HELENA – Mike Van Diest’s retirement press conference on Monday morning was a who’s who of former Carroll College football players.
Some were national players of the year. Others were role players or backups. All agreed Van Diest had an incredible impact on their lives.
“For a lot of guys, we say how grateful we are for coach for everything he’s done, because I really believe he elevated things here at Carroll College and the Frontier Conference, but also the NAIA,” said former Carroll center Andy Fjeseth. “That run of success is pretty unprecedented, and I’m thankful to have been a part of that.”
Fjeseth is among the most decorated athletes to play for Van Diest. An all-conference and all-American offensive lineman, the former Dillon standout was named the Rimington Award winner in 2010, an honor given to the top offensive lineman in the nation. Fjeseth was a senior that season, the last national championship of Carroll’s six NAIA titles.
“I think the biggest takeaway is the relationships you develop with your teammates. That’s one of the things Coach Van Diest really excelled at, was teaching us how to be good teammates and friends and brothers to one another,” said Fjeseth. “That goes beyond football, you know? That plays into the reason why there was a lot of success that happened here, learning how to play for each other and selling out for your brothers, but it also goes on into life. We have great relationships that we’re going to have forever, and that’s a pretty special thing.”
“I think (former Carroll coach Bob Petrino Sr.) did a great job before him. I always came to the Carroll camps and it was always the Petrino camp I was coming to. I think Coach Van Diest continued that,” said Tyler Emmert, a four-time national champion and two-time national player of the year quarterback for Van Diest. “He put a lot of time into personal relationships with players, and I don’t think it’s different now than it was then. I think the funding he has now might be a little less than back then, so that might have some impact there. But he puts a lot of effort into relationships. When he talks, you could hear the number of people he remembers, the names he remembers, it’s kind of unbelievable.”
Emmert is one of many former Carroll College football players to transition from playing on game day to coaching alongside Van Diest. Former linemen Alex Kastens and Alex Pfannenstiel have grown into significant roles on the Saints’ staff and were quick to credit the family atmosphere Van Diest built as a key reason for their wanting to stay with the program.
“I tell recruits, and I’ve told a lot of people in my life, that I came here because I got to know the school and football program, but I stayed because of the people,” said Pfannenstiel, a 2005 and 2007 national champion with the Saints. “I think that’s the thing that those people that only see Saturdays don’t understand, the relationships that coach cultivated with his players and the environment he built. I mean, you talked to Andy Fjeseth and Tyler Emmert, Tyler was a teammate of mine and I was in Andy’s wedding. Andy’s one of my best friends in the whole world. It’s because coach brought people like him here and created that environment.”
“I think the thing people don’t see is that he’s still a coach to a lot of us, he’s still like a second father to me and a lot of us,” Pfannenstiel continued. “The impact he’s had upon lives is a lot more impressive than what you see on the scoreboard, which is pretty dang good, but history speaks for itself. If anyone could sit down and write the history of that, I think that’s the thing that would move people a lot more than what was accomplished on Saturdays.”
But there’s no denying Van Diest and his staff’s success. Carroll won the Frontier Conference championship in 2000, just their second year at the helm, the first of 12 straight and 14 overall league titles. The Fighting Saints won six national titles, four straight from 2002 to 2005, with two runner-up finishes.
Van Diest finished with 203 career wins, No. 9 all-time, compared to only 54 losses, good for a winning percentage of 79 percent, second-best in NAIA history. Four of his athletes captured national player of the year accolades – Emmert in 2003 and 2005, Owen Koeppen in 2008 and Chance Demarais in 2011 – while dozens of others, like Fjeseth and Pfannenstiel, were all-American.
Players recognize the football genius of Van Diest, but putting it into words has never been simple.
“I think in almost all of those postseason runs, we were never the fastest team, the strongest team or the biggest team, but we had a lot of wins and a lot of success,” said Fjeseth. “That says a lot about putting guys in the right spot, enabling them to be the best version of themselves as a player and a person.”
“Every spring, your offense plays your defense every spring, and it just seemed like there were some years where we had a really good offense, but we never seemed to have a ton of success in the spring,” added Emmert, who faced Van Diest’s defense every day in practice. “Every now and again we would maybe get the defense, but they definitely won more than we did in practices. Yeah, all year long I was kind of like, ‘How come we can’t get one up here?’ and it was that way when I was coaching, too.”
It was all of the above that brought Pfannenstiel back to Carroll in 2016 after prior coaching stops at Helena Capital and Lindenwood University in Missouri. He says studying under Van Diest and attempting to capture even a small portion of his knowledge has been an honor.
“Coach is an incredible football coach. He’s right, he doesn’t have hobbies. Football is his hobby and I kind of picked that up from him, too,” Pfannenstiel laughed. “His knowledge, and if you look back, even from a defensive standpoint, we have been a 3-4, a 4-3, we’ve been a stack defense. He’s adapted this entire program offensively and defensively to the best players we could get and the best people we could get. The defenses, you look back to 2006 and 2007, we gave up less than six points per game in consecutive years. You have to be kidding me. It wasn’t very much fun to practice against the guy.
“His knowledge of the game, his ability to manage football games, knowing when it’s time to punt, when it’s time to go for it, knowing the right time to call a blitz or call coverage, I don’t know if people quite understand how good he was at that and all the work he put into that. It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t a feel thing for him; that was hard work, dedication and thinking it and living it all day every day that really got him to that point.”
Van Diest will be inducted to the NAIA Hall of Fame during the American Football Coaches Association convention in San Antonio, Texas in January.