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McFeely: Bison coaching change not without bumps, but miles better than 2013

Former North Dakota State head coach Craig Bohl led the Bison to the 2013 Division I FCS national championship in his final season at NDSU. Forum file photo1 / 2
North Dakota State seniors Christian Dudzik and Cole Jirik share a laugh with then-Bison defensive coordinator Chris Klieman after soaking him as the clock winds down against Towson on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, during the FCS championship game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. David Samson / The Forum 2 / 2

FARGO -- North Dakota State will head to Frisco, Texas, on Wednesday, Jan. 2, with minimal drama, despite mid-playoffs coaching tumult that might've derailed other football teams. Just ask James Madison, second-round playoff losers to a less-talented (but more cohesive and focused) Colgate team, if a coach dancing with bigger jobs during the playoffs can cause issues.

"Tumult" might be a strong word. By all accounts the chain of events that saw Bison head coach Chris Klieman become the new coach at Kansas State, NDSU defensive coordinator Matt Entz get promoted to head coach and several Bison assistants take jobs with Klieman in Manhattan, Kan., was as smooth and transparent as could be expected.

"Everything is great in the football office," Klieman said. "Matt Entz and I are totally aligned with everything. ... There's no rift. There's no issues. I know some people like drama. There is no drama."

That would make it the opposite of the coaching change in 2013 when Craig Bohl left NDSU for Wyoming, but more on that later.

Was it perfect? No. Sources say multiple Bison coaches who are staying at NDSU were miffed when high school quarterback recruit Jaren Lewis of Missouri flipped his commitment from NDSU to Kansas State and signed with the Wildcats on Dec. 19. Lewis was at the Fargodome on a visit with about a dozen other recruits Dec. 14 when the Bison beat South Dakota State in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals, but clearly wasn't fully committed to NDSU, according to sources.

On the night before signing day, Bison coaches who will remain with the program learned Lewis wasn't going to sign with NDSU. Kansas State announced his signing the next day via Twitter.

Asked about any friction on his staff over the Lewis flip, Klieman was dismissive.

"Everything has been handled correctly, and there are so many layers to it that a lot of people don't have any idea what they're talking about," Klieman said.

The recruit's change of heart was softened because the Bison ended up signing Iowa State transfer quarterback Zeb Noland, who had checked out several other Missouri Valley Football Conference schools including South Dakota State and South Dakota. A source in the program said Klieman helped secure Noland's signing at NDSU.

That seems to be the only bump in the coaching transition as NDSU readies to play Eastern Washington for the FCS national title Saturday, which would make it different than the last time the Bison changed coaches.

That was 2013, when Bohl accepted the job at Wyoming in the midst of a Bison playoff run. That situation, well-chronicled in Forum sports writer Jeff Kolpack's book "Horns Up: Inside the Greatest College Football Dynasty," was a hot mess, perhaps the blueprint on how not to handle an in-season job exchange.

Bohl took a different job, Klieman was promoted from defensive coordinator to NDSU head coach and all heck broke loose.

Bohl accepted Wyoming's offer and, perhaps showing his naivete in today's social media-driven world, believed it would be kept quiet until he could tell Bison players himself. Didn't happen. The news was leaked to a national reporter, probably from a Wyoming source, who posted it on Twitter the night of NDSU's quarterfinal victory over Furman.

That was just the beginning of the fun. Players found out about Bohl leaving through Twitter and local media reports and held a tense team meeting the next morning at which they discussed whether they wanted the coach to remain the rest of the season. It was not a foregone conclusion. Bohl, normally willing to chat with reporters who covered the team regularly, was gruff and defensive with local media.

Things were also strained among the coaches. Kolpack reported that the staff was basically split into two — those who were going to Wyoming with Bohl and those who were staying at NDSU. They rode in separate vans when the team had to travel to the Alerus Center in Grand Forks to find indoor practice space and there were private allegations of Wyoming-bound coaches poaching recruiting files.

At the national championship game, won by the powerful Bison 35-7 over Towson, some defensive players dumped Gatorade on Klieman, which Bohl looked upon with an "evil eye," as attributed to former defensive lineman Cole Jirik in Kolpack's book.

Then-athletic NDSU director Gene Taylor described the entire affair as, "Stressful, to say the least."

For the book, Kolpack asked Klieman if Bohl was mad at him. "I don't know if it was mad. Just awkward," Klieman said. "But I also don't think anybody knows."

That level of drama is absent from this Bison playoff run, no doubt helped by Klieman's experience in 2013. It appears as if the coach has been as up front as possible with the media and public, while NDSU's and Kansas State's administrations have worked overtime to make clear there is no issue with Klieman finishing his work in Fargo.

Most telling anecdote of this saga: Klieman received a standing ovation from Bison players when he told them he'd accepted the job at Kansas State.

"Everybody has a job to do, whether you're an assistant, a player or a head coach," Klieman said on the FCS title game media teleconference last week. "And we're focused on what we need to do to be successful, and that's the only way I think we know how to do it."

Whether the story ends as happily as it did for the 2013 Bison will be unveiled at Toyota Stadium later this week.

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