LARAMIE – In a lot of ways, the coaching carousel is a lot like finding a significant other. The best fits don’t always come when you’re actively looking, according to new University of Wyoming offensive line coach A.J. Blazek.
Blazek – who most recently served as North Dakota State’s offensive line coach in 2019 – has experience at stops all over the country. He served as the offensive line coach and as an assistant head coach at Rutgers. He’s also worked at Division II schools like Winona State and Fort Hays State.
Uprooting yourself and family isn’t optimal, particularly during a global pandemic. But sometimes, you can’t help but follow destiny.
“It’s like dating. They meet each other and they meet in the middle. It’s not people seek it out,” Blazek said during his introductory Zoom news conference Wednesday afternoon. “I really believe that your journey through a career, you end up in the place that you’re supposed to be in.”
Blazek was announced as UW’s new offensive line coach by coach Craig Bohl on Monday following last week’s departure of Bart Miller, who was named the offensive line coach at the University of Illinois.
Bohl, of course, has deep connections with North Dakota State. He was the head coach there from 2003-13, winning three consecutive Football Championship Subdivision national titles before taking the UW job prior to the 2014 season. Though Blazek was able to coach just one full season for the Bison, Bohl had heard enough good things through the grapevine to put Blazek at the top of his hiring list once Miller left.
“I’ve known about A. J. for many years. … I don’t want to say the stars aligned, but it was a very easy decision on my part,” Bohl said. “I know a lot of times, head coaches or ADs will make statements, ‘This guy was No. 1,’ when in fact he wasn’t. Well, this was the fact. … He was at the very top of our list. I’m convinced we hit a home run.”
The culture that North Dakota State, winners of eight of the past nine FCS national titles, is not unlike the culture in Laramie. That isn’t by accident. Bohl helped construct both programs.
That natural connection made Blazek’s move a lot easier and far more comfortable than it otherwise might have been. He was able to talk to current Bison assistants who either previously coached under or played for Bohl and pick their brains about what to expect.
“You look at the history of NDSU football, it’s been very good,” Blazek said. “And coach Bohl came at a time and got the train back on the tracks and really set it straight.
“He was very candid about his goals, the things that are important to him. And there’s just a really good alignment of things that I’ve been raised on, the mentors and stuff I’ve been around.”
Blazek hasn’t gotten to watch clips of his new offensive line, but he’s well aware of the talent that he will inherit. UW started four non-seniors on the offensive line in 2020, led by All-Mountain West center Keegan Cryder. The lone senior starter of the group, guard Logan Harris, can play for the 2021 Cowboys if he so desires due to the NCAA’s decision to not count the 2020-21 season toward eligibility.
Part of Blazek’s job is not only coaching his position group, but also figuring out what makes them tick, where they want to go and how to get there. There is a level of familiarity that must be reached for the group to reach its full potential. It also isn’t going to be a one-sided teaching experience.
As much as Blazek knows about how college football works, he said he is going to depend on his players to help him learn the ins and outs of what UW’s “Ride for the Brand” mantra truly means.
“The first piece is really getting them to trust me,” Blazek said. “(They’re thinking) ‘Is he going to make me a better player? That’s the first thing those older guys are thinking about. The younger guys, ‘(It’s) is this guy going to develop me? Is he going to care about me? … The different ages have different priorities. And ultimately, they’re going to want to get both of those.”
The past few months have been tough for Blazek, whose North Dakota State team played just one game this fall due to COVID-19. It was a constant reshuffling of schedules and practices, not knowing whether or not there were games to be played at the end of the tunnel.
Blazek, however, is a believer the pandemic has been a lesson in bouncing back, of learning how to deal with adversity. Not just for him and his former Bison squad, but for everyone who went through the most recent college football season, not to mention the world as a whole.
There are lessons to be learned from handling the toughest of times. It has served him well the better part of a year, and he can’t help but think it will help him moving forward.
“You’re going to see in the long run that kids get a little more resilient, they’re better with change and handling it,” Blazek said. “It was hard. A lot of the same struggles that every player in the country went through, ‘Are we playing this week or not?’ And I think just having to deal with that, we’re going to see down the road that kids are better with change than they used to be, probably.”