PROVO — Zach Nyborg was in his second year as director of football operations at the University of Wisconsin when he learned that the same position was open at his alma mater — BYU.
Nyborg mentioned that to his close friend, mentor and boss, Badger head coach Gary Andersen.
“Well,” Andersen told Nyborg a couple of months ago, “that’s something you may want to look at. But I’d hate to lose you.”
From there, Andersen contacted BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall and told him that Nyborg is someone he should interview and hire.
“I really appreciated that recommendation,” Nyborg said.
In late April, Mendenhall hired Nyborg away from Wisconsin to become the Cougars’ new director of football operations.
“Zach is an individual of high moral values and character who brings experience, knowledge and innovative thinking to a position that is of utmost importance to a football program,” Mendenhall said in a statement at the time. “He will play a significant role in the continued success of our program.”
Nyborg replaced Duane Busby, who last week was reported to be at the center of an internal review by BYU of alleged NCAA infractions. The school announced Busby’s retirement in late March.
The Deseret News interviewed Nyborg shortly after he was hired in early May.
Although the Centerville native is thrilled about his new job, he admitted that it was tough to leave Andersen.
“Walking out for the last time was like being at the (LDS Church's Missionary Training Center), walking away from my family. It was very hard,” he said. “The Andersen family is family to me. We’ve been through a lot together. But they get it and they’re happy for me. It’s not a relationship that will ever end. I love them. When you walk out of the MTC, it’s an emotional thing. But the next day you wake up and you’re ready to go to work and you’re excited. I was excited to walk into the office here at BYU and go to work. I’m getting to know the support staff and the different departments that are involved with BYU football. I’m trying to get a good grasp before we hit the ground running. This is the best time to make a transition. Right now, a lot needs to be done but the urgency is not as much.”
Before his hiring, Nyborg didn’t know Mendenhall very well. He had a brief conversation with him prior to last November’s BYU-Wisconsin game in Madison, Wisconsin.
He is very familiar with the Cougar program. He’s close friends with former safety Mike Hague — the two were roommates at BYU. From his time as an assistant at Timpview High, he knows current Cougar players like Bronson Kaufusi, Craig Bills, Tui Crichton and Colby Jorgensen.
And during his time at Utah State, he helped recruit others on the BYU roster. “I have a relationship with some of the players,” Nyborg said. “It’s good to be back in Utah.”
Nyborg is a graduate of BYU’s Marriott School of Management and is completing a master’s in physical and sport education from USU.
Serving as a director of football operations isn’t something Nyborg ever planned on. When he was in high school, he had his sights on law school. After suffering a back injury while playing football at Viewmont High, he decided against walking on in college and focused on his education, attending BYU.
“Did I think I would be here in this position? No, not at all,” he said. “I’ll call it luck, but I also recognize that a lot of hard work is involved with this business. I’ve worked hard, but I’ve been very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time and work with great people. The people I’ve been around have prepared me to take on the task that I’ve been able to assume.”
Nyborg credits the start of this career path in college football to his mission in Nashville, Tennessee. Nyborg served with former Timpview coach Louis Wong’s son, Ryan. When Nyborg returned from his mission, he was offered a job as the freshman team coach at Timpview by Louis Wong.
Later, in 2010, Nyborg took a volunteer job at Utah State under Andersen, then the Aggie head coach. Nyborg started as a defensive and recruiting administrative assistant before becoming assistant to the head coach and recruiting coordinator.
“(Andersen) didn’t know my name for the first three weeks I worked there and I sat outside his office,” Nyborg said. “I kept working hard and tried to be at the right place at the right time. Coach Andersen kept giving me opportunities and took the best advantage of them that I could.”
And when Andersen was hired at Wisconsin, Nyborg went with him. “It was a quick whirlwind,” Nyborg recalled.
His introduction to Wisconsin football was at the Rose Bowl, where the Badgers were playing at the end of the 2012 season.
“Lots of things happen when you take over a program. It’s a program that hadn’t seen change in 25 years because (former Wisconsin coach Bret) Bielema had been with coach (Barry) Alvarez previously," Nyborg said. "Not that we changed everything, but we had our own ways of doing things. It was a long process. I learned a lot, going from being a graduate assistant to being the DFO there. It was learning on the go, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way because now I understand a lot of processes that are involved.”
Nyborg said the best way to describe the duties of a director of football operations is to put it in business terms.
“You look at a football program, or an organization, you have a head coach, who’s essentially the CEO. The DFO is the CFO and COO of an organization. All of the operations and finances run through the operation side of things. From a day-to-day basis, there’s team travel and logistics. You want to take care of kids academically, socially and athletically. The first two parts are the head coach’s responsibilities, so for me, being the right-hand man of the head coach, it’s taking care of these kids, putting them in the best positions so that athletically, they have everything they need as well. People think the behind-the-scenes things aren’t directly tied to performance, but I disagree.”
After spending five years with Andersen at USU and Wisconsin, Nyborg figured they’d be together for a while longer.
“He’s a father to me,” he said of Andersen. “But this job and opportunity was at home, at my alma mater, a place that I love. To be able to have that opportunity to come home and to be a part of it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Both teams and programs have the same goals in mind. That’s another reason why I came here to BYU. At Wisconsin, we were trying to take a national team, a national brand and take it to an elite level, and that’s what we’re trying to do at BYU. That challenge is exciting to me. I look forward to the independent structure here and attacking it.”
As for the BYU football program, Nyborg believes that despite the shifting landscape, the Cougars can compete at an elite level.
“With the change in the College Football Playoff, there’s a great opportunity for BYU to be in there. If we weren’t making that our goal and striving to achieve that, we shouldn’t be there,” he said. “It’s absolutely possible. BYU has the prestige and the tradition. But we also have the people in place to do that. We need to be able to recruit at the highest level and match up the goals and plans with the people in the program. Once that all comes together and you make a run at it, special things will happen.”