Richie Wessman was a member of USC’s quarterback stable that included Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Matt Cassel and Billy Hart
It was May 18 of last year when area media members opened up an email from the University of Minnesota Crookston, announcing the hiring of Richie Wessman as an assistant coach in charge of quarterbacks and wide receivers and the recruiting coordinator.
The hiring raised some eye brows, to say the least, because of where Wessman was coming from and where he has been.
The San Clemente, Calif. native had spent his past five seasons coaching for the Tennessee Titans of the National Football League. Reading further in the release, Wessman was a quarterback at the University of Southern California where he competed against Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Matt Cassel and Billy Hart.
Coach Paul Miller said of Wessman's hiring, "Our football program is thrilled to add Richie Wessman to our staff. Despite being relatively young in the coaching business, he has had the opportunity to work in a number of settings with some of the outstanding coaches in the country. Richie also brings a skill set and background in the passing game that will be a valuable asset to the Golden Eagle Football program. Additionally, he has outstanding credentials as a recruiter."
With all due respect, coach Miller, "oustanding coaches" may have been an understatement.
The 32-year-old Wessman, who currently makes his home in Crookston with his wife, Julie, played for head coaches Paul Hackett and Pete Carroll at USC. Norm Chow and Lane Kiffin were also on the coaching staff during Wessman's time with the Trojans. During his time with the Titans he coached under Jeff Fischer.
With all that, the question has to be asked, why? Why would anyone go from the NFL to a program that is considered by many as one of the worst in Division II?
"The fact that it's been so bad here in the past, I think it's a phenomenal opportunity to come in and make a mark," Wessman told the Times in an interview. "I heard about (the job) online and to be honest I'd never heard about Crookston. I'd never really heard a lot about Division II football. I saw it as an opportunity to coach quarterbacks and wide outs. With coach (Jeff) Cheek, being a great run game, offensive line mind, it really gave me a lot of room to come in and be a major factor in the passing game and essentially game plan everything, and that's an awesome responsibility. You want to be a head coach and you come into a Division II program, if you go to the one that wins every year and you win every year...so what. You come to one that has had trouble winning and you help turn that around and now you have something to show people. That to me is the biggest draw. There's some great people here. Coach Miller is phenominal. I believe in our Chancellor and AD big time. The people are here to make this thing special."
Wessman isn't just blowing smoke, either. Crookston isn't just a quick stop on his way back to the NFL. He is committed to helping change the Golden Eagle culture.
"Back in the day, I think this has been a place that has had every single competitive disadvantage you could think of in terms of scholarship amount, players on the team, practice lining up with classes where you're missing ten starters for a Tuesday practice," Wessman explained.
He points out that the scholarship numbers have increased along with the talent that has been brought in, including this year's recruiting class that features several players from southern California where Wessman grew up. That along with improving the behind-the-scenes part of the program.
"Winning starts at the top and I think the people at the top are doing the right things," he said. "We are improving our facilities in every way, shape and form. And just getting those little details that to some people aren't big things but really are huge. We really have a good coaching staff this year and an unbelievable chance to put these guys in a position to have success. Not having a strength coach is something that is challenging because that's a big aspect of it. You have to get good players here but then you have to develop them. You have to develop them as football players and as athletes. That's something that's being changed. As a staff we've done a really good job of facilitating that and we're up there in the weight room every morning at 6:30 with the guys and teaching them how to lift. Every day is getting better."
It's certainly getting better with Wessman coaching the quarterbacks and wide receivers. In 2011 the Golden Eagles garnered just 803 passing yards, which ranked last in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference by a long shot. Last season, Wessman's first, UMC threw for 1,806 yards and still ranked last in the NSIC, but benefitted from the vast improvement with two NSIC wins.
Growing up in southern California and being a big football fan at a young age, Wessman's father cultivated that love for football in his son.
"We had the trifecta going," Wessman said. "Friday nights me and my dad would go see San Clemente High School play and then Saturday we'd go see USC play and then Sunday we'd go see the L.A. Rams play. It wasn't like that every weekend but it would be a couple times like that a year."
Wessman focused on football in high school, "dabbling" in track, as he put it, but always knowing he wanted to play football.
"It was something that came easy to me," he said. "The amount that goes into it, the life lessons, the kind of chess piece of football all go into why it's my favorite sport."
Coming out of high school, Wessman wasn't on USC's radar. He opened eyes during his junior year of high school thanks to an aggressive passing game, but the offense changed in his senior season and he was handing the ball off in the fly offense.
Following his senior season, he went to Orange Coast College, a community college in Costa Mesa, Calif. He found himself competing for the starting job behind a sophomore who had started the year before and had redshirted at Indiana the year prior to that. Wessman played a little early in the season and then ended up being redshirted.
That turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
"We had a fullback named Jimmie Banks, big kid, really good football player," explained Wessman. "USC was recruiting him. Hugh Jackson happened to be offensive coordinator at the time. When he'd see Jimmie, he'd see me. That was also the year Carson Palmer was the starter and broke his collarbone. They went through about three different guys and none of them were the answer. So it was kind of a really opportune time to make the jump to SC. I knew Carson Palmer was really good but I knew if he got hurt I could compete and beat out some of those other guys. It was kind of the perfect time transferring to SC."
Wessman was at USC for Haggert's final season and the first years of Carroll's stint with the Trojans. He has nothing but good things to say about the program and school. He was part of one of the greatest quarterback stables in college football history.
That stable included Wessman, two Heisman Trophy winners (Palmer and Leinart), Cassel, who is currently a backup quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, and Hart, who, after retiring from the Houston Astros minor league system, is currently a coach in the New York Yankees farm system.
"We were good together but it's not like we hung out a whole lot outside of it because we were all competing against each other," Wessman said of his fellow Trojan quarterbacks. "It was a pretty good group, pretty competetive group. Norm Chow said he had never seen anything like it in college. We all got along really well and now days when we see each other we get excited and catch up."
With such a strong group, Wessman had a hard time getting on the field.
"Going into the year Matt Leinart was going to be a freshman, after spring ball I had played pretty well, did some good things in the spring game and was definitely going to be the cleanup quarterback," Wessman remembered. "I was really excited about that. One of the things they promised Leinart to make sure they got him committed was he could get reps with the first string. Well, sure enough, he goes in with the first string and does really well. So from that point I stopped getting as many reps and didn't really have a chance and that's just something that happens at that level. From a normal human being's standard I'm not short but from a quarterback's standard at USC I'm short. Carson Palmer, when he throws he's a machine, Matt Cassel is a really good athlete, Matt Leinart is just as sharp as you can get. Not a lot of gaps in those guys' games."
Because USC wasn't the powerhouse program it would quickly develop in to, Wessman didn't feel it would do any good to transfer to another program.
"At the end of the day I was enough involved with SC and I'm not going to quit," he stated. "Ultimately I kind of had a misperception at the time because, watching USC before Palmer, Cassel and Leinart, most of those guys don't make it in the NFL, most of those quarterbacks weren't good enough. When I'm falling behind those guys I'm sitting here thinking to myself well maybe one of them will make it into the NFL so I'm probably not going to have a career after this anyway, USC's a good school, stay here. Little did I know, two Heisman trophies, a first pick, a tenth pick and seventh round pick for a guy who never plays."
Richie Wessman didn't grow up wanting to be a coach. But when he made the decision to take his career in that direction he wouldn't take "maybe" for an answer. Not even from one of the most famous coaches in the country at the time.
"I went in and talked to coach Carroll and said, 'Hey, I'd love to coach.' He said, 'That's great. I think you'd be good at it but we don't have anything.' I went home.
"The next day I came back in his office and I said, 'Coach, I want to coach.' He kind of chuckled, 'When we have something I'll let you know and we'll make this thing happen.'
"I came back the next day and I said, 'Coach, I want to coach.' He kind of laughed and put his head down and lifted it up, looked up, 'we'll figure something out.'
"So the next day he had me working as administration, putting together recruiting film. A short period later it turned into now we have an opportunity for you."
Wessman knew that being persistent with a coach like Pete Carroll would pay off.
"He's always got the open door," said Wessman. "To him if you're going to be that into it and demanding of it he values that. Pete Carroll is what you see on TV. Great guy, high energy, fun guy to be around, really competitive. Fantastic football coach, he's as advertised."
One memorable moment during the 2001 season came when Carroll interrupted a special teams' meeting.
"We were playing UCLA and the kickoff return unit is up and our special teams coach is starting to talk about kickoff return and he's talking about how it's a little tricky this week because of all the different things they do," Wessman recalled. "And Coach Carroll stopped him right there, mid-sentence, 'They are kicking off one time because we're shutting them out, this meeting is over.' And then we got all excited and walked out, sure enough we shut them out."
An international relations major at USC, Wessman was planning on joining the Central Intelligence Agency before changing his mind and to pursue coaching.
"I wanted to join the CIA but then I decided the CIA is something where you disappear from your family, you work long hours and God knows where you live, so I got out of it," he explained. "Now I'm a football coach, I work long hours and God knows where I live."
Wessman said he was nudged by his coaches to become a coach himself.
"To be honest, when you're playing quarterback and you're competing against the three guys I was competing against they get you into coaching pretty quick," he said. "God has opened some awesome doors for me."
Following his time with the Trojans in which they won two national championships (2003 Rose Bowl and 2004 Orange Bowl, which was later vacated), Wessman took off for Ole Miss to be a graduate assistant coach with USC defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, who was hired as the head coach. Wessman also had a brief stint at Clemson before being hired by the Tennessee Titans.
Wessman came to Ole Miss at the same time Michael Oher did. Oher was the subject of the popular book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game and the movie The Blind Side.
Any Given Sunday
Wessman was hired by the Titans in 2009 as an offensive assistant on Jeff Fisher's staff and was promoted twice during his time with Tennessee. Although he nearly resumed his playing career as a quarterback.
"I ended up getting a look in a roundabout manner when I was with the Titans," he explained. "We have a rookie camp every year the weekend after the draft. Usually there is a quarterback in that group but one year we didn't have a quarterback. They asked me to play and I said, 'sure I'd love to.' Things went my way as a quarterback in that camp. I threw pretty well. From that point on I was kind of always an emergency quarterback for us. But I had a good job as a coach there."
Coaching for an NFL franchise was a great experience for Wessman and he hopes to get the opportunity again someday.
"Every Sunday is a special, special event," he said. "From the business side of things it's a great job. It's hard and it's a long season. But in the offseason you get ten weeks off spread out through the year. You get really good pensions and things like that. It's really good benefits in terms of everything you get. You get three meals a day, you get a vehicle and after 5,000 miles you give the vehicle back and you get a brand new one back. So there's some things that college ball can't really touch. Some day it would be nice. Long term I'd like to be a head coach. You can't really map out how you get there."
Fischer resigned after the 2010 season and the new head coach, Mike Munchak, brought in an all new coaching staff.
"I signed a contract to coach another year for coach Fischer, two weeks later coach Fischer stepped down," Wessman recalled. "So I was getting paid to do nothing. I tried to get a job, I wanted to stay in the NFL, but it was kind of after the hiring cycle because it was late February. I didn't even get a sniff at an interview. It was a good opportunity to get married. We had a great wedding and went on a 31-day honeymoon, from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia. You're getting paid to do nothing, that must be great? But no it's not. You want to work. It's important to take those tough times into blessings. I came back that fall and visited a few programs, visited the Vikings, SC, Arizona State, Chargers, my high school. Just to see what people are doing and to stay in touch with ball. It came back around to the hiring cycle and this was the job I got the most excited about. I saw it as a great opportunity to come in and make an impact."
Golden Eagle opportunity
The thrilling 37-36 victory over Mary at the Alerus Center last season was one that won't soon be forgotten by the Golden Eagles or its fans. After years of agonizing losses, UMC finally pulled out an exciting NSIC win, its second of that season. Wessman remembers one specific moment from that game and said he sees the culture changing in the program.
"I think the way we won that Mary game was phenominal because we were up a majority of that football game and then they came back toward the end," he explained. "I started seeing on our sideline our offensive guys when (Mary) scored and took the lead late in the game we kind of frowned and put our heads down and I went up to them and said, 'Don't put your head down at this, this is exciting. When you're a kid and you're playing in the yard you're always losing and it's the end of the game. Because that's what's fun. You're not up 55-0. That's not what you do when you're a kid. This is an opportunity and we haven't had this opportunity to score and win the football game.' It's just that perspective and coming from that losing perspective. Guys are starting to grasp it and look at it the right way."
And it's not just the players that need to change and adjust. Wessman admitted that the game planning to start last season was complex. With both Wessman and offensive coordinator Jeff Cheek coming from much higher levels of football, the coaches also need to adapt to the Division II level.
"Last season early on you watch that first game, I'm coming from the NFL and coach Cheek is coming from Boise, that level you can do more," Wessman said. "When you watch that game everything we did Winona didn't have an answer for. I think the problem was we had so much in that our guys couldn't get it right. To us, from where we both came from, that was an easy game plan, but for a Division II team it wasn't. It was challenging, it was really challenging. We learned from that game and we really started simplifying cutback."
After the season opener in which Minnesota Crookston lost 58-6 on the road to Winona State, it was much more competitive but lost 34-24 to Concordia, St. Paul at home. In week three the Golden Eagles were thumped 61-0 on the road by Augustana but rebounded the next week and beat Southwest Minnesota State at home 33-28, ending a miserable conference losing streak.
"We vastly improved and we were very competitive in week two against Concordia," Wessman recalled. "And then we got into a deal with Augustana where they did a lot more and they were more challenging because they were all over the map. They had all-out blitzes. We had some things dialed up. We had a screen dialed up where they were in a cover zero and we went unbalanced so they had all their guys over there and we had three guys out to block one guy otherwise it was a touchdown and we couldn't get a block. We had another pass concept where we had a rub on their man-to-man but the tailback started running that way and that brought the backer over and he hit him in the chest otherwise it would've been a catch and turned up field for a touchdown. That was new for us to see all that going on. Kids did a great job fighting back from that game and we ended up winning the next one."
The Golden Eagles went into a rut after the week four win and lost six straight before ending the season with the win over Mary.
"Toward the end of the year we really learned how to practice because success is a byproduct of what you're doing every day," Wessman said. "We're starting to grasp that, we're starting to grasp how hard we need to work. Winning is not what you do on Saturday it's what you do in between the end of a game and that start of a next one. When you have a program that's been bad you have to change the culture and that is something that's definitely changing."
Although UMC may not win the NSIC next season, Wessman see the changes helping and the recruits coming in as helping spur change.
"I don't think we're there yet but we're getting there and we're close," he said. "A lot of these young guys we have coming in are from winning programs. A lot of guys that are here, even some of the older guys who have lost a lot, they understand the difference. We keep getting better with the talent we're bringing in, and the guys here are getting better in offseason workouts. We're coming together as a staff to really understand how to really be successful at this level."
Wessman, the recruiting coordinator, wants players who don't understand UMC's losing history and what better place to recruit than in Wessman's southern California roots where Division II football programs are scarce.
"There's not a lot of Division II schools that recruit in those areas," he explained. "In this local area with Crookston's record in the past there's not a lot of people that say, 'Crookston's my number one school.' And the guys who would come here from the local area are kids that St. Cloud didn't want them, Duluth didn't want them and Mankato didn't want them and those kind of things. We went after a couple of really good kids in the area but they ended up going to higher divisions than Division II and when you're losing kids to those places that's a good thing. There's not a lot of Division IIs in California, I think there's maybe two, and in Hawaii there aren't any. We went out there and there's some great players we have coming in who are really going to make an impact. Some great kids and great students people that the town is going to be proud of when they see them around."
So, the obvious question arises, how do you get kids from the beaches of California to come to the frozen farm fields of Crookston to play football?
Wessman shares the story of his first experience with below zero temperatures, "I told them a story, one day it was minus-9 out and I got all bundled up, I knew the old layer trick, and I walked outside for the first time in minus-9 and I'm sitting there thinking in my first three steps, 'This isn't bad at all.' And then my fourth step my nose hairs froze. A lot of those kids came out to visit in the dead of winter and they were fine with it."
Making UMC a champion
Can Minnesota Crookston one day compete with Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State, Minnesota State and Winona State for an NSIC championship?
"No question we can get to that spot," Wessman said. "The leaders here from our Chancellor all the way down to coach Miller are making the right decisions and doing the right things to change those things that affect the program in a negative manner and to get them fixed. Last year was the first year we've had enough depth to actually compete with people. This year with this class coming in I think that changed from being able to compete with people to being able to beat anyone. I think we have some matchup problems for people."
One of the biggest building blocks of a competitive football program is competition at every position.
"The number one thing we've done here is, and this is paramount to any program, nobody can sit here and be comfortable," stated Wessman. "There's nobody on this roster who is flat out going to start and is going to stay that way if they are not producing. If they're not getting better day in and day out they will not be playing for us. And that is the first thing you need to do to truly change the culture. Everybody on this roster is going to be challenged."
That includes quarterback A.J. Barge, who will be a junior next season and has started all 22 games in his first two seasons. Wessman is confident Barge will be challenged by Jordan Manahan, a junior who transfered from Vermillion Community College.
"A.J. grew a lot last year and I'm really proud of him," Wessman said. "He grew in his character and his approach to being a leader. When he was in high school they would throw four to five times in a game and coming here he had one game where he threw over 100 yards. The fact that he came and had several 100-yard games but had four 200-yard games and then at the end of the year threw for over 300. He set a lot of records at this school. It's a tribute to the way he worked and kept at it. You have to give the kid a ton of credit and it's exciting to see how far he's come."
If the Golden Eagles can make some noise in the NSIC next there's no doubt Wessman shouldn't have a difficult time upgrading to a new position, either at UMC, another college or back to the NFL. However, Wessman's top priority is UMC Football.
"The big thing is getting it turned around," he said when asked what the future holds for him. "The opportunity to coach in the NFL is a special one. If the NFL opportunity presented itself it I would be crazy to pass it up. I hate coaches who sit here, 'I'm going to be here for so many years.' I can't promise that because I don't know what tomorrow holds. UMC might want to fire me tomorrow. It's a volatile business. I don't like to plan out or predict where things are going. In an ideal world I'd like to see us get this thing turned around no question."
When will that turn around happen?
"We're not there yet. When we're there everyone will know," said Wessman. "Some of those games got ugly last year but we're not that far from being right there and competing with some of those teams that beat us out and some of those teams that we were competitive beating them.
"I have high expectations for our win column this year definitely," he continued. "I don't think it's fair to put a number on it because the most important thing for me is us becoming a championship team in the way we approach everything in the way we work, the way we compete and way we prepare. Competing for championships can come to this place but we have to be that football team in our daily life and then it will transpire to the field."