program coming off three national championships was a welcoming challenge for Klieman.
"There were high expectations, but that's part of the reason I took the job," says Klieman. "One of the biggest challenges was replacing 23 seniors and six assistant coaches. Everything was pretty much gutted. We had a great foundation, but we had to build everything else up."
What kind of message did Klieman send to his team? Easy: The NDSU winning culture won't change.
"The first thing we talked about was that the voices in the room are going to change, the guy in the front of the room is going to change, but Bison football and the culture of Bison football is not going to change," he says. "If we give these coaches a chance to build that relationship and trust, we're going to have a great run."
Recruiting isn't as problematic as people may think for NDSU. Even though the state is ranked 47th in population, Klieman says once he gets the kids to visit the campus, the rest will take care of itself.
"The Fargo-Moorhead community is 220,000-plus people, so there's a ton of things to do around here," says Klieman. "We've found that once a guy and his parents visit our campus, we have a great chance to get that young man. The parents are going to see how genuine the people here are, and that they really care, and that includes the coaches. We have such a great supportive community."
Brian Gordon, who has spent the last 10 years as NDSU's director of football operations (including scheduling and arrangements at the Fargodome for Bison home games, and equipment services for all sports), adds to the praise of Fargo.
"There is a culture here of winning and of hard work," Gordon says. "Our recruits are blue collar, hardhat-and-lunch-pail guys, and we have a tremendous fan base that supports us every step of the way."
Before bringing these kids to campus, Klieman and his staff spend many hours recruiting and studying film on individual players. What they look for in an athlete, however, goes beyond what happens between the painted lines.
"Obviously we look for a really good football player on film," says Klieman. "But we're going to ask about their character. We go into their school and talk to instructors, guidance counselors, coaches, and support staff to see what kind of character and work ethic the young man has. We need to find out if he's passionate about the game, because you have to love football to play at a college level — otherwise you're going to struggle to max out your potential.
"We want a well-rounded student athlete. Give me the guy who's going to work in the classroom to be successful. He needs to realize it's a huge challenge to go from high school to college, not only on the field but also off."
With the 2015 season fast approaching, NDSU will again have that giant target on its back as it looks to defend its national championship.
"We graduated 15 guys," says Gordon. "It's like Coach Klieman said when he was hired — you don't rebuild at North Dakota State, you reload."
A new season brings new challenges for Klieman. "We have some talented guys that have experience, and talented guys who haven't played a snap here yet," Klieman says. "We may still be a work in progress early in the season.
"As long as the kids stay hungry and humble, we'll always get better. We have some guys that have played three and four years that are still striving for that perfect play, that perfect game. As long as they realize they haven't done that and haven't gotten to that level, we'll be okay and we'll continue to have success."