LARAMIE – By design, the last 15 months have given Jay Sawvel time to think and, more importantly, rekindle a passion he admittedly lost.
Sawvel, 48, was named the University of Wyoming football program’s defensive coordinator on Feb. 6, following the departure of Jake Dickert. Dickert, along with A.J. Cooper and John Richardson, joined Nick Rolovich’s staff at Washington State in mid-January.
Sawvel has seen a little bit of everything in his coaching career. As Minnesota’s defensive coordinator in 2016, he helped lead the Golden Gophers to one of their best seasons in years on the shoulders of a top-25 ranked defense. On the opposite end of the spectrum was his tenure at Wake Forest, where Sawvel was relieved of his duties just four games into his second season as the Demon Deacons’ defensive coordinator.
Since being fired in October 2018, Sawvel has spent time soul searching. Offers to get back into coaching came, he said, but none felt right. He took time away from football to be with his children, who he hadn’t seen much of, having moved frequently over a short period of time. He visited nine or 10 other schools around the country, not looking for a job, but in an effort to learn something new.
A few weeks after getting fired, Sawvel wrote down a list of things he would change if he could go back, and noted the differences between what success and failure looked like. It was a time of reflection, but also a time to recharge batteries that were running on empty.
When UW offensive line coach Bart Miller, who worked with Sawvel at Minnesota, called him about a job opening on UW head coach Craig Bohl’s staff, something felt right. And, as the interview process played itself out, Sawvel trusted his gut.
If the experiences he had at Wake Forest drained Sawvel of his love for the sport he’s given his all to, the chance to lead UW is quickly proving to be his fountain of youth.
“I’m excited to enjoy coaching again,” Sawvel said. “Because I can probably count on both hands the number of days I truly enjoyed my last place.”
Sawvel was Minnesota’s defensive coordinator in 2016 under new head coach Tracy Claeys, and previously served on the program’s staff as defensive backs and special teams coach. Sawvel coached under Jerry Kill at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, and followed Kill to Minnesota in 2011. Claeys was Kill’s defensive coordinator, but, when a health scare forced Kill to resign in 2015, Claeys was promoted to head coach, bumping Sawvel up to defensive coordinator.
Claeys was fired after one season, however, and Sawvel was not retained by P.J. Fleck, who became the Golden Gophers’ coach in 2017. Sawvel was named Wake Forest’s defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach in January 2017; he was fired in September 2018.
In his lone year as Minnesota’s defensive coordinator, the Golden Gophers surrendered just 22.1 points per game, which ranked 21st in college football; Minnesota finished 9-4. Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson hired Sawvel in early 2017; the Demon Deacons gave up 28.3 points per game in 2017 and 33.5 points per game through four games in 2018 before Sawvel was fired. Wake Forest was winning games, but something wasn’t quite right defensively.
Why things didn’t work out at Wake Forest is complicated, Sawvel said. There wasn’t one thing in particular, but he can point to a few that come to mind. Among the top was the fact he was unable to be as hands-on as he was previously, as he was no longer a positional coach as well as coordinator. While at Minnesota, Sawvel coached defensive backs, in addition to leading the defense. At Wake Forest, he did not have those responsibilities. As Sawvel said, “Do what you do best,” and being solely a CEO was not necessarily his comfort zone.
Sawvel also says he listened to too many people during his stop at Wake Forest. Rather than take the straight path to what had worked at previously, Sawvel says he got caught up in taking multiple voices into account. Rather than taking time to map out what he knew worked, he hit the ground running without a definitive plan.
“There, in that situation, I was probably guilty of allowing too many opinions,” Sawvel said. “There needed to be a clearer path, but one thing I didn’t do a good enough job of initially was truly evaluating what would have been the best path.”
There’s also the fact that, because of Wake Forest’s offensive philosophy, the Demon Deacons’ defense was on the field as much as any unit in the country. Per the data website Team Rankings, Wake Forest led the country in offensive plays run per game in 2018 with 85. For comparison’s sake, UW ran just 65.5 plays per game that season. The year prior, Wake Forest ran 75.6 plays per game, which still ranked in the top quarter nationally.
Because of the up-tempo offense, though, Wake Forest’s opponents ran a staggering 79.5 offensive plays per game in 2018 and a whopping 86.6 the year prior. That takes a massive toll on a defense, Sawvel said. While Wake Forest only surrendered 5.5 yards per play in 2017 (60th nationally), the sheer number of plays adds up.
Perhaps most importantly, however, was that the fit in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was never perfect. Sawvel spent the previous six years coaching at Minnesota and, before that, at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois under Kill. Sawvel knew what he was getting; he had relationships in the room. At Wake Forest, Sawvel didn’t know anyone beforehand, and walking into a room blindfolded rarely works out well. So much so, in fact, that Sawvel said he regretted taking the job in the first place. It was not an enjoyable experience overall.
“We would have been unrecognizable defensively compared to what we were at Minnesota. We weren’t doing the same things were … (you think), ‘Where did you let certain things go off the rails?’” Sawvel said. “After the first year, you look at a situation like, ‘Why did I stay?’”
That’s partially what made Miller’s phone call so refreshing.
Sawvel felt comfortable with Miller and his familiarity with the Wyoming program. There was trust between the two. To an extent, UW was a known commodity before he ever spoke to Bohl. And, after speaking with Bohl, Sawvel immediately felt like he belonged. The two were very much on the same page as far as X’s and O’s were concerned. What Bohl cared about most, though, was fit.
“From a philosophical standpoint, you see why (Bohl’s) extremely good, and you see why he’s won championships,” Sawvel said. “He’s rooted in ageless principles of how to win … those things are very, very appealing.”
Sawvel takes over for Dickert who, though he only led UW’s defense for one season, more than made his mark in Laramie. Wyoming had among the top defenses in college football in 2019, surrendering just 17.8 points per game, ranking second in the Mountain West and 11th in the nation. The Cowboys were particularly stout against the run last season, allowing just 107.1 yards per game (11th nationally).
Scottie Hazelton was UW’s defensive coordinator for two years prior to Dickert and also experienced immense success, as the Cowboys allowed just 19.7 points per game over that span. Hazelton is now the defensive coordinator at Kansas State.
Don’t expect the basic template of UW’s defense to change too drastically from what it’s looked like in recent years, Sawvel said. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it works perfectly well as is. The faces will look different on the field, as well, with the graduation of star linebacker Logan Wilson and safety Alijah Halliburton, among others. That isn’t a problem, Sawvel said, because Bohl and his staff have consistently recruited players on all levels. Sure, Sawvel plans on putting his unique stamp on things but, for the most part, the Cowboys will looks similar to what they’ve been.
The shoes Sawvel has to fill as Wyoming’s defensive coordinator are quite large, but he isn’t looking at it that way. The road map to success is right in front of him. There’s no need to try to be someone he isn’t or to do things a different way just for the sake of doing it. And, though he’s only been on the job at UW a handful of days, Sawvel used a local geographical reference to get the point across.
“You just go be yourself on that,” Sawvel said. “There’s a road map of what coach wants … ‘Go from here to Cheyenne. This is the way to go.’ I’m not inventing a new Cheyenne somewhere … this is still the roadmap of what needs to be done.”