A well-built young man stood on the side of the crowd and approached new Whitworth University football coach Rod Sandberg from the side. Sandberg knew him immediately, called him by name and embraced him.
The young man was Todd Kinley, a youth pastor and assistant football coach at Colfax High School. Kinley played linebacker for Sandberg in 1995 at Wheaton (Ill.) College and heard about the news conference Tuesday announcing Sandberg’s hire.
“Everything you heard him say is what you are going to get,” Kinley said. “He’s a player’s coach who loves his kids. He created relationships. That is something that should continue for all time because it’s about training young men for the future, for life.”
Sandberg couldn’t have said it better. But he tried.
“We are going to build something special here, but we are going to do it with people,” Sandberg said. “I’m going to pour it into these guys. People matter to me.”
Sandberg, 44, was selected over fellow finalists Chris Tormey, who had head coaching experience at Idaho and Nevada, and John Sala, the head coach at Louisburg (N.C.) College.
The search started in November after 19-year coach John Tully (100-83) resigned following the season, where the Pirates finished 4-6 and 2-4 in the Northwest Conference.
The search, which had 55 coaches apply, appeared to focus last week on Tormey and Sandberg. But Melinda Larson, Whitworth’s interim director of athletics, said Sandberg won the job with how he meshed with Whitworth’s mission and for his football acumen.
“I have the deepest respect for Chris. He’s a fabulous man and a fabulous coach,” Larson said of Tormey. But with Sandberg, “when he says it’s about people, it’s easy to see with everyone he meets.”
Reached Tuesday evening, Tormey declined comment. He reportedly was scheduled to interview today for the vacant job at Central Washington University.
Grant Livingston, a junior linebacker from Spokane, said the players picked up on Sandberg’s “energy and passion.”
“It’s hard to put it in words, but it just felt right. Tormey was very impressive. We would have been happy with either one,” Livingston said. “But Sandberg seemed to get the D-III model better.”
Sandberg has been coaching for 19 years, mostly under head coach Mike Swider, who has won 77 percent of his games at Wheaton. Sandberg called Swider “one of the best people on the planet” and said it was he who let Sandberg know about the Whitworth opening.
“I wouldn’t be here without him,” he said.
As for the Whitworth assistant coaches, Sandberg said he expects to meet them soon. None have been guaranteed jobs.
Since Sandberg was a defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, he said the most important hire will be offensive coordinator. He expects the offense to run up-tempo, multiple formations that balance the run and the pass.
“I know what causes me problems on defense. That’s what I want to run,” he said as he held his youngest boy, 3-year-old Toby. He and his wife, Amy, also have a 6-year-old son, Derek.
“I consider it a privilege to be called ‘Coach.’ I don’t take it lightly,” Sandberg said. “I like to win. But winning is a byproduct of doing things right. I can’t wait.”