BILLINGS — On a bookcase in Clay Bignell's office sits a series of miniature football helmets.
Each represents a stop along Bignell's career path — first there's Helena Capital High School and Montana State where he played linebacker, followed by helmets illustrating his coaching stops at Montana Western, then back to MSU (this helmet boasts the updated block 'M' logo) and subsequent stints at Northwestern, Notre Dame, East Carolina and Vanderbilt.
The helmets are a keen reminder of what has been a long journey, but that odyssey ultimately led Bignell to his current job as the first-year defensive coordinator at Eastern Illinois in the FCS Ohio Valley Conference, a position to which he was promoted earlier this month from his previous role as the Panthers' safeties coach and defensive pass-game coordinator.
Bignell has long had designs on being a defensive coordinator, and he now has that chance 12 years after he last suited up for the Bobcats at the end of the 2011 season.
"I've been around a lot of really good football coaches and some really good defensive coordinators," Bignell told MTN Sports during a Zoom interview on Wednesday. "I feel like I've been preparing for this my whole life. It's always been a goal of mine to be a defensive coordinator. I've been prepared for this my whole career."
Bignell was a standout at Helena Capital, from where he graduated in 2007. He moved on to MSU and spent five years there as a player (2007-11), helping the Cats win back-to-back Big Sky Conference titles in 2010 and 2011 under head coach Rob Ash. Bignell was a two-time All-Big Sky selection.
At first Bignell had planned to obtain a teaching certificate and coach football in high school, but after coaching linebackers at UM Western in 2012 he set a new goal to pursue the college ranks. That led him back to MSU, where he was a graduate assistant during the 2013 season. He moved on to grad assistant jobs at Northwestern in 2014 and Notre Dame in 2016 and 2017, and a job as a defensive analyst for the Irish in 2018 and 2019.
Bignell then obtained defensive analyst positions at East Carolina (2020) and Vanderbilt (2021) before joining the Eastern Illinois staff in 2022. And in March, when defensive coordinator Adam Gristick left for the NFL's New Orleans Saints, Bignell was promoted to the one job he's wanted all along.
Bignell says he's ready for the challenge, partly because of the fact that he has coached all three levels on the field — defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs.
As for his philosphy, Bignell said he wants the Panthers to "attack, create chaos, create turnovers, get the ball back. We'll be multiple but we'll be simple so we can play fast and adjust. It starts with stopping the run and creating turnovers, and then you've got to win on third down and in the red zone. That's where our money is made."
It's been a decade since Eastern Illinois last made the FCS playoffs. It is a proud program with a tradition that boasts some big names across the football landscape — Tony Romo, Jimmy Garoppollo, Sean Payton, Mike Shanahan and others. The late Bob Spoo served as the head coach there from 1987-2011, where he won 144 games and five conference titles and took the Panthers to the playoffs nine times.
Bignell said it's the goal of second-year coach Chris Wilkerson, an EIU alum, and the rest of the staff to return the Panthers to prominence.
A Bobcat at heart — and as a member of one of the most famous and decorated Montana State families — Bignell was among a resurgence of team-wide talent that included quarterback DeNarius McGhee, running back Cody Kirk, receiver Elvis Akpla, defensive tackle Zach Minter and fellow linebacker Jody Owens, which led to a resurgence of program success.
These days the Bobcats are among the elite programs in the FCS, having been to three semifinal games with a national championship appearance in the past three seasons.
"It's cool to see as a Bobcat," said Bignell, whose wife Kaylee is the daughter of Dan Davies, a longtime MSU coach, athletic administrator and broadcast voice. "As an alum you're always proud and you always want to see your alma mater go deep and make a run. It's been fun. They kind of run the state now."
It's the kind of success Bignell would love to see happen at Eastern Illinois, though he knows there's plenty of work to be done.
"They've been through some tough times here," he said. "Last year was really about starting at the ground level. We've been able to bring in guys from the transfer portal that can play right away, so this year is going to be a big year. You've got to take a big step in Year 2 and then build from there.
"You want it to matter around here again. We're trying to reinvigorate the fan base by winning on the field and getting this place back where it should be."
If that happens, Bignell might be able to clear some space on his bookshelf for a little hardware.