HELENA – Alex Pfannenstiel isn’t one to live in the past, but one certainly couldn’t blame him if he did.
The Portland, Oregon native spent five seasons as an offensive lineman at Carroll College, a redshirt season and three-and-a-half years as a starter, and never missed the NAIA postseason. Pfannenstiel has two national championship rings, a combined record of 66-4 and a pair of all-conference accolades.
It would be challenging for Pfannenstiel not to dwell on those glory days, but since beginning his career in the coaching world, he’s all about the present.
“As a coach I don’t draw too much back to my playing days. Shoot, for me that was honestly a decade ago. But you look at it and you understand, having been part of a championship tradition, where things break the right way and where things break the wrong way,” said Pfannenstiel. “It is a challenge because you want to win. It’s what you do, you’re around it and understand what a winning culture is and what it looks like. You’re able to point that out to guys, ‘Hey, this is a winning attitude and this is a losing attitude. These are the plays we have to make, these are critical situations,’ but it’s not just on game day. Game day is a reflection of your work leading up to that point, that week, that month or your entire offseason.”
“To me, I take a look at, ‘OK, how do we get to those championships?’ You look at the work that built up to it,” he continued. “You try to focus on that work day to day and creating that championship attitude, not on game day, not at practice, but in meetings, the weight room, the classroom and off the field. That’s what we try to focus on and get those guys building, knowing it’s going to build that same attitude and culture and tradition that it takes to win.”
To hear Pfannenstiel speak of tradition and culture is impressive. His Carroll College football career started because of a suggestion from current Montana Lady Griz assistant basketball coach Mike Petrino, whose family is loaded with Carroll history, to call then-offensive line coach Jim Hogan. That paved way to the 66 wins, the titles and the tutoring.
Pfannenstiel became a sponge for football, soaking up all he could from anyone he could. After graduation, he joined the Helena Capital coaching staff before a cross-country move to St. Charles, Missouri at Lindenwood University. But once a Saint, always a Saint, Pfannenstiel wound up back in Helena two seasons ago, filled with experiences from each stop on his football journey.
“I took a coaching class with (Carroll head coach Mike) Van Diest when I was in college, and the thing that he said was, ‘When you become a coach you have a tool box. You take bits and pieces from each coach that you work with that you like and will keep forever and things you hate and will never do. You see my coaching style as mine, but I’m just a piece of all the coaches I’ve worked for,’” recalled Pfannenstiel. “Coach Van Diest, his determination and work ethic, showing up every day and what is toughness, I really take away from him. From (Helena Capital coach) Kyle Mihelish, I really learned so much about defensive football from Kyle. I went over there and coached the defensive line, I had never played defense in my life, I was an offensive lineman, so I learned quite a bit about him, how to handle players and how to motivate.
“Pat Ross, who I worked for at Lindenwood, he taught me the value as a coach to spend time with your family and have time for yourself off the field. I always really appreciated that. Deion Melvin, the defensive coordinator there, was a great mentor to me in terms of how you work with kids. I’ve been very fortunate to work with guys who were national coaches of the year, Pat Murphy at Capital, a multiple-time state champion as a coach. I’ve been fortunate as a young coach to work for a lot of great people where you just, little bits and pieces you take away and make a part of what you do.”
That advice has also made Pfannenstiel’s trek across the country and back an easier transition. An offensive lineman his entire life, his coaching career actually began on the defensive side of the ball at Capital before jumping back to offensive line at Lindenwood and eventually tight ends at Carroll.
“The transition was, in terms of the blocking realm it was really easy for me. Having played offensive line in this system with (Carroll offensive coordinator) Nick Howlett and (former offensive line coach) Jim Hogan, as an offensive lineman you have to know what the tight end is doing all the time. That transition was very easy for me and having coached offensive line before, the blocking techniques, I was able to add to that a lot,” said Pfannenstiel. “Working with Nick Howlett, who I played for and now have a relationship with as a colleague, has been great because he’s taught me so much about the passing game. We do so much with (tight ends Sam Stratton and Eric Dawson), splitting them out as a wide receiver and in the backfield as a running back, it was quite a transition at first, but I have a good mentor that’s taught me a lot about the passing game and helped me translate that over.”
Pfannenstiel, who actually goes by “Pfanny,” also points to his friendship with Carroll defensive line and strength coach Alex Kastens, also a former Saints’ offensive lineman. He says the duo provide motivation and the occasional “gentle kick in the behind” for encouragement, adding that they’re similar in many ways, yet different in many others.
Pfannenstiel and Kastens will work closely in the offseason, providing the Saints’ strength and conditioning program, while Pfannenstiel will also test his tight ends, a group that has seen much turnover in the past year.
“My role, especially in the strength and conditioning, is to make sure we get our guys ready to go physically. I think we go into the summer, that’s a transition not being on the field, so to me the biggest thing is making sure in the weight room those guys get stronger, faster and get healthy. Then it comes into the classroom aspect. We’ll get Eric (Dawson) back at tight end, but behind him we don’t have a lot of experience. Connor McGree, Alex Hoffman, Luke Gleasman and J.D. Lyle have all moved from tight end to offensive line in the last year. All those guys, besides Luke who was injured, have played and contributed to wins on the field at tight end. We only have one guy left that’s played in a game. I have to take Sam Stratton, Kyle Harrington, Matt Culpon from Helena Capital who will be here, Corbin Walker from Butte High is going to come up and play fullback for us, I have to make sure those guys are ready to go and the first time they see what they’re going to see in the fall isn’t August. We have to be mentally prepared and ready to play.”
It might not hurt to provide some extra motivation by flashing one of those championship rings, either.