College football: Coach returns to lead UMD's defense

When Minnesota Duluth announced John Steger as its new defensive coordinator in June, the Bulldogs expected the transition to go smoothly. That's because it was like he, in some ways, had never left. Steger served 11 seasons as UMD's defensive co...

John Steger
Minnesota Duluth defensive coordinator John Steger runs his defense during drills at practice in Malosky Stadium on Wednesday afternoon in Duluth. (Clint Austin /

When Minnesota Duluth announced John Steger as its new defensive coordinator in June, the Bulldogs expected the transition to go smoothly.

That's because it was like he, in some ways, had never left.

Steger served 11 seasons as UMD's defensive coordinator before departing for NCAA Division I-AA Southern Illinois University two years ago. In the meantime, he kept in close contact with the Bulldogs coaching staff and never even sold his house.

He is back, and the Bulldogs hope their defense is the better for it going into their home opener against Winona State at 6 p.m. today at Malosky Stadium.

"It's great to be back in the saddle again," Steger said. "It kind of feels like I've been on vacation for about two years, but things are good. It was kind of a seamless transition coming back, and I've enjoyed it."


Steger, 49, spent two years in Carbondale, Ill., working as the Salukis' inside linebackers coach and special teams coordinator. Southern Illinois, which already included former UMD head coach Bubba Schweigert as its defensive coordinator, went 5-6 in 2010 and 4-7 last season.

If Steger and his wife, Barbara, enjoyed Carbondale, they loved Duluth. So when Todd Strop resigned after two seasons as Bulldogs defensive coordinator, Steger jumped at the chance to return to the place he helped build into a Division II national power.

"Barbara and I really enjoyed our time in Duluth. We enjoyed living in Minnesota," said Steger, a native of Dubuque, Iowa. "It was a good two years for me. It gave me an opportunity to coach at another level, and I enjoyed working with the people down there, but when the opportunity presented itself to come back, kind of unexpectedly, we couldn't pass it up."

It must have been an unusual hiring process for UMD coach Bob Nielson, who also serves as the Bulldogs' athletic director.

Nielson and Steger have a trusted friendship that dates to 1996, when they were coaching at Wisconsin-Eau Claire together.

"It's great to have John back," Nielson said. "We lost a great football coach when Todd Strop left, so my first priority was finding a way to put the strongest staff together and also to keep as much continuity as possible, and John gave us the ability to address both of those issues. He's an outstanding football coach and has a great defensive mind. He's a guy I have a great confidence in as a coach. We still had to go through all the search procedures like we do with any opening, but when you put everything together, it really wasn't a very hard decision. I'll put it that way."

Steger helped build the Bulldogs into one of the nation's top defensive teams en route to their first national football title in 2008, when their vaunted 3-4 defense was almost impossible to run against. It was a bend-but-don't-break approach, with the defense rarely giving up a big play while still putting pressure on the quarterback and forcing turnovers.

That tradition continued under Strop as UMD won another national title in 2010. Steger was at that game -- as a spectator.


"I was really happy with where I was at, and I was really, really happy for Bob and all the guys I knew here," Steger said. "You always want to see good people succeed, and some of those guys I helped develop."

One of those was UMD senior safety and captain Cameron Harper.

Steger is known for his intensity, intelligence and work ethic. He sits in the coaches' booth during games, where he can analyze and break down a game as it is happening and make adjustments on the fly. Rarely, if ever, does a defensive breakdown occur without him noticing.

"It feels like he never even left," Harper said of Steger. "I think he missed Duluth, and you can tell he's glad to be back. Coach Strop did a great job here, but for me, personally, I came here to play for Coach Steger, so it's great being able to go out with the same guy you came in with. His intensity stems from how hard he works as a coach and how badly he wants us to succeed. I've never seen a coach put in the time that he does, so as a player, you really don't think it's fair not to give your best effort when you know your coaches are preparing like that. I don't think his intensity rubs anyone the wrong way, because we know where it's coming from."

Even before Steger's return to UMD, Bulldog assistant coach Tyler Yelk started reverting some of the defensive terminology back to the way it was before Steger left, making his adjustment even easier.

However, the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference schedule makers didn't make things any easier for Steger's return as UMD has to face two of the top offenses in the league to start the season. Last week the Bulldogs gave up 386 yards of offense in a 45-20 victory at Southwest Minnesota State -- including 304 through the air --and will face an even greater challenge in Winona State today.

"Winona State will be a test, no question about it, but I look at that as a positive," Steger said. "We're going to know what we have after we come out of this game. They're a dynamite team on offense, so we're going to have our hands full. We're still trying to work some younger guys in, but we just have to keep getting better every week. Winona State has always been a rival, and some of the games we've had with them in the past have just been barnburners, so I won't expect anything different this time around."

Jon Nowacki is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune
What To Read Next
Get Local