Photos By J. Alan Paul Photography
Defensive Coordinator/ Linebackers Coach – From the same hometown as Chris Klieman and coached under him in 2010 at Northern Iowa
When you’re on the field in that moment and Esley (Thorton) gets that pick, can you kind of describe what you were feeling at that moment?
“Just unbelievable happiness for our seniors to be able to finish their career that way, for all of the Bison fans that were there and even for my family. I was excited for my wife, my boys and my folks to be there and share the weeklong experience with me and we culminated it with a win.”
So you got to spend some time with your family while you were there?
“Yes! My wife and my two boys and my mom and dad were down there, yeah.”
So I guess I want to talk about those seniors, especially with your position group. How perfect of an ending was that – especially Esley with his rollercoaster of a career?
“Well, you hit the nail right on the head. Esley had an unbelievable senior year, not just a national championship. I know he played sparingly probably in his last couple of years, was probably frustrated at times and didn’t feel like he was good enough to beat in all of his times as a linebacker. But he got his opportunity this year. I know on the sideline on Saturday he was struggling with the fact that he missed an interception that probably could have sealed the deal or led to a touchdown. For him to be able to catch that final pass and punch it away from that kid was a fitting end to his career. He’s going to be sorely missed. He was an unbelievable leader as well, just with how he went about his business in the classroom or off the field. He was an unbelievable teammate.”
Before the season I was in your office and we were talking about Carlton Littlejohn and Esley Thorton – in what way did they affect you and the way you coach that you will take with you for the rest of your coaching career?
“Going back to last spring, they taught me a lot of unwritten terminology that didn’t show up in playbooks that had tried to be changed in the past, and some of the ins and outs and how they had played things in the past. That was probably where their value can’t be measured. In a meeting, being able to get those guys involved – and I always try to get them involved by asking questions whether it’s Travis (Beck), LJ (Littlejohn) or Esley (Thorton) – I could always use those guys as resources and I always bounced ideas off of them. Especially as weeks progressed and if we had a little more in-depth game plan, those guys were always my gates for looking at where we sit and if everything was going okay. They were always honest with me. I owe those three seniors a great deal, because it was an honor and a pleasure to be able to work with these guys for as long as I did.”
I just wanted to quickly bring up the Coastal Carolina game, you guys give up quite a few points and then you just bounce back and only allow three against Sam Houston. What is it with the Bison mentality that you guys had such a strong bounce back?
“Well I think part of it is that they were extremely happy and enjoyed the fact that they had won the game against Coastal, but by no means were they satisfied with the way they won it. I’ll take part of the blame for that game. Maybe we had too much in… because the first thing that’s going to go when guys are spending energy worrying about the sign of the linemen is going to be your basic fundamentals in tackling. And we struggled to tackle that game. So maybe as a coach and D coordinator, we had too much defense in that game. We got to limit it so we could still play fast, and that’s why we really tried to do against Sam Houston is say, ‘Hey, what’s going to be the bare minimum we’re going to need to win?’ and go in and do it and get it done. If we’re going to be sitting in finals, we’re going to get beat as fast and as good as possible; this team (Illinois State) was definitely going to have to be better than us to win. They (The Bison players) say they didn’t, but they hear some of the naysayers saying that they weren’t as good as last year and that they’re missing people and this and that. I think it just kind of came to a point where it was like ‘watch. Watch us during this semifinal game.’ Once we kind of got through that regular season, and they may not have executed things 100 percent of the time, but you can’t question their focus and their desire to get back to Frisco.”
Who’s that one person that reached out and congratulated you after the game that stuck out in your mind, that surprised you or meant the most to you?
“Mine was probably Coach Klieman, just because of our relationship and being from the same hometown. It was an honor to come here and I’ve enjoyed my one year and 10 days that I’ve been here. I’ve worked as hard as I can to make sure that I am able to fill the shoes of the previous coordinators. There have been some good ones. You look at Gus Bradley, Scottie Hazelton and Chris Klieman; those are just some of the recent ones. All of those guys are outstanding coaches. Coach said after the game, he made a point that these were my shoes now and that I had done an unbelievable job. And that probably resonates with me most. It was a good year, but when I got to shake Klieman’s hand and get a hug it meant a lot to me. I know I got a huge hug from all of the linebackers as well and they told me how much they appreciated me. I could thank a thousand people.”
Again, good job this year and congratulations. Good luck with recruiting trail!
“Thanks again I appreciate it.”
Defensive Ends Coach – Coached against NDSU for one year at Missouri State
This is number one for you so what were the emotions that overcome you when you get that first one?
“It’s funny because on the way to the stadium, I was thinking about guys from my neighborhood and where I come from that don’t have a lot of opportunities to play in the national championship or even coach in the national championship game. Prior to the game, I was overcome with thinking about where I came from and where I was a year ago today because a year ago today, I was without a job. Getting fired from Wyoming and being in this whole transition, I didn’t know where I was at.
“I was very emotional that whole day. Maybe a day or two just because of seeing where I came from last year so it was very emotional. After the initial almost having a heart attack from running down from the press box. I was running down and I run into Polasek and he’s running. Words can’t describe. When I saw my wife, we both started crying and hugging each other. She’s been supporting me through this whole journey of making these moves and making other moves just to get to this one point. We just held each other and cried for about a good minute. It was pretty cool.”
That’s got to be an unbelievable feeling.
“It was an unbelievable feeling just to see that a year ago to the day you lose your job and Coach Klieman calls you up and asks if you want to be a part of Bison Nation. It was an overwhelming feeling.”
Who were you most surprised about that reached out to you in the last handful of days to congratulate you?
“I got so many text messages from former coaches. The (coaching) community is so small. I think one of the best ones I got was just a little while ago, a player that I recruited who’s at another school sent me an email. He’s at Division I school and he just sent me an email saying, ‘Coach Cain, congratulations.’ I haven’t talked to him since he went to another school. It’s those types of stuff, which makes it so fulfilling. Former players are what really makes it the best. Players from Cal Poly, even former players from Wyoming reached out to me. Those mean a lot more to me than coaches reaching out to me. Vanderbilt Head Coach Derek Mason reached out to me. From guys in the NFL to Terrell Williams, it was more of the former players who reached out to me that meant a lot to me.”
Coming in this year with seniors Mike Hardie and Kyle Emanuel, how did your relationship really bond and grow with the guys you have underneath you?
“With Mike, it was right away. My very first day, Mike came in and we sat down and talked like we’ve known each other forever. I could tell that Mike and I were going to get along. Mike was the easy one. I tell everybody this: Kyle was the tough one. Kyle was used to one way his whole career and he had great success. I don’t think me and Kyle hit it off right away because when I first got here, people said, ‘Don’t mess up Kyle. Don’t do this to him. He’s a great player.’ Our first meeting, I challenged him. I said, ‘you only had six sacks last year. Everybody makes you out to be the greatest player of all time but you haven’t really done nothing to me.”
“That was our first meeting. He didn’t come in right away. It took him a week and a half to come out and meet me. That kind of pissed me off a little too (laughs). Needless to say, Kyle and I started on a rocky note. I challenged him then and then during spring ball he didn’t really buy into everything.
“Mike was like a little kid. Mike just wanted more and more. He wanted to prove that he should be a starter, which is true. Mike could have easily been a starter but he waited his time for Cole Jirik to leave.
“Kyle is a kid who early on didn’t listen much. … I still think he was on the fence. Then Iowa State, the first half he didn’t really have a good time. The second half, I told him, ‘How about you try my stuff now? I think it’s going to work.’ All of a sudden, it took off from there. We were as close as we could ever be. We talk everyday up to the All-Star game. He’s asking me questions. ‘Coach, he did this, he did this. What should I do?’
“It started off rocky, but we’re as tight as we could be now. Those guys helped me out a lot trying to learn the defense. They were days and prep during the championship it was like, ‘Kyle, what are we supposed to do now?’ Kyle coached me up. It was a good, healthy relationship.”
Kyle’s down in Orlando, Fla., for the Shrine Game. Have you been staying in touch with him while he’s been down there?
“Yeah. We’ve actually talked everyday either through text or talking on the phone. There are certain kids who are special. He is one of those special ones. You don’t get to coach a kid like that every year. You get, maybe, one in a career, maybe two if you’re lucky. I was lucky enough to coach him.
“Like I said, he only had six or seven sacks last year and put up 19 this year. It was unbelievable. The kid missed another six or seven. He could have easily had 25-26. He could have even more than what he had. It was fun coaching that kid.”
Defensive Backs Coach – While at Minnesota State-Mankato he coached against Winona State when Matt Entz was there from 2002-09.
When I saw you on the field you looked like you were just standing there in awe. What were you thinking about then? Were you going back through the times you started as a coach? What were you doing in that moment?
“Just taking it all in. It was a time to reflect on everything we had done that season. All of the hard work that we put in. All of the meetings. All of the practices. All of the arguments. All of the trials. It all culminated in that moment and it was awesome.”
Your family was down there too?
“Yes, I actually had 17 people that came down to the game for me. I probably paid a small fortune to have them all there but they were there. They’ve been so supportive of me. It was just as much of a victory for them as it was for me pretty much.”
Did you get to spend much time with your family?
“It’s so cool, Matt Larsen and everyone else allow your immediate family to come down on the trip with us. So my wife and kids were down there from Wednesday on and they just thought it was the neatest experience. As far as my kids know there’s no better trip than down to Frisco, Texas at this point.”
Talking a little bit about the team and it being your first year here, and you came into a position area where there is so much experience already there. What was it about Dudzik and Heagle – did they teach you anything that you can take with you for the rest of your ten-year here at NDSU?
“It’s about confidence and it’s about grit. Those are the things that those guys have. No matter what situation it was this year, they never panicked and they never thought for one second about the possibility of losing. They just went out there and did their jobs and trusted their teammates to do their respective jobs. They did everything to take care of themselves. I think that those guys taught me, more than anything else, was how to go about preparing as a player and my expectations of players. Those guys prepare harder than any players that I’ve ever been around. I’ve always pushed guys but I never knew the limits to which I could push them. They prepared like it was their job. They did everything and they took in everything. Just to see those guys work in the meeting room and the practice room. … I don’t think I’ve ever been around a pair of guys that worked so hard in the meeting room. That’s just the way those guys are. Much credit to those two.”
Your first full year here you finally got to take in Bison Nation and be with the guys 24/7, what is it about NDSU that struck you during the season that you didn’t realize when you first got the job or when you went through summer camp?
“I knew it was a special place. I guess I didn’t realize the depth of how special it really is. Just being in Frisco and being around that Friday practice when there was over 150 former Bison players there on the field after practice … that turned me into an emotional wreck. That doesn’t happen anywhere. That’s Bison pride to its full extent. Any time you’re anywhere, the fan support, that stuff just blows me away every time. I still get goosebumps every time I see the introduction video at every home game. That stuff never gets old. Those are things that I had heard about before I got here and I didn’t really realize how special it was until I got in it.”
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’d almost have to go back through my phone on that one. There was so many. I think probably some that meant the most to me, and I won’t mention a specific name, were some of the players that I had coached in the past at Minnesota State (Mankato) – I just got dozens of them. Everything from things like ‘Sorry I couldn’t get you there’ and ‘Nobody deserves it more than you, I’m so happy for you’ and those were just some that struck a cord with me the most and meant the most to me. Maybe one of the ones that surprised me most – I had coached previously with the defensive coordinator at Illinois State (Spencer Nowinsky), and he had reached out to me right after the game and I didn’t get the chance to see him on the field. He wanted to congratulate me and I thought that was a pretty classy move. I knew obviously that he was probably pretty distraught with what had just happened. It just got overwhelming after the game and I think a lot of coaches were the same, respectively. When I got back to the bus I had 61 text messages after the game and countless Twitter messages, so I just took the time to respond to all of them on the way home because it all meant so much of me.”
You should have taken a screenshot of all of that!
“Yeah I should have! That doesn’t happen often!”
Well, I wish you a safe trip and we’ll see you back in Fargo!
“You bet! You guys are the best in the business, take care.”