Both first-time head coaches in the Mountain West are looking for their first bowl victories.
But more than firsts link Colorado State’s Mike Bobo and Nevada’s Brian Polian, who face each other for the first time in the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl Tuesday on ASN. They share a unique connection to the SEC that has influenced their coaching careers.
Bobo played quarterback for Georgia from 1994-97 and is No. 6 in Bulldogs history with 6,334 yards passing. He became Georgia’s quarterbacks coach in 2001 and offensive coordinator in 2007. Colorado State hired him when Jim McElwain left to become the head coach at Florida, one of Georgia’s SEC rivals.
Bobo showed his SEC colors on Monday when asked about reports that the Rams had their option of opponents for the Arizona Bowl and selected Nevada. “No, I didn’t have the choice to play anybody,” he said. “If I had a choice, we’d play Alabama.”
Polian, meanwhile, got his start in coaching under Alabama’s Nick Saban. He was a graduate assistant on Saban’s Michigan State staff in 1997. “Those 11 months were the longest 10 years of my life,” he joked. “I was scared to death of Coach Saban — and he liked me.”
Polian’s career branched out from there, to Notre Dame under Charlie Weis to Stanford under Jim Harbaugh to Texas A&M under Kevin Sumlin when Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy in 2012.
His connections include his father, former NFL executive Bill Polian, who built the Super Bowl Buffalo Bills, the expansion Carolina Panthers and Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts. No pressure there.
At 29, Polian recruited Manti Te’o to Notre Dame. That’s when he stopped being known as Bill Polian’s son. Father and son remain close.
“I’m very fortunate that my dad is one of my best friends in the world,” Polian said. “He’s an expert in my business, a Hall of Famer. He’s a tremendous teacher. … He’ll call me and offer advice. He watches our tape, which I’m happy about. But I watch him on ESPN, too. And I will tell him, ‘Bad tie.’ Or don’t be so obvious when you clearly think whoever’s talking is full of whatever.”
In Bobo’s case, connecting emotionally with players made his transition as Colorado State’s first-year head coach easier.
“I remember the first meeting we had with Coach Bobo,” said junior linebacker Deonte Clyburn. “He was explaining how blessed and happy he was to be at Colorado State and he started to tear up. When you see the emotional side of your coach it makes everybody buy in, makes everybody gravitate to him. I think that’s what really got us over the hump of meeting the new coaching staff and having a new coach. We saw how emotional he was it kind of was a no-brainer that we were going to buy in quick.”
“A coach who will actually get up in front of a team and cry, put his compassions in front of everybody, is really special,” added fifth-year senior tight end Kivon Cartwright. “It’s easy for any coach to come in and talk about family, talk about fighting, but when you see his true emotions it makes the transition a lot easier. There was no doubt in anybody’s mind that Coach Bobo was not here for us and didn’t care for us, so it makes it a lot easier to buy in.”
While it might have been easier, it wasn’t immediate. Bobo recalled a team meeting on the Monday following a 41-17 loss to San Diego State on Oct. 31.
“We were 3-5 then,” Bobo said, “and we just didn’t play they way that I thought we should play as a Colorado State football team, the way we’d been practicing, the way we had been working. It was not coming to fruition on the football field. Had our normal four turnovers that game, we were making mistakes. … That Monday we let everybody know that it doesn’t matter if you’re a senior or a freshman. I don’t know if that meeting had anything to do with it, but from that point on we haven’t lost a ball game.”
The Rams won their last four games to become bowl eligible. They are averaging 195.8 rushing yards per game even while featuring the Mountain West’s leading passer in quarterback Nick Stevens and All-American receiver Rashard Higgins.
“I can see the SEC influence,” Polian said, “a more concerted effort to run the ball. To see a fullback on the field in our league …”
Nobody plays fullback for Nevada, but the Wolf Pack (6-6) feature another Mountain West rarity — two 1,000-yard rushers, led by James Butler (1,153 yards).
There’s no mistaking the influence of Saban, who has won national championships with two SEC teams, on Polian. Saban’s staff at Michigan State included Mark Dantonio, now the Spartans head coach whose team plays Alabama in the Cotton Bowl on Thursday. Also there at the same time were future NFL assistants Josh McDaniels, Pat Sherman and Mel Tucker.
“That was a graduate-level football course,” Polian said. “The single biggest lesson I learned from Coach Saban is that there is exactly right and then there’s wrong. And if you did it 85% right, it’s not right. … There are too many people in this day and age, especially young people, who (say), ‘Hey I tried my best, I did the best I could, I got most of it right.’ Well, in the real world you gotta get it all right. Learned that lesson as a 22-year-old the hard way.”