EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first story in a two-part ‘State of South Dakota’ college football series examining the coaches and their programs at South Dakota State and the University of South Dakota
It’s not a trophy or a medal or a plaque, or even a signed football.
There’s one particular item in John Stiegelmeier’s office that holds a special place in his heart.
It’s a framed picture of four different senior classes that, in their own ways, set the tone for what the South Dakota State University football program is today.
“I look at them every day,” Stiegelmeier, the 23-year head coach, said during an in-depth phone interview last month.
The reason that picture means so much?
Those senior classes — from 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 — were the ones who played during SDSU’s four-year reclassification process to the Division I level. They worked every day knowing they couldn’t chase a postseason berth.
“Those guys are the most valuable guys in this whole thing,” Stiegelmeier said. “They really paid the price and set the foundation for what we know at SDSU.”
In short order into their Division I existence, the Jackrabbits became a winner — and in ways they never imagined.
A consistent winner, too.
South Dakota State reached the FCS playoffs in its second year (2009) of postseason eligibility and has since qualified every year since 2012. Stiegelmeier’s program has now reached the semifinal round each of the past two seasons, where the Jackrabbits own a 21-6 record.
The faces have changed over the years. Even the stadium has changed. But those players in those four senior classes remain forefront.
“When I have recruits in here, I point it out this is why our program is where we’re at,” Stiegelmeier said.
“A football program is so much bigger than any one person, and these guys really are the foundation of Division I at SDSU.”
‘Cloudy’ Crystal Ball
How could South Dakota State, which had found such limited success in its Division II days that the number of playoff appearances could be counted on one finger, someday become a Division I power?
That was the question facing Stiegelmeier and his program in those conversations a decade and a half ago.
“You have this crystal ball and it’s pretty cloudy,” he said.
Stiegelmeier clearly remembers a weekly coaches meeting with former athletic director Fred Oien when a comment from Oien caught everyone off guard. He said, to paraphrase, Understand, half of the head coaches will lose their job because of the struggles.’
In the world of football, one of the early challenges was making the jump from 36 scholarships to 63 scholarships.
How would that be done?
Initially, the plan was to roll out a phased increase, according to Stiegelmeier — from 38 to 40 to 44 to 48 and so on, for example.
“I’m certain that I would’ve lost my job if we had done that,” Stiegelmeier said. “That would’ve been tough.”
Instead, the SDSU administration used a 3-4 year process to ensure the Jackrabbits would be on an equal playing field to the teams they were about to face. It was a decision Stiegelmeier calls “huge.”
During those four reclassification years, the Jackrabbits won 26 of their 44 games and captured the Great West Conference title in 2007.
The foundation had been set for what was to come.
“Even our vision changed as we walked through this thing,” Stiegelmeier said. “You start knowing who you are, and what you can claim, and what you can sell and what you can expect.”
The Man In Charge
Stiegelmeier describes himself in such a matter-of-fact fashion that it catches a person off guard.
“I’m the most boring football coach in America,” he said.
The 62-year-old Selby native isn’t flashy. He’s not exactly soft-spoken, but his demeanor, he said, stems from his German upbringing.
He keeps things simple for his players and for his program — you’ve likely heard him use the ‘1 and 0 this week’ line. Stiegelmeier said he wants his players to win their period of practice, win the day and win each task in front of them. In the end, he said, those factors add up to winning games.
“Simple things are very powerful, but I don’t need a Ph.D. to explain them,” Stiegelmeier said.
When he became head coach at SDSU in 1997, Stiegelmeier was 40, and already established in his own styles, philosophies and beliefs. But he still made a point to study other head coaches and their programs to discover whether he could utilize any of their mannerisms.
At the end of the day, though, Stiegelmeier has kept it simple.
“A 19-year-old guy is probably more influenced by an assistant coach, but it’s a cool challenge,” he said. “If you love them, I think they perform.
“That all stems from recruiting guys that you trust and know are going to do things right,” Stiegelmeier added. “You don’t just recruit bodies.”
No, he recruits new members to the family.
And those newcomers come to see a man dedicated to his faith — Stiegelmeier said he makes it known to his players that Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), among other avenues in Brookings, is available to them.
“I live out my faith, because it’s the most important thing,” he said. “If my family calls, I’m taking the call.
“When a young man or woman goes to college, they’re supposed to grow and why wouldn’t our program make it a spiritual growth as a possible way to grow?”
Taking The Next Step
On the morning of his phone interview, Stiegelmeier had a lengthy meeting with his captains. Part of that discussion included goals; of the simple, day-to-day and big-picture variety.
At one point, Evan Greeneway — a senior offensive lineman from Yankton — spoke up and said essentially, ‘We haven’t reached our ultimate goal, we have to change something.’
“With no prodding from anybody, they walk in and say, ‘What do you think about this, coach?’” Stiegelmeier said. “Those are the type of young men we recruit here.”
That ultimate goal is one the Jackrabbits aren’t going to shy away from.
No, they’re direct.
They want to reach the FCS national championship game in Frisco, Texas, and come home with the trophy.
“Our program is mature enough to say it, and know we’ve been at the door two years in a row,” Stiegelmeier said. “They’re putting in the work.”
The eight playoff participation medals and two semifinal trophies sitting in Stiegelmeier’s office are proof, he said, of unfulfilled expectations.
“Those are reminders of falling short,” Stiegelmeier said, matter of factly. “We haven’t gotten to Frisco yet.”
That statement alone tells you how far the Jackrabbits have come in a decade and a half, Stiegelmeier freely admitted. In 2004, he was talking about winning games, and in 2019, he’s talking about reaching Frisco and coming out victorious.
It doesn’t happen without plenty of hard work along the way.
“Once you get in the playoffs, there’s proof now. The crystal ball clears out,” Stiegelmeier said. “The vision and expectations aren’t just a story, it’s a realistic goal.”
Even as the Jackrabbits have continued to establish themselves as a national title contender every year, their outgoing senior class has continued to pass on the message of ‘It’s not good enough’ to the underclassmen, according to Stiegelmeier.
“We have more to do,” he said.
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