Alex Grinch had a better playing career than most ever will in college football. His teams won three national championships and compiled a 54-1 record.
Just one school in the country was capable of that type of success in 2001 — Mount Union College (now Univeristy of Mount Union) in Alliance, Ohio, the traditional powerhouse of NCAA Division III football.
Grinch remembers all of the wins — and the one loss. It came in the 1999 national semifinals to Rowan University on a dropped pass in the end zone.
If Mount Union had won, who would have been its Stagg Bowl opponent that season?
He searched the memory bank for a few seconds.
“Pac Lute,” he said, referring to the Pacific Lutheran University Lutes, who won the NCAA Division III national title that season under their late coach Frosty Westering.
But even today, Grinch said the biggest reason he went to Mount Union wasn’t to play football. It was to learn how to coach football.
At 35, Grinch is in his biggest position yet as defensive coordinator for 20th-ranked Washington State University. The Cougars take on Washington in the Apple Cup on Friday afternoon at Husky Stadium.
The improvement in WSU’s defense, especially in the secondary, is clearly noticeable. A year after the Cougars finished 122nd in pass efficiency (gave up 33 passing touchdowns, intercepted three passes), they are 58th this season (12 TDs, 10 interceptions).
And WSU is coming off its best defensive effort of the season in a 27-3 win Saturday over Colorado. The Cougars limited the Buffaloes to 323 total yards, tallying two interceptions and four sacks.
That kind of improvement in the Cougars (8-3, 6-2 Pac-12) defense has Grinch as a possible candidate for the Broyles Award, which is given to the top assistant coach in college football.
“I doubt I will be,” Grinch said with a smile. “The guys are playing hard. If we can play hard one more game, we have a chance to be successful at the end of the day.”
From Grove City, Ohio, Grinch went to Mount Union to play for the legendary Larry Kehres, who won 11 national titles in 27 seasons of coaching. He stepped down in 2013.
Grinch also credits longtime former defensive coordinator Don Montgomery (19 seasons) and current secondary coach Jeff Wojtowicz as mentors.
“At the minimum, we got an undergraduate degree in coaching from (them),” Grinch said. “It was a great staff that won at a very, very high level.”
Grinch had coaching stints at New Hampshire (2005-08) and Wyoming (2009-11) before spending the past three seasons as the safeties coach at Missouri.
The Tigers went from ranking 85th in pass efficiency defense in 2012 to 43rd in 2013 (with 20 interceptions) to finally 39th last season.
WSU coach Mike Leach liked what he saw in Grinch after former defensive coordinator Mike Breske was let go after last season.
“The biggest thing is he was part of a really good defense that kind of had a proven track record,” Leach said. “He was at that point in his career where I knew he not only earned the right to be a coordinator, but was hungry and capable to do it.
“Man, I think he’s done a really good job with it.”
When players talk about Grinch, they mention the clarity of his schemes and coaching style, and how less than maximum effort won’t be tolerated.
“He was so adamant about getting things right. He didn’t want us to fall back into our old ways,” senior linebacker Jeremiah Allison said. “The fact he would snap at us, and expected the most out of us showed us he really cared. He was here to make a change.”
So far, the change has been nothing but a positive one.
“Like anything, you are not born a coordinator,” Grinch said. “Probably the biggest thing along the way, you don’t coach in a bubble. You are always aware of whatever position you coach and how it affects the entire scheme. And as you think about scheme … you start analyzing things to get a feel for the run game, and the pass game and overall how you can structure a defense to be successful.”