BURNABY — There is an old saying about how storms can test our ability to stand tall, and in the process help our roots grow deeper.
For new Simon Fraser head football coach Mike Rigell, who hails from a football coaching tree which traces its lineage back to some of game’s true greats, such deep-seeded roots are proving to be invaluable at a time where across the collegiate world, innovation and inspiration are needed to bridge the disconnect being experienced by both players and coaches dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We always talk in our sport about injury, and it being just one play away,” says Rigell, who played under the late, legendary LaVell Edwards at Brigham Young University.
“Now, we’re talking about a pandemic which can change our entire lives in the snap of a finger,” continued Rigell, 42. “Of course we all love football, but I want our players to be aware of how quickly things can change.”
Perspective is of course essential here, both in light of those who have been directly affected by the outbreak and those so bravely entrenched on their behalf each day along the frontlines.
Yet as sport mirrors life in so many ways, there can be a most inspirational example provided by the way in which a roster full of university student-athletes comes together as a team off the field to meet adversity head on, just as it hopes to do on the field when the 2020 season kicks off in September.
Yet all of that seems so very far away.
Presently, like all university students, Clan football players are taking classes on-line, and as the team’s academic coordinator the past two seasons, Rigell isn’t letting anything slide as players work towards their degrees with the understanding that their grade point averages directly correlate to their ability to play on the team.
“There’s 60 guys on this team and right now we’re doing Zoom (videoconferencing) meetings with them,” says Rigell. “We want to see their faces. We want to make sure they are staying healthy. I want to talk to a face, not just a voice. We want to know their mood and how they’re feeling. We just want to make things as familiar as we can for them with all of the transition that has happened.”
LOCOMOTION THROUGH PROMOTION
The NCAA’s college football coaching carousel never stops spinning, with Div. 1’s biggest and richest programs leaving no stone unturned in a quest to find in the best and brightest minds in the game.
And even though Thomas Ford won just two games over his two seasons as Simon Fraser Clan head coach, he was so highly regarded by his peers that last month, he left the program to become the new quality control coach with the Pac 12’s Washington Huskies.
All of that is keeping with what Ford accomplished after his Clan debut in 2018 when his peers voted him the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Coach of the Year despite the fact his team did not win a game that season against GNAC competition.
Last season the improvement continued as he coached the team to its first GNAC win since 2014.
With construction underway in an attempt to complete the school’s new football stadium at Terry Fox field in time for its 2020 home opener, and a roster battle-hardened by his first three recruiting classes, Ford looked ready to lead the team to its breakthrough season.
Yet just as spring camp was beginning last month, his move to Washington was made official.
On March 12, within the span of about a half hour in the early afternoon, Clan football experienced tremendous change.
Ford tendered his resignation to accept a spot on the coaching staff of the Huskies, and while he was addressing the team behind closed doors, Simon Fraser issued a press release introducing Rigell, two seasons into his Clan tenure as an assistant coach, as the program’s interim head coach for the 2020 campaign.
A handful of minutes later, from its Portland, Ore., headquarters, the GNAC would announce the suspension of its spring sports season.
Just days later, the NCAA announced that it had cancelled all of its spring championships, effectively shuttering all further play by its student-athletes.
So for Rigell, it was a day which seemed to define the word ‘bittersweet’.
Some 18 seasons after finishing his college playing career at BYU, where he was a 5-foot-7, 184-pound receiver and kick-off return specialist, he was finally getting his chance to lead a college football program.
“But it was bittersweet because I am really good friends with Thomas,” said Rigell of Ford and a friendship that began back in 2005 when the pair were teammates on the Tri-Cities Fever team which won the National Indoor Football League championship title.
Ford later brought Rigell north to Burnaby Mountain as part of his debut 2018 coaching staff.
The flurry of changes had actually begun earlier in the month, when offensive coordinator James Holan left to become the new head coach at Oregon’s Clackamas High, a program two seasons removed from winning the Class 6A state title.
Rigell, formerly SFU’s special teams and receivers coach as well as its recruiting coordinator, was named the new OC and had just started to put some of his language on the Clan offence when Ford let him know he was set to accept the position at Washington.
Despite all the changes, Taylor Summers provided some much-needed stability, retaining his job as the defensive coordinator while adding the title of associate head coach.
“Of course, you want the best for him, but it was sad to see him leave” continued Rigell of Ford. “It was a crazy time. We had just started spring ball and there were so many rumours flying around about what was going to happen, from top-to-bottom. But the good part is that I have good help. Being able to keep coach Summers was important, especially with Thomas and James both leaving.
“You’re always working and planning for a day like this to come, to be named the head coach,” Rigell added. “So it was bittersweet, but I am also so happy that it worked out the best for everyone considering the circumstances.”
FROM PROVO TO BURNABY MOUNTAIN
No two branches on a football coaching tree are precisely the same, yet the best ones are always defined by the fact that its commonalities far outstretch its differences.
Bring all of this up with Rigell, and it is with great pride that he traces the very roots of his tree to LaVell Edwards, who over 29 seasons at BYU won 257 games with the Cougars, a total seventh all-time among NCAA Div. 1 coaches, trailing only Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden, Bear Bryant, Pop Warner, Amos Alonzo Stagg and Frank Beamer.
The branches of that coaching tree include three Super Bowl-winning coaches in Brian Billick, Mike Holmgren and Andy Reid, as well as current Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham and Rigell’s former college teammate Kalani Sitake, the current BYU head coach.
“I learned from a great one,” says Rigell, who came out of Lakes High in Lakewood, Wash., back in 1997, where he was named a USA Today honourable mention high school All-American, and was also recruited by Texas, Washington, Washington State and Colorado State. “I went to BYU specifically because of (Edwards).”
After taking a redshirt season in 1997, Rigell led the Western Athletic Conference in kick-off return yardage as a freshman in 1998 with 786 yards, a total he would top in his 2001 senior year with 801 yards.
Following a four-year pro career playing arena football, Rigell embarked on what has been nine-season dues-paying coaching journey which has seen him make stops Idaho State, Utah’s Snow College, the University of Puget Sound where he first met Ford, and two separate stints at New Mexico Highlands, before finally arriving at SFU two seasons ago.
In reflection, Rigell appreciates more than ever how fortunate he was to learn at the hands of so many blue-chip mentors along that journey.
“I think I’ve always been a natural leader but I was more of a leader in empowering through my actions,” he begins. “When I got to BYU, LaVell Edwards taught me to be more vocal. He was such a great mentor.
“I have seen how a lot of coaches from LaVell’s tree have grown… how he brought out the best in all of us, and how we have all evolved with the empowerment he showed us,” Rigell adds. “LaVell was all about inclusion. I was an inner-city kid coming to play football but he made us all understand that there was life after football.”
There was also a key stop in 2013.
While coaching at New Mexico Highlands, Rigell was selected to take part in NFL’s Bill Walsh Minority Internship Program, and the posting sent him to none other than the Kansas City Chiefs, where former BYU offensive lineman Andy Reid had just made the move to a new head coach posting after an extended stint at the helm of the Philadelphia Eagles.
“To live that lifestyle for a month… I loved every minute of it,” remembers Rigell. “Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy, everyone, they were all so welcoming.”
Bieniemy, currently the Chiefs’ Super Bowl-winning offensive coordinator, was back in 2013, the running backs coach who took a special interest in Rigell.
“Eric Bieniemy took me under his wing,” Rigell says. “I broke down film with him and he really showed me how detailed you have to be.”
Today marks 154 days and counting to the Clan’s Sept. 5 trip to Texas A&M Commerce and the official opening to the 2020 season.
And it’s 175 days until the home opener kicks off Sept. 26 against Western Oregon, potentially at the team’s new Terry Fox Field stadium which is currently under construction.
Yet there are so many baby steps to take before any of that happens.
“Our challenges right now are on the academic side,” says Rigell. “With the way things have flip-flopped and been turned upside-down, our main thing is we’re making sure our guys are academically eligible.”
And while Rigell is now the head coach and oversees the entire football operation, it’s interesting to note just how ingrained his love for combining sports and the classroom really is.
At one stage along his journey, Rigell landed a spot on Whittingham’s staff at Utah as a graduate assistant, and it was there that the former Lakes High academic athlete of the year found a natural calling.
“I lived in the offices with academics and I found a love for study hall and that is really where I learned that piece,” Rigell remembers.
Clan players are doing their best in these challenging times to safely and responsibly maintain their fitness under the direction of the coaching staff.
And their new head coach is taking more than a passing interest in their studies.
“I think it’s all about love and transparency,” Rigell says when asked what the best ways are to keep his team engaged as possible as student-athletes with the campus closed.
“You are leading them in something we both love, which is football, but sometimes you have to be like the parent or the guardian who lets them know that they still have to work for stuff,” he explains.
“Just because you did something right on the football field in practice, doesn’t mean you skip study hall or don’t take it seriously. You need that transparency, and if you show that, then they can trust you. And if they trust you and know you love them, they will run through a wall for you.”
In these challenging times, there is a lesson to be learned here about what can be accomplished when we think like a team with a single-minded purpose.
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