Multiple Rutgers coaches have ties to Iowa
Jay Niemann has spent a lot of time looking at linebackers throughout his life.
The defensive coordinator of the Rutgers football team, he also serves as the position coach of the most inexperienced group on the team.
He was tasked with replacing all three starters from a year ago while implementing a new defense, a challenge he said he’s never faced in his long career that’s only become harder with sophomore Najee Clayton — a starter entering training camp that moved to the back-up slot at strongside when the season started — leaving the program for personal reasons.
The Scarlet Knights are the third team Niemann has been a linebackers coach throughout the 24 years he's been coaching after his career as one as a player at Iowa State ended.
Saturday’s game against Iowa will be one of the few times he’ll be peaking over to watch the opposition’s linebackers as he makes adjustments in between defensive drives.
Both of Niemann’s sons play for the Hawkeyes — his older son Ben is a junior linebacker and leading tackler while his younger son Nick is a true freshman likely headed towards a redshirt season.
“For me, I’m just trying to keep it business as usual,” he said on his approach to the game. “There’s nothing I could do from a family perspective one way or the other, it is what it is. We’ve known for a long time that this week and this game, this day was going to be coming and as I’ve said all along, the boys have to prepare like they have to and I have to like I have to.”
Niemann admitted that his son playing on the side of the ball he won’t be strategizing against relieves some anxieties about the game for himself, saying he’d hate to scheme against his own son.
That doesn’t do much to help Mrs. Niemann as she watches the game with conflicted emotions.
“My wife’s caught in the middle. She’s trying to be loyal to me and to them,” he said. “To me, she’s gotta be a mother first and so I know she’s gonna be passionate about cheering for Ben and hoping that he plays well. You know, it’s tough middle ground place for her but that’s what she’s trying to do.”
The connection to the opposition is one of many among the Rutgers coaching staff, but perhaps none is more closely tied to the program than offensive line coach AJ Blazek.
Blazek was a two-time letterwinner at center for the Hawkeyes under current head coach Kirk Ferentz, finishing his collegiate career in Iowa City after an All-American career at Butler County Community College in Pennsylvania.
A co-captain in his senior year in Iowa City with current Hawkeyes tight ends coach Levar Woods, he was named an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention selection as Iowa went 3-9 in Ferentz’ second year as head coach of the Hawkeyes.
Now the longest tenured head coach in the Big Ten, Ferentz will be the first head coach and his alma mater the first opponent Blazek will face as a coach in his return to the conference.
“I’m excited about it. I really am,” he said. “When (head coach Chris) Ash offered me the job back on Christmas Eve, it’s the first thing I did, say, ‘Hey, hopefully we get a cross over with Iowa early on’ and to be the first Big Ten game I’m coaching in the Big Ten is something I’ll always remember.”
Comparing it to coaching against “your dad or your uncles,” Blazek said his situation isn’t quite the same as Niemann’s, but it has its similarities.
Ash, unlike his assistants, has no connection to Iowa from a coaching and playing standpoint, but growing up in Ottumwa, a small city roughly an hour of south of Iowa City, he rooted for the Hawkeyes in his childhood.
A fond memory he shared was receiving a football autographed by College Football Hall of Famer Chuck Long, who played quarterback at Iowa between 1981-85, as a combined birthday and Christmas gift — his birthday falls on Christmas Eve.
Ash wound up working alongside Long as his defensive backs coach and recruiting coordinator in 2007 and 2008 when he was the head coach at San Diego State.
“When I was growing up as a kid, I did, I cheered for Iowa,” he said. “A birthday gift I got, actually it was a Christmas gift that I got at one point it was an autograph at Chuck Long football. Chuck was playing at Iowa, and I believe it was 1985 ... So that was one of my best birthday gifts.”
The first-year head coach went on to play defensive back at Drake in Des Moines under Niemann before coaching alongside him as a graduate assistant. Ash then moved to Ames and coached at Iowa State, Iowa's main rival, for seven seasons, so playing against his childhood team is nothing new.
Niemann has taken part in his fair share of games against Iowa, having coached or played for every Division I program in the state aside from the Hawkeyes, but with his son on the other sideline, this one is likely the most unique.
He and Blazek both expressed interest in meeting up with their friends and loved ones after the final whistle to exchange pleasantries and catch up before the Hawkeyes take off and return to Iowa City regardless of the final result.
Still, Niemann does have an ideal scenario in mind that most of, if not all, of the Rutgers coaching staff and fans alike could agree with.
“I hope we win the game and I hope (Ben) plays great,” he said.