Dave Doeren's journey to become N.C. State's football coach

calexander@newsobserver.comDecember 9, 2012 

— While N.C. State football coach Dave Doeren was making the rounds for media interviews at Carter-Finley Stadium last Sunday, his three sons were also on the move.

Jacob, Luke and Connor Doeren darted about the third floor of the Murphy Center, checking it out. Luke, 11, settled back into a couch, munched on a cookie and peered out a window overlooking the stadium.

“Do they ever storm the field here?” he said to no one in particular.

It’s tough, he was told, but it has been done. And there needs to be a reason for the fans to do it.

Dave Doeren was hired to give Wolfpack fans that reason. He comes to N.C. State off back-to-back MAC championships at Northern Illinois, which went 12-1 and will be playing in the Orange Bowl, albeit without Doeren.

Wolfpack athletic director Debbie Yow said she wants championships. She wants a Top 25 program. She wants a full stadium and big wins.

Doeren, who turned 41 Monday, has been a head coach only two years. But those who know him best say not to underestimate him. That includes Dan Waters, the track and field coach at Alabama and one of Doeren’s best friends.

Doeren and Waters grew up in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. All but inseparable, they once caddied together at Kansas City Country Club, picking up $12 a bag, often toting mornings and afternoons, in good weather and bad.

“We started in the fourth or fifth grade, and I guess that was our first opportunity for any real work,” Waters said, laughing. “Putting the carts back, cleaning clubs, we did it all. And Dave was always an incredibly hard worker.”

Doeren and Waters later played high school football and golf together at Bishop Miege High. Doeren was the big kid in a small school, Waters said, capable of playing all the positions on the offensive line including tight end.

As a golfer, Doeren was a much better player than Waters, and one day they were paired together in a match against a twosome from a rival school. Waters said he was playing “tragically bad,” to the point the two opponents started mocking him.

“Dave stuck up for me and soon words were spoken and there was some pushing and shoving,” Waters said. “Remember, this was a golf match.”

After the brief scuffle, Doeren played great golf. They won the match.

“That sums up his competitiveness and how he always stands up for someone,” Waters said. “He was determined not to be beaten and to offer the support that was needed. That’s the way he is as a coach.”

Not that Doeren always wanted to be a coach.

A change in plans

He said he once had plan to be an orthopedic specialist. Had things been different, he might be the team doctor for the football team at, say, the University of Kansas.

"I loved science and I love sports and I kind of felt orthopedic medicine would let me do both," Doeren said. "That’s kind of where I was going, to be a doctor for a sports team.

"The one subject I enjoyed the most in school was biology. Being an athlete I knew if I was a sports doctor I could do both."

But those long-range plans changed, he said, in the course of a college summer.

His maternal grandfather, Thomas Glennon, had coached basketball and track and Doeren said sports was a big part of what he called an "Irish Catholic upbringing" growing up outside Kansas City.

Doeren played college football at Drake, where he was 6-4, 237-pound tight end who had modest receiving numbers: a career 19 catches for 237 yards. Hee also was an Academic All-American, earning a bachelor’s degree in pre-medical biology.

"He was a good player, not an All-American but a smart, tough football player," said Rob Ash, Doeren’s coach at Drake and now head coach at Montana State.

Doeren was on track to be a doctor – which he said thrilled his mother – until the summer of his junior year. He had taken the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and was back home when his former coach at Bishop Miege asked him to run a seven-on-seven football league.

"I did that, and when I left I went home and said, ‘I’m not going to be a doctor, I’m going to be a coach,’" Doeren said. "From that point on, that was it – I was going to be a head coach. I just didn’t know how long it would take me. It’s in my blood."

There was the not-so-small matter of telling his parents that he wouldn’t be Dr. Doeren.

"My mom was mad," he said, smiling.

Move to coaching

Doeren got his coaching start at Shawnee Mission Northwest High in 1994. Scott Diebold, then the Northwest coach, was a former Bishop Miege player who had painted houses with Doeren for a couple of summers.

"Just a couple of guys singing country music on ladders and throwing paint on walls," Diebold said.

Diebold said he quickly learned his new assistant coach had a good mind for football, that Doeren could "quickly process information and store it away."

"He’s very intelligent, very level-headed," Diebold said.

Doeren next made the move to Drake, where he was linebackers coach and later defensive coordinator for Ash. Soon, Diebold had Doeren the college recruiter at his door.

"From the start he did a great job of talking to the kids and selling the program," Diebold said. "He could convince kids they would be good student-athletes and get a good education. He’s a very genuine person and that comes through in recruiting."

Doeren was at Drake from 1995 to 1997, and Ash said he was "a sponge” for learning in intracacies of defensive football. Ash called Doeren a "real teacher," someone he said who had a knack for talking and dealing with players.

"He’s clear and concise in communication," Ash said. "Some guys are too long-winded, Dave always had the ability to boil it down to the key point so you could understand."

By then, Doeren’s life also had taken another turn. He had met a nursing student in Des Moines.

"We dated for a couple of years, then he got the opportunity to go to Southern California," Doeren’s wife, Sara, said.

The USC Trojans needed a graduate assistant coach. Doeren was ready to move. He also was ready to propose.

"So we got married and went out there and hung out there for a couple of years," Sara said, laughing.

"It was a good experience. We’ve been together through this whole process."

The process, Dave Doeren said, includes a little of everything – lining fields, driving the bus, being a grad assistant, coaching in high school, coaching in NCAA Division I-AA..

It took them to Montana, where Doeren coached the secondary, where a I-AA championship was won. Then it was on to Kansas, where Doeren headed up recruiting, helped coordinate the defense and helped coach the Jayhawks to bowl games.

Next, it was on to the Big Ten. It was on to Wisconsin, where Doeren joined Bret Bielema’s coaching staff and again headed up recruiting before becoming defensive coordinator.

Bielema, who left Wisconsin this past week to be the new coach at Arkansas, was so confident in Doeren’s recruiting ability that he sent him to South Florida, where Bielema had once recruited. He jokingly noted the high school coaches in Florida said it was if Bielema had sent down his twin brother.

Doeren had defensive talent at Wisconsin, players such as linebacker Jonathan Casillas of the New Orleans Saints. The Badgers were 49-15 and played in the 2011 Rose Bowl.

Doeren said from the time he was 24, he had prepared himself to be a head coach. In 2011, the opportunity came when Jerry Kill left Northern Illinois for Minnesota and the Huskies turned to Doeren.

Making an impact

For Doeren, his first head coaching job wasn’t just about football. To help promote the program, he jumped out of an airplane from 14,000 feet, saying he enjoyed the sky-dive. He drove a stock car. He did whatever was asked of him.

And he won, big, going 23-4 the past two seasons. The Huskies, with dynamic Jordan Lynch at quarterback operating the spread offense, averaged 40 points a game this season. The defense was physical, effective.

ESPN college football analyst Tom Luginbill said he spent time with Doeren at Northern Illinois when the ESPN crew went to DeKalb, Ill., to prepare for a few game telecasts.

"People say teams emulate their coach’s personality and he’s very even-keel," Luginbill said. "He’s mild-mannered, a matter-of-fact, single-minded person. He has a nice attention to detail and great work ethic, which serves him well.

"He’s also well-versed in recruiting in places where it’s not easy to recruit. Ever been to Dekalb? At N.C. State it should be easier.”

Doeren, who has Internet savvy, said he researched N.C. State on the Internet before taking the job offer. Asked if he knew how close he was to Chapel Hill and the Pack’s biggest rival, North Carolina, he quipped, yep, he Goggle-mapped it.

It helped that Doeren’s agent, Jordan Bazant of The Legacy Agency, also represents Wolfpack basketball coach Mark Gottfried.

"I already knew a lot about him," Gottfried said. "Jordan understands the (coaching) business and told me they had a lot of opportunities. With his credentials, it’s hard to argue. He’s an impressive guy.”

Doeren also turned to Waters for advice. Waters said he had been to N.C. State, Duke and North Carolina for track events and cross country meets. He had a feel for the area, had seen the facilities.

“He called me and I told him, ‘Whew, what a fantastic place,’” Waters said. “And N.C. State has talent. Once he implements his sytem and changes the culture, he’ll get it going.”

Doeren’s wife, Sara, said her husband is serious and can be intimidating to some. But there’s another side, she said. He’s an outdoors guy who loves boating, fishing, grilling out.

"He loves to play the guitar and go to concerts,” she said. “We went to see the Zac Brown Band recently.”

Plus the boys - Jacob, 13, Luke, 11, and Connor, 6 - keep him busy.

Now, Doeren must hire a staff. He must recruit. He’ll go to the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., on New Year’s Eve for the Pack’s game against Vanderbilt, but only to observe.

He knows the expectations he faces as he tries to build a team worthy of inspiring fans to want to storm the field. He also knows how long it has been since the Pack last won an ACC title.

“Thirty-three years,” he said, correctly.

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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