December 30, 2011

Friday bowl notebook: Kaczenski fits right in at NU

ORLANDO, Fla. - As then-Iowa defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski walked around the Memorial Stadium field during pre-game of the Hawkeyes' regular season finale against Nebraska, he found himself in awe that he was about to coach in one of the legendary venues in college football.

Little did he know just how much his life was about to change from that point on.

The very next day, Kaczenski's wife gave birth to their daughter, Sophia Grace. Four weeks later, he was in Orlando wearing a Nebraska shirt and hat and soaking in all he could from head coach Bo Pelini as the latest member of NU's coaching staff.

For the first time since being hired as the Huskers' new defensive line coach last week, Kaczenski spoke with reporters about his new position.

"I was telling my wife on Christmas, I said 'a month ago I was getting ready to play Nebraska. Now we have a daughter and I'm getting ready to go get on a plane down to Florida with Nebraska,'" Kaczenski said. "So it's been a heck of a month. I'm very grateful and very appreciative for the opportunity to come down to Lincoln."

Since officially joining the staff, Kaczenski hasn't done much actual coaching with the Huskers. Instead, he's spent the majority of his time just trying to learn as much as he can about Pelini's defensive system as well as acclimate himself with his new players and fellow coaches.

He said having the chance to come down to Orlando for the bowl week would be a great head start to help hit the ground running when things kick back up in the spring.

"It's just great to come down here before the bowl game and kind of get a lay of the land, put some names with faces and things like that and just try to get a feel for how Coach (Pelini) and his staff operate," Kaczenski said. "It's really been kind of like a bonus week for me. It's really just been great. The people are first class. It's a first-class organization. Everybody's just gone out of their way to help me feel welcome.

After spending two seasons as a graduate assist and working with the offensive line at Iowa from 2005-06, Kaczenski joined Kirk Ferentz's staff as defensive line coach in 2007.

Before that, he coached offensive line and tight ends at Elon University in 2004 and also at Eastern Tennessee State the year before in 2003. He was offensive line coach at South Carolina State for a season in 2002 after coaching offensive line and wide receivers at South Carolina from 1999-01.

Pelini said Nebraska actually had interest in bringing Kaczenski onto the staff as an offensive line coach last season, but the job eventually went to John Garrison.

Kaczenski said the biggest transition for him has been learning all new terminology and getting caught up with a full season's worth of scheme installation. While he said he's been trying his best to take it all in as fast as possible, he conceded it was impossible to expect he'd learn the defense well enough in time to effectively have a big coaching role in the Capital One Bowl.

That's why he's been the most focused on getting to know the personality of the players and coaches and just learning who the guys are and to have them learn who he is.

"I think there's a lot of potential," Kaczenski said of NU's defensive line. "It just seems like a bunch of great kids that are eager to learn and eager to get better. I think there's a lot there to work with from what little I've seen of them. I'm real excited to jump in in the spring and hopefully have a chance to not screw them up, and if we're lucky maybe even make them a little bit better."

Both Pelini and Kaczenski credited Nebraska strength and conditioning coach James Dobson for serving as the middleman of sorts in coordinating Kaczenski's move to Lincoln.

An assistant on Iowa's strength and conditioning staff for two years while Kaczenski was on the coaching staff, Dobson and Kaczenski maintained a good friendship over the years after Dobson left for NU in 2008.

Because both Pelini and Kaczenski were consumed with bowl preparations and recruiting during the hiring process, Dobson played a big role in keeping communication going for both sides.

"James was probably kind of the in-between guy," Kaczenski said. "It was obviously during recruiting and things were busy, and I don't know if anybody really knew what was really going on. James and I, we're pretty good friends. Even when he came to Nebraska, we remained friends, and always talked about our programs and things that were going on and how they do things at Iowa and how they do things at Nebraska.

"I don't know if there was really much of a connection or if James was an agent, but when things started moving along, obviously he was the in-between, the go-to guy trying to figure out when it was going to happen and what the schedule was going to be for it."

In reality, though, it didn't take much convincing from Dobson to make coming to Nebraska an appealing proposition for Kaczenski.

"To grow as a football coach on the defensive side of the football, I don't think there's a better mind in football to learn from (than Pelini)," Kaczenski said. "That's the ultimate goal, just to continue to learn and continue get better as a coach. When the opportunity arose, it was just impossible to turn down."

On top of that, Kaczenski said he was sold on Nebraska from the first time he walked into Memorial Stadium on that day that changed his life forever.

"That's the first time I had been in Lincoln, and I was very impressed," Kaczenski said. "I was telling Coach Dosbon, I was looking up during pre-game where the players come out of that tunnel, and I saw that sign that said 'I play for Nebraska'. I said, 'man, this is pretty neat. I can't believe I'm actually coaching a game at Nebraska, even as an opponent.'

"Sometimes you've got to pinch yourself. You don't get in the profession to end up at a Nebraska, but now that you're here at a Nebraska, it's really unreal. And it's chance to learn from what in my opinion is the best in the business on the defensive side of the ball. I'm just really excited about getting the opportunity to learn."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***As upset as he was about his Hawkeyes' 20-7 drubbing by Nebraska this season, Kaczenski said that all took a back seat when Sophia Grace was born the next day.

"That was the one good thing to happen that weekend," he joked.

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