Small school, big impact

CLU coaching tree branches out in every direction

Download photo

Defensive line coach Rod Marinelli has a point to make during the Cowboys’ training camp in Oxnard over the summer. Marinelli, a 1972 graduate of Cal Lutheran, has 37 years of coaching experience, including 17 in the NFL.


Photo: Anthony Plascencia, Ventura County Star

Pete Alamar hears it frequently during his travels.

The Stanford special teams coordinator could be attending a coaching convention, working a camp or on a recruiting trip.

Invariably, Alamar will be introduced to another coach with the accompanying tagline, “He’s a Cal Lu guy.”

“It’s amazing the number of guys you meet or hear about that are from Cal Lutheran,” said Alamar, a 1983 graduate of the university. “It might be a small school, but it has a pretty large coaching tree. A bunch of guys are doing a lot of really cool things in coaching.”

Miami University in Ohio has been given the nickname “The Cradle of Coaches” for its rich lineage, but Cal Lutheran could be the Division III equivalent.

For a university with a current enrollment of only 4,205, Cal Lutheran has produced a large number of coaches who have reached the highest levels of football.

At least 10 Cal Lutheran graduates are coaching at major Division I programs or are members of NFL staffs this season.

Countless other graduates are coaching at Division II, Division III, NAIA, junior college and high school programs across the country.

“It is a very competitive business, and to see our guys represent the violet and gold at such high levels gives you a lot of pride,” said CLU head coach Ben McEnroe, a 1993 CLU graduate. “I watch them on Saturdays and Sundays and pull for their teams because you feel like you have a vested interest. They are your guys and you want them to be successful.”

McEnroe had to remain neutral on Saturday night when fourth-ranked Ohio State played No. 23 Wisconsin.

The Big Ten Conference showdown pitted Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman against Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.

Herman graduated from CLU in 1997 and Aranda graduated in 1999.

Herman actually hosted Aranda on Aranda’s recruiting visit, and the two have remained close friends.

“I would always call Tom and ask him about things because I knew he was going to be at the forefront of the offensive trends,” Aranda said. “I knew he was going to be studying it and know the ins and outs of everything. He was always my go-to guy for information. We don’t have those talks as much anymore, but I have always respected him for the help.”

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer described Herman as “one of the bright young minds in college football” when he hired the MENSA member away from Iowa State last season.

Herman’s love for college football developed while he was playing at CLU. He considered entering broadcasting after he graduated, but decided right before his final semester to try coaching.

“I figured this would be something that would keep me close to the game,” said Herman, a Simi Valley High graduate. “I was not good enough to play professionally, but I didn’t want to lose that feel of being in a locker room and the camaraderie of a team. I figured I would give it a shot at a young age, and if I didn’t like it I could always jump ship and go into the real word.”

Herman started at the very bottom — even sleeping in the locker room as a graduate assistant at the University of Texas — but has made a swift ascent up the coaching ladder.

His arrival at Ohio State thrust him into the spotlight and put him on the short list of future head coaching candidates.

“Everybody asks me about the pressure all the time, but I had the same pressure on myself when I was a 23-year-old making $5,000 a year at Texas Lutheran coaching wide receivers,” Herman said. “Anything you put your name on, I think you want it to be the best in the country, whether there are 110,000 in the stands or 800.”

CLU developed into an incubator for budding coaches under the guidance of Bob Shoup. During his 27-year career, Shoup mentored his players on the field and schooled them in the classroom.

His guidance helped lay the foundation for Rod Marinelli’s coaching career. Marinelli, a 1972 CLU graduate, has 37 years of experience, including 17 in the NFL.

He was hired as the defensive line coach for the Dallas Cowboys this season, and spent the summer in Oxnard training just miles away from his alma mater.

“Cal Lutheran couldn’t have been a better environment for me when I got there because I really love this stuff and the guys were just great teachers,” Marinelli said. “They did things the right way and were all about teaching and helping men grow. It was such a special place, and it doesn’t surprise me how many guys come out of there and really want to teach that way as well.”

Marinelli and former NFL wide receivers coach Mike Sheppard served as inspirations for Alamar when he entered the coaching ranks.

“As a young coach it was great seeing those guys having success,” said Alamar, a Thousand Oaks native. “It told you it was possible to come from a small school and have a great career in the sport. If those guys could do it, maybe you could do it.”

Alamar sent 50 letters to colleges across the country in search of his first job. He received 37 rejections, two maybes and 11 didn’t respond.

He eventually talked his way into a graduate assistant position at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo — one of the schools that initially sent him a rejection letter.

Alamar is now in his second season at Stanford after previously coaching in the Pac-12 Conference at Cal and Arizona.

“Sending out those letters was a really interesting process. The one letter I did keep is the rejection letter from Bo Schembechler,” said Alamar, referring to the legendary Michigan head coach. “Looking back on that now, I kind of laugh every once in a while about how it all started. It was a bit of an adventure.”

Alamar graduated from Thousand Oaks High and CLU alongside Steve Hagen, who is the tight ends coach for the New York Jets.

Hagen epitomizes the nomad existence of a coaching lifer. He has held 16 jobs at 12 different colleges and with two NFL teams. Only once since 1983 has Hagen not been on a college or professional staff.

Hagen’s older brother, Mike, a 1980 CLU graduate, is a longtime NFL personnel and scouting consultant.

Their father oversaw maintenance of the athletic facilities at CLU, and the two grew up on the campus.

Alamar believes a Division III atmosphere like CLU is a natural breeding ground for a career in coaching.

“Most guys that play small college football play football because they are passionate about the game,” Alamar said. “They are smart enough to understand they are not NFL guys, but they are passionate about the game and that bleeds into what they want to do later in life. They want to remain a part of the game and want to share that.”

Aranda had an injury-plagued playing career at CLU, and barely saw the field. But the coaching staff put him to work breaking down film of opponents and helping coach outside linebackers.

“I would be in a psychology class from 2:30-3:30 (p.m.) and then at 4 I had a linebackers meeting in that very same classroom,” Aranda said. “I would go from the back to the front and that would be my linebacker meeting room. It was a great experience, and there are not a lot of spots where that could happen. CLU really prepared me for coaching.”

McEnroe’s former CLU teammate and roommate, Cory Undlin, is the secondary coach for the Denver Broncos.

Undlin began his coaching career at Malibu High before returning to CLU. He’s in his 10th season in the NFL, including a one-year stint as the secondary coach for the New England Patriots when they won the Super Bowl in 2004.

“There has been a lot of hard work and dedication and sacrifice for Cory to get to this point,” McEnroe said. “He is a grinder and a very detail-oriented guy. He is not going to be outworked by anyone. He is a guy who will sit there and try to figure things out until he has the answer.”

Regardless of where they are coaching, the CLU graduates never lose their CLU bond.

They call each other for advice, visit each other to learn plays and recommend each other for potential jobs.

“We all really stay in touch. Everyone is a resource for each other. The connection is really strong and I think it’s only going to get stronger,” Aranda said. “The guys coming up now are smart and hungry and are willing to put in the time and work to get where they want to be, and once they get into it they will find out there are always guys willing to help them out.”

The CLU coaching fraternity has even become a recruiting tool. McEnroe often shows recruits a presentation that includes the logos of where CLU graduates are working.

“We definitely use it to our advantage,” McEnroe said. “If there is a kid who even thinks he wants to get into coaching, the sheer number of guys we have in college and the NFL is a big attraction because they can come here and tap into that network.”

The demands of the job make it hard for the CLU graduates to return to campus very often for reunions.

But Alamar may have a solution.

“They could put on a heck of a coaching clinic just with Cal Lu guys coming back and speaking,” he said. “I think that would be a big attraction.”

--- Published in the Ventura County Star on Sept. 29, 2013