HELENA – Carroll College coach Mike Van Diest was watching Monday’s FBS national championship much like the majority of football fans across the country.
Van Diest watched as Alabama head coach Nick Saban captured his sixth national championship, tying Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most all-time at the NCAA’s highest level. But six titles is nothing new for the head coach at Carroll College.
Van Diest, along with his staff, won six NAIA national championships – 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2010 – while enjoying one of the most dominant runs in all of college football history. The Fighting Saints have also won 14 Frontier Conference titles under Van Diest, 12 straight from 2000-2011.
Watching Saban hoist the championship trophy for the sixth time was a treat for Van Diest.
“Nobody is going to catch Larry Kehres from Mount Union, he’s pretty special,” Van Diest said of the 11-time Division III championship-winning coach, the most in college football history. “But to be able to watch Coach Saban do what he did and what he’s done with his staff, you think about all the turnover he’s had with the coaches that are leaving to be head coaches, guys like Will Muschamp, Kirby Smart, Lane Kiffin and all those guys that move on, he’s still the solid rock of the program.”
Watching Saban in that moment is a feeling Van Diest would like to return at Carroll College. The Fighting Saints have finished 4-6 in each of the past three seasons but bring a bevy of talent back to the field next fall. Coaches have been busy recruiting since the season ended in November, looking for the future of the program.
“Coach (Nick) Howlett this week is down in Idaho, he’s down in Utah, and getting a chance to see some guys that will be on campus here late in January,” Van Diest said of his offensive coordinator. “Coach (Jim) Hogan has been through the state and he’s going back out through the state later on this week, so recruiting right now slowed down a bit over the holidays because we weren’t on campus, but we’ll start bringing guys in this week and early next week. Hopefully we’ll get the guys that we want. We put the bait out there, so to speak, and the players know who we want, the student-athletes know who we’re recruiting, but the key is getting them on campus around our athletes and academic faculty on campus to see if we can shut the door and close on these guys.”
“When you watched the (FBS) national championship game (Monday) night, look at Alabama and Georgia and how many freshmen were key players,” Van Diest continued. “We have some freshmen we’re recruiting that we think can come in and play, but you can’t put a stamp on that until after we’ve been through spring football and see how our current players are doing. A lot of things are up for grabs. We have a lot of open competition, especially on that offensive line. Linebacker, we have some good guys coming back there. Safety spot, we have to replace Tucker Johnson, someone has to step into his spot. Same with Alec Basterrechea on the defensive line and David Anderson at linebacker. There is a lot of competition that we have to sort things out through the next couple weeks, but recruiting is going to be very important. More and more freshmen, freshmen redshirts, they have to put their best foot forward as we go into spring football.”
As Van Diest and the staff continue aiming to lock up recruits, one of the most challenging issues can be trying to lock up multiple-sport athletes who may be interested in pursuing collegiate careers in a different sport.
“They have to make that decision. We’ve tried to talk players into one sport or another and it usually comes back and backfires on you. They have to decide which sport they have the most passion for,” said Van Diest. “If a young guy sits in my office and is trying to decide between football and basketball, or football and baseball, then I might back off of him because I know football isn’t his true love. We’ve had guys like Ryan Arntson and Troy Arntson that are multi-sport athletes that do a great job with two or three sports, but football is the No. 1 sport in their lives. Chris Emter was the same way coming out of Livingston. Tanner Harrell down there at Shepherd that we signed this year, he’s a heck of a wrestler and is playing basketball this year. Those guys know which sport they love, and those are the guys that I want to see that in their eyes when they sit in my office and say, ‘Coach, I want to be a college football player.’”