Jackrabbits' Jimmy Rogers building career on authenticity
The new South Dakota State football head coach came up through the ranks of the program. Friends say he's more complex and funnier than the stern exterior, and ready for a repeat run at a national championsip.
BROOKINGS — Jimmy Rogers is not John Stiegelmeier.
Just look at his office.
When Stiegelmeier was head football coach at South Dakota State, the spacious corner office overlooking Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium was stuffed like a freshman's dorm room, the walls and shelves adorned with memorabilia, photos and trinkets accumulated from coaching at SDSU in parts of six decades.
Now that the room is Rogers' home, it's largely empty.
"Still moving in?" a visitor asks.
"No," Rogers grunts. "I just don't have that much stuff."
It might be a lazy metaphor for the differences between the two men, but that doesn't mean it isn't an apt one.
Stiegelmeier first worked at SDSU as a student assistant in 1979. He became the secondary coach in 1988, the defensive coordinator in 1990 and the head coach in 1997. During that time, the good-natured coach from Selby became one of the most beloved figures in South Dakota sports and mid-level college football, befriending everyone from opposing coaches, referees, students, parents, administration and media, and winning 199 games and, in his final season, SDSU's first national championship.
In his place steps Rogers, a 35-year-old Chandler, Arizona, native and 2009 South Dakota State alum.
A former linebacker, team captain and fierce competitor, Rogers made a name for himself as an intensely focused, loyal and driven assistant who served first as Jacks linebackers coach and then, for the last three seasons, defensive coordinator. He shared that role with Brian Bergstrom (now head coach at Winona State) for two years before taking over solo, and the Jacks won it all in Rogers' first year running the defense by himself.
With most of the starters from the title team returning, the Jackrabbits are likely to open the season ranked No. 1 and as heavy favorites to repeat as champions. So Rogers is not only replacing a legend, but expected to win a national championship as a rookie.
No pressure, Jim.
"My expectation has been to play for national championships since I've been here," Rogers says. "So to say it's any different, or that there's pressure? I have the same pressure I always have."
And then there's his reputation as an intimidating, always serious taskmaster — the anti-Stig.
"It's my face," Rogers deadpans. "I look like I'm not approachable. I think people are a little bit nervous to reach me. But those that I meet, I think, will have a different perception."
That's because there's more to Rogers' story. When he was playing for SDSU, the idea he'd be the team's head coach barely more than a decade later would've seemed outlandish to him. But once coaching entered his bloodstream, getting the Jackrabbits to the top became an obsession, one that has engendered fierce loyalty from his players and complete confidence from SDSU fans that he is the right man to carry on Stiegelmeier's legacy of success. Now that they're national champions, Rogers is even more driven to win another and another and another.
Can his gruff and no-nonsense style work as the face of the state's most successful and high-profile program? Rogers is not going to change, that's for sure. And those who know him don't doubt him.
"Jimmy will do fantastic," said Josh Davis, who coached SDSU's receivers last year and is now the offensive coordinator for the rival USD Coyotes. "Jimmy doesn't know how to fail. Heck, he doesn't know how to sleep. Teams that play the Jackrabbits are going to have their hands full. Jimmy already told me we're not going to score a point on them next year."
Despite his relative inexperience and youth, Rogers was a no-brainer for this job. He bleeds blue and yellow, and as that became obvious, it became clear in recent years that Rogers was the heir apparent to 'Stig.' Having built arguably the nation's best defense in 2022, earning him FCS coordinator of the year honors, Rogers was drawing interest from FBS programs that could've lured him away with lucrative offers.
That was a significant factor in the 66-year-old Stiegelmeier choosing to retire, for the good of the program. Rogers was given a five-year contract with a starting base salary of $310,000 to stay and take over his alma mater. (Stiegelmeier made $306,000.)
Stiegelmeier established a well-oiled machine that made a steady climb from fringe playoff contender to national power even while experiencing consistent turnover in the coaching staff due to regular promotions and poaching from other programs. Rogers is seen as both a product and a steward of that culture.
"To hand it over to a former player, to someone like Jimmy — that's the dream," Stiegelmeier says.
So just what might the Rogers-led Jacks look like? What kind of ambassador for the program will Rogers be? How will he manage what has to be the youngest coaching staff in the nation? How will he steady the ship when the water gets rough — one of the kindly Stiegelmeier's most underrated and important skills?
Rogers sat for a wide-ranging interview just after the start of spring ball to talk about Stiegelmeier, his staff, defending a national title and his reputation for being an intimidating presence.
The long road to the big job
Rogers' reputation precedes him, and he knows it. As a player, he was as hard-nosed and determined as they come. That started, he says, in high school, where he played for a Hamilton High School program that was among the best in the nation. Rogers was an all-state linebacker, and led his team to a pair of state titles.
In a story that's now become SDSU legend, Rogers promised Stiegelmeier while being recruited that they'd win a national championship together. It didn't happen when he was playing, but the 5-foot-10 powderkeg established himself then as a no-nonsense leader who would do whatever it took on the field to win a game.
That carried over into his coaching career, which began at SDSU as a grad assistant, took him to Florida Atlantic for two years and then back to SDSU in 2013 to coach the linebackers. Since that was the position he played (and played well), Rogers coached that group hard. The results spoke for themselves with the development of players like T.J. Lally, R.C. Kilgore, Jesse Bobbit, Christian Rozeboom, Logan Backhaus and Adam Bock. But this was also where Rogers earned his reputation for intensity and brutal honesty.
"I might just be overly transparent and honest as much as anything," Rogers says. "I was coached extremely hard at a young age. I think the kids at times need to get out of their feelings and just take coaching."
That's how Rogers coached the linebackers and the defense as a whole as coordinator. His inside voice is soft and raspy but it's not uncommon to hear high-pitched shouting coming from the defensive side of the field when Rogers sees something he doesn't like. And it isn't for effect. Coaches who shout for the sake of shouting are quickly tuned out by college athletes. Rogers commands attention and respect. If he's getting on someone's case it's because something went wrong and he wants it fixed — now.
Rogers acknowledges he may have to tone it down somewhat with the offense or other position groups now that they all fall under his purview, but don't expect a change in personality. He isn't going to emulate his predecessor in that regard.
"I am an emotional person, just naturally," Rogers said. "But I am not going to be somebody I'm not. I told them that when I took this job — I am who I am. It's gotten me to this point in my life, so for me to change that for the feelings and opinions of others? Then I won't reach the player. I think I reach the player because I'm authentic to who I am and they know I care about them. And they know I care because that's who I am and not because I'm worried about what it will make me look like. I really don't give a shit about those things."
That said, Rogers would be a fool not to take a page out of Stiegelmeier's book, seeing the positive impact he made on so many people across the region, inside and outside of his program. He believes he can maintain his intensity while still being a nurturing leader.
"You have to be open," he says. "You have to have grace. You do. At the same time, I have to hold them accountable. And there's a thin line with that. Everybody's different. I can read body language. But I'm not trying to be somebody different. I told my wife if I try to be somebody different, I'll be miserable."
Off the field and behind the scenes, though, Rogers does have a softer side.
"He's an intense guy you don't want to mess up around, and yeah, his face does give off some mean-mug action," said Bobbit, who after joining the staff last year as safeties coach is now taking over Rogers' old role as linebackers coach and defensive coordinator. "But as a person, he's a fun dude to hang out with. When we get in settings where it's just the staff, whether it's meetings or watching the Super Bowl at his house or hanging out on a weekend, he's a super outgoing and funny dude who loves to laugh and have a good time. Some of the new coaches have actually been surprised to learn that. He is who he is. Nothing has changed since he took the job, it's just that not everyone sees that side of him."
"The thing the public doesn't see is he's actually an emotional guy," Athletic Director Justin Sell said. "He's thoughtful, he's funny, you know, you kind of get the impression he's this middle linebacker coach that's going to run through a brick wall every day, and he has that, but he also has a softer side. He is absolutely the perfect person to keep the culture that we have here, but to modernize it."
Assembling a staff
Stiegelmeier was something of a hands-off coach, giving wide leeway and significant responsibilities to each of his assistants. The coordinators called the plays. The position coaches set the depth chart at their respective spots. That allowed Stiegelmeier to serve as something of a CEO but also a patriarch to the program. In recent years, as the Jacks have continued climbing the ladder competitively, high-profile assistants like Jason Eck, Eric Eidsness, Clint Brown, Jake Dickert and Bergstrom have left. They were all older than Rogers, who is now, at age 35, the oldest member of the coaching staff. Just this year, Rob Erickson (cornerbacks), Christian Smith (defensive line), Andre Crenshaw (running backs) and Davis (receivers) all left for promotions.
They've been replaced by Jalon Bibbs (D-line), Jake Menage (receivers), Robbie Rouse (running backs) and Mike Banks (corners), with Pete Menage replacing Bobbit as safeties coach and Pat Cashmore coming on as a full-time special teams coordinator.
Bobbit said staff meetings are actually somewhat more laid back than they were under Stiegelmeier. That could be because Rogers admits suddenly being the boss of men who were his compatriots for years is the one part of his new job that's been a little difficult to get used to.
Rogers wants to give each of his coaches autonomy, but he's not going to be quite as hands off as Stiegelmeier, especially on defense.
"I need to make sure things run the right way," Rogers said. "I don't have time to sit in on every single meeting, but as far as coaching the coaches, I'm still involved with that. I've tried to let them coach but I don't know if I'll ever be out of that defensive mindset. That is my deal. The mentality, the toughness — those things are important to me."
That's something the players have been watching. And the offense hasn't been afraid to tease the guy who used to try to beat them every day in practice.
"He was tracking wins and losses between the offense and defense at practice the other day," said Mason McCormick, an All-American guard for the offense. "I came up and smacked him on the back and said, 'Hey, you've got to be unbiased now, you've got to root for us now, too.' He said, 'I've always been unbiased.' Well, that's total B.S."
The Jacks offense should be in good hands with quarterback Mark Gronowski, running back Isaiah Davis and the Janke twins back at receiver, along with their whole offensive line. Offensive coordinator Zach Lujan is coming off a successful debut season calling the plays, but Josh Davis was a key figure in mentoring the young ex-quarterback. Rogers is clearly high on Lujan and open-minded about the offense.
"I've sat in on some meetings," Rogers said. "I like to hear how they see things or what their take is on things or guys and then add my two cents on what I think a defense is really trying to get done against them.
"It's about the players," Rogers adds. "I think that's one of the things we've done really well here. When Zach Zenner was here we ran the ball more. When Jake Wieneke and Dallas (Goedert) were here, we passed the ball more. I think you're dumb if you don't. You can't force a system on your players. You get the ball to your best players."
Defensively Rogers is close-to-the-vest when asked what might change schematically, but acknowledged that Stiegelmeier, a former defensive coordinator himself, did at times put restrictions on what the defensive coaches could do. Expect to see some new wrinkles and experimentation this fall.
Becoming a coach
When Rogers was playing — he was essentially a four-year starter at SDSU and left with 312 career tackles and a pair of all-conference honors — he wasn't thinking about someday coaching. He was not a candidate to play professionally. When it ended, he suddenly needed a job.
"I didn't know what to do," he says softly. "I remember sitting in the Lewis Drug parking lot and just bawling. Because I didn't know what to do with my life. So I gave this a shot. I asked if I could just help, and then I became a (graduate assistant). My relationship with Jay Bubak, who was the defensive coordinator at the time, just blossomed."
Later, he got a phone call from former SDSU offensive coordinator Luke Meadows, who was by then at Florida Atlantic. Rogers and Meadows had a rocky relationship while at SDSU together.
"He called me and said, 'Jimmy, I'm going to cut through the bullshit. I got a job for you.' I was in Minnesota at a coaches clinic," Rogers recalled. "I just said, 'Yeah, I'll go'. And I moved to Florida."
It was an offensive position, but Rogers and Meadows grew closer, and when a spot opened up on defense, Rogers moved over.
"It was a hard time in my life," Rogers said. "I did a lot of work, 72 hours without sleeping at times. There was so much to get done and I just had to get it done. It was a rough time but I was better because of it."
Gradually, Rogers began to learn about himself as a football coach.
"I take notes a lot," he says. "I write them into the computer. I take time to self-reflect — how I act, how I shouldn't have acted, what I should have done differently. I think that's the joy in it — failing and learning and trying to get better. All of that work towards the gratification of five hours on Saturday and then you start it all over."
He also, of course, learned from Stiegelmeier.
"Believing in people, that's one of the big things I learned from Stig," Rogers said. "Being patient with people. Being understanding, truly listening to people and giving them your time. He's never said no. 'You got a minute?' 'I got a lifetime' he'd always say. I find myself saying that now.
"He was always honest with me. A really good mentor. Like a father to me. I took more from him as a man than I did football-wise, there's no question about that. He definitely taught me that how you treat people is important."
Mixing youth and experience
Rogers sees his youth as an advantage. He was playing for this team barely over a decade ago. He went to school in Brookings. He played in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Took the same classes. Shared the same goals and challenges.
"It helps a ton. I don't know if I could do this, right now in my life, at another school — just jump into this job somewhere else," Rogers said. "To know who people are and who I'm supposed to call and speak authentically to what this experience did for me — that's the easy part. I never have to bullshit anyone."
That makes the tough-love Rogers sometimes applies easier to accept and digest. It also means nobody can B.S. him, either. He's been there.
"I don't have any issues telling someone when they're wrong or they could have done something better," he said. "I'm not trying to be anybody's friend. I think people need to hear the truth and I think telling the truth more is more beneficial than when kids are getting told how great they are all the time. Because then what happens when they don't play? If I'm so great, why am I not playing? Then they jump in the portal feeling like you lied to him, because you did. You can ask any of the linebackers who played for me over the last decade — I never told any of them who the stars were. They knew who the stars were. I didn't have to tell them."
When asked what life is like off the field, Rogers doesn't say much. Hobbies, interests, movies? He shrugs and says the little spare time he has is spent with his wife, Haley, and two kids. He enjoys fishing and doesn't mind golfing. Does that mean he's another coach who's obsessed with football and can't turn it off? Not necessarily. Rogers understands, as an entire generation of younger coaches (and some older ones) do — football is a grind, but that doesn't mean it can't be fun. It should be fun. Expectations will be higher than ever under Jimmy Rogers, but the hope internally is that the new staff will make SDSU an even more attractive destination for players than it already was.
At his introductory press conference in January, Rogers said, "Winning the national championship was a statement. Now that statement is the standard." He then all but guaranteed the Jacks have not won their last national title.
"Winning is fun," Rogers says. "But here's the thing: There's a way to make football fun, but it's got to be hard. It's not easy. You've got to be able to make it feel uncomfortable, so that people will work extremely hard. But the fun is in the work. Because I'll tell you this — I chased that national championship half my life, I woke up the next morning and felt nothing. So it was like, what do you do now? You got to do it again, I guess."