Head Football Coach James Kilian was hired to lead St. Olaf back to the kind of greatness that the school was known for just five years ago, and he has a clear process to make that happen.
Introducing James Kilian
It doesn’t seem very long ago that St. Olaf University had one of the top football programs in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC). From 2004 to 2012, a span of nine seasons, the Oles went 63-27 and were a consistent winner within the conference.
However, the last four years have been difficult ones at St. Olaf. The team has gone just 6-34, and fans and alumni alike were harkening back to a day when the team was one of the elites of the conference. They want to see their beloved program get back on the right pathway to make Oles football something special again.
It’s quite apropos that the name Olaf means ancestor or heir. Clearly, the school and its fans want to see a return to the way that things were a short time ago. They want to see this St. Olaf team create a spirit and culture dedicated to winning while also developing boys into mature young men. It was for this reason that the school turned to former St. Thomas offensive coordinator James Kilian to become their new head coach, knowing that the process and culture that he would implemented were going to be the keys to not only restoring the school to its former greatness, but also setting a legacy for future teams to follow.
Establishing Credentials as a Proven Success
Coming out of Medford High School (OK), James Kilian had proved that he was quite exceptional on the gridiron. He was a four-year starter in high school, compiling a 46-8 record and throwing for over 8,000 yards and 120 touchdowns in his four seasons as the school’s varsity quarterback. In his senior season, he led the team to the Class C Championship and was named by the Oklahoma Associated Press to their first-team.
The quarterback moved onto Tulsa University, where he would appear in 37 games, becoming the starter in his junior season. In 2003, Kilian threw for 2,217 yards and 22 touchdowns, while completing 56.8 percent of his passes. He also ran for 605 yards and seven scores. That earned him second-team honors in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). That season he also guided the Golden Hurricane to their first bowl game in 12 years.
In his senior season, the Tulsa quarterback threw for 2,247 yards and 13 touchdowns, while completing 54.6 percent of his passes. It was another outstanding season that proved he had the potential to take his game to the highest levels of the sport. The Kansas City Chiefs agreed, selecting him in the seventh round of the NFL draft.
Moving to a New Calling
James Kilian made the practice squad for the Chiefs, even edging out Heisman Trophy winner Jason White. His professional career would take him through the European League of American Football, the Canadian Football League, and Arena Football League before the Coach finally decided to hang up his cleats and turn to coaching.
The Coach had always envisioned being involved in the coaching ranks, seeing it as the perfect opportunity to stay in the game while also affording him the opportunity to assist young men to grow.
“The idea of coaching goes way back to being an athlete myself. I think about the coaches that I had and the influence that they had on my life. I thought it was a pretty good way to spend your time, impacting young people, and hopefully creating experiences and memories that you were able to have yourself as a player.”
The coach had earned a bachelor’s degree in education as well as a Master’s degree and so coaching seemed like the perfect opportunity for him. Coach Kilian began his coaching career at Del City High School (OK) where he served as the team’s offense of coordinator. That season, Del City led all of Class 6A in passing yards and the team finished 7-3, their best record in nine seasons.
A year later he returned to his alma mater, serving as the quarterbacks coach. In 2011, he moved to LSU where he served as an offensive analyst for the football program. The Tigers finished 13-1 that season, were winners of the SEC championship and played the University of Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.
A year later, Coach Kilian moved to Minnesota, becoming the wide receivers coach for Carleton College before becoming the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in 2013. The Knights had their best season in nearly 2 decades in 2013, finishing 5-5, and leading the MIAC in red zone touchdown efficiency.
A Football Wizard
In 2014, James Kilian became the offensive coordinator for the St. Thomas Tommies. The success on the field was instantaneous, as the team average 44.4 points per game and 493.7 yards per contest, while also posting an 8-3, which enabled them to enter the Division III playoffs.
It was an impressive start to his career at the school, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. In 2015, the Tommies averaged 51.3 ppg, the second highest average in the nation, going 14-1, taking them all the way to the national title game where they fell to Mount Union in the Stagg Bowl.
The success was not just team related. Running back Jordan Roberts was named as the Offensive Player of the Year by D3Football.com, and David Simmet was a finalist for the prestigious Gagliardi Trophy as the nation’s top player. In addition, the two offensive stars as well as tight end Charlie Dowdle were named First-Team All-Americans.
In 2016, St. Thomas had another excellent season, winning the MIAC championship, going 12-1. They appeared in the national playoffs again, led by another impressive offense that average 47.1 points per game, once again the second best in the nation. Quarterback Alex Fenske was the MIAC’s top offensive player and Mike Stam was awarded honors as the conference’s top lineman.
The Process Begins
After having so much success at St. Thomas, James Kilian was looking for an opportunity to become a head coach. While believing he was prepared for the next level of his career, he also wasn’t willing to take just any job. He wanted to ensure that the opportunity not only worked for his family, but also gave him a place where he knew he could have the greatest opportunity for success. When the St. Olaf job was offered to him, the coach knew he’d found a home.
“My wife is from Minnesota and this is where we live and this is where were going to raise our family. I’m not going to move around the country to coach college football. St. Thomas is a wonderful place to work, but at some point I wanted to be a head coach and so I really identified with just a couple of schools where I would leave St. Thomas for to be a head coach. St. Olaf was one of those schools, and the reason being is that it is the type of college, the type of school that attracts some of the best and brightest from around the country. It’s also their commitment to athletics.”
While excited about the opportunity, the Coach did not have a false impression about the program. He was well aware that the Oles had struggled over the prior four seasons, and knew that it would take some time for St. Olaf to return to the program it was five years ago.
“They been good at football before. I know in recent memory they weren’t, but that doesn’t mean that the right ingredients aren’t there and I think that they are. It’s going to take some time. From an outsider’s view looking in, I knew it was going to take some time regardless, but it’s something that I’m willing to see through and wasn’t looking for the job to get me the next job. This is the job that I can stay at.”
Turning Things Around 101
It is rare when a coach can come in and turn a program around overnight. At the Division-III level it’s almost unheard of, but that does not mean that a coach can’t change the culture of the program upon his arrival. To be successful, a coach must establish an atmosphere that allows success to blossom, and that became the first order of business for James Kilian.
“We are going to be process oriented. By process that means you don’t worry about outside opinions, don’t worry about the opponent, don’t worry about anything else, just work as hard as you can each and every day. That’s the process. It’s not complex. There is no shortcut to success, it’s just hard work. Most people don’t want to do it quite frankly. Everybody’s looking for a shortcut, blaming their problems on somebody else for why they’re not successful. I don’t worry about that, I don’t compare myself to other people. I just work as hard as I can and I ask that of my players to do the same. Over time things will turn in our favor. Is it this year? I don’t know. It could be, but I don’t look at success in terms of wins or losses. Right now it’s what is the culture like? I’m really pleased with the direction that we’re going in right now.”
Working hard was one of keys he saw to turning this program around. He knew that if his players were going to take this program to another level that it wasn’t going to happen through dreams and well wishes. For anyone or any program to be successful it requires hard work and dedication, and this is on display each Saturday.
“Our guys work hard. They compete regardless of our opponent, regardless of the number of players we have. It doesn’t matter. They play hard and they play with a tremendous amount of effort and that’s all you can ask for.”
Getting All to Buy into the Process
With such an impressive resume, it would be easy to see how players would want to buy into the process that Head Coach James Kilian looked to implement, especially the younger players. However, the coach realized that there would be one group that would likely never see the real benefits of this process – the seniors. In a short period of time they would be leaving the university, yet they were being called upon to buy into something for which they would likely see limited success. Coach Kilian not only understood their potential apprehension at a new coach taking over, but he wanted them to understand that even if they didn’t get to see the results this season, they would play a key role in helping to make the Oles a champion.
“It’s tough for them. That’s why I didn’t come in and say, ‘Hey, we’re rebuilding.’ What do they care about rebuilding? They’ve got 10 games guaranteed to play and that’s all they have left. What we talk a lot about is to leave something better than when you got here. Leave your legacy. We’re going to win championships and it may not be in your time and that’s okay, but your part of the process. I think that’s a powerful thing if we can get guys to believe that and understand what that means. We are going to win championships and our senior class can take pride in that saying ‘We were part of that that championship.’ It all goes back to culture and buy-in and I am really pleased with our seniors in terms of their effort and their commitment to do things different than what they were asked to do the last three years. They want to be pushed, they want to be coached hard and they want a different outcome than what they have had previous. I have no control over what happened before I got here, but all I can do is do the best I can in terms of moving forward.”
The process also included getting his players to take a deep breath at times. Football is an incredibly passionate sport, where emotions can be a key to greater success. However, the Coach wanted his players to understand that in all aspects of their life they needed to think and respond in a manner that enabled them to have the greatest level of success, whether it was in how they tackled an opponent, how they responded to a bad grade, or what they would say in a tweet.
“We talk a lot about controlling our responses and one of the things that we do in terms of controlling our responses is to press pause. That should be part of our daily decision-making process. So when it comes to social media, like in a lot of other things, before you send that tweet or that message press pause. Think about it. We talk a lot about decision-making as a whole. Where, you know what, there is going to be something in your life where someone is going to say something to you, your girlfriend may break up with you, or someone says something about a family member and it is about how are you going to react or you going to pause first before making a decision. We try to equip them with the tools that will help them in every situation, in every aspect of their life, instead of just one in particular area.”
Supporting the Process
While St. Olaf Head Football Coach James Kilian has had success in getting the team to buy into the process, the truth is that it takes a whole lot of people to make it work. He gives a lot of credit to the assistant coaches for helping to make this a reality.
“I got two really good coordinators in Mark Kubacki and Joe Lepsche. All our coaches are really hard workers and take a lot of pride in what they do. They understand the culture that I want and the culture that they want to be a part of. I don’t have to worry about talking about culture or anything related to that with them because they completely understand what needs to be accomplished here.”
The success actually begins at home, and Coach Kilian is thankful for the person who is giving him the opportunity to make the process possible – Jenelle Kilian.
“I have an amazing wife who is very supportive. We have two young boys at home who she looks out after. She does not let me get away with,’Well I have a lot of work to do and I’m a football coach.’ That’s not an excuse that I’m able to use. I don’t know if some can use it or not, but she has definitely made me a better person and that’s probably the reason that I married her.”
The Big Picture
James Kilian understands that being a head coach is an awesome responsibility. Parents are entrusting their children with the Coach. Players are believing he will not only make them better players, but will help to make them better men. This is why he understands that the players and their growth is really what his job is all about.
“The well-being of their sons is paramount and foremost in importance for us. If there is any information that I need or that they need to know about the well-being of their son, there should be a free flow of information. But I also want them to know that I’m doing this for their son and I have a job because their son has chosen to play football. This game is about them, it’s not about me. Without them participating we wouldn’t be employed. It’s really our charge as coaches to make this a positive experience for them and to understand that we are very fortunate that we get to choose this as a profession.”
Coach Kilian wants to be a successful football coach at St. Olaf and knows that one day he will turn this team into a champion. Most coaches are looking to improve their players football skills or to get them to understand the Xs and Os better, but the Coach gets that when he helps to develop better young men that the byproduct will be better football players.
“I think the main thing that they need to know and take away is that we care about them, and that it has nothing to do with their ability to play football or to win football games. It’s just that we care about them as people and we want them to go out and live the best lives that they can. If we can take a group of individuals, let’s say we have 100, 25 seniors a year, and are going out into the community as better men then we can continue to repopulate our communities, wherever our young men may wind up, to be better husbands, to be better people, better fathers. That’s what we’re trying to build. When you work to build better people then they’re also going to be better players on the field. They’re going to play to the whistle. They’re going to do all the little things you ask them to do and all of it is a byproduct of doing the right thing. To me it’s a very simple message.”
As St. Olaf heads into Saturday’s game against Bethel University, the Oles find themselves 1-2. It is likely that they will not win the MIAC this season, but that is ok; something really special is happening at the university these days. Head Football Coach James Kilian has this team believing that they are on the cusp of returning to the success their ancestors had, becoming a conference title contender in the very near future. Some may not believe that it will occur that soon but, sometimes, belief can be a process for fans as well.
By Robert Pannier