Chris Thomsen left his head coaching job at Division II Abeline Christian to coach running backs at Arizona State after a successful 51-21 record a the school in seven seasons. Why'd he make the move? We asked them that and much more.
ASUDevils.com: Let's start with the reason you decided to jump into this opportunity?
Chris Thomsen: Well first of all, I am a man of Texas and I have followed Coach Graham, followed his success and seen the things that he has been able to accomplish. Obviously you want an opportunity to work for someone that is as successful as he has been. And then the opportunity to come to a Pac-12 school like Arizona State, I think we have some great opportunities to do some great things. So both those things combine made it a very attractive opportunity.
ASUDevils.com: What was the genesis of the relationship that got you here?
Thomsen: I have known coach. I mean he was a high school coach in Texas so I used to recruit his school. So I have known him through those avenues. Mike Norvell is the offensive coordinator and Mike was a player at Central Arkansas when I was coaching there. Since I left Central Arkansas Mike and I have maintained contact. Mike has really done a good job, really moved fast in the coaching profession. So that was really more of my connection I guess.
ASUDevils.com: The offense that you had at Abeline Christian compared to the offense you guys have here, can you give me your thoughts on that?
Thomsen: The run game is almost identical. There are a lot of similarities in the running game. Passing game is a little bit different. We were under center; we were about half and half, under center. We are more gun here. But the run games are the same, pass protections are similar, the routes are somewhat similar. There are some similarities so there will be some comfort knowing the system somewhat.
ASUDevils.com: After talking to Coach Graham and Coach Novell, what are their thoughts offensively and how do you see yourselves moving forward (personnel wise)?
Thomsen: Well offensively, I think we have some really good players here. Like (senior running back) Cameron Marshall a guy that has been very productive in this conference. Also a great person, I have really enjoyed getting to know him. And then there are some other guys at that position that I don't think have gotten their opportunity to shine, that I think can step up. And then you look at the young quarterbacks that we have, some good offensive linemen, and some good receivers that I think can really step up, I think there is a lot of potential there in that group. We are excited about it. You know, it will be a little bit different because I think we will be more run oriented, a little more, and then a little bit more up-tempo maybe. So those are things we are going to try to do, get a lot of plays, run a lot of plays and be up-tempo.
ASUDevils.com: Lets talk about Cameron Marshall, a guy that is going to play at the next level, but you say he has a great attitude, hard working guy, what do you see from him from watching his film?
Thomsen: He is just a well-rounded guy. I mean last year he got banged up some and still went over a 1,000 (yards), that to me says a lot about him because at the running back position you have to be tough. To me that is the biggest thing. You have to be tough because you are going to get hit, you are going to take a beating and not only run the ball but in protection, those linebackers have a running start and they're big. So the fact that he was able to withstand injury really all season and still be productive says something to me about his toughness. I am excited to get the opportunity to coach a guy like that. And like I said I think there are some other guys there that can contribute as well. I think he is a well-rounded guy and I think he is excited about us taking another step. And I think us being more run oriented puts a little bit more on him, and also on our quarterbacks, and he understands that and he is excited about that. He is in a position from a leadership standpoint he is ready for that. He is a strong character guy who can handle that leadership role. That's what I am excited about, anytime you come into come into a new team that is what you are looking for, leadership, guys that can go out there and do it everyday and Cam is that kind of guy.
ASUDevils.com: So philosophically how many guys would you like to see out there in that position? With injuries quite easily you can end up with your third or fourth back. But how many guys do you think though can reasonably be expected to play in a regular rotation?
Thomsen: Well nowadays you have some big backs like Cam and some smaller back like Kyle Middlebrooks. We are going to try to mix all those guys together depending on the situation. If you have a couple of big backs you would like for those guys to share some carries there and then mix in some guys like Kyle and (Deantre) Lewis and some of those guys, Deantre has some size but you want kind of a mix there at that position you don't want five big backs or five small back and I think there is a pretty nice mix there and I'm excited about that. Spring ball will tell us a whole lot more.
ASUDevils.com: Let's talk about recruiting, what is your bread and butter what types of guys do you want (given your background), heavy high school, Texas?
Thomsen: Yeah heavy high school out of the state of Texas and then where we had to fill in holes we would recruit the junior colleges nationwide. We had (at Abeline) kids out of the Texas JCs and we signed two out of Scottsdale Community College last year. California junior colleges, we had some of those. Texas only has six schools that play junior college football so you have to leave the state and broaden your scope. Texas was so big we didn't really leave for high school guys. We were pretty much able to fill our roster like that.
ASUDevils.com: Your thoughts about being at Arizona State and the football program and what the atmosphere is like and the culture around here and being at a different place, what is that like so far?
Thomsen: Well I am excited about it. The people around here are great. The thing I am most excited about is being somewhere that when football takes off they're going to be crazy about it. I think this community, the campus community first, and then the town really wants to win, they want to see some significant things happen here. I think we have a chance to do that . That's all you can ask for as a football coach, being in a place where people will really get excited about it, and I think we are in that spot. I think Coach Graham is going to get out in the community and shake one hand at a time, and I think people will see him being visible and get excited about it. We've got to win. They wont get excited unless we win. But I think when you win, you really win and when the head coach is visible like that and he is out there; then there is a unique chemistry that starts to form between the community and the program and that is what I am looking forward too.
ASUDevils.com: What will be your responsibility when it comes to recruiting?
Thomsen: We really haven't set areas specifically yet as to where, I know I will be in Texas some and possibly San Diego. I was over there this week some. So probably some of Texas and a little bit of California, and then a piece of Arizona, all of us will have a piece of Arizona. We really want to do well here in the state, so many great players here.
ASUDevils.com: How much autonomy do you have as far as the depth chart and your position?
There will be some cross over coaching there probably with (tight ends/h-backs coach Chip) Long; we are going to have to tag team a bit because some of those guys are going to work out in the slot. We will have to tag team that a little bit. As far as the depth chart, from what I have found it is always a consensus. When you are watching those guys every day you pretty much know who's, you will pretty much know who is who and Coach Graham and Coach Novell will always have the main say in setting the personnel and the depth chart. When I was a head coach that was on me. But I don't ever remember sitting their disagreeing, on 'that guys should start over that guy.' If you're in that situation, you have a bunch of talented kids. That is a good thing, nobody is really mad about that. To me it is a team effort sport. If you're a head coach you can't have an ego, you have to check that at the door and do what is best for the program that's the bottom line. The assistant coaches that were like that, everybody wanted the same thing, they want to win and what is best and that is my mindset coming here.
ASUDevils.com: Can you talk about how you built that (Abeline Christian) program up and had that record?
Thomsen: We had a good commitment from our administration. They wanted to win and saying that I was able to hire some good coaches, you have to have the financials to hire good coaches. We had some outstanding assistant coaches. I think that's where it all starts and then we were fortunate to have some really good players. The first one was a quarterback (Billy Malone). He was a 12,000 yard passer for his four years. That is kind of what started it, getting a quarterback that could really work and dominate. It's what you always hope for when you go into a program, that somebody will step up at that position, because everything seems to fit around that but that was a big key and then after him and his success we started getting more high profile guys. What is interesting about that, Jonny Knox is an example, he's going into his fourth year with the Bears he came in the year after Malone and when he watched Malone's film he was like okay I want to play with this guy. Both of them had two years remaining in their career. So when you get that kind of guy some other guys start to (notice), and you see that in recruiting, a guy commits and 'oh I want to play with him he is a winner.' Or there is already a guy there and they want to play with that guy. That is just what you hope and pray for when you go into a program, that you get that kind of momentum and we did. We were blessed and I can't explain, even had a fourth round pick for the Dolphins and he was a kid that never played high school football. He just kind of walked in and wanted an opportunity one day. When I say we were blessed with some great talent, we were. You just have to get that momentum and get it going.
ASUDevils.com: As a head coach you had such broad responsibilities and here you have more limited responsibilities and you are able to focus your efforts in a different way. Can you just talk about that difference? That has to be exciting in some respects.
Thomsen: It is. One thing you miss as a head coach is being able to have your own group of guys. The best thing about coaching is the relationships you develop because at the end of the day that is the bottom line. And when you have your own group those relationships are a little bit tighter, a little bit closer, because you get to focus all your energy and effort on those guys. I love recruiting, even as a head coach I was very active with recruiting but you are spread thin so being able to focus on an area and a position as well, I'm constantly evaluating running backs that is what I am doing today. I like that process I like evaluating and acquisition of talent. I like that and enjoy that. So I am excited about that. I feel like seven years as a head coach made me realize what an assistant coach needs to be to the head coach and hopefully I can be the best assistant I can be.
ASUDevils.com: As far as just making the move personally, what has it been like? What is it like being your family here and this whole new start?
Thomsen: Really it is just my wife and I. My wife and I are excited, we actually lived here 20 years ago so when coach said hey we are going to Arizona State, my wife really liked it. Back then, right after we got married, this was actually our first home, it was in Scottsdale; it was a little apartment complex, I'm going to go look for it, but it has been 20 years. But that is where we trained over there. Spring training actually used to be over at Scottsdale Community College for minor league players. So being familiar with the area, my wife is excited about moving out here. We have family in Texas but to me it is just one state over, New Mexico is the only thing in between us and still the south, southwest, so we are excited about it. I think it is an awesome community here.
ASUDevils.com: Why did you only play one year of college baseball?
ASUDevils.com: Well I went on a football scholarship and they wouldn't let me play. My first three years I tried to play, I asked them to because I had some baseball interest in high school from some of the scouts there. They told me you need to play baseball in college, if you keep playing. But my football coach said that doesn't pay the bills, I want you in my spring training, I want you in my off season program, and then my fourth year, my red shirt junior year, I redshirted, he finally agreed he said I'll let you go out but by the time we play spring ball if you are not starting in baseball then you are coming back. So I will give you six, seven weeks to establish yourself. And at that particular time it was working out good. I was starting and being productive and so he said all right and let me finish the season. And then I got drafted after that season and I went on out, and skipped my senior year, because at that time Mark McGwire was the first basemen in the organization and the way I remember it he resigned, and when I got drafted he still had two or three years left in his contract and we were all hoping we would go somewhere else but then he resigned with (Oakland) and like two days later they cut a lot of us. When you're a first baseman, you're a first baseman, you are locked. I didn't have the speed or the strength to play the outfield and I was left-handed so I couldn't play those (other infield positions). I was a first baseman and if you are like that if you are locked then you better be like McGwire, you better be hitting bombs. I was doing okay but I wasn't making an impact in the minor leagues enough to get promoted so I got cut and that was when I spent that time at Christian because I still had one more year of football and in division one you have to play or time in a five year window. And somebody told me you can play your last year at a Division II school. And a friend of mine was at Christian so that is why I went out there, and finished my last year there and then went on a as (graduate assistants) there. So that is kind of how it worked.