HELENA – In late March it was revealed that the Montana Grizzly football coaching staff boasted nearly 200 years of combined experience, 197 to be exact. Bobby Hauck’s club has certainly been around the coaching block a time or two, but when former Griz assistant and current Carroll College head coach Mike Van Diest was questioned about the Fighting Saints’ experience, a joking smile formed on his face.
“If we do then I’m the oldest guy with 100 years and everyone else is catching up. You don’t want to put that on us,” laughed Van Diest. “We have some experience. Bringing Tony Arntson on board is big time. We have some younger guys, which I thought would be great, guys that will bring to this program new excitement, maybe a different angle on how to coach, some different drills. We’re not changing our entire program or schemes, but it’s another tool in the toolbox, so to speak.”
Those tools have been sharpened during the Saints’ spring drills, which are set to conclude with Carroll’s annual spring game on Saturday. Arntson and Howlett have worked side-by-side on the practice field, reviewing the playbook and incorporating the terminology. Van Diest and Alex Kastens have manned the defensive side of the ball, with Alex Pfannenstiel roaming the entire field.
Each is dedicated to the improvement of the program, which has finished 4-6 in each of the past three seasons, and prepared to re-ignite the spark that fans grew so accustomed to during the Saints’ six NAIA national championship runs. Van Diest says he feels the excitement rising and credits the other athletic programs for building it.
“What’s great is how successful our men’s and women’s basketball teams were. They take off into the playoffs, win the conference championship, the conference tournament, there’s a lot of excitement on this campus, around the community and in the state because of the success those guys had. I hope that carries over with enthusiasm to ‘Hey, now it’s spring football. That’s the next sport,’” Van Diest said. “We’re in spring football and let’s go from there. When you look at it, August is when these kids report (and it) isn’t very far off. It looks like it is, but us coaches have our calendars printed off and it’s like, ‘OK, we don’t have many weeks that we have to get prepared for certain things that we want to make sure we cover during spring practice. Then what are we going to do with film study and the guys staying here this summer?’ It’s exciting. Football doesn’t have an offseason, it’s just out of season.”
Though the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs are a welcome distraction for the hockey fan in Van Diest, it’s the Xs and Os of the playbook, schemes past and present, even possibility of swapping players from one side of the football to the other that populate the majority of his mind during the spring.
Though the Saints have continued to dive deeper into the playbook as spring has rolled on, their coach speaks of the simplest, yet most important, aspect of all as being the biggest factor in future success.
“I think the thing that both sides of the football, Coach Howlett on offense and what we’re trying to do on defense, is number one making sure their assignment and alignment is right. Then you go out and execute and go play,” Van Diest said. “Go play and do it the way you’ve been taught to do it, the way you’ve watched it on film. It’s decision making. On defense, it’s no different than any place else, you have to be strong up the middle. On offense, what kills you is turnovers. That’s in any sport.
“Those are the things we have to emphasize as we go through spring football, but number one is getting guys in the right positions. We made a move with Connor McGree from tight end to center, we moved Alex Hoffman from tight end to offensive tackle, and it’s not an experiment, we’re moving them in there. They’re going to stay there and they’re going to learn it regardless of what happens. This is a learning phase for them and I think the new coaches, it’s a learning phase for them as well.”
While his assignment and alignment chatter may sound like a broken record to some, it’s where Van Diest points immediately when looking at losses over the past three seasons. Big plays, momentum shifts and turnovers seemingly stem from players being out of position or straying from their assignment on film, but Van Diest sees a simple fix if all parties buy in.
“Those are certainly things we can control as players and coaches. As coaches, we have to do a better job of making sure what we’re getting done in practice is productive, it’s not just activity. We’re not just going out there for an hour and 45 minutes, or two-and-a-half hours and saying, ‘OK, now we have a practice in.’ We have to make sure we’re covering what we need to cover,” he said. “If we go back and look at last year’s film, or even film from five years ago, what are the things we need to work on? Our job as defensive coaches is that we have to shore up our tackling, we have to do better at the pass rush and we have to be better at the cornerback positions. Offensively we have to be able to throw the ball downfield to guys like Troy Arntson and Shane Sipes, Chase Fossum and Shane Hart, those types of guys, Eric Dawson is a great receiver. What can we do better that we can control? Obviously we’re not at the other schools’ spring practices, so we have to concentrate on what can we do at Carroll College the best.”
Fans will get a glimpse of those areas of focus this weekend, as the Saints are set to open the spring game around 1 p.m. on Saturday. Once the final whistle blows on that scrimmage and the film has been critiqued, Van Diest and the staff will seek brief hiatuses to reset for the grueling schedule that awaits.
“We have some coaches that get away, these guys need to get away and spend some time with their family and quality time vacation-wise. They do some fishing, I don’t think this staff is a bunch of golfers, they don’t let us on Bill Roberts Golf Course and (longtime Carroll supporter) Parker Heller has never invited me out to the country club,” Van Diest joked, “so for us, it’s an opportunity to go back, watch last year’s film, watch cut-ups from spring football, look at players coming in as freshmen or transfers and say ‘OK, we need some help here. Maybe we move guys around in the summer.’ We have 60-plus guys that stay here in the summer, so we’re around them a lot in the weight room and film session and we get a chance to mingle with them throughout the summer.”
As long as age and total years of experience aren’t discussed in the conversation.