As I stood with a bunch of other reporters last Friday, talking to John Stiegelmeier around 16 hours after South Dakota State had announced that he was going to be retiring after 26 years, I started to think about all of the times that I had talked to him in the past.
I asked him a question about the conversations that he had with his successor Jimmy Rogers and if those conversations involved with how to deal with things outside of football, like dealing with the media. He told me that he never wanted to feel like a lecturer and they had talked about simple questions, but one of the things they talked about in their last conversation they had before Rogers took over was that he better not keep his office in the same shape that Stiegelmeier did.
That made me think of the first time I met Stiegelmeier. I was a junior in college at SDSU in 2016 and at the time all I had done with The Collegian, the school’s newspaper, is cover men’s basketball and volleyball. My junior year I started as the sports editor at The Collegian and since we didn’t have many sports reporters right away, I had to write the football preview stories and game stories for the first couple weeks.
So, I sent football sports information director Jason Hove an email about meeting with Stiegelmeier and he gave me a certain time to go Stiegelmeier’s office. I didn’t think that was that odd since I had gone to T.J. Otzelberger and other coach’s office’s before, but when I got there was when it felt different than any other coach I had talked to.
I walked into his office and we sat there for about 10 minutes before I asked him any question about football. He asked me where I was from, what year I was in college, if I liked my major and all sorts of stuff before we talked football. After that, he treated me how he would any other reporter, regardless of age, and that made me feel like a legit reporter.
After those first couple weeks I had found someone to write preview and game stories for The Collegian and focused on trying to get some experience on the radio the next few years.
Fast forward to the summer of 2019 and I get hired as a sports reporter at the Register. I took the job because I would be able to continue to cover SDSU sports and the first one on the docket was Jackrabbit football. I went to a fall practice in August and Stiegelmeier came up to me and he remembered who I was and asked the same sort of questions that he had asked me three years prior.
Every practice I went to after that he would come up to me right after I got there, would ask me how I was doing and who I wanted to talk to that day. When I would text him about something, he would get right back to me and when he answered the phone it always began with, “Andrew, how are you?”
He also read my work, which I found out the hard way when he texted me the day an article came out and told me that if I was going to quote him he’d appreciate if I used correct grammar. I don’t think he was doing it as a complaint, but more to help out the both of us, and I appreciated that.
That’s just how he was. Always legitimately cared about how people were doing and that’s what came first, then football.
Nobody knows that more than his former boss Justin Sell, who has been the athletic director at SDSU since 2009. Sell tried to put into words what Stiegelmeier meant to him last week.
“There’s just things about Stig when you work with them every day,” Sell said. “The people on the outside may get to see a little bit of, but when you live with him, he’s just a magical guy. He welcomed me in. He gave me the grace and wisdom to learn. He wasn’t the demanding football coach, which is hard to find. He frankly was probably our best teammate in the whole athletic department. And guess what? That helps kind of set, if you want a family feel, now others believe in it.
“To have him come in and have confidence, work with me, support me and he helped me figure out what is South Dakota State. He gave me the passion for it. He gave me the ability to see why we’re so special and different. … You know, there’s a lot of scrambling and a lot of drinking through the firehose and trying to manage so many things and to not have that as a worry, and to turn that into how we work together to make this thing great. Over the years our relationship obviously has developed. He’s a family member to me and always will be. I just love him, and he was a big reason why I was able to get off to a great start here.”
In my past nine years of following SDSU football, whether it was as a student or working in the media, I had my doubts as to whether the Jackrabbits would ever hoist the National Championship trophy. Seeing Stiegelmeier finally hold that trophy after the Jacks beat North Dakota State, it was a special moment, and I’m sure a lot of Jackrabbit fans, if not all of them, felt that way.
It makes it even more special that it was his final game as SDSU head coach because he went out on top, and he deserves that. He said a few times before that game that should the Jacks win the title, he would only allow himself to think about himself for 10 seconds and then it would be all about the players. That didn’t shock me at all because of the person he is.
He always put the players first. When the team would lose, he would take the blame. When the team would win, he would immediately credit the players first. He did the same thing with his coaching staff.
So, now that he’s officially done being the head of the Jackrabbit football family, what is he going to do? It took him awhile to figure it out, but he reverted back to spending time with others and putting them first.
“I like gardening,” he said after a long pause. “I hope to tutor in mathematics, in maybe an elementary school as a volunteer. This has been alluded to, my wife and I, Laurie, have been married for 43 years and we’ve been married to football, and each other, and football has made more decisions than we’ve made, which has been a blessing. So, when Laurie says, let’s do this, we’re going to do it. Maybe that’s to go out to the northeast and look at the leaves, which is one of her bucket list deals. It may be to drive see our grandkids, it may be to see my nephew in Montana and his ranch. Things that we have not been able to do. … You guys can call me. I have no friends, so call me anytime.”
As Stiegelmeier hands over the job to Rogers, I hope to have the same relationship with him as I had with Stig. I also hope that Rogers gives me the same access to the team that Stiegelmeier gave me, because not many beat writers get to come to practice whenever they want and talk to whomever they want.
I hope last week wasn’t the last time I get talk to Stiegelmeier because it was always a joy. But I hope that Stig enjoys his life away from football, because it’s all he’s known for the past 35 years.