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‘It’s gonna be a great moment and a great challenge going back there’: Washington State coach Jake Dickert, a Wisconsin native, returns to the state that shaped him

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

MADISON, Wisconsin – Usually, Jake Dickert’s friends and family members spend their Saturdays dressed in Wisconsin Badgers gear.

But they’re changing allegiances this weekend.

A large party of Wisconsinites will gather in Madison on Saturday and sport Washington State apparel in support of Dickert, the Cougars’ first-year coach.

“It’s special for me,” Dickert said earlier this week. “There are going to be a lot of people there that helped me get to this point.

“The Dickert tailgate is going to be over 200 strong. I’m excited for our people to represent there. They’ll all be in Cougs gear, I guarantee you that.”

WSU and 19th-ranked Wisconsin are set to square off at 12:30 p.m. at Camp Randall Stadium.

The game will mark perhaps the most difficult test for Dickert in his young head coaching career. It’ll also serve as a homecoming for the Wisconsin native, who was a staunch Badgers supporter in his youth.

“A fan is probably putting it lightly,” he said. “When you grow up there, there are a few things that are in your blood – beer, cheese, Packers, Badgers, Bucks and Brewers. I’m a product of Wisconsin.

“It’s gonna be a great moment and a great challenge going back there.”

Dickert’s father will host a massive tailgating event to begin the festivities Saturday morning. Jeff Dickert, who has been planning the reunion for over three months now, put out a memo recently: “No Wisconsin gear allowed.”

Most of the relatives reside in Wisconsin, but many others are making cross-country trips, returning to their home state to root for a Cougars upset.

“The whole family, up and down – from his grandmother to third cousins – are coming to the game,” said Jeff Dickert, who lives in Green Bay. “It’s a big family, a tight family, and they are all proud. What are the odds that he gets the job and the first year that he’s the full-time coach, he plays Wisconsin?

“For the family, it’s a huge deal. Just about everybody has been to a Badgers game. You see all these coaches come in here. There’s been big names and now Jake is on the same field leading a team that, in my mind, will win. But we all know the Badgers are a tough team. The family is going to be extremely happy.”

For Jake Dickert, it’s impossible to downplay the significance of the moment.

He isn’t a Wisconsin grad – he played his college ball at Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point – but as a kid, Dickert fashioned connections to the Badgers’ program.

He attended the occasional Wisconsin game. Dickert watched Drew Brees set a passing record at Camp Randall Stadium in 1998, completing 55 of 83 attempts for Purdue in a 31-24 loss to the Badgers – coincidentally, that record was later snapped by WSU quarterback Connor Halliday.

At an early age, Dickert hoped to follow in the footsteps of his uncle and suit up for Wisconsin one day. Gary Dickert, who is traveling from Arizona to attend Saturday’s game, started on the Badgers’ defensive line in the 1970s. Asked to name his favorite Badgers player, Jake Dickert named his uncle, but legendary running back Ron Dayne is a close second.

“Every kid who grows up in our state follows Wisconsin and thinks about playing for Wisconsin,” Jeff said. “It’s a huge event here. Everyone in Wisconsin loves Wisconsin football.”

Jeff Dickert, a career high school administrator who earned his master’s degree from Wisconsin, made annual trips to Madison to attend superintendent conferences. Jake Dickert and his older brother, Jesse, would accompany their father. After Jeff finished his work for the day, he’d sneak his sons into Camp Randall.

“They’d run around and throw footballs and try to kick extra points,” Jeff said.

Jake Dickert also participated in youth camps and coaching clinics at Wisconsin . Certainly, the coach will be hit with a profound sense of excitement when he takes the field on Saturday, but Dickert is reminding himself to treat the game like any other, and to not get wrapped up in the whirlwind of emotions that is sure to come with his return to Madison.

“I know he’s going to enjoy a lot of things that follow it, but he’s all business,” Jeff Dickert said. “He’s going to enjoy looking over there and seeing the family, but that’s pretty much it. That’s how he is.

“I know he’ll be a little nervous about running into Camp Randall, leading the team out of the tunnel. It’ll be a fun moment for him, but once he gets to the sidelines, I know he’ll be all business. … I know his focus has been on the players.”

Of course, Jake Dickert’s upbringing in “The Badger State” shaped his identity as a person and a coach.

Born in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Dickert was raised in several small communities in Wisconsin. The family moved every few years as his father worked up the administrative ladder. Dickert’s high school career began in Oconto – 30 miles north of Green Bay. He spent his senior year in Kohler, just north of Milwaukee.

“Growing up, Jake was very loyal,” Jeff Dickert said. “When he gets to a new place, he puts everything into it.

“Jake learned from people that, even though your dad is the superintendent, there’s no freebies. Everybody knows you. When you’re in a small town, you put out your own reputation in how you work and how you conduct yourself.”

This region of the country associates itself with hard-working, blue-collar ideologies. Jake Dickert fits the bill.

“I didn’t have to instill the work ethic,” Jeff said. “He always seemed to have that. He’d always stick around to help. If you had to rake the lawn, he’d stay there until it was done. He was always driven, always wanted to win.”

During his high school years, Dickert was a three-sport standout (football, basketball, baseball) and a 4.0 student. He probably could have played collegiate basketball, but he stuck with football following an impressive prep career playing quarterback. His natural leadership abilities caught the attention of Stevens Point coach John Miech.

“We always seemed to have the all-conference quarterback,” Miech said. “We looked into the fact that his dad was a superintendent and you could see the leader on film. … He had it in him.”

In 2002, Jake Dickert joined his brother, Jesse, at Stevens Point in central Wisconsin, but he didn’t see the field for his first two collegiate seasons. Miech decided to move him to wide receiver.

“I told him, ‘You’re too good of an athlete to be a backup anywhere,’ ” Miech said.

As a senior, Dickert was an all-conference pick who led his conference in catches (56) despite missing some time due to an appendectomy.

Miech was impressed with Dickert’s intelligence and inner drive.

“He was a math major, and I think that’s what started it all off,” Miech said. “We’d be in meetings and he would always seem a little bored because he picked everything up so quickly.

“He’s a hard-working, small-town kid, but he’ll let you know that he’s the smartest person in the room. I can’t say he was the easiest guy to coach, because he’d challenge you. … He knew what was going on. He kept everybody on their toes.”

After wrapping up his playing career, Dickert had a job lined up as a high school teacher, but he was still interested in coaching at the college level. Jeff Dickert offered guidance.

“The reality is: Once you start getting that paycheck from teaching and buy a house and start a family, there’s no way you can go back to being a grad assistant and making $5,000 a year,” he said. “If that’s what you want to do, you gotta do it now.”

Jake Dickert stopped by Miech’s office and inquired about a GA gig. Jesse Dickert was still a center on the team. Miech thought it best to split up the brothers.

He offered Jake Dickert a job on the defensive side of the ball, setting the stage for a successful career built on defense – Dickert remained a defensive-minded coach for the next 14 years, building a reputation as an innovator and motivator, before landing his first head coaching position last November at WSU.

“When I interview people, I ask them what their goals are in football,” Miech said. “If they don’t say that they want to be a head coach, I don’t hire them. That question tells me whether they will do anything for the program, with respect to recruiting and being in the office late at night. That’s why I think we were successful at UW-SP with these young coaches moving on.

“The Stevens Point program at one time had 19 guys coaching in the upper levels of football, and Dickert was a part of that group.”

Jake Dickert worked at Stevens Point for one year, but he developed immensely as a coach during that season. Division III programs aren’t blessed with resources, yet there are advantages for coaches who begin their careers in the lower levels of college football.

“They have to recruit,” Miech said. “Jake got his own recruiting area. At a young age and in his first year coaching, he had to go into schools and identity (talent).

“It sounds like Jake is still going out with assistant coaches and going into (players’) homes. Those are things you bring with you from Division III or II.”

Dickert proved himself as a thorough and reliable recruiter at Stevens Point. That earned him a job in 2008 at North Dakota State under Craig Bohl. Former Pointers assistant Tim Polasek – now the offensive coordinator for Bohl at Wyoming – was an NDSU assistant at the time and helped Dickert break into the higher ranks of collegiate football.

“Because of his experience, that’s why North Dakota State was interested in him,” Miech said. “Coach Bohl knew I gave recruiting responsibilities to my younger assistants, because I had to. These young kids are thrown into the breach, but there’s a positive thing about that: They find out if they want to coach.”

Miech, now retired, is traveling from Orlando, Florida, to watch his student on Saturday.

“Going to this game, it’s a highlight for me,” he said, joking that Dickert owes him a “3% finder’s fee.”

In his home state, Jake Dickert discovered his passion for coaching and found an avenue to advance in the profession. Earlier in his life, he established an identity of diligence that led to his success.

“You get recognized if you work hard and get your nose to the grindstone,” Jeff Dickert said. “That’s kinda been Jake his whole life.

“He’s always been a hard worker. He doesn’t get distracted, and that’s probably a key to him moving up through those small schools. … Believe in yourself, and it takes you places.”

At Stevens Point, Jake Dickert met his future wife, Candice. The two have three children together and are glad to finally be settled down in Pullman – a tight-knit community that reminds them of their humble roots.

Dickert often praises Candice for her patience. The family moved eight times between 2008 and 2020 as Dickert ascended the coaching ladder, making stops in multiple smaller markets before securing his first FBS job in 2017 at Wyoming, then his first Power Five job in ’20 at WSU.

“That’s what we went through, moving every few years,” Jeff said. “Moving his family, he’s got a little more of an understanding on how it works.

“When the opportunity hit, he was ready. He took the best from the coaches he worked with, just like he took the best from the communities we moved him through.”

With the influential figures from his life congregated in Madison to celebrate his rise through the coaching ranks and his big-time return to Wisconsin, Saturday’s kickoff will undoubtedly feel like a full-circle moment for Jake Dickert.

“Those people that I represent each and every day, they’re proud of me and (they are) why I’m sitting in this seat,” he said.

“I’m a product of who has been around me my whole life and the hard work that’s gotten me here.”