The motive behind the shocking news remains somewhat of a mystery.
In April, Marshall Sperbeck abruptly resigned as the head coach at Sacramento State, a post he’d held for seven somewhat successful seasons. Sperbeck compiled a 35-44 mark at SSU, including wins over Pac-12 schools Oregon State and Colorado. He gave no reason for stepping down, but speculation swirled. A week after his resignation, the Sacramento Bee reported the school was in the middle of an internal investigation into potential violations of NCAA recruiting policies.
An anonymous 10-page letter was sent to the Bee, Sac State and the NCAA detailing the alleged violations. The letter included information that Sperbeck exceeded the number of phone calls allowed to potential prospects. It also stated that Sperbeck was in attendance at a workout during what the NCAA deems a dead period for coaches. Nothing has come from the investigation as of the first week of October.
“At first, it was a shock to us and we didn’t know what was going down,” said Sac State star quarterback Garrett Safron, a three-year starter and two-time All-Big Sky Conference selection.
With spring drills and spring semester in full swing, Sac State’s athletic department had to scramble. Somehow, Jody Sears found himself as a Big Sky head coach again.
Sears served as Paul Wulff’s defensive coordinator at Eastern Washington (2003-2007) and Washington State (2007-2011). Wulff was fired in 2011 closely after longtime Weber State head coach Ron McBride retired. John L. Smith took the Weber job for a brief moment, but Bobby Petrino, a motorcycle and a blonde co-ed led to a fiasco and a coaching opening Arkansas. Smith, who was replaced at Louisville in 2003 by Petrino, jumped ship before ever coaching a game at WSU to lead the Razorbacks. Sears was named the interim coach and led the Wildcats to a 4-19 record in two seasons. He was fired following last season and took a job as Sperbeck’s new DC only to see another boss leave under less than ideal circumstances.
“It was like Groundhog Day,” Sears said in an interview at the Big Sky Football Kickoff in July. “The difference was this time around we were still in school. The first time around at Weber, the kids were gone. They were trying to gather it all together. There was a lot of questions and confusion with the kids. We were able to settle that having been through it and we were able to plan for it. I’m really proud of the seniors and the stability they’ve shown.”
A Sac senior class of 18 has enforced that stability. Sears and his staff instantly empowered the players, helping them craft a vision for themselves. The result was a 3-1 record during the non-conference schedule and an above-.500 mark as SSU prepares to host No. 13 Montana State on Saturday evening.
“Coach Sperbeck is a great coach, but he had a vision and that’s where it was going,” said Sac senior defensive end Jaycee Totty. “Coach Sears is the same way, but his vision is for us to choose our vision, choose our path and the tools we want to use to get there. It’s amazing for us to have some sort of control. By doing that, you create relationships. You might have a bunch of good athletes, but if everyone doesn’t have a good relationship with each other and everyone is not on the same page, that breeds hostility and confusion. The more you can create those relationships and bond together, the stronger the team is going to be regardless of who is the head coach.”
“He’s changed the lifestyle here,” added junior linebacker Darnell Sankey. “The team is more player-led. (Sears has) stepped down from a lot of the disciplinary actions and has let the players handle it. We feel like it’s more our team.”
Montana State has built a reputation as a program that prides itself on producing in the classroom, in the community and on the football field. The coaching staff is filled with talent and experience. Rob Ash has been a college head coach for 35 seasons. The coaches certainly demand the respect of the players, but the model is successful because of the level of accountability the players hold one another to.
It’s something Sears wants to replicate.
“Any time you take over a new team or a new business or a new company, you have to build trust,” Sears said. “The only way you build trust is building relationships and developing your team, your business to be a player-led team or an employee-led team. This was not going to be a coach-driven team. Yes, we have to coach and point them in the right direction. If you can build a team and build a culture to be a player-led team like you see at Montana State, that’s what you want to do. We had a veteran team coming back. All we had to do was sit down and ask them what they wanted and they told us, so we said, ‘Here’s how we are going to do it.’ We hold them to that standard and empower them. You let them make decisions, you let them make choices, you let the handle disciplinary issues at times. You let them buy in to the program so their trust level continues to grow.”
The early returns have been better than some expected. SSU has won almost as many games already this fall as Sears did in Ogden in two full seasons. The Hornets have one of the most physical front sevens in the league and are second in the Big Sky in rushing defense under Sears’ tutelage. Saturday, Sac State faces its toughest test yet.
“The wins and losses are a byproduct of what your daily leadership looks like,” Sears said. “It’s a byproduct of your daily principles and if you are being true to those on a day-in, day-out basis. We have to continue that. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Photo courtesy of Sac State athletics.