Wednesday, January 13, 2021

How Mike Yurcich’s journey from small-college grunt to millionaire began as a G.A. under Gerry DiNardo


Updated Jan 12, 10:57 AM; Posted Jan 12, 5:05 AM

New Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, shown here in 2012 as OC at Shippensburg University.

Sometime during 29-year-old Mike Yurcich’s second year as a graduate assistant on Gerry DiNardo’s Indiana Hoosiers football staff, the two were talking about the young coach’s future. Specifically, DiNardo believed he had one in a business that often eats its young.

The former Notre Dame All-America lineman, longtime major-college coach and now television analyst recalled the moment during a Monday phone conversation from his Florida home:

“The part I remember most is, he was one of the best I ever had. So, I can remember having this conversation with him, basically telling him how good I thought he was. And that I didn’t think he had any ceiling.

“He was very appreciative. And I was very sincere in what I said; I didn’t say that to a lot of guys.”

By this time in a young G.A.’s tenure, the veteran head coach could tell if a twentysomething had what it took to stick in an occupation that demands 70-hour weeks as a matter of course, that requires unconditional love with no guarantee it will be requited:

“Now, we worked a lot. So maybe this was me damaging the coaching profession. In fact, I used to say to a lot of young guys: ‘When you’re done working for us, you’re really gonna know if you wanna be a coach.’ I’d say 50 percent of my [G.A.s] said they didn’t want to be a coach. Because of the way we worked. You gave up a lot.”

Grad assistants were paid little to nothing depending on their status as volunteers or minimal employees. And the chores were unending. Maybe driving DiNardo on recruiting trips while he worked in the backseat. Breaking down video – not of the upcoming opponent but that of the following week. Meeting with the scout team and going over the script of plays, maybe taking the scout team out to the field and walking them through it before practice. Making certain the scout team was lined up correctly and was motivated during practice. And if they were assigned to a particular position coach, they were at that assistant’s beck and call.

Maybe, if they earned cred over time by connecting with players and mastering the playbook and schemes, they could do a little teaching during practices, too:

“The better they were, the more I let them coach.”

And Mike Yurcich was one of those guys. He proved he could be a grinder. Which is no tap-in for a kid who was used to an NAIA job at St. Francis (IN) College. DiNardo was impressed:


“Our hours weren’t crazy [by major-college standards]. I was in at 5, the staff was in at 7. We stayed until 10 most nights and one night, if you wanted, you could recruit from home.

“I mean, I was crazier before I got to Indiana. I would say my routine was what 95 percent of Midwestern coaches did.”


And DiNardo quickly noticed how Yurcich seamlessly blended in with the rest of the staff:

“I thought he was really smart, I thought he really knew the game and I thought he was very mature. If you were sitting in our staff room and you didn’t know anybody in our staff, just observing body language, who was taking notes, who was paying attention, you wouldn’t know that Mike was a G.A.”


So, in that one-on-one moment, DiNardo gave his young charge that rare personal endorsement. And Yurcich then responded in a way DiNardo didn’t fully expect:

“He kinda looked at me and said: ‘Y’know, I don’t want this life.’”


DiNardo was a bit surprised:

“I just think he had never been exposed to it. He did a great job at it. He never complained. I just think he was looking at it from 10,000 feet. He was single and I think he looked at the rest of his life and asked himself: Is this what I wanna do? Do I wanna be working seven days a week?”


Some irony would follow that statement.

DiNardo was fired after that 2004 season and all the Indiana coaches were cut free. That was his last gig. At 52, after 30 seasons of coaching that spanned seven teams and stretched from Maine to Colorado, it was he who took stock and decided to quit the profession. He bought DeAngelo’s Italian restaurant in Bloomington with wife Terri. Simultaneously, he became a college football analyst with ESPN, then a studio analyst in 2007 for the fledgling Big Ten Network.


Eight years passed. DiNardo lost track of Yurcich. Then one day, he heard that Mike Gundy had just hired his old G.A. who was then an offensive coordinator at Division-II Shippensburg – the one who said he didn’t want the nonstop grind of being a major-college coach – to be his offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State.

So, the head coach who had embraced the Mad Men major college football rat race got out. And the young assistant who initially said he couldn’t embrace it ended up doing exactly that.


DiNardo could not resist needling his old protégé:

“I remember I was driving from Chicago where we lived down to Bloomington and I called him up and said, ‘What’s up with this?’ Obviously, he had changed. We got a big laugh out of it.”


Of course, what really had changed in the interim were a few seismic shifts in college football revenue dispersal that reshaped the landscape. Being a Power Five football coach is roughly five to 10 times more lucrative now than it was in 2004. Ignited partly by the BTN for which DiNardo still works, partly by skyrocketing broadcast rights fees delivered by ESPN, FOX and CBS, a bidding war for coaches has sent salaries into the stratosphere, especially in the P5 conferences.

DiNardo, now 68, got off the train a bit soon to cash in; Yurcich, 45, boarded at just the right time to hit the honeypot.


DiNardo is far from bitter but still just as amazed as anyone else:

“I made $65,000 when I was at Colorado [1982-90 as an assistant under Bill McCartney]. When I got to Indiana [in 2002], I had a $1 million-dollar budget for 10 [assistant coaches].”


And last season, Yurcich signed for $1.7 million by himself as Texas’ offensive coordinator (busted down to $1.5M by a UT athletic-department COVID-austerity pay cut). His salary at Penn State has not been announced and likely won’t be until the university’s annual list of its top 25 highest-paid employees is released, probably in April. Yurcich most definitely will be on it.

As I wrote in Saturday’s story on Yurcich’s hiring at Penn State, head coach James Franklin surely knows that Yurcich will be in the market for suitable head coach openings himself in the near future – by December if his offense performs well in the 2021 season.


Some coordinators prefer to concentrate on their side of the ball and aren’t necessarily interested in dealing with the CEO responsibilities of a head coach, no matter the steep salary upgrade. Lately, they are more the exception than the rule. Yurcich’s predecessor Kirk Ciarrocca is such a case.

Yurcich himself is not. He is known to be on track for and seeking a college head coaching job soon and was endorsed as a candidate by his old boss Gundy. Yurcich’s agent is Neil Cornrich (they share Cleveland as a hometown) whose prime-ticket clients include several high-powered head coaches – the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick, the Tennessee Titans’ Mike Vrabel, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and Illinois’ Bret Bielema.

It’s all a long way from 18 years ago when DiNardo happened to get a heads-up from a staff remember – he can’t remember who – about that 27-year-old assistant in the opposite corner of Indiana at a tiny college in Fort Wayne. DiNardo then suggested what a fateful moment that was:

“You’d get literally hundreds of all these crazy letters: ‘I’ll do anything to be a G.A. I’ll sleep on the couch.’”

A few years before, a G.A. at Cal-Lutheran named Dave Aranda proved that wasn’t just a metaphor. He had visited Louisiana State to learn the acumen of Lou Tepper, then DiNardo’s defensive coordinator when he was the LSU head coach (1995-99). Aranda was too embarrassed to tell anyone he didn’t have money for a hotel, so he surreptitiously slept in the LSU offices.

Aranda only told DiNardo the story a couple of years ago. By then, he himself was the LSU DC, pulling down $2.5 million – the highest-paid coordinator in college football. Last year, Baylor hired him away to replace Matt Rhule as its head coach for an estimated $4.5 million annually. (Baylor is a private university and does not commonly release salary figures.)

Yurcich is one step away from following in every one of Aranda’s footsteps.

DiNardo and I had been talking earlier in our conversation about this monumental TV revenue infusion of the past decade that has not only sent salaries skyward but made coaches hypermobile and focused on the monetary prize at the end of their rainbow, some as much or more as their love of the game. He returned to that point:

“I would say, generally, these are very highly motivated young people who really want to get into coaching. The way the thing has changed now is, there is no question in my mind that, these days, someone like Mike Yurcich becomes a G.A. fully expecting that he is gonna be a millionaire. He will leave his children generational wealth.

“Now, some people will think that, and aren’t gonna make it. The only thing you wonder about is, if they weren’t making that money, would they still wanna do it?”

Clearly, Yurcich wanted to coach or he wouldn’t have spent a combined 15 years slumming at not only St. Francis and as an Indiana G.A. but later as a coordinator at Edinboro (under Tepper) and Shippensburg of the unseen Division II PSAC.

So, now he’s near the top. And yes, he’s clearly adapted to “this life” of the major-college grinder. Mike Yurcich learned it, but he also earned it – the hard way.

Popular Posts