Photos By J. Alan Paul Photography
Tight Ends/Full Back Coach – NDSU Offensive Grad Assistant for the first FCS Championship in 2011
Did you coin the phrase “Crew Chief” now that you’re coaching the fullbacks and tight ends?
“No Tim Polasek made that up. It was his term and each position group has their own trademark, you could say, their own name or calling. He invented or called the guys the crew chiefs. I think each coach that has had that group has defined that in his own way.”
How do you define it?
“The hard way. We’re going to get the job done. It may not be the easiest, it may not be the most glamorous, but we’re going to get the job done the hard way. We’re a group that humble and we may not be a group that gets recognized for all that we do especially in the run game as an extension of the o-line, as an extension of the rams. We’re going to be humble and hungry. My goals for these guys are to be the best blocking group in the nation, period. That’s my number one goal for them. And number two, be explosive and dynamic in the passing game.”
How does this one feel different than the championship team you were a graduate assistant for?
“Absolutely. To be in the position I’m in now to being a full-time coach and having me be a little bit more involved in the game planning, more to do with the day-to-day operation, it does make it a little more messy and you know the connection I have with these guys and with my position group I feel like is pretty close. Obviously, I’m firm and fair, is how I would put it with these guys. We have a good camaraderie within our position group and the communication and learning. The learning is as much fun, Coach (Conor) Riley, Coach (Randy) Hedberg, Coach (Tim) Polasek, every day has been very gratifying.”
Fly down any family?
“Yeah. My wife came. It was fun to have her around and to experience what I experienced in 2011 and go through the barbeque, seeing the stadium early. It’s pretty special to experience that with my best friend.”
Did you get a chance to reconnect with some guys during Friday’s walk through?
“Yeah it was great. Jerimiah Wurzbacher was someone I played with; he’s someone I still talk to and am close with. Craig Dahl was a guy I was able to talk to. He actually came and talked to the defense the night before the game and he shared his story. Joe Mays, I haven’t seen Joe in three or four years so that was great to see. The Chad Starks, and you could go on and on. That moment, and I was there for the game last year and in 2011 those moments are pretty cool. To get all those guys together and Coach Klieman shared some words and Colten (Heagle) and myself got to talk to the former players, it was a pretty cool deal.”
Do you agree with one of the players’ sentiments that you start to play for more than yourself and teammates; you’re playing for the past Bison players?
“It is. Most people train of thought, you’re thinking about what you’re around most and what you’re around daily. As an alumnus, in my shoes, I still on a day-to-day basis try to teach Bison Pride and how far this program has come in the past ten years since I started playing here, but even the foundation and what was laid before. It’s unique deal. I think on that Friday it really open their eyes to ‘Hey, we’re not the only ones that are thinking about this game.’ To get 150+ former players there, it’s pretty special.”
Who was the person that reached out to you to congratulate you after the championship game that surprised you, and the one that meant the most to you?
“We were in the airport leaving the coaches convention and Pat Fitzgerald, the Northwestern head coach, came over and talked to us. He said, ‘I really like the way you guys operate your program.’ He just congratulated us on the success that we’ve had. That was pretty cool. And when you’re at the coaching convention you have the Bison t-shirt on, there isn’t one coach that walks by you that doesn’t congratulate you. Some guys try to pull you aside and ask ‘How do you do it? How have you guys been able to do this? What’s the secret recipe?’ Which is pretty unique when you have a coach from say Temple or bigger schools its pretty cool.”
Quarterbacks Coach – Coached against NDSU for 14 seasons at North Dakota, St. Cloud State and Southern Illinois
How did you approach this championship game as a coach?
“He had such a long time between the semifinal game and the final game, and there was so much preparation. I guess I didn’t know what to expect. I sensed that we were a better football team having played Illinois State in my years in the Missouri Valley. I just thought that their defenses were comparable to past defenses and so I thought we could move the ball on them. But I knew the main difference with Illinois State this year compared to past years was that they were so much better at quarterback, and I felt confident that our defense would play well against them. I had a confident feeling coming into the game that we would play well and win the game. They gave us a good test though.”
It was a heck of a game to watch.
“Everyone watched it. We had to go down to the American Football Association coaches’ convention on Sunday (Jan. 11) in Louisville. A lot of people that don’t know you that see you’re from NDSU and watched the game would give comments about our team and all that. Lots of random people that you would see in the airport or whatever. It was pretty impressive.”
Is that something kind of new for you? Being recognized for the school and having people know the logo?
“Oh yeah. Not even just people affiliated with the team, but people that see NDSU and that it’s well known across the country. With a four straight, that’s pretty impressive and people notice that. There’s good recognition out here.”
So were you one of the fortunate coaches that got to have his family down in Frisco, Texas as well?
“Yeah my wife was down there. My son flew in from Denver and my nephew was there. I know my son was very excited that he got to be there. It was a good time.”
Did you get to spend a lot of time together then?
“Yeah we did it was nice. We were fairly busy during the course of the day but we did get to spend a lot of time together throughout that week.”
I’d like to talk a little bit about your quarterback, obviously I can’t have you on the phone without talking about Carson Wentz. We talked earlier in the year when I was at your office about Carson and how you recruited him in the past – I guess if you could just talk about his development as a player and how he got so much better.
“I think people in Bison football knew that Carson Wentz had tremendous talent. Just watching him in practice and bringing him out in games… When we played Iowa State we made some big plays in that game and we knew good things were going to happen. He’s such a great decision maker and he processes so quickly at the line of scrimmage that those decisions come easier for him because of that ability to process. I think he just kept getting better and better. He got a little dinged up in the first South Dakota State game. He hurt is ankle a little bit so we were a little concerned coming into the course of the season that we would be able to keep him healthy and that he’d be able to move around. But he was able to come back. He’s a very physical runner. I think that’s what really made it better. He was able to break the pocket and he still kept his eyes down the field and made some great throws in scramble situations.”
I guess talking about that running and his wanting to have the ball in his hands and kind of the power-run game that he brings – were you a part of that conversation when he told Polasek he wanted the ball on the final play of the game-winning drive?
“Oh yeah, Carson and I communicated every series. He wanted the ball in his hands and he’s told me that. So we communicated that from the press box that we wanted to put it in his hands, and that particular play we knew was going to be a good situation for us, but that’s what Carson wanted.”
After the game, was there someone that congratulated you that sort of surprised you or meant a lot to you? Maybe one or two that you can put your finger on that kind of came out of the woodwork?
“You know there were plenty of them. I heard from some coaches that I worked with in previous times. It was kind of interesting; I got a really nice message from (Southern Illinois Head Coach) Dale Lennon that I thought was really nice. I told him how much of an impact he made on me by working with him. I really appreciated stuff like that.”
Special Teams Coordinator/Wide Receivers Coach – Coached with Chris Klieman from 2006-09 at Northern Iowa
First championship, right?
“It wasn’t the first championship I was in, but it was the first championship that I won. In ’05 I was with Northern Iowa and we played Appalachian State when they won their first of their three.”
Where’s your head at when Esley Thorton got that pick to seal the game?
“(Laughs) It was very rewarding. There was a lot of excitement. I was just so happy for Esley to see him get that pick because the drive before he had an opportunity to seal the game with a pick and then they went down and scored. So for him to be back in that situation and have another go-round I was just happy for him. And the excitement of that was it. It was the end (laughs). There are so many emotions that go through you in that moment.”
Was it nice to have your family down with you to experience it all?
“My wife came to the game with my sister. But my family they’re not living here yet, so my kids, three kids didn’t make it to the game. My son is a senior in high school right now so we elected not to move him from Florida until he graduated. It was pretty rewarding to have my sister and wife come to the game. We didn’t get a chance to take the picture with the family, but I got one with the receivers and the trophy.”
What did those two seniors mean for you coming into your first year at NDSU?
“Trevor (Gebhart) is by far one of the best leaders I’ve ever coached. He did an awesome job, an unbelievably great job of leading the group; being the vocal leader of our group and certainly setting the standards for what Bison football is all about. I couldn’t ask anything more from that young man from a leadership point and what he brought to the group. I think the guys looked up to him. Guys like RJ (Urzendowski), he really looked up to Trevor and how he came to work everyday and the Tyler Wrice’s and even Darius (Anderson), he looked up to him. Those younger guys that actually stepped on the football field Trevor was the one that was really talking and told them ‘Hey, this is what this group is all about, let’s continue the winning success. Let’s make plays, let’s be physical.’ He was really just echoing some of the things I would say to the group and what my expectations were of them. I was so proud of that young man and for him to finish out his career the way he did being a four-time national champion, no one has ever done that and he can always put his name to that. In his career he only had three losses. For the most part he stayed healthy this year and he made some big plays and some key blocks to spring our running backs like John Crockett.”
What was that meeting like with you, Tim, Klieman and Vraa?
“I had a idea that he was planning on coming back. He tried to play it pretty cool all year long. He was really down the middle on whether he wanted to come back or not. During the course of the year, I would have the impression he wasn’t coming back, but towards the end of the season he felt like ‘I want to come back and give it a try and put in another good year.’ I could kind of sense that towards the end. Like ‘Hey, we might be getting Vraa back.’ You know just through his actions and the way he talked about it, the tone about it was different. He would ask questions about Spring Ball, the conditioning and how that was going to work out. Smiled a little more when people made jokes about him possibly coming back; those sorts of things. I tell you what though; I’m excited to have him back. He was a great leader for us this year, but he’s always been that leader by example. He’s not really the vocal leader. But I know he has that in him and he will be able to do that this year. With him, RJ (Urzendowski), Carey Woods and some of the other younger guys that are developing and getting better everyday, I feel really good about our group.”
Is there a better ending to your first year as a coach at NDSU?
“I seriously don’t think there’s a better way. To have this opportunity to come in and work with Coach Klieman, I worked with him at UNI and I knew he was a great person to work with because his office was right next to mine at UNI and now he’s in the big office. He’s the same person that I worked with years ago. He’s a family man; a person who genuinely cares about the team, his fellow coaches, to have the opportunity to work with him and the opportunity for him to be a champion and the Bison become a champion was special to me. When he called me and talked about the job up here, he told me that this was a special place and I truly understood through the course of this journey to winning this championship how special this place is. You don’t ever know until you actually get here and actually go through the process of what Bison football and what Bison Nation is all about. He was certainly right on when he told me that from the beginning.
“It was really special to leave the (coaching) convention and see all the people that congratulated you on the big win and ask you what is the secret. What is the Bison secret, what are they doing that makes them so successful and I had a couple things to say about it. This is a team that prays together. When you look on the football field most of the team, I wouldn’t say 100 percent of them, but 90 percent of the team stays on the field and prays and invites the other team and that’s something special in and of itself. And another thing I told those guys (other coaches) when they asked what the secret was, I said they hold themselves accountable. The torch has been passed down so that now these guys, these freshmen, they tell them, ‘Hey this is how we get it done. This is the tradition of Bison football and this is how you’re going to carry the torch when I leave.’ I have no doubt that the younger guys got a great lesson from Trevor Gebhart when he leaves out the door. I have no doubt that these young guys are going to learn something from Vraa and Nate Moody who is coming back when they leave because they’re going to say this is how we do it around here. This is how we’re successful and the tradition is going to keep passing that torch and that is what makes this place so special that’s why it will always be so special.”
Who was the person that reached out to you to congratulate you after the championship game that surprised you, and the one that meant the most to you?
“I guess for me it was a former teammate I haven’t talked to for awhile – Seneca Wallace. He played in the NFL and he could’ve done a lot of different things. We haven’t talked since we graduated back in 2003. He’s at the national championship game. The night before he comes up to our hotel room and we were talking. I was like, ‘Hey what are you doing here?’ And he said, ‘Atif, you know you’re my boy. I heard you were down here so I wanted to find you and catch up with you.’ It was like we were back in the locker room all over again just talking about stories and hugging and congratulating me and he was telling me he’s giving the NFL another shot and if it doesn’t work out he’s thinking about getting into coaching and he was asking me questions about coaching and stuff like that so I thought that was pretty cool. It wasn’t like I called him and said, hey, we’re playing in Frisco, Texas, are you going show up? Nah, he just did it out of the blue and it surprised me. ‘Wow, one of my former teammates found out I was coming and came to support me.’ So that was pretty neat for me.”