(Former UC Offensive Line coach Larry Zierlein/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
It's not unusual to see familiar faces from days gone by at UC practices. Particularly with Butch Jones emphasizing "family" in his current regime. Everyone granted access to the field during practice is considered "family" as the recruit credentials say as much.
Media credentials don't say that, but that's understood, it's kind of part of the territory.
Then, there's some that are recognized and accounted for, but don't necessarily need credentials. These would be coaches, scouts that stand out. One of those dropped by the other day and it was delightful to see him.
Covering the team on the radio crew for years allowed me close access to players, coaches and gave me great insights on the UC football program. I was privileged to know most UC coaches well, most of the players and a lot of the parents and and followers. So, when I saw the familiar white hair of former offensive line coach Larry Zierlein, I was glad to see him back at "The Nipp". It had been awhile.
"My last year of coaching here was 2000," said Zierlein after a hearty grin and handshake. "I really haven't been back since--I think that spring after I left I came back to watch a spring training practice. Outside of coming down for the offensive line clinic, this is really the first time I've been back."
Like many UC coaches in his era, he went on to bigger and better things. Larry Zierlein coached in the NFL for the Browns, Bills and Steelers. However, as life often becomes a business, just one year after a Super Bowl title in Pittsburgh, he was released as the line coach of the Steelers.
I've said it before and I'll say it again (and for now I'm living it) sometimes bad things happen to good people. Coach Zierlein is just another example of that (for now) and to me it appears he still has a hunger and a gleem in his eye to be on a gridiron somewhere.
"I wanted to come out and just watch a little spring practice," Zierlein said. "I'm going to determine in a year from now--I'm at retirement age now--I'm going to determine if I want to keep doing it or just head to Texas hill country. My son's a head coach down there. He might let me help him out, or he might not. Then, I have another son down there who has a radio sports talk show. We're going to decide in about a year from now if we're going to keep doing it or not."
My guess is whether it's the pros, college or "Friday Night Lights" in Texas, Larry Zierlein will be around some football. He's one of a number of good offensive line coaches in that era of Bearcat football (with more of a run emphasis) that is well known in coaching circles (Bob Wylie--coached in NFL and Syracuse, Stacy Searles--LSU,Auburn, Steve Shankweiler--here, East Carolina and there's probably guys and or places I've left out).
Tack that on to the numerous coaches at other positions who moved up, including the three current NFL coaches (Mike Tomlin--former DB coach, now HC of the Steelers, John Harbaugh--special teams--now HC of the Ravens, and Rex Ryan--former DC--now HC of the Jets) and you've got quite a "Coach's Cradle" in Corryville.
"Yeah, I don't know how many it is," said Zierlein. "You know, Rick Minter used to get criticized a lot for staff turnover. But he was meticulous in his hiring. He would go the extra mile before he hired a guy. We had good coaches on this staff. A lot of guys have gone onto what at that time were better jobs--although as UC has progressed I don't think that some of these jobs that we might have left for at that time can be considered better than what it is here. Rick hired good guys. Everybody that I coached with--we all liked coaching here. We all liked working with Rick."
For those that have heard comments to the contrary about Minter, Rex Ryan pretty much told me the same thing a year ago. Again, I maintain someone should have given him a crack as a pro personnel guy because he did know coaching and athletic talent. He also assembled a pretty good cast of characters for Larry Zierlein to work with in the late 90s.
"You know, it seems like there's has been quite a few," said Zierlein. "We've always had good offensive linemen to work with. When I was here, we had a great group of kids here led by Doug Rosfeld who's coaching out at Moeller now. Teddy Forrest is out there with him. We had a lot of local kids at that time, I think four out of my five starters in the late 90s were all Cincinnati or Kentucky kids--Kurt Doolin, Andy Weinheimer--I don't want to leave out anybody. We had a lot of local kids and they were good players."
Those lineman blocked for Orlando Smith, Landon Smith and Darryl Royal in the Humanitarian Bowl in '97, for Robert Cooper as UC upset #9 Wisconsin and Ron Dayne in '99 and for the "Mack and Jack" attack of DeMarcus McCleskey and Ray Jackson in 2000 that went to the Motor City Bowl. Many of those "road graters" went onto the NFL or other careers in football, with Jason Fabini probably being the most recognizable "pro talent".
"Yeah, Fabini," started Zierlein. "Fabini would probably be the best and he played in the NFL for a long time. Joel Dolinski was a good player, he's a head coach at Seton Hill over in Greensburg, Pennsyvlania. Then that group I had in '99-2000, I forget the years now, Rosfeld, Doolin, Weinheimer, "Ghost" (Josh Gardner) they were good."
Having left UC for the pros himself, Zierlein found line-coaching at that level at little different. Sure, talent is superior, but the business aspect of the game comes into play and often affects coaches that are left to "assemble parts".
"Sometimes you get a guy that comes in during the year and a week or two later he's starting for you," said Zierlein. "Your techniques and your slickness, I don't think in that league that the techniques are as good as they are in college because you have such constant turnover."
An astute observation by Zierlein, who to me, sounds like a guy that misses the college game and still has a fire burning to "light a fire" under some burly youngsters. When he coached here, attendance could often hover around 15,000. He talked to me about the Wisconsin game in '99, where attendance might have been in the 20s, but students were rushing in late as word got out that UC was winning.
Like many that have returned and seen the facilities that have blossomed since they left, Zierlein was in awe. He spent a lot of time just trying to figure out where his office used to be in the old Shoemaker Center facility. Amazing how a man can spend so many hours in an office and then years later see that it's been transformed into something majestic like the Lindner Center.
"I've been amazed at what the campus looks like now," marveled Zierlein. "The athletic facility is unbelievable."
The building inside is even better thanks to some of the early "blocks" led by the likes of Larry Zierlein and others.