Dirk Koetter never will be a glad-handing, baby-kissing politician. Arizona State’s football coach freely admits that’s just not his personality.
Yet while Koetter has taken criticism from boosters, alumni and media for his failure to reach out to former players, his recent actions say otherwise.
More than 100 ex-football players are in town this weekend for a reunion dinner and golf tournament that coincide with Pat’s Run and ASU’s spring football scrimmage.
“It’s a chance for us to honor Pat (Tillman) and talk about the good old times when we yakked up a cheeseburger,” New York Giants offensive lineman Grey Ruegamer (1995-98) said.
The original idea for the reunion weekend came from one of Koetter’s former assistants, Craig Juntunen. Football alumni within the administration such as Jean Boyd and Donnie O’Neal also have been important liaisons to the past.
But ask former players and they’ll tell you it is Koetter who has fanned the flames of loyalty.
“I’m a big Bruce Snyder fan because he’s a great guy and he’s the coach who gave me a chance to play big-time college football out of a nowhere high school in Idaho,” said Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer, who played for Snyder at ASU from 1993-96.
“But I’ll be honest with you. Since Dirk Koetter got here, it’s become much easier to come back to ASU and stay in contact with all the old guys. I think Dirk’s done a better job of that than Bruce.”
It was Koetter who pushed to place the scrimmage and golf tournament on the same weekend as Pat’s Run, ensuring a larger alumni turnout. It is Koetter who can recite to you the litany of photos and NFL helmets at the Carson Student-Athlete Center that honor football alumni. It is Koetter who is pushing to cultivate relationships with guys such as Levi Jones, a football alumnus who funded ASU’s first endowed scholarship for a walk-on.
The motivation for Koetter is obvious. Better relations with the past mean a better chance for a winning future.
“When you have a bunch of NFL guys coming back, I think that speaks well to recruits about the kind of program he’s running,” Ruegamer said.
“The beauty of staying in touch is that (Dirk) has recruiters spread out all over the country,” Plummer added. “If there’s a kid that lives near me that ASU might be interested in, I’ll go and check him out myself and tell Dirk what I think. That’s not going to happen unless a guy has bought into supporting Dirk.”
Koetter admits he was hesitant about the prospects of large alumni gatherings.
“I thought it might be kind of corny,” he said.
The role of ambassador is not one that naturally suits Koetter. And that role wasn’t made easier by the resistance he said he faced when he became ASU’s coach in 2001.
“This is not unique to me — it happens everywhere — but when you come into a program where you didn’t recruit any of those guys and you’re replacing the guy they were recruited by, there’s some natural resentment there,” Koetter said. “Then you factor in the Frank Kush factor where this very successful coach defined the program and that can be a tough nut to crack with all the old-timers.”
Koetter said he faced resistance from boosters who felt an ASU alumnus such as Danny White should have been named coach.
“It’s a slow process because these people don’t know me and I don’t know them,” he said. “You basically have to work on converting people one at a time.”
In the process of converting, Koetter said he has forged some bonds.
“Sometimes it’s awesome,” he said. “Talking to former players like Jake or Terrell Suggs is one of the most enjoyable things I do.”
Tillman’s legacy only serves to strengthen those bridges.
“I hope that by us coming back and by what Pat did for his country, guys can see the tradition of great players that have helped build this program,” Ruegamer said. “Hopefully, Dirk Koetter will use that and carry this thing through to fruition.”