How far would you go for loyalty?
Some of us like to think we would do anything. Rick Kaczenski found out. He had to make a choice between mentor and alma mater. He laid his character out on a courtroom table for all to dissect like a science class frog.
You may not know Kaczenski yet. He's the new defensive line coach for Nebraska. This is his story, the story of the kind of person Bo Pelini wants on his staff. And, more than whether he'll coach a two-gap scheme, this is what you need to know about Coach Kaz.
The story starts in Erie, Pa., a blue-collar town north of Pittsburgh, a town full of tough, hard-working people, a town where high school football is everything.
It's Joe Moore country.
The late Moore has been called college football's greatest offensive line coach. Of course, here in Nebraska we know that to be Milt Tenopir, the former Husker O-line mentor. Moore was the western Pennsylvania version, a former high school coach in Erie, who went on to coach at Pitt and Notre Dame, where he recruited a small, hard-nosed center from Erie's Cathedral Prep High.
When Moore called Kaczenski to recruit him, he asked the kid to call him back collect. Kaczenski was so flustered he forgot the number.
"Growing up, I remember my dad telling me Joe Moore stories," Kaczenski said. "I had this image of Joe Moore. I didn't even think he was real.
"Joe passed in 2003, and I'm still afraid of him."
Moore was part disciplinarian, father figure and old-school motivator. Kaczenski remembers staying long after practice at Notre Dame, doing "one-on-one" drills in the dark after messing up one too many times in practice.
"He'd get about five defensive linemen and just you, and you'd go one after another, one after another, over and over," Kaczenski said. "You knew it was part of the process. There were times when Coach (Lou) Holtz would come by and say, 'That's about enough Joe.' But we'd keep going."
Kaczenski remembered one day, while getting ready for a big game at Florida State, Holtz came down to personally coach the offensive line because he wanted an option trap play blocked a certain way. Moore didn't agree.
"Coach Moore said, 'Well, you know so much about coaching offensive line, you do it,' and he walked out of practice," Kaczenski said. "Then Coach Holtz finally went off somewhere else and we had nobody to coach us.
"Joe could do that. He was kind of the godfather."
Not to everyone. Holtz left Notre Dame and was replaced by Bob Davie, who brought in his staff and fired Moore. The old legend was not amused. He sued Notre Dame for age discrimination. He won.
Guess who was called to testify on his behalf — against his own school?
"That was tough," Kaczenski said. "I love Notre Dame. It was a great time in my life, surrounded by great people, lot of great memories. Now here I am, I'm in the middle and want to keep everyone happy.
"I was 21, but when I was given those depositions, I felt like I was 12. I was looking for my parents. I'm locked away in a room with a bunch of attorneys. I felt like I was all alone.
"Hopefully, I didn't upset any Notre Dame people. It weighed on me. It still weighs on me. I said, if I just tell the truth, I'm going to be OK."
He did of course. But he then adds this for emphasis: "But to be honest with you, if I needed to lie for Joe Moore, I would have lied for Joe Moore."
After practice on Saturday, Pelini said he had never heard that story. But it didn't surprise him.
"To me, it shows that he's a tremendous person with tremendous character," Pelini said of Coach Kaz. "Those are the type of people you want to surround yourself with."
Kirk Ferentz agreed. When Kaczenski bounced around jobs as a young coach — grad assistant at South Carolina, then South Carolina State, East Tennessee State and Elon — Ferentz jump-started Kaczenski's career by bringing him to Iowa in 2005.
Why Kaz? They had one thing in common. Moore was Ferentz's high school coach and again when Ferentz was a grad assistant at Pitt.
Any man who will testify on Joe's behalf was his kind of man.
"Kirk had so much respect for Joe, and he saw how much respect I had for him," Kaczenski said. "I definitely think that's what got me here."
He rewarded Ferentz's hire by producing great defensive lines at Iowa. Meanwhile, Kaz became a rising star himself. And he had Ferentz, his new mentor, to thank.
Which made it incredibly hard to tell Ferentz that he was leaving to take a job with Pelini at Nebraska last December.
For Kaczenski, this was a way to expand his profile and defensive coaching chops. Leaving Ferentz was hard. Kaczenski felt a tug between a loyalty to the Iowa coach who gave him a chance and a loyalty to improving his career.
What made it easier was that Ferentz himself had made that decision long ago.
"We talked," Kaczenski said of Ferentz. "Bo called me on Sunday and I talked to Kirk on Monday. It was difficult. I got all choked up.
"He said you've got to do what's best for you and your family. He said back in 1989, that's what he did. He had to tell Coach (Hayden) Fry he was leaving (to become head coach at Maine). He said Coach Fry treated him great, told him you did your job, you did what you're supposed to do."
Now Kaczenski is in Lincoln, to energize the defensive front, to coach up the two-gap philosophy he shares with Pelini, to develop the next Adrian Clayborn — or Ndamukong Suh. He talks with a reverence about Memorial Stadium, the names on the walls as he walks down the hallway to practice. He says he's not here to put his stamp on Nebraska, that Nebraska puts its stamp on you.
It's fun to hear a Notre Dame guy gush about Nebraska. And Kaz will always be a Notre Dame guy, a Ferentz guy and now a Pelini guy. If you coach long enough, you become like a branch of a tree. But you never forget the roots.
"When I first got into this, I was trying to be like Joe Moore," Kaczenski said. "Joe Moore told me, 'You can't be like me. You've got to be you.' I think you take the best pieces of the guys you coached for. There's only one Joe Moore, only one Milt, one Coach (Tom) Osborne, one Bo."
So that means there won't be any one-on-one drills in the dark at the Hawks Complex?
"No, no," Kaz said, laughing. "Those days are gone."
But the spirit of Joe Moore lives on, now at Nebraska.
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