Zimmer: John Stiegelmeier's legacy more than football at South Dakota State University
The Jackrabbit's retiring head coach influenced hundreds of players but also interns, students, officials, support staff and everyone else for whom he took the time for.
SIOUX FALLS — My first significant encounter with John Stiegelmeier, the recently retired South Dakota State football coach, was in November of 2012, when the Jackrabbits hosted their first Division I home playoff game, against Eastern Illinois.
I was sent to provide bonus coverage alongside Terry Vandrovec, who was the SDSU beat writer for the Argus Leader at the time, and the Jacks routed the Panthers 58-10 at frozen Coughlin-Alumni Stadium behind a monster performance from running back Zach Zenner.
After the postgame press conference, Vandrovec and I were pecking away at our keyboards when Stiegelmeier popped his head in the doorway.
He was wearing a red hockey helmet, and I remember thinking how silly it looked atop his gray-haired head.
“You guys need anything?” Stiegelmeier asked.
“No, we’re good,” Terry said, barely looking up from his screen.
Then the coach walked into the room, approached me and extended his hand. We’d met before, but only in passing, and I’d obviously known who John Stiegelmeier was long before I became a sportswriter — he’d been the coach of the Jackrabbits since I was in high school.
“Did you have a good time?” Stiegelmeier asked me, still wearing the helmet.
“Yeah, that was quite a performance,” I sputtered. “Glad I got to be here to see it.”
“Super,” he replied. “Thanks for coming.”
“What’s with the helmet?” I asked.
Stiegelmeier looked at me like wearing a hockey helmet indoors was the most normal thing in the world.
“It’s my bike helmet,” he said. “For my scooter.”
Apparently, I was the only one who didn’t know Stig rode a mini-scooter to the stadium from his house in Brookings (yes, the same one he rode on College Gameday a few years ago).
He started to leave the room before turning back.
“You sure you guys don’t need anything? If you want a soda or a water help yourself to the fridge in my office,” he said, and left the room.
Just when I was wondering if Terry had heard anything Stig said, he removed his earbuds and turned to me with a wide smile.
“Can you believe that guy?” Terry said. “Division I football coach telling a couple reporters to just go ahead and make themselves at home in his office. ... Unbelievable.”
I thought maybe it was a bit of a put-on, but as I would learn over the next 10 years, the last seven of which I spent covering Stiegelmeier’s teams far more closely, it was not. It was just Stig.
The stories like that piled up over the years.
But by now I’m guessing you’ve heard enough stories from media types about how well Stiegelmeier treated us, and you probably don’t care about that too much.
What’s far more important was how John treated literally everyone else that came into his orbit as the head coach of the state’s premier athletic program.
Yes, having spent 36 years on the coaching staff, the last 26 as the head coach, he of course leaves a legacy of hundreds of former players who love him, who can speak to the impact he had on their lives. But that’s true of most every coach, even the bad ones. Coaching is a noble profession in that way.
Stiegelmeier’s legacy is as much in the impact he had on the football interns, students, officials, support staff and everyone else for whom he took the time for.
Stig went out of his way to make those people feel special. While he’s remained humble even as he’s become something of a celebrity, Stiegelmeier is self-aware enough to know he’s kind of a big deal, and that being the head coach of a powerful Division I football team means he can make someone’s day just by saying hi or shaking hands or posing for a quick selfie.
“My dad taught me, on the farm, work hard, be a good person and be a man of character,” Stiegelmeier said Friday, Jan. 20, mere hours after announcing his retirement. “Being a good person is honoring other people. I’ve always just thought that’s my job. Whether someone wants to interview me or just talk, if I’m making a memory with my time, that’s more important than watching some film. Maybe that makes me an oddball when it comes to coaches. But I’m gonna be the way God made me.”
I’m not sure if John was really ready to hang up his whistle now. Yes, they finally won that elusive national championship, leaving him the perfect opportunity to go out on top. But why go now? He’s one win away from 200 for his career. Every offensive starter and most of the defensive starters are returning. He’ll be 66 in a couple weeks, but Stig is as youthful and energetic as any 66-year-old out there, and he often talks about how the strength of his coaching staff means the job no longer takes the physical and mental toll on him it once did. As recently as a year or so ago an SDSU assistant told me Stig might coach into his 70s. I was asked several times in the week after Frisco if I thought Stig was going to retire, and I leaned toward no.
But Jimmy Rogers is ready, and the 34-year-old’s work as defensive coordinator was becoming so good that it was only a matter of time before a major Division I program tried to lure him away from Brookings. Maybe John recognized that stepping aside for the good of the program’s future was the right thing to do, even if he wasn’t quite ready to be finished.
Or, maybe it was as simple as Stiegelmeier has been saying for the last five years or so. That when his wife of 43 years, Laurie, said it was time to come home, he would honor that request. It wasn’t, Stiegelmeier said, a case of riding off into the sunset after having finally guided the Jackrabbits to their first national championship.
“We won a national championship, (but) that didn’t flip the switch,” he said. “It was my wife saying I think it’s time, and she’s the boss. She was the one who was gonna make the call. It was really emotional for me and her and the family.”
It’s hard to imagine South Dakota State football without John Stiegelmeier.
Rogers is indeed ready to run the program. He bleeds blue and yellow, having been one of the program’s first standout players in the Division I era, notorious for his ferocious intensity. And as an undersized linebacker, his playing career was something of a microcosm for SDSU football’s attempt to beat the odds and scale the Division I mountain. Rogers promised Stiegelmeier they’d win a national championship together when the coach visited him in Arizona on a 2005 recruiting trip. At Friday’s introductory press conference, Rogers vowed that this year’s outgoing seniors will be the last class of Jackrabbits to leave with only one national championship to their credit.
That might sound boastful, but it’s hardly unlikely.
Rogers is, at least at first glance, the polar opposite of his mentor. His intensity can make him an intimidating presence, something no one has ever said about John Stiegelmeier. But Rogers, who had to stop to compose himself multiple times during his remarks on Friday, seemed to want Jackrabbit Nation to know there’s another side to him. He’s tough but he’s emotional. He cares about this program deeply. And he’s going to care about his players, too. He couldn’t have had a better role model in how to do that.
It’ll be interesting to see how Rogers runs the program. There will be more colorful language coming from the head coach, that’s for sure. I kind of doubt he’ll be as friendly with opposing coaches as Stieglemeier was. Those in the media should be prepared for someone who is fair but will not suffer fools. No team in the country will have a better prepared defense.
Rogers has already announced safeties coach Jesse Bobbit, 28, will serve as his defensive coordinator. Zach Lujan, 27, will return for his second season as offensive coordinator, but Rogers will have at least four coaching positions to fill.
As for Stiegelmeier, he struggled to come up with an answer when asked what he’ll do in retirement.
“I love to garden,” he finally mumbled, and when that was met with laughter, said he might volunteer to be a math tutor, as if that was more exciting.
But, he added, after 40 years of having their lives dictated by football, John and Laurie finally have time to be a normal married couple. Laurie wants to visit the northeast states to look at the leaves. They might, John said, take a long road trip to visit grandkids.
Then he joked, “I always say, I don’t have any friends. You guys can call me anytime.”
More false words have never been spoken. John Stiegelmeier has friends all over the country, from all walks of life, from all living generations.
There’s not a lot myself or many others can say we have in common with Jimmy Rogers or any of the hundreds of people who played and coached for Stig over the years, but there is one thing: We’re all better people for having known him.
Good luck, John, and thanks for everything.