How UW’s Ryan Grubb – an ex-hog farmer – became one of college football’s best offensive coordinators
March 31, 2023 Updated Sat., April 1, 2023 at 9:56 p.m.
Washington offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb watches his unit run through drills during a recent practice. (Dean Rutz/Seattle Times)
SEATTLE – The farmer woke early and worked late. He understood that growth was gradual; success took time. For nearly seven years, he operated a hog farm in northwest Iowa. He used the rugged physicality formed through college football, playing multiple positions – fullback, tailback, stand-up tight end – for the nearby Buena Vista Beavers.
After graduating with a business administration degree in 1999, he traded football for the family business – tending to the hogs, purchasing grains, negotiating with banks and buyers. He noted that “I grew up on a farm. My dad grew up on a farm. His dad grew up on a farm, et cetera, et cetera.”
For a kid from Kingsley, Iowa – a town of 1,411 with the motto, “Some bigger, none better” – this was a profitable, often predestined path. The et ceteras were infinite.
For Ryan Grubb – UW’s coveted offensive coordinator – it was a career, but not a calling.
“Being an athlete, there’s something entrenched in you to compete and be your best and be part of a team. Every year (you don’t do that) you almost feel a little piece of you die,” Grubb said last month. “I worked for really good people. It was a great job. I got paid well. But I didn’t feel like I had the purpose I wanted to have.
“My head coach (at Buena Vista, Joe Hadacheck) would tell me, ‘Leadership is influence.’ I felt like that’s what I was wasting, honestly. It’s not that I didn’t have a good life. But I was wasting a talent that I believed I was given and needed to keep cultivating.”
So, while maintaining the farm, Grubb pursued other paths. He took night classes at Western Iowa Tech Community College, eventually earning EMT-B (Emergency Medical Technician-Basic) certification. He hoped to become a firefighter.
Or, maybe, a football coach.
In 2003 – five years after finishing his final season at Division III Buena Vista – Grubb joined the staff at his other alma mater, Kingsley-Pierson High.
Even while juggling pigs and pigskins as the Panthers’ part-time offensive coordinator, he was an immediate upgrade.
“My first year I called the plays offensively, and my defensive guys called the defense,” said former K-P head coach Greg Schoon, who arrived the previous season. “As soon as he got on staff I’m like, ‘You’re calling the offense,’ and I called the defense. Because my other assistants were wrestling coaches.”
The hog farmer (and former high school wrestler) cultivated competition.
Eric Sitzmann, a fullback and linebacker at K-P in 2003, said Grubb “always showed up. He was always on. Very positive attitude, really intense. He was really good at relating to all these young players, especially in small-town Iowa. It’s not like you’re getting five-star kids out of there. He always found ways to relate and to coach you up in a way that you could understand.”
Exhibit A: the index cards. Before Friday games, Grubb wrote notes for each of his players – often repeating play calls or offering morsels of motivation – and left them in their lockers. It wasn’t a practice pilfered from a previous coach.
And really, that’s the point.
“I just felt like maybe I wasn’t pushed hard enough at times (as an athlete),” said Grubb, now 47. “So I was always trying to find ways to get people to be their best and connect with them and push them. I didn’t have it all necessarily articulated in my head, but I knew everybody had more than they thought they did.”
Recalled Sitzmann, who entered the Marine Corps after graduating: “There was a particular play we ran a lot, I-right 31 trap. He’d write that in there at some point most weeks, just getting me mentally in the game before we even started.”
Behind Sitzmann, all-state running back Nick Kuchel and offensive tackle Nate Koskovich, the Panthers improved from 3-6 in 2003 to 7-2 in Grubb’s second season. (They did so by running the football “90-plus-percent” of the time.) In 2004, a headset-wearing hog farmer (and index card enthusiast) was named Class A, District 8 Assistant Coach of the Year in Iowa.
After nearly seven years on the farm, and two moonlighting at his alma mater, Grubb accepted a graduate assistant position at South Dakota State in 2005.
He left one path to pursue his purpose.
“That’s where my love really came from,” Grubb said of his time as K-P’s offensive coordinator. “At that point, the chase was on. I didn’t care about money. I didn’t care about anything like that. I just wanted to coach at the best place I could and get to the highest level possible.”
On the ascent, Grubb learned another lesson:
He spent two seasons at South Dakota State – first overseeing the running backs, then the wide receivers. He said “I was doing all the grunt work that GAs do. But in addition to that, I ran my own room. I ran meetings. I recruited an area in Minnesota. So it was huge. It was a big-time crash course in being a college football coach.”
Granted, the 29-year-old Grubb had areas to improve.
But he understood that growth is gradual; success takes time.
Where others faded, he cultivated.
“Ryan came in – yes, not necessarily knowing a lot – but a sponge, a servant,” said John Stiegelmeier, who retired in January after 26 seasons as the Jackrabbits’ coach. “I don’t know if I’ve been around a graduate assistant with a better attitude and a servant heart. His humility was beyond explanation.
“When you’re paying your dues, a lot of people grind through that. Ryan skipped through it. He embraced it. I would say some of it is his farm background, having that type of work ethic and that focus to finish the job.”
By May 2007, one job was finished. And, as Grubb graduated from SDSU with a master’s degree in sports pedagogy, the search for his first full-time coaching gig presented contrasting paths.
“There was a (possible) job, and I won’t name what it was or where it was, because it was a bad experience,” Grubb said. “I could tell it was not a good place. They were a losing football team, with a bad culture that started at the top. … So I get back and I see Stig (Stiegelmeier) and I’m like, ‘Stig, I’ve got no other prospects right now. This is it.’ He was like, ‘If you don’t believe in this guy, don’t do it.’ ”
He didn’t … so he didn’t.
“And everything goes silent,” Grubb continued. “So I move into my sister’s spare bedroom back in Sioux City (Iowa) and I start pouring concrete. I’ve got two degrees, and here I am pouring mud, just trying to pay the bills.”
For two-plus months, Grubb poured mud, called coaches and repeated the process.
Until prioritizing people paid dividends.
Following a night shift in July 2007, Grubb got a call from Jon Anderson, a former Buena Vista teammate-turned Sioux Falls assistant coach. In South Dakota, the Cougars had just earned their second NAIA national championship, under a 32-year-old second-year head coach named Kalen DeBoer.
Grubb was offered $2,700 for the season, to coach the Cougars’ offensive line.
“I was like, ‘I’ll take it,’ ” he said. “Because I knew Kalen, and he was a winner. He was a good dude.”
The farmer wakes early and works late. He understands that growth is gradual; success takes time.
As does the football coach.
“Whether you’re building your farm, in terms of acres and machinery, or you’re building your football program, you don’t build it overnight. You don’t sustain it overnight,” said Stiegelmeier, who grew up in a farming family. “True success is to look back over 10 or 20 years and say, ‘Yes, I’m proud of what we did.’ ”
Twenty years after accepting a part-time position at Kingsley-Pierson, Grubb has done his share. He spent seven seasons at Sioux Falls – first as the offensive line coach and run game coordinator (2007-09), then offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach (2010-13).
He reunited with DeBoer as Eastern Michigan’s offensive line coach in 2014, before following him to Fresno State three years later. When DeBoer was appointed head coach in 2020, Grubb excelled as his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach – first in Fresno, California (2020-21), then again at Washington (2022-present).
Together, that pair overhauled the Husky offense last fall – ranking first in the nation in passing (369.8 yards per game), first downs (27.2 per game) and third-down percentage (56.83%), second in total offense (516.2 yards per game) and seventh in scoring (39.7 points per game) in an 11-2 turnaround. Grubb received a pair of raises this offseason, with his salary reaching $2 million annually.
Grubb continues to cultivate talent – even without index cards.
“He’s never going to settle for anything but your best,” former UW offensive lineman Jaxson Kirkland said. “He might call you out, and it’s not to pick on you by any means. But if you’re not pulling your weight, he’s going to let you know. No one’s going to hold your hand and bring you along. You’re either going to adapt to what we’ve got going on in this offense and compete at the highest level you can, or it’s not going to happen.”
Added Grubb in late November: “I’ve told (UW athletic director Jen Cohen) this, and I’ve told Kalen this: I have a deep passion for calling plays. For me, I do have a desire to be the best O-coordinator in the country. That’s a deep-seated belief in who I am and what I want to be. So there’s definitely a path I’m on with that right now.”
That path led from Kingsley-Pierson and South Dakota State to Husky Stadium.
This offseason, Grubb – recently ranked by Pro Football Focus as the No. 2 offensive coordinator in the nation – received significant interest from SEC blue bloods Alabama and Texas A&M.
But given his relationship with DeBoer – not to mention quarterback Michael Penix Jr., wide receivers Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan, and left tackle Troy Fautanu, all of whom returned to play for him – Grubb again prioritized people.
The chase isn’t everything.
“During the season, it doesn’t matter what position you’re at, you work 80 to 100 hours a week for a three-hour game that has five decisions in it that impact your livelihood,” said Stiegelmeier, whose Jackrabbits won their first FCS national championship last fall. “You add all that stuff up and you put it in the Crock-Pot, and you better feel good about who you’re in the Crock-Pot with.
“When Ryan is done coaching, when Kalen DeBoer is done coaching, I’m certain they will put more stock in the people they were with and the lives they impacted than any championship.”
Which is why, perhaps, Grubb’s office isn’t adorned with trophies or rings or shiny things … apart from a single plaque. Its wood is worn with 19 years of scratches and nicks, but its bold black type persists:
2004 Class A, District 8 ASSISTANT COACH OF THE YEAR
Turns out, Ryan Grubb is still a farmer.
He just found a different farm.
“If you’re really comfortable with who you are, where you come from and all the things that come with that, you’re going to do great,” he said.
“It’s when you start trying to be somebody you’re not, trying to be around people you shouldn’t be, that you’re not being true to yourself.
“That plaque is exactly who I am.”
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