Bob Babich won’t say he knew for certain.
That Gus Bradley was NFL-bound? That three coaches on the North Dakota State football staff in the late 1990s and early 2000s would make it to the NFL, and that those same three would defy odds and logic and wind up on the same staff?
No, Babich said Monday, he didn’t know all of that. No way he could have.
Here’s what Babich did know – that as head coach at North Dakota State from 1997-2002, his staff was special. He knew, too, he was fortunate to have a couple of North Dakota State alumni, Gus Bradley and Todd Wash, on staff together in 2002.
And as for Bradley, who he retained from the previous North Dakota State staff when he took the Bison’s head job in 1997?
Yes, Babich said, he knew that Bradley guy was unique, too. Everyone did.
“I knew his career would be special,” Babich said. “Whether it was a head coach in college, or where he has ended up now – I believed that he was going to end up doing some really good things.
“There was no doubt in my mind.”
Where Bradley ended up is as head coach of the Jaguars. He was named to that position 12 days ago and on Monday, he continued the process of piecing together the Jaguars’ new coaching staff.
One of his first moves was to hire Babich, a member of the Chicago Bears’ staff the past nine seasons, including three as defensive coordinator. On Monday, the Jaguars announced Wash, who spent the last two seasons as the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive line coach, as defensive line coach.
Wash’s hiring reunited Babich, Wash and Bradley, who served on the North Dakota State staff together during the 2002 season. Did the group know at the time all three were destined for the NFL?
Wash said not necessarily, but he – like Babich – knew Bradley had a real chance.
“We always knew Gus was special,” Wash said. “We always said, ‘If he ever got an interview...’ All he had to do was get in front of somebody. With his enthusiasm and his attention to detail, he was going to do well. We always knew Gus had the capability. We just didn’t know if he was going to get the opportunity. Not everybody does out of North Dakota State, so we’re all three very, very fortunate.”
Babich said it wasn’t necessarily anything he did as a head coach, nor was it something in the water or walls at the Division I-FCS school of about 14,000 in Fargo, N.D.
“It was just a fortunate situation where three of us on that staff ended up in the NFL,” Babich said. “It just so happened that a guy from Pittsburgh came to North Dakota State and hired two guys who played at North Dakota State, and everything worked out well. It was just luck of how it panned out.”
Luck had a bit to do with it. Timing did, too.
Of the trio, Bradley was the first to be associated with North Dakota State. He played safety and punter there from 1984-1988, helping the Bison to the ’88 Division II national championship – one of 10 national football titles claimed by the program.
Bradley then served as a graduate assistant with the program from 1990-91, and after four seasons with Fort Lewis College, returned to North Dakota State in 1996.
Babich, named the head coach at North Dakota State after 13 seasons as a collegiate assistant, didn’t know Bradley when he took over the Bison’s program. That lack of knowledge mattered not a bit – not once Babich sat down with Bradley to interview him for the position.
As was the case when Bradley met with Jaguars General Manager David Caldwell 12 days ago, Babich said the realization that Bradley was right for the position was immediate.
“When you meet the guy, his energy and enthusiasm – it’s genuine,” Babich said. “You can tell right off the bat it’s genuine. It captivates you and you say, ‘This is a guy you want to be around and you want to help lead your football team.’
“Along with the Xs and Os of it, which he’s very good at, this is something that really sticks out with your initial meeting when you meet Coach Bradley. You can tell that he’s not just trying to get the job – that that’s who he is through and through. That’s in his being.
“That’s what I noticed from the start, and as we coached together for six years – and in the many years after that that we were in the NFL – that held true. My initial gut reaction about what type of person he was held true in the time I’ve known him since.”
Babich said Bradley is about more than interviews and energy. He talked on Monday of Bradley’s ability to reach players with genuineness, and spoke, too, of a remarkable work ethic. On more than one occasion during a season, Babich said he would make sure coaches went home “early” on a given night to prevent them from burning out. Going home early often meant leaving around 10 p.m.
“He would leave and then come back,” Babich said of Bradley, laughing.
Wash, Babich said, has a similar style – high-energy, detail-oriented.
“He and Gus have come up through the ranks together,” Babich said. “They are very similar. They’ve grown as coaches together.”
Wash was a teammate of Bradley’s on the 1988 national title team, and helped the Bison to another national title in 1990. His first season on the Bison’s staff came in Babich’s final season at North Dakota State. That was in 2002, after which Babich moved on to work with Lovie Smith, first with the St. Louis Rams, where Smith was the defensive coordinator in 2003, and for the past nine seasons with the Chicago Bears.
Wash and Bradley remained at North Dakota State after Babich’s departure, and beginning with their small-college roots, their careers have remained closely connected.
“I think there are a lot of coaches in the NFL who have come from Division I-AA or Division II schools,” Wash said. “How we had to grow through the concepts of being in small college football and working our way to the top, I just think people become a little more detailed and that helps us in the long run.”
Bradley coached at North Dakota State through 2005 under current head coach Craig Bohl, and served again as defensive coordinator in his final season. Wash coached at the school from 2002-2003, and after a year at Missouri Southern State, he returned to North Dakota State as defensive line coach and run defense coordinator in 2005-2006.
Bradley and Wash again worked together on the Tampa Bay staff in 2007-2008, and Bradley – who became the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator in 2009 -- hired Wash as defensive line coach in Seattle in 2011, a position he held each of the past two seasons.
“I know where he’s coming from at all times, and he also knows I have his back,” Wash said. “I think that’s very important. Coming here from Seattle, it wasn’t a situation where I had to come. I was asked to come. I owe to him any way I can possibly help him and help the Jacksonville Jaguars. It was just an easy decision for me.”
“We were so locked in on trying to win football games at that time,” Babich said. “I felt like these guys were special. We were younger coaches, and I figured I’d lose them eventually just going up the ranks, but we didn’t talk about it. There was no doubt we thought highly of the guys and knew they’d be moving up.
“It really was a good staff. We were all younger, but we all grew together as coaches. We went through a lot together that helped mold where we are right now.”