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Dick Harmon: Poppinga reflects on first year as BYU coach

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 28 2011 8:33 p.m. MST

Kelly Poppinga directs players during Brigham Young University football practice in Provo, Friday, Aug. 19, 2011.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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DALLAS —

So, how's the first-year coaching gig going, Mr. Kelly Poppinga?

"It's been fun, a learning experience, just awesome," he said.

All his life, Poppinga has wanted to be a coach or trainer, to go to work in workout gear and do something physical. It's in his genes with father Dennis, former BYU tight end and Evanston recreation director, and his older brother Brady, an NFL veteran.

After his first year of coaching major college football full time, he has no regrets. He feels lucky, as fortunate as a squirrel in a walnut factory.

"I wanted to coach because I love the game. I have a passion for football and for BYU, and I just wanted to get back to it at a place that gave me so much."

And this week, in Dallas, he feels even more grateful as the Cougars finish preparations to meet Tulsa on Friday in the Armed Forces Bowl.

As a college coach and player, all Kelly Poppinga has known in December is the bowl-game experience. He knows no other rite of passage around the holidays and he'd like to keep it that way.

The first-year BYU linebacker coach calls the participation in bowl games an honor, a sign of respect, a great opportunity to be rewarded for play during the regular season.

Nothing's changed since 2006 at his first bowl game, a 38-8 BYU win over Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl when he played outside linebacker for the Cougars.

After his BYU career, Kelly played one year in the NFL for three different teams before accepting a post as a graduate assistant coach. He always wanted to coach at BYU, but thought it would take him 10 years "because coaches don't leave very often from BYU."

A year ago, Bronco Mendenhall fired defensive coordinator Jaime Hill, took his job upon himself and made Poppinga an interim coach before hiring him full time in 2011.

"To be able to get (the full-time coaching job) right after being a graduate assistant, I just feel so lucky."

Poppinga says he's learned a ton the past few months. First, how tough it is to recruit with all the travel, time, workload and pressure. "It's a 24-7 thing you do 365 days of the year. I had no idea. Nobody tells you about that part, they talk about the coaching part.

"That's the part I've had the biggest adjustment with and still do," he said.

"It's something I'm learning to do and get better at, and I'm working on."

Coaching?

It comes natural to Poppinga, although it has been a little awkward coaching some players at BYU he actually played with, including Jadon Wagner and Jordan Pendleton, who he watched suffer a season-ending injury.

"To be able to manage them and to be able to treat them right is a big part of learning to be a coach. You have to treat them all the same, but at the same time you know everyone is different and needs something different. It's a challenge to do that."

Poppinga said it is very hard to manage all that. "Players listen to every little single tiny word you ever say and they'll bring it back all the time.

"You have to be careful what you say and what you promise and things like that. You have to be really careful what you say to players. Some are really sensitive and others are not, and you can yell at them. You just have to get to know each kid and then pump them to be successful on the field."

Poppinga loves his group of linebackers. He believes in them, they work hard, play hard and understand what it takes to be successful.

Poppinga has never been involved in a bowl game where the Cougars laid an egg — didn't show up — and he doesn't expect it will happen this time in.

"We came back here Monday after a Christmas break and players were flying around and were excited to be here. Tuesday was the same thing. We feel we are doing things right, and we respect our opponent and know they will give everything they have against us."

On Friday, Poppinga's first year as a full-time coach will conclude as the curtain closes on 2011.

It's been a season of independence, exposure and drama on and off the field.

There's been no conference race. But there has been travel to the Deep South, twice to Texas and a jaunt to Oregon.

Poppinga would like it to end with a 10th win and momentum heading into the key recruiting portion of his job before spring drills and 2012.

A win helps sell better than a loss.

email: dharmon@desnews.com

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