MANHATTAN, Kan. — Kansas State was picked to finish second-to-last in the Big 12, the pundits not only unimpressed with what the Wildcats had returning but lukewarm on their decision to turn over the program to a coach with virtually no experience at the highest level of college football.
Chris Klieman knew it. So did quarterback Skylar Thompson, the bevy of transfers and freshmen that chose to call Manhattan home, and the thousands of fans who showed up all season.
"Our backs were against the wall before the season started," Klieman said. "Not a lot of people thought an awful lot about this football team besides the people in that room. It was just us and our room — 'Focus on the guys we're with and your brothers on a daily basis.' I had belief in these guys, they had belief in each other, they just had to believe in themselves."
Their buy-in paid off with a memorable rollercoaster ride and a trip to a bowl game.
The Wildcats, who won just five games in Hall of Fame coach Bill Snyder's final season, hit that total just in the Big 12 with their victory over Iowa State on Saturday. They wound up finishing 8-4 and tied for third in the conference, trailing only seventh-ranked Oklahoma and No. 9 Baylor.
Oh, and those Sooners? Their lone loss came against Kansas State.
Now the coach that few people seemed to think was a good hire, despite winning four national titles at North Dakota State, is earning coach of the year acclaim. Of the 27 coaches hired last offseason, Klieman is among eight who improved the record of their program; his three-win improvement was matched or surpassed by only two other coaches in a power conference.
The others who will lead their brand-name programs into bowl games after missing out last season are Mack Brown, who went 6-6 at North Carolina, and Scott Satterfield, who was 7-5 at Louisville.
"Oh, I know he's proven some people wrong," senior defensive end Reggie Walker said. "He's a great coach no matter what level you are at. If you can win games, you can win games, and that's what he did: He came here to win games. With this senior class, he couldn't do anything better."
Only two first-year coaches won more games than Klieman, and they had quite a head start. Ryan Day inherited a juggernaut from Urban Meyer and has Ohio State at 12-0 heading into the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, while Eli Drinkwitz took over Satterfield's program at Appalachian State and matched its win total from last year by going 11-1 with a win over North Carolina.
The eight wins for Klieman also set a school record for a first-year coach at Kansas State, passing the 7-2-1 mark that Hall of Fame coach Pappy Waldorf had in 1934. Ron Prince also went 7-6 in 2006.
So much for being picked ninth in the 10-team Big 12.
"It's definitely a great feeling," sophomore defensive end Wyatt Hubert said, "and we definitely bought into his program and his philosophy ever since he got here. And you just want to play so much harder for a guy who you care about and a guy who reciprocates that to his players as well."
Of course, the season wasn't all rosy for Kansas State.
The Wildcats raced to a 14-0 lead against Texas in Austin, surrendered the next 24 points, then pulled even with a late field goal only for the Longhorns to kick the game-winner. The letdown lingered into the following week, when the Wildcats lost 24-20 to West Virginia.
But the Wildcats managed to bounce back the following week at Texas Tech, then knocked off Iowa State in the annual "Farmageddon" game and the players pointed at Klieman for steadying the ship.
"It's been an unbelievable ride," he said, "and an unbelievable ride for all of us. You're not going to hear me say, 'Me' — an unbelievable ride for our staff, and my hat goes off to the seniors. They are the ones that had to embrace us. They're the ones that had the disruption four or five years into their time. We gave them everything we had. We poured our hearts and souls into them and they responded.
"That was just a cool experience," he added, "and one I'll reflect on in time."