Monday, January 11, 2021

Mike Yurcich’s unusual path to Penn State, from Shippensburg through the Big 12


By Audrey Snyder Jan 10, 2021


At a hotel in Hagerstown, Maryland, as the three-hour interview shifted from installing an offense at Division II Shippensburg to whether or not Mike Yurcich would be willing to uproot his family and move to Stillwater, Oklahoma, the prospective offensive coordinator stayed calm. He had every reason not to be.

“That was a strange deal and (Mike) Gundy was digging pretty deep,” Shippensburg head coach Mark Maciejewski recalled between laughs. “… That was a unique situation back then, let me tell you.”

This wasn’t just any job interview. Yurcich went from calling plays at Shippensburg to sitting down with Gundy, who had rerouted an Oklahoma State recruiting trip to meet Yurcich in that Hagerstown hotel. In the days leading up to the interview, it finally clicked why Oklahoma State had requested film from Shippensburg. Gundy believed in the numbers he researched that offseason as he looked for teams that played fast on offense and had the yards and points to show for it. He was tired of losing coordinators to head coaching jobs, thus making a Division II candidate intriguing, even if unorthodox.

Gundy narrowed his list of candidates down to four or five, mostly from the Power 5 level, but he kept coming back to Yurcich.

“There are a lot of really good football coaches scattered across the country in high school, junior college, lower level college ball, and without connections, they don’t ever get a start, so you really don’t know about them,” Gundy said. “… I collected video tape on all the candidates and went through and liked what (Yurcich) did better than the other guys.”

If this didn’t work, Gundy would take the blame. Even if it did, many wondered just how good Yurcich would be anyway. The divide between Division II and the Big 12 made such a hire difficult to understand. Some of the same coaches on Gundy’s staff who wanted the job would now have to work under the man who was making $52,000 at Shippensburg the previous year.

“That was his biggest adjustment because the other guys had been there,” Gundy said. “There were a couple other guys that had been there that wanted the coordinator job, but I didn’t think they were ready and I had not been fond of hiring guys to be the coordinator that had not been quarterback coaches. It was a little bit of a risk on my part.”

Yurcich proved Gundy right. In his six years at Oklahoma State, the offense averaged 38 points and 478 yards per game, finishing in the top 20 nationally in scoring in five of six years and winning 10 games four times. Yurcich recruited and signed quarterback Mason Rudolph, a four-star recruit from South Carolina who threw for more than 13,000 yards in his career and became a third-round draft pick.

In an industry that’s notorious for grunt work, attending conventions and making necessary connections, Yurcich’s path to the Power 5 remains unique. It’s a success story that continues to be told as his coaching career has taken off after spending six seasons with Gundy, then one at Ohio State and one at Texas.

Now, as Penn State’s new offensive coordinator, Yurcich continues to build his résumé.

“Mike’s a grinder,” Maciejewski said. “He was a good recruiter when he was here and worked very hard at X’s and O’s. And there weren’t too many people that beat me in the office, and Mike was usually in there at the same time.”

All of those 6:30 a.m. drives into the office at Shippensburg, all of the traits that once made him a surprise hire at Oklahoma State, now have him on a path toward becoming an FBS head coach. The 45-year-old Yurcich might be ready for such a gig right now, Gundy believes. He’s interviewed for head coaching jobs before.

“He’s gonna be ready at any time to be a head coach,” Gundy said.

Should Yurcich one day land a head coaching gig, it’s going to be because of that offense he’s tinkered with and evolved since Shippensburg finished the 2012 season No. 1 in total offense (529.92 yards per game) and No. 2 in passing offense in Division II (387.69).

Now, Yurcich needs to make that system work at Penn State.

In the meeting rooms at Oklahoma State, every offseason was spent fine-tuning the offense.

Yurcich learned Oklahoma State’s system and terminology when he arrived, but he and Gundy were in agreement that there needed to be some changes.

They installed a verbiage system in which one word could get the entire offense on the same page in a hurry. The quarterback would shout it, and the offense could line up and rip off any play — not just a base play — and continue to push the tempo.

“By the end of that first year, we had like 35 of those plays, and that became what our offense was the next three or four years until Mike left,” Gundy said. “Of course, we still do it here now, but that’s the one thing we started at Oklahoma State when he was there as the coordinator that was different than what everybody else in the country was doing. That’s kind of his legacy and I’m sure he took a lot of that with him to Ohio State — I know he did because I watched them play. … I know at Texas I saw it, and I know that’s who Mike is and that’s what he wants to do.”

The verbiage helped Oklahoma State continue to be a prolific offense, and Yurcich had done something similar at Shippensburg too. While it wasn’t grabbing headlines and showing up on national television broadcasts, the beauty of that Shippensburg offense and the tempo it used still isn’t lost on Yurcich’s former quarterback, Zach Zulli. Zulli won the Harlon Hill Trophy under Yurcich in 2012, an honor awarded to the top player in Division II.

Almost a decade later, Zulli still remembers running up to the line, shouting “money” and watching as the rest of the offense morphed into action.

“His whole offense was based on animals,” Zulli said. “Let’s say we were running a power play, think of a powerful animal. Or, let’s say we’re running a fast play, a speed play, think of a fast animal. That’s how everything was coded and it made everything so much easier because you put the diagram with that play and then with that animal and we all connected and jelled. …

“The guy could teach a freaking ant.”

The way in which Yurcich presented the offense made it easy for Zulli to digest. Yes, the quarterback had five reads on every play, but every play was designed based on coverages, Zulli said. With Penn State now on its fifth offensive coordinator since 2014 and Yurcich being the fourth coordinator quarterback Sean Clifford will have played under, implementing a new system and new terminology will be an offseason-long transition. It took Zulli a summer of prep until he started to feel at ease with it.

“I was triggered in that way to be like a robot,” Zulli said. “If I saw that coverage, I go left. If I saw this coverage, I go right. And I would go through smaller increments of the play. And because our offense ran so fast, the defenses weren’t even set half the time. … I spread it around to every single person because that’s what the offense was supposed to be. I promise it was not me. It was not me at all. It was the way he coached me. It was the way that he coached the team and the way that he led the team.”

Yurcich’s attention to detail meant sometimes it took the Shippensburg offense an hour in the film room to get through six plays, Zulli said. No play on the practice field was complete unless all 11 players executed it properly. They’d run it over and over again.

“It was easy once he taught you it,” Zulli said. “It was like saying your ABCs. It was really that easy. If the defense was in this coverage, I would throw here. If the defense was in that coverage, I had a 1-2 read here. If the defense was sitting back, you had your checkdown. If there was a blitz, you threw to the blitz. Like, it was so simple because of the way he explained it.”

Yurcich’s ability to connect with his players made him a father-like figure to Zulli. He wouldn’t say a word to his quarterback at breakfast on game days or during pregame. He entered a “silent assassin kind of mode,” as Zulli recalled.

“Oh, he got a little fiery, just so you know,” Zulli said. “… He made our team so freaking good that there was no issues. Everyone loved playing for him. I’m not gonna lie, I almost cried when he told me he got the Oklahoma State job.”

As time marched on and Yurcich solidified himself as a bright offensive mind, he never forgot the quarterback who brought his offense to life and paved the way for him to eventually bring Rudolph to Stillwater, go to Columbus to coach Justin Fields and go to Austin to coach Sam Ehlinger.

“He called me a couple years later, and was like, ‘Listen, I got here because of you,’” Zulli said. “He said that to me probably about five or six times, and I take that to heart.”

When Gundy gave Yurcich a ringing endorsement to Penn State coach James Franklin last winter, he did so in part because of what came up in hours two and three of that initial interview with Yurcich in Hagerstown several years ago.

Beyond the scheme and the bright mind, the concepts and the ability to teach them, Gundy wanted someone who was going to be loyal to him and his program. It’s that same trait Franklin has mentioned countless times over the years, even describing himself on a few occasions as perhaps “loyal to a fault.”

Yurcich’s answers to Gundy that day held true over time as they grew together and built an offense together. They still stay in contact as Yurcich continues his coaching journey.

“I told (Franklin), Mike is a great teacher, he’s highly intelligent, he’s a hard worker and he’s extremely loyal,” Gundy said. “There’s your four keys to being a good coach, and he’s got all of them.”

(Photo: Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

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