Defensive coaching staff a plethora of new faces

by Anthony Maggio

What do you get when you mix a 30-year veteran, a former Irishman and Bearcat, an ex-NFL lineman, and a Davidson College Wildcat?

Stumped? Well, the potluck of men described make up the Minnesota defensive coaching unit this season.

Orchestrating the defense is coordinator Moe Ankney.

Ankney came to Minnesota this season with 30 years of coaching under his belt, including two years at Ball State with current Gophers head coach Glen Mason.

“He’s been around,” defensive line coach Tom Sims said. “He used to baby-sit Knute Rockne.”

Ankney never baby-sat the legendary Notre Dame coach, but did play football at Bowling Green with Sims’ father.

Ankney’s supporting cast includes Sims, linebacker’s coach Greg Hudson, and defensive ends coach David Turner.

Sims enters his fifth year of coaching after stints at Western Kentucky and Eastern Michigan.

Although Minnesota is the biggest program Sims has worked at, the former Kansas City Chief, Indianapolis Colt and Minnesota Viking is not overwhelmed.

“I played in the NFL, and I’m not looking across at Nate Newton,” Sims said. “So I’m cool. The other coaches don’t scare me as much. All they can do is beat me, they can’t cause me physical harm. So I’m not intimidated.”

Hudson, a 1990 Notre Dame grad, came to the Gophers after three years as linebacker’s coach with the Cincinnati Bearcats.

Turner has been at seven different schools in his 15 years as an assistant coach.

Between the four is knowledge gained from a combined 59 years experience at 19 different college programs.

“It’s a little unique having four new guys on defense,” Turner said. “Everyone’s coming in from different backgrounds, different places, and we’re all kind of learning together and growing together with each other.”

The four all list learning each other as a top priority. To bring a team together, the coaches must be a unit.

To be a unit, they must all be on the same page. To be on the same page, they must first talk alike. That sounds like a simple task, but terminology has been the biggest roadblock for the newcomers.

“Something would happen and we’d have a Virginia term, a Cincinnati term, a Missouri term and an Eastern Michigan term,” Ankney said. “So that’s been a constant struggle.”

For instance, there is a technique where the outside linebacker comes underneath a block.

Ankney calls it a cross-face, one coach calls it a spill, one coach calls it a bounce and one calls it a plug.

Besides the occasional communication barriers, the coaches continue to learn more about each other as the season goes on.

“I think it’s no different than if you brought a bunch of first graders in that have never been in school before and you sort of see how they interact with each other,” Hudson said.

Like a group of first graders, everyone’s personality can be categorized, although their opinion on who is what differs.

“You mean like the seven dwarfs?” Sims said. “I’ll tell you, at the 6:30 a.m. meetings I’m definitely sleepy. They can argue over who Dopey is. But I get Sleepy.”

The defensive foursome all say things have gotten much better as the season progresses. They have a better feel for what the others are thinking in different situations.

They also know each other’s preferences and expectations. With all aspects combined, the coaches are better able to perform their duties – teaching the athletes.

“It takes time,” safety Jack Brewer said. “But I think we’re past that stage of learning them and now we have come together and we respect each other a lot.”

Along with respect has come friendship. The athletes and coaches are becoming closer to their counterparts as the year goes on.

Bringing in the new staff before spring practice has given the athletes more time to work with the new unit. However, the season has been a little more difficult for the upperclassmen on defense.

Cornerback Mike Lehan said he was fond of his old position coach, but the new guys are growing on him.

“I’m one person that’s not really good with change,” Lehan said. “But these coaches have been doing a tremendous job.

“I thought very fondly of (defensive coordinator David) Gibbs last year, but we’ve got some good coaches this year.”

Then Sims entered the room and Lehan added jokingly: “This guy right here is a punk, but for the rest of them – they’re all right.”

The coaches spend long days together, and most admit they spend more time with the team than with their families.

They’ve even known each other long enough to have a little fun.

“Without a doubt I was probably the best player out of all of them,” Hudson said.

Sims, wouldn’t comment on who was the best player, but said of all the coaches, he was the best looking.