McFeely: NDSU success hasn't translated to higher levels for former Bison coaches
FARGO — Many head coaches have used success at North Dakota State to move to a higher level of college football. None have come anywhere near replicating that success at their new jobs.
Chris Klieman is the latest Bison coach to parlay victories and national championships into a bigger job with a higher profile and larger paycheck. Klieman accepted the head coaching job at Kansas State of the Big 12 Conference two weeks ago after five years of remarkable prosperity in Fargo.
Klieman, who will coach NDSU through its Division I FCS national championship game Jan. 5, 2019, while also attending to Kansas State duties, is 68-6 since taking over from Craig Bohl after the 2013 season. Klieman’s teams have won three national championships and will be favored to win a fourth when the Bison play Eastern Washington in Frisco, Texas.
There is little chance Klieman will duplicate that type of resume in Manhattan, Kan. Kansas State is a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision and plays in the Big 12 with powerful programs like Oklahoma and Texas. The Sooners are one of four teams selected to play in this year’s College Football Playoff to decide a national champion.
There is also a good chance, based on history, Klieman will not have significant success at Kansas State. Since NDSU became a small-college football power in the 1960s until now, with the Bison dominating FCS, coaches who have jumped to higher-level college jobs have seen only so-so success at best — and a couple have been downright calamitous.
Don Morton is an example of the latter. He went 57-15 with one Division II championship from 1979-84 at NDSU and had middling success at Tulsa for two seasons before being hired in 1987 by his former athletic director in Fargo, Ade Sponberg, to coach Wisconsin. Morton had a ninth-place finish and two last-place finishes in the Big Ten before getting axed. The Badgers went 1-7 in the conference each of Morton’s three seasons. He never coached again.
Since 1963 when Darrell Mudra came to Fargo and kick-started NDSU’s football prominence, the Bison have had 10 coaches leave. Two, Ev Kjelbertson (1973-75) and Rocky Hager (1987-96) were fired. Hager did become a head coach again — and at a higher level than then-Division II NDSU — but didn’t have a winning season in six years at I-AA Northeastern and the school dropped football in 2009. Kjelbertson didn’t coach again after NDSU.
One coach, Bob Babich (1997-2002), voluntarily left and became an assistant in the NFL, where he’s been since. He was a defensive coordinator with two NFL teams and is now the linebackers coach for the Buffalo Bills.
Ron Erhardt (1966-72) won three national titles at NDSU, going 61-7-1 in seven seasons, and left to be an assistant with the NFL’s New England Patriots. He was promoted to head coach in 1978, going 9-7 in 1979 and 10-6 in 1980 before being fired after a 2-14 season in 1981. Erhardt was hired as offensive coordinator of the New York Giants and won two Super Bowls under Bill Parcells. He was later offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets.
Mudra himself left NDSU for a professional job and started a nomadic coaching existence until his retirement in 1987. He went to the Canadian Football League as head coach of the Montreal Alouettes for 1966 before returning to the collegiate ranks at Arizona from 1967-68. From there it was Western Illinois (1969-73), Florida State (1974-75), Eastern Illinois (1978-82) and Northern Iowa (1983-87).
Mudra went 11-9-1 in his two seasons at Arizona and 4-18 in two years at Florida State. He won a Division II national title at Eastern Illinois in 1978 and reached the Division I-AA semifinals twice at Northern Iowa.
Jim Wacker (1976-78) didn’t win a national title at NDSU, but moved to Southwest Texas State and won two Division II championships there before coaching Texas Christian from 1983-91. He compiled a 40-58-1 record with the Horned Frogs, making one bowl game back when bowl games were a much tougher ticket than today.
Wacker was hired by Minnesota in 1992 and never finished higher than eighth place in the Big Ten before being fired in 1996.
Earle Solomonson (1985-86) won two back-to-back national titles at NDSU and was hired at I-AA Montana State in 1987. He went 1-10 before going 4-7 three straight seasons in Bozeman. A 2-9 finish, including 1-7 in the Big Sky Conference, led to Solomonson’s dismissal in 1991.