GREAT FALLS -- Andrew Rolin is entering his second year as head coach of the MSU-Northern football team after his first season saw a rebuilding Lights team finish 1-10 in 2018.
Though the win-loss record wasn't what he'd hoped, there's a palpable energy that he brings to the field and a lot of enthusiasm and optimism from fans, players and administration about where Rolin is leading the program.
Rolin sat down with MTN Sports at the Frontier Conference media day to discuss the Lights, his background, his family and the future of football at MSU-Northern in this week's Sunday Conversation.
MTN Sports: You’re not the new guy anymore. You said it in your address to the media, this conference roots for each other. Is there some camaraderie among Frontier coaches?
Andrew Rolin: “Right, there’s a lot of camaraderie. It’s pretty unique within a conference because there’s going to be rivalries. Everybody wants to win, everybody wants to beat each other. But I think everyone wants to work together, too. It’s been inviting for the past year and a half from the rest of the head coaches. We’re all going in trying to win the conference, but we’re all rooting for everybody else outside the conference, as well. It’s unique but also pretty fun, too. No doubt about it, it’s the best conference in the NAIA -- the SEC of the NAIA. The records show for themselves, lots of 6-4 records. A lot of teams that should be in the playoffs but haven’t been because of the conference being so competitive. But where else would you rather be, though? You want to be in the best conference, compete in the best conference and win the best conference. Puts you at the top of the country, where else would you rather be?”
MTN Sports: How much do you enjoy this event where you can spend time with coaches in a non-competitive atmosphere?
Rolin: “It’s a great event, getting everybody together. Obviously we have our head coaches meetings, discuss the conference moving forward into the 2019 season. But this media day, it’s a lot of coverage here spanning over multiple states and spanning over Montana, obviously. It’s a big deal. I think it shows how important this conference is to the state of Montana, we all know that, but going into Idaho and Oregon, as well. It’s big time football. I think our kids feel that way and understand it and they’re almost surprised, how big this conference is in state, how big these rivalries really are. It goes back generations for some people, so it’s fun to see and it’s exciting to be a part of.”
MTN Sports: Played quarterback in high school and at San Diego, when did your love of football start?
Rolin: “It goes back as far as I can remember. I can remember being 3 years old at Christmas. All I wanted was a Raiders helmet and pads and wearing the silver and black. To me, what was greater than that? I think from the moment I can remember I was in love with the game. That carried through Pop Warner, high school and on to college. Blessed to play for Jim Harbaugh at (the University of San Diego) and Ron Carriger once coach Harbaugh left for Stanford. I’ve been lucky. I’ve been blessed in this game, and my career was cut short, which led me into where I am today. It led me into my passion for coaching, which I think has almost exceeded me playing the game, which may sound crazy to come people, but being able to have the impact that I do have and now as a head coach having a great impact on an entire town almost, especially how Havre works, is pretty neat for me. There’s nothing else I’d rather do. I don’t have to show up to work in the shirt and tie, I get to show up with my whistle and my watch and my play call sheet and I get to coach football for a living, what a dream.”
MTN Sports: Was coaching always the plan after playing career ended?
Rolin: “I think subconsciously. My dad was a coach, my uncle coached me, and there’s that element of loving the game as a coach. Subconsciously, I didn’t want to admit to myself you always want to play as long as you can and play at the highest level, and when your time comes, it’s time to hang up the cleats and to enter the business world or whatever field you may venture into or pick up a whistle, and I decided to pick up a whistle. It was the greatest decision I’ve ever made and it’s my passion, it’s my love. Our whole family is a part of this. It’s a family decision, it’s not just me, it’s my wife and my kids are just as involved with our team and our program as I am. So it starts from when I was young, and I always kind of think I knew this is where I was headed.”
MTN Sports: What was Jim Harbaugh’s recruiting pitch, and what was he like as a coach?
Rolin: “Everyone always asks me, 'What was he like?' It’s pretty simple, and I give coach Harbaugh so much credit. What you see on TV is what you get. What everyone sees on ESPN or maybe in the Big 10 media days, that’s who he is, he’s not fake, that’s his personality. He’s the most highly competitive person I ever met and probably ever will meet and I think he instilled that into our teams. We went 40-6 in four years, and so we won a lot of football games and that guy likes to compete -- it doesn’t matter if pool or ping pong, that guy wants to win, and I think our team success was a product of that philosophy.”
MTN Sports: I know your wife Jessica (Nyrop) Rolin has an athletic background, as well. She played Division I volleyball and her dad played in the NHL, right?
Rolin: “Her dad played for the Canadiens, first American ever to start for the Montreal Canadians. Played football and hockey at Notre Dame. Her lineage is a lot better than mine. We laugh about it, we pray our kids get her athletic genes. Her mom played volleyball at Washington State, so there’s background of being pretty athletic and my wife was, too. She played professionally overseas for a few years. Her dad coached, as well, so there’s a lot of athletic background. Our poor kids, we always say we’re not going to force sports on them. If they want to be in the Glee club or if they want to do something else, we’re totally OK with that, but I think organically they’re going to be involved in football. My daughter is at practice every day. She’s excited to go to daddy’s work, is what she calls it every day. And so I think football and volleyball and basketball and baseball are going to be integrated in their lives. My wife is a rock, she coached at Stanford when I was down at San Jose State, was in the strength and conditioning world. So she’s got a background in coaching, as well. We’re highly involved in athletics and collegiate athletics, specifically.”
MTN Sports: How much do you enjoy having your kids (Payton and Bo) grow up on the sideline and being around this environment?
Rolin: “I got goosebumps thinking about it. What a dream. Faith, family, football for me. The moment I get off that field, the first thing I want to see is my wife, Peyton and Bo. They’re my life, they’re my rocks. I know you’re a new father so you know what I’m talking about, Tom. They’re everything to me, and how fun is that they get to share in that? And what’s cool about Havre, is they walk from our house and it takes them two minutes to walk from our house to the practice facility and they come right on the field and they’re a big part of who we are as a program and that’s the dream, is having you family be a part of what you do daily.”
MTN Sports: I recall when you first arrived in Havre, your wife helped plan the Lights' strength and conditioning program. Is she still involved?
Rolin: “She’s highly involved. I like to say we have a Pac-12 coach living under our roof that’s done it before. The organization of the whole thing is definitely in her hands, and I don’t know if there’s a more capable person in Havre or the state or Montana. And I’m bragging right now, but that’s how much I think of her and she’s really good at what she does. It’s exciting to be able to have that resource, which a lot of people don’t have.”
MTN Sports: Naturally everyone will look at win-loss record, but what have been some of the areas of growth for the Lights off the field?
Rolin: “Let’s start academically. Our No. 1 goal is that they graduate. We’re student-athletes, students coming first. When I showed up, the GPA was around a 2.0. Our first semester we jumped to a 2.99. In the fall, we dipped back down to a 2.7, and then in the spring we came back up to a 2.85. Our goal is to be above a 3.0 as a program. We have a lot of new incoming faces, which is typically a challenge. But I think our guys have really stepped up academically, and I think that carries over. How you act in the classroom and the community is a direct reflection of how you’re going to play on the field, I just happen to believe that. In the community, we’re involved with TroyStrong. Wes Ross is guy that — I saw your story—and I said, ‘I have got to call this guy.’ I don’t remember how I got his number, but I called Wes and I said, ‘I want to be involved in whatever capacity. Let’s get Havre involved, get Northern football involved.’ And our guys stepped up to the plate this summer. So we had our own TroyStrong blood drive in Havre in June. Had a wonderful turnout, and what a neat deal to be a part of something bigger than yourself. And I think our kids are grown in that aspect and understanding what that means and being able to represent Troy, who, everybody in the state, I think, knows his story, but what an inspiration for kids across the country, outside even the borders of Montana. I just wanted to be involved and help, and Wes and I got in contact and it’s been pretty cool, the relationship we’ve built. And I know Troy is going to come up to a game and he’s going to be on the sideline with his family. I want him to be a part of our program, which I know he’s a part of a lot of different programs, as well."
MTN Sports: You’ve started a quarterback club to keep the community involved. How much does that help the health and future of the program?
Rolin: “Yeah, quarterback club is a big deal that we started when I first got here, and it starts with fundraising. But more than that, it’s getting the community involved in what we do. There’s rewards for being part of this program and how much money you give -- everything from sideline passes, and we’ve had big donors, we’re talking in the thousands of dollars, that goes directly to football. We’re doing a coaches corner every game. For 10 minutes, I’m going over to the tailgating center, and if you’ve got a coaches corner quarterback club pass, I’m going to go over and talk about the opponent, talk about the week and our preparation. I want everybody involved. I want alumni involved, I want the community involved. That’s what this whole thing is about. That’s what college football is about, and why not bring it to Northern? Why not have everybody involved and bring a great brand of football? My philosophy is simple: I want a program that everybody can be proud of — the town of Havre and the community and the Hi-Line itself, the university, the professors, our administration, our coaches and, most importantly, our players — everybody needs to be proud of what we’re doing on the field and off the field. That’s what we’re trying to achieve. We’ve fallen short in some capacities, but I know that we’ve excelled in others. It’s fun to see the growth and development of the program. It takes time. I’m learning that. Everybody thinks you’re Superman and you can come in and make a change right away, but it takes time and it takes kids growing and developing and believing in what you’re doing.”
MTN Sports: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far in your time as head coach?
Rolin: “There’s a lot to being a head football coach that has nothing to do with football. You’re torn in a lot of different ways. From personal issues with the players to administrative responsibilities to budgeting to fundraising. A lot of it has nothing to do with the X’s and O’s and being on the field or even leading your football team. That’s been a bit of a shock for me, but we’ve settled in as a staff and I think it’s a lot more streamlined and a lot more organized in how we do things. It’s always a shock to any new head coach, that there’s a lot that has nothing to do with what you really love to do, and that’s coach and develop young men, right? The recruiting I love, I’ve been a recruiting coordinator at the Division I level. I love that stuff, that’s what I want to do. We compete in that area pretty well. But the administrative stuff was a learning process and I think we’ve developed as a staff, I’ve developed as a coach in that area this year.”
MTN Sports: There’s the perception that it’s difficult to recruit to Havre for whatever reason: weather, remoteness, success. Has that been your experience at all, and what do you tell recruits to sell the school and the program?
Rolin: “I think kids show up, they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Whether it’s in Havre, Montana or Billings or a metropolitan city, I think kids want to win, obviously. They want to believe and trust in their coaches and trust in the program, academically, too. We have some programs academically that really target certain kids and that’s helped us in recruiting. I’ve kind of squashed that mentality, that, ‘Oh, we’re Havre. It’s cold,' or whatever it may be. If you love football and what to get a great education, then Northern is the place for you. If you want to win football games here in the near future, Northern’s for you. I’m talking to me, I’m talking to you guys, and not everybody surely believes that. But the guys that we’ve brought into our program do believe that, and now it’s time to prove it. I squashed that mentality, that we’re out of the way. Kids don’t care. If you love football, let’s show up and let’s do our best to win as many football games as we can. That’s why kids do it. They want to play football and get an education, and we’re going to help them do that.”
MTN Sports: Since Day 1 you’ve preached ‘continuous effort, continuous improvement’. Every time we chat with your players they mention it. Where did that mantra come from?
Rolin: “Continuous effort started with coach (Jim) Harbaugh, when I was a young freshman. That was pretty much our mentality. It’s easy to sit there and talk about how many wins. Everyone wants to ask you, ‘Are you expecting to win this year?’ Heck, nobody knows. But I do know if we want to continue to improve daily and take care of the details and take care of the process leading up to those games and have a 1-0 mentality each week, eventually the score takes care of itself. If you take care of holding yourself to a higher standard, whether it’s on the field or off the field, but specifically on the field right now, that score will take care of itself if you’ve got enough talented players and talented coaches to do so. That’s been our mentality and that’s our mantra. We’re going to give continuous effort daily or continuously improve. It’s a daily process, whether it’s in an offseason, in a summer, fall camp, or Day 1, August 31st. It may be from play to play, we need to grow and improve throughout the game and finish stronger than we started in the fourth quarter or overtime. That mentality is not going to change. We haven’t changed as a program. Hopefully the rest of it, the wins, come, but our message, our mentality, our personality as a program hasn’t changed.”
MTN Sports: Why should fans be excited about MSU-Northern football this season?
Rolin: “I think we’ve got a tough brand of football. I think we got tough kids that love football. Two things I want to say about our kids: I think they love football and they love each other and they’re going to play as a team. As a head coach, what else could you ask for? I think we’re going to have a high-powered offense, I do believe that. We’ve got to be able to run the football. There’s some pieces up front that we need to fill and some guys that need to prove themselves this fall camp, so that’s a big question mark on the offensive line and obviously at the quarterback position. I’ll tell you this: We have three kids that are really talented. All three kids can help us win football games. Whoever emerges to help us better than the next guy is going to be the starter. I don’t care if he’s a freshman or a sophomore or whatever he may be. We have three guys that are proven winners that I’m excited about and have seen them develop, too, this spring and summer. It’s a big question mark, but I know we’re going to be exciting. We have some good receivers, and then defensively we’re going to make a big jump, in my opinion. Coach (Jake) Chestnut has done a nice job this spring. Defensively we’ve made some adjustments. We’re a year older up front, we started four freshmen on the defensive line, it’s crazy. So we have four sophomores, guys with up to 11 games underneath their belt, so they’ll be 11 games better and we’ll continue to get better and continue to improve. We’re going to show up and we’re going to compete. So hopefully we’ll make a ripple in this conference. I think it’s time to take the next step as a program - that’s going to be our mentality, week in and week out.”