Blazek's Coaching Journey Takes Him To National Title Game

Former Iowa player and assistant coach A.J. Blazek (center left) is the offensive line coach at North Dakota State, which is playing for the FCS national championship on Saturday. (Tim Sanger/North Dakota State University)

John Bohnenkamp

A.J. Blazek was loading the family car a couple of days before Christmas when he realized how out of touch he had been.

Such is life when every week in December is about playing for a national championship.

Blazek, a former Iowa player and coach, is offensive line coach at North Dakota State. And coaching the Bison means December is one continuous game week during the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

North Dakota State is playing James Madison for the FCS national title on Saturday. The Bison have won seven national titles and are 33-1 in the playoffs during their current run.

"I'm packing the car, and all of the sudden I thought, 'It's just two days until Christmas,'" Blazek said. "That's crazy, but it's what the month has been. Every week is just like a game week during the regular season. Play one, win, get ready for the next one."

Blazek's coaching road started at Iowa — he was a graduate assistant from 2002-04. Blazek, who was Iowa's center in coach Kirk Ferentz's first two seasons, went on to four seasons as an assistant at Fort Hays State, four seasons at Winona State, three at Western Illinois, and then the last three at Rutgers before joining Matt Entz's first staff with the Bison as the offensive line coach.

Blazek called his coaching journey "a blessing."

"Everywhere I've been I've learned something," he said. "It started being a part of Kirk's staff, where I learned so much. And everywhere I've gone I've picked up something from a lot of great coaches."

Blazek remembered the offer he got while sitting in Ferentz's office.

Ferentz was putting together his first recruiting class as Iowa's coach. He wanted Blazek, an All-American at Butler (Kan.) Community College, for his offensive line.

"I'm sitting there and he offers me a chance to come to Iowa to play center, be the backup," Blazek said. "For a lot of guys, that doesn't blow most doors off. But it was a big deal for me. When I was playing in junior college, I didn't know where I would be playing after that. And now I'm getting a chance to be at a Big Ten school? Yeah, that's a big deal."

Blazek took that offer, became a part of the Hawkeyes' offensive line, and was team captain as a senior, when he was an honorable-mention All-Big Ten pick.

Two seasons later, Blazek was part of Ferentz's staff as a graduate assistant.

His first coaching job at the Division I level came at Western Illinois under coach Bob Nielson.

He remembered the early days after he was hired, when the coaches lived in dorm rooms on the WIU campus while they found permanent housing. Entz had been hired as the defensive line coach, while Blazek was coaching the offensive line.

"We're on Twitter talking with recruits and here we are in dorm rooms like college kids," Blazek said, laughing. "Again, that's part of the learning experience."

Nielson left for South Dakota after the 2015 season, and Blazek went to Rutgers to coach in the Big Ten. He was an assistant head coach from 2017-18, and then Entz called with a chance to come be a part of the Bison staff.

Now he's getting a chance at a national championship.

"There's an awesome pressure here, and it's great," Blazek said. "You're expected to win."

The roots with the Hawkeyes are something Blazek embraces. He exchanges text messages frequently with Ferentz.

"Kirk Ferentz, (offensive coordinator) Brian Ferentz, (special teams coordinator) LeVar Woods, (defensive coordinator) Phil Parker, those guys are like family to me," Blazek said. "I talk to them all of the time. They're a big part of where I'm at. It's come full-circle for me."