PROVO — The job of a college football assistant coach is hardly an easy one. The hours amassed breaking down film, managing personnel, developing game plans and administering practice sessions are taxing — and that's not even the half of it.
Coaches don't punch in just prior to the season and then punch out when it concludes — it's a year-round job that involves many hours and time away from home. It's work that isn't readily seen by fans but holds at least as much importance as the work being done during the regular season.
"I really had no clue how much time was involved with coaching before getting hired on full-time," said BYU outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga. "As a G.A. (graduate assistant) you see and get a feel of some of the work, but you really don't have any idea of everything that is going on behind the scenes. You don't understand it fully because you don't see it."
Poppinga was hired as an interim coach following the dismissal of defensive coordinator Jaime Hill during the 2010 season. After the season, Poppinga's coaching status went from interim to permanent as a member of head coach Bronco Mendenhall's staff.
While Poppinga was well-versed on the aspects of game preparation and player management, other facets of coaching left him with little clue from the outset, leaving him to learn on the fly.
Shortly after the end of the 2010 regular season, Poppinga found himself on a plane to Oregon to recruit for a solid week. It was the first time he was charged with specific recruiting responsibilities, and he had to make-do learning on the fly.
"Coach (Mark) Weber did a really good job preparing me and sending me the right way, but you really have no idea what is involved and what's effective until you're just thrown in there," Poppinga said. "Fortunately I was able to establish some good connections early, and I just went from there."
Poppinga established a strong recruiting relationship with a local area coach that opened doors to finding other prospective players. Some keys to recruiting are to establish good relations with local coaches and to keep a full schedule of appointments, Poppinga said. Nevertheless, some of the best contacts he's made were by chance encounters.
"Sometimes appointments fall through and you just find yourself at a certain school hoping to find a good relationship with the coach and even some players that would fit in well at BYU," Poppinga said. "Some of the best guys I've found have been through just doing that, actually. Without the coach even knowing I was coming in, I've been able to find some really good players for us."
Poppinga said it is like LDS missionary work.
"You're out there by yourself just trying to make good contacts and find people who would be interested in joining our program, so yeah, it's a lot like being on a mission again," said Poppinga, who served a two-year mission in Ecuador prior to playing for BYU. "It's a lot of fun, but it's hard — it's hard work."
BYU assistant coaches spend a total of 12 weeks on the road recruiting each year, according to Poppinga — two weeks in December, four weeks in January and six weeks during the period between spring practices and the so-called "quiet period" that begins in June. It involves a lot of time away from home, which can be tough on a young father.
"You're gone the whole week, usually from Sunday night until late on Friday night, so that's the hardest thing by far — just being away for long periods of time," Poppinga said. "It's all part of being a coach, but it's the one thing you don't really realize when you're hired is how much time you're away."
The recruiting process certainly isn't limited to the time spent on the road. The hours of the day year-round involve constant phone calls, emails and letters being sent out, which all add up to a lot of work.
The fruition of all the recruiting efforts obviously occurs during signing day in early February, but June is also a big month. June is the month when most college programs hold their camps for prospective players.
All the recruiting contacts made throughout the year are generally designed to get top recruits on campus to further their interest and oftentimes confirm the interest each recruit has in signing with BYU. Leading up to June, every coach on staff has been vigorously mining his assigned recruiting area in order to attract the best talent possible.
"June is a great month for that reason and because we still get to do a lot of recruiting, but we get to do it from home," Poppinga said. "It's great to see a lot of the kids you've been out seeing respond by visiting the camps, but it's not how many kids you can get to come so much as the quality of the kids. At BYU, we want not only the best football players but those players that can represent our program and our standards in the best way possible."
BYU holds its first elite camp, referred to as "junior day," next Wednesday. It will then hold two weeks of camps that are always well attended by local and out-of-state prospects. The attendees often comprise prospects who respond to the message sent to them by coaches. While coaches focus on expounding the virtues of BYU's honor code and other facets of the university, it's plain old football that garners the most interest.
"Players want to know about football and the type of football we play at BYU," Poppinga said. "Since Bronco Mendenhall has been head coach here, he's put forth an amazing record of accomplishments. We share all of that with recruits — the top 25 finishes, the bowl games, our conference championships, our independence, our playing on ESPN, the places we're going to play, our amazing environment and fans — all of those things are what recruits respond to the most I've found."
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