USF's Bob Young: A life well lived
"I think he truly felt like you were going to be rewarded for doing the right things," University of Washington coach Kalen DeBoer said of the legendary late Cougar leader.
"Winners win, because that's what winners do."
That was the foundation on which Bob Young built the Sioux Falls Cougars into a small college football power. If you've spent any time around the program, you've heard it many times. And on the surface it seems glib and obvious. But the mantra had a double meaning.
Yes, it applied to the football field, and the slogan goes a long way toward explaining USF's success on the gridiron.
How does a team without a home field or practice facility win a national championship? Because winners win.
How does an NAIA team defeat Division I North Dakota in a building where no other South Dakota team had ever won? Because that's what winners do.
But as anyone who knew Bob Young will tell you, 'winners win' was, first and foremost, a guiding principle for life. He used it to build Cougar football into a championship program, yes. But Young, who died Wednesday at the age of 83, is still the face of the program today, some 20 years after he retired, because of what the concept meant off the field.
When you hear a former USF player say 'Winners Win' these days, chances are they're not even talking about football.
"What coach really focused on was the things that winners do in every aspect of their lives," said Kalen DeBoer, who teamed with quarterback Kurtiss Riggs to lead Young's 1996 Cougar team to the national championship, later coached USF to three more titles and is now the head coach of the University of Washington Huskies. "I think he truly felt like you were going to be rewarded for doing the right things. For being a good person, for working hard — you're going to win because of the reward that comes your way when you do what winners do."
These were things Bob Young continued to do long after he retired, and that took on even greater importance to him when his beloved wife, Diane, died three years ago.
And they'll live on with the thousands Coach Young impacted throughout his life.
How universally beloved was Bob Young? On the day he died, Mike Aldrich and Jerry Olszewski, football coaches at Augustana — the Cougars' arch rival — sent out tweets honoring and thanking the man. So did hundreds more.
Travis Traphagen, the Cougars' women's basketball coach, posted a screenshot of a text he got from Young less than two weeks ago. Traphagen's teams are almost always NSIC contenders, but injuries have left them at the bottom this year. Young, who was battling a series of health issues in his final days, messaged the coach after a pair of much-needed wins.
"Congratulations Trap on two good wins this weekend!" the text read. "I think you are definitely finding new life with your women! Fun to watch!"
'Love ya man'
Even in Young's final days he spent most of his time worrying about others.
"He'd been through a lot since Diane died," said Tom Frederick, USF's radio voice and a friend to Young since his first year as coach in 1983. "He broke his leg, he broke his arm. He lost a couple of siblings, (son-in-law and Brandon football coach) Chad Garrow, he even lost his dog. He soldiered on through all of it, and you'd never know what he was going through. He was always upbeat, always positive."
Frederick's own wife, Mary, died of cancer in 2020 at the age of 62, less than a month after Diane Young had passed. The two women had been close. Tom was devastated, and the pandemic was just getting underway, leaving him isolated in lockdown. Young called Frederick, and suggested that the two of them have weekly Zoom meetings to talk and offer each other support and counsel. They were joined by USF golf coach and longtime sportswriter Wade Merry, who lost his wife, Val, to cancer a few years prior.
"I still have the voicemail he left me," an emotional Frederick said the day after Young passed. "Those meetings were a Godsend. We talked about golf, football ... we talked about (our pain), too. It was life-saving for me. We did it every Wednesday for two years, right up until he got ill last year.
"That was the thing about Bob. He was always looking out for the other person. I'll always be thankful he reached out. He always said 'Love ya, man.' Well, on that voicemail, he said it at least three times. It's tough thinking that he's gone. But he's with Diane and I know that's where he wants to be."
A Cougar from the start
Born in Beresford in 1939 and raised on a farm, Young was a three-sport athlete for the Watchdogs and went on to play football at Sioux Falls College, where he was an all-conference guard.
He went straight into coaching, first at Garretson and then in Iowa, before he moved to Arizona and really started winning. He went 72-23-5 at Maryvale High School in Phoenix before returning to his home state to take over his alma mater in 1983.
Though it's largely lost to history, the Cougars were not doormats when Young arrived. In fact, they were coming off a 9-1 season when Young replaced David Schroeder, who'd taken the school from 1-9 to 9-1 in five years before leaving for Evangel University in Missouri.
But overall, Sioux Falls College football fans were not used to winning.
"We didn't charge admission, lest we offend anyone," longtime USF staffer Sid Kortemeyer once joked about the pre-Bob Young era.
Young almost immediately took the Cougars up a level, to a program that could compete for a national championship. They won a conference title in Young's second season, then went 10-0 in 1988 before losing in the NAIA playoffs.
Things stagnated a little bit in the early 90s, though, bottoming out with a 2-8 season in 1993.
Young recognized he needed to make some changes, but there was only so much they could do. They had almost no resources. He was the only full-time coach on the staff. He brought in Scott Underwood (now the head coach at Southwest Minnesota State) to be his defensive coordinator, and Jae Woo Sim to run the offense. Both men had full-time day jobs.
But the most important thing Young did was offer an apology to Riggs. The southpaw passer was set to transfer home to the University of Wyoming, as he didn't fit Young's preference for an option-based offense. Sim came in and tailored the offense to Riggs and DeBoer, and the rest is history. Riggs threw 55 touchdown passes in 1996, leading USF to the national championship.
"I'll never forget that conversation," Riggs said. "It takes a lot for any coach to be able to do that. For him to say, I'm sorry I let you down and then do what he did — it was one of the best things that ever happened to me."
Winning it all
The Cougars went 14-0 in '96, winning all but three games by at least 20 points despite playing only two of their 10 regular season games at home and doing most of their practicing on a grass lot on campus.
"Looking back on it, it's really amazing what we were able to do," said DeBoer, who was an All-American receiver on that team. "The belief we all had in (Young). I mean, he was teaching math classes during the season. We had to wait for our assistant coaches to get off work from their day jobs for practice. He accomplished so much with so little."
Riggs, who coached alongside DeBoer at USF while also leading the Sioux Falls Storm indoor football team to 10 titles, has been a markedly different style of coach than Young. But there were lessons Riggs still carries with him today.
"What I really learned from Coach wasn't so much the things people see on the outside," Riggs said. "His ability to develop relationships, and the confidence he built in the athlete. No matter how he went about doing it, that was the end result every time. The relationship was so strong that it gave the athlete confidence that Coach was gonna love 'em up, coach them and continue to always be there for them."
Though Young didn't win another title, the Cougars' place as an NAIA power was secure. They made the playoffs in 10 of his last 11 seasons, and made a trip back to the national championship in 2001, settling for a runner-up finish. They were 47-5 over Young's final four years at the helm. Young retired following the 2004 season with a record of 172-69-3.
A legacy of legends
Impressively enough, the success of Young's teams has been overshadowed by the depth of his coaching legacy in the years since his retirement.
DeBoer took over for Young in 2005 at the age of 30, and would bring the Cougars three more national championships. From there he climbed the ladder from Division I FCS to Big Ten coordinator to head coach of Fresno State to now the Pac-12 coach of the year with the Huskies. Chuck Morrell, a teammate of Riggs and DeBoer on the '96 team and defensive coordinator under Young and DeBoer, is now in that same role at Washington after a succesful head coach stint in Montana. Jon Anderson, another former Young assistant, went 40-17 with two playoff appearances as the Cougar coach.
Riggs has made an incalculable impact on the local football scene through his Riggs Academy in addition to his indoor exploits, while Garrow, who also coached under Young, became one of the most beloved and successful high school coaches in the state.
Not surprisingly, the success of his coaching progeny became as important to Young as anything he did as USF's coach.
"I know when you would talk to him the first thing he would boast about would be Chad Garrow or Kalen or one of his guys that was coaching," Riggs said. "He would always call and leave me messages about how great the Storm's season was going and how proud he was of me. If you met him for the first time he'd be much quicker to tell you what those guys were doing than to tell you about the championships he won."
DeBoer is the star pupil, of course, and he still feels Young's influence today, both as a teacher of Xs and Os, and as a mentor of young men.
"He could coach every position," DeBoer remembers. "One of the best things he did for me was, when he hired me as his OC he made me coach the offensive line for two years. He had been an O-lineman, and he was so passionate that you had to learn O-line play. We would sit in the room and he'd teach me every single step of zone blocking. The detail on the steps and the alignments and the technique — over and over and over. We'd go over one play for 15 minutes.
"The other thing I really take from Coach," DeBoer added, "was how important it was to him to make sure we realized the impact we were having on our players. When you're a young coach you don't always see that until a few years down the road when your players start getting married and starting their careers. You sometimes lose sight of how much they're watching you and paying attention to everything you do and say. Coach Young really made sure that me and Chuck and Kurtiss were always aware of that."
USF finally moved into their own football stadium in 2006, though it took a few years for it to be fully completed. Once it was, it was named Bob Young Field.
To some folks outside the program it might have seemed odd to name the stadium for someone still living. At USF, it was a no-brainer.
Young's influence over Cougar football never left after he retired. New coach Jim Glogowski, who has no ties to the school, made sure to mention Young almost immediately in his introductory press conference.
Jed Stugart, who coached the Cougars after DeBoer and is now the coach of Division I Lindenwood, practically considers himself a Young disciple despite never having worked with him.
If plans aren't in the works for a Bob Young statue at Bob Young Field, it's time for USF administration to get on it.
Bob Young. Sioux Falls Cougars. Winners win.
"You've seen (since he died) just how many people he impacted, and it's not just the players and coaches," Frederick said. "He touched so many people across the community. He was always there to show what an example of a great man looks like, and you just did your best to emulate that. It was a life well lived. The world is so much better off for him having been in it."