Building leaders from scratch
Colorado State-Pueblo uses unique approach in building team
When John Wristen decided to accept the challenge of building a football program from scratch at Division II’s Colorado State-Pueblo, he knew it would take everyone involved with the team to develop well-rounded student-athletes that could be successful in life as well as on the football field.
So, it makes sense that Wristen believes that the two most important people on his staff are strength and conditioning coach Allen Hedrick and character coach Stig Jantz -- the individual responsible for helping student-athletes get physically stronger and the person charged with developing their emotional and intellectual qualities.
“We’re all saying the same thing and holding kids accountable, and making sure they know there are people that care about them, and going to help them,” Wristen said. “We’re all going to make mistakes in life, but part of our jobs as coaches are to help them get through it.”
The approach is certainly producing results for a program that was reinstated four years ago after being eliminated due to budget cuts in 1984. Last year, the ThunderWolves went 9-2 in their third season back in competition, and this week they boast a 5-0 record and No. 11 national ranking heading into a Thursday night meeting against Colorado School of Mines that will be broadcast nationally on CBS Sports Network and streamed live on NCAA.com
The program’s philosophy is three-pronged as it looks produce champions in all aspects of a player’s life – as a person, as a student and as an athlete.
Jantz is listed among football coaching staff just like the coaches responsible for linebackers or wide receivers and has been involved with the program since 2008.
“My job is to love the guys – that’s the No. 1 thing,” Jantz said. “I try to create a culture of nurturing and love and an environment where students are free to talk and be themselves.”
Jantz was an academic advisor at the university’s business school when he met Wristen, who was one of the candidates for the head coaching position at the time. Wristen was carrying a binder with his coaching plan in it, and Jantz pulled one just like it. They started talking and realized there was a lot more they had in common.
“We knew we were kindred spirits,” Jantz said. “We really care about the students and are both really competitive.”
In addition to his current position as student success coordinator on campus, Jantz attends every practice and game ensuring players are “Getting It Done” in their personal lives with questions like, “did you call your mom?” or “what did you get on that quiz?”
“I’m just as competitive as coach Wristen or any other coach you meet,” Jantz said. “I’m challenging these guys all the time just like a coach. On the sidelines at practice in between drills, I’m asking how their tests went.”
The interest in student-athletes’ lives holds a special significance for Jantz, who was cut from a youth football team at 13 years old – his first attempt at organized sports.
“I was a shell of myself – I was a nameless, faceless kid running around,” Jantz said. “No coach took an interest in me. I was one of three kids cut, and I never played for a coach again. I didn’t want that to happen to another kid … someone who has talent, but doesn’t have the confidence. I don’t want those kids to fall through the cracks. Someone has to show them they are something and help them identify those talents, and ultimately exploit those talents.”
Jantz runs a class for freshmen football players named for the year they will graduate – this year it is the 2015 Club. It is a required meeting on Sunday nights and Jantz, along with assistant coach Steve Sewell (former Denver Broncos running back) teach the class that includes subjects such as financial and time management, goal setting, personal issues, diversity and test taking.
The freshmen are also charged with presenting the team’s annual Hardware Awards. Small groups of freshmen each identify a piece of hardware serves as an example. For instance, last year, the Ladder Award went to All-American running back Jesse Lewis because he is always striving to climb and make himself better. It is a great public speaking opportunity for the freshmen, and also helps assess the state of the team and how they work together.
“He motivates people to be better – not necessarily as a student or athlete every day, but a better person,” Lewis said. “He’s so positive about everything and it helps bring a positive vibe to the team. I think it is huge to have someone who comes in everyday and regardless of what’s going on he always has something positive to say. If he takes the frown off one person’s face or changes one person’s mind … it helps people to think about situations in different ways.”
While Jantz makes sure the ThunderWolves are succeeding off the field, Hedrick plays a huge role in the team’s accomplishments on the field.
“Allen Hedrick is the most important guy we’ve got,” Jantz said. “He and I work hand-in-hand. He’s renowned in strength and conditioning circles. He has changed the whole conditioning program where kids are held accountable. We’re so much faster and stronger than we were a year ago.”
Hedrick came on board in 2009, a year after the ThunderWolves were one of the worst rushing teams in the nation. That season, the ThunderWolves improved to one of Division II’s top 15 rushing teams with help from a much bigger and stronger offensive line. Currently, CSU-Pueblo ranks 36th in rushing, 12th in rushing defense and second in scoring defense, allowing just 12.60 points per game.
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“Everybody has a weight program, and I don’t know if ours is any different, but it sure has produced results that have been obvious,” Wristen said. “We’re not trying to train to be a power-lifting team, we’re training them to be overall athletes, and it is absolutely helped our speed and development.”
Before arriving in Pueblo, Hedrick worked for 12 years with the football program at the Air Force Academy, and served stints at the U.S. Olympic Training Center and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He was named the NSCA National Strength Coach of the Year in 2003, and at CSU-Pueblo has mentored Lewis and junior linebacker Lee Meisner to become NSCA All-Americans.
“Each year their commitment to the strength and conditioning program has improved,” Hedrick said. “The first year, I would put them through their speed and agility training in the summer. Some days, we might have 10 athletes there. Last summer, we averaged 60 to 70 athletes there.”
In the last few months, Hedrick has turned over part of the training program to the athletes, ensuring accountability.
“They’re the ones timing themselves, they’re the ones making everyone is ready on time,” Hedrick said. “One thing I’ve always said as a strength coach is that I want everything we do needs to transfer to the football field. We’ve done a pretty good job of that physically, but out on the football field, there are no coaches – they players are in charge. I wanted to replicate that as closely as possible in the weight room. I’m still there coaching technique, but the kids are in charge of it.”
“One thing that sets Coach Hedrick apart from other strength coaches and coaches in general is that he is focused on getting work done and having fun,” Lewis said. “Being a student-athlete, the responsibilities of working out and playing games and traveling and family … you tend to get stressed a lot. He knows there are so many opportunities to have fun, and understands us as student-athletes because he has been around the game for so long.”
While success has come quickly for the ThunderWolves, Wristen believes the absence of tradition might have assisted in their fast rise in the national scene.
“It might be a little easier doing it as a start-up program because you truly have the advantage of not changing your culture,” Wristen said. “You are the culture that you establish.”
Bringing back football – as well as wrestling and women’s track and field in 2008 – and building an on-campus stadium (The Neta and Eddie DeRose ThunderBowl) has also transformed student life at CSU-Pueblo. What once was a commuter school is more of a traditional student campus, and enrollment has climbed 150 percent since 2007.
The school will not only be showcased in this week’s Division II Game of the Week, but will be hosting both the NCAA Division II Wrestling and Track and Field Championships in 2012.
“It’s really quite an honor for our university and community of Pueblo, and especially an honor for our players who have worked hard to be in this position,” Wristen said. “It’s an honor and reward to do it.”
CSU-Pueblo is 0-3 against Colorado School of Mines since 2008. Last year, the ThunderWolves also entered the contest with a 5-0 mark, but lost to Mines, 19-16, in the closing seconds of the contest. After defeating traditional national contender Chadron State, 38-28, last Saturday, the ThunderWolves are looking to avenge last year’s disappointing setback.
“Coming off of a disappointing loss last year, we probably want this game more, but we’re not trying to overplay that,” Lewis said. “We’re going to come in and treat Mines like any other football team we play. Being on TV is a big motivator, too. It is really cool to have that exposure for our school and team and the community.”