PULLMAN, Wash. — By the time Johnny Nansen auditioned for a role with the Washington State linebacker crew, he had already failed to crack the Cougars’ depth chart at quarterback and running back. So the pressure was on.
“It was the last stop before the bus stop,” former WSU linebackers coach Jim Zeches recalled.
Nansen not only became a starting outside linebacker for the Cougars in 1995 and ’96, he developed a passion for the mental side of football that has fueled his 15-year career as an collegiate assistant coach.
And his latest job, from the standpoint of any football traditionalist, is one of the plummiest position-coach roles in the college game. He’s tutoring running backs at Southern California, an especially sweet gig for a guy from metropolitan Los Angeles who’s been plying his trade in the Pacific Northwest for a decade and a half.
— Johnny Nansen
Nansen, who coaches special teams in addition to running backs for the Steve Sarkisian staff that took over at USC this year, returns to Pullman this week as the Trojans (5-3, 4-2) play Washington State on Saturday at Martin Stadium. One of Nansen’s charges, Buck Allen, has already broken the 1,000-yard mark in rushing this season.
Nansen, born in Samoa, moved with his parents and seven siblings to Long Beach, California, when he was 7, and he remembers rooting for USC teams in the late 1980s that featured linebacker Junior Seau and were especially popular in the Polynesian communities of Los Angeles.
Later, after graduating from WSU with a business degree and testing the coaching waters in Long Beach, California, Nansen spent time with then-USC coach Pete Carroll and his staff, gleaning whatever tips he could.
“It was always in the back of my mind, ‘One day this will be a dream job for me to get back here and coach in my hometown,'” Nansen said. “Obviously, I didn’t know it would happen this fast.”
But when asked to name his primary coaching influences, Nansen veered quickly back to Pullman. The first man he mentioned was Zeches, who assisted WSU’s Mike Price for more than a decade and now, at 64, is living in Tempe, Arizona, and scouting for the Washington Redskins.
Nansen, as a converted offensive player trying to learn the nuances of defense, may already have begun to view football in fairly broad terms by the time he started to work closely with Zeches. But the process expanded during the next two years as he began to warm to Zeches and defensive coordinator Bill Doba.
“School wasn’t the highest priority for him, but football was,” Zeches said. “At the time, we’d have [scouting] tapes, and I’d make tapes for the players for upcoming opponents. He got to know the opponent better than a lot of the coaches. He really studied it.”
The diligence failed to land him in the NFL, but it smoothed his entry into coaching. His career has included stints at Louisville, Montana State, Idaho State and Idaho.
Then came five years as part of Sarkisian’s staff at Washington, a period that annoyed hardcore Wazzu fans to no end, all the more because Nansen’s marquee tailback, Bishop Sankey, had originally committed to the Cougars before going purple.
The WSU partisans like the present situation better, and meanwhile Nansen and his colleagues have moved beyond some awkward early moments at USC, whose players have had three head coaches in the past year. For Nansen, the biggest challenge was winning the trust of running backs enamored of their previous position coach, Tommie Williams.
“I admire the coaches that have been here,” Nansen said. “Anytime you go to a place and replace a coach … you kind of put that away. What happens if you think that way is you’re not really treating your kids well — trying to find what areas they need to get better at. You coach them and they see you know what you’re talking about, and I think that’s where the trust comes in.”
Nansen and his wife, Hale, whom he met when they were students at WSU, and their three children have moved into a home in gleaming Redondo Beach. But reminders of Nansen’s roots in Long Beach are everywhere, including the USC roster. Offensive lineman Viane Talamaivao is his nephew, and another true freshman, JuJu Smith, is a cousin.
So Nansen is picking up where he left off in 1998 as a defensive coordinator at Cabrillo High in Long Beach, eager to exploit his burgeoning knowledge.
“I really enjoyed studying the game,” Nansen recalled, “and when I went back to Long Beach, I really had a passion for it. I love to give back to the community, the kids and the area where I grew up, and I was hungry — I was motivated to be a coach. The relationships with the kids on an every-day basis, man, there’s nothing that can replace that. That’s the thing that motivates me the most.”
Zeches speaks along similar lines. He recalled Nansen breaking his jaw one day, on the last play of a WSU practice. After the linebacker’s quick visit to an oral surgeon, the coach invited him to his home, where his wife Kathy served soup and a milkshake.
“He was a tough kid,” Zeches said. “I want to say he missed only one game. [Equipment manager] Milton Neal got him a special facemask and he was out there playing.”
One of Zeches’ teaching ploys was to direct a player to the chalkboard and ask him to explain the overarching concepts of the defense, as opposed to his particular role.
Years later, Nansen mentioned to Zeches a fact that clearly pleased his old coach: To this day, Nansen uses the same ploy.