John Stiegelmeier continues to live his dream

After building his program into a national power, the longtime head coach is again on the doorstep of a national championship


Evan Patzwald

South Dakota State coach John Stiegelmeier smiles during a Jackrabbit warmup at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium during the 2021 season.

Skyler Jackson, Co-Sports Editor (He/Him)

More than a quarter century into his head coaching tenure at South Dakota State, John Stiegelmeier still loves his job as much as when he started it.

“Surely, based on the color of my hair, things have passed me by,” the 65-year-old Selby native said. “They tell me I’m drippy, and I’m not sure what that means.”

Now, “Coach Stig” and his No. 1-ranked Jackrabbits are back in Frisco, Texas, with another chance at the Division I Football Championship Subdivision championship Sunday against an opponent he’s all too familiar with, the North Dakota State Bison.

Since becoming the coach at his alma mater in 1997, Stiegelmeier has helped shape the Jackrabbits into one of the top programs in the FCS and a program with increasing national attention, making him a recognizable face in Brookings and throughout his home state.

But before all of his accomplishments as a football coach, Stiegelmeier originally planned to be a high school math teacher and coach.

Stiegelmeier served as a student coach on SDSU’s only Division II playoff team in 1979 and learned under then Jackrabbits head coach John Gregory and defensive coordinator Mike Daly, who both became great mentors for him. It was that experience when Stiegelmeier knew he wanted to coach college football.

“I stumbled into this thing being a student coach, didn’t play college football, and have had unbelievable mentors along the way that I didn’t know I needed,” Stiegelmeier said. “When I look back, which is the way life always is, I did need (them).”

After graduating from SDSU, Stiegelmeier served as a graduate assistant at Northern Iowa, then coached at the high school level in Wisconsin before returning to his home state as a defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator at Northern State.

He then returned to his alma mater in 1988, where he served as secondary coach and recruiting coordinator under Wayne Haensel. When Daly replaced Haensel in 1991, he promoted Stiegelmeier to defensive coordinator.

After six seasons, Daly stepped down, and the 40-year-old Stiegelmeier was named the head coach. He had achieved his dream.

From there, talk about the Jackrabbits moving to Division I surfaced. And after years of those discussions, the move finally happened in 2004. That same year, NDSU decided to join Division I FCS, then known as Division I-AA.

“In 2004, both our programs drew a line in the sand, stepped over it, and said, ‘let’s go Division I together,’” Stiegelmeier, the winningest coach in Jackrabbit history (194-112), said. “For a brief second, I think, we looked at each other and honestly said we need each other. I don’t think that’s the case now, but that started it.”

The Division I era had begun. As a result, the Dakota Marker rivalry was born, and the Jackrabbits continued to build their program. By 2007, they won the Great West Conference, in 2009 they made their Division I playoff debut, and in 2012, they made the playoffs again and haven’t missed them since.

It was then that SDSU also began featuring more players that would be the greatest in program history and would go on to the NFL. Players like Zach Zenner, Jake Wieneke, and Dallas Goedert led to SDSU recruiting future NFL prospects like Pierre Strong Jr., Christian Rozeboom, and currently Tucker Kraft.

All of this success stems from Stiegelmeier’s philosophy and the culture he helped create for the program. The team views each other like a family, sets goals throughout the season and preaches to “play in the present.”

As players continued taking to Stiegelmeier’s philosophy, the Jackrabbits kept on winning, becoming a perennial playoff team. But a national championship always eluded them. Since 2012, they had lost in the semifinals three times, went 0-4 against the Bison in playoff games, and finished as the national runner-up in the 2021 spring season.

It was after that loss in Frisco two seasons ago, that Jackrabbit players stayed on the field as they watched Sam Houston State celebrate. It wasn’t Stiegelmeier’s idea, but he knew the players wanted to embrace that feeling of coming up short.

“I don’t know what their motivation was, but it was a cool moment after shaking Sam Houston’s hands, to stand out there, stay out there, kneel out there in tears, many of them, and to watch the trophy presentation,” Stiegelmeier said. “I think in the end it got to their heart that ‘I want to be part of that someday,’ and here we got a chance to do it.”

Those previous postseason losses motivated the Jacks. This season’s SDSU squad knew it was capable of winning a national championship, and the team seemed to embrace that attitude.

“The goal and the focus of every single season is to win the national championship and if we don’t do that, then we don’t feel like we have a successful season,” quarterback Mark Gronowski said. “I think it’s just a part of our culture now and it makes us work harder every single day.”

Sunday’s game against the Bison could be the biggest highlight of Stiegelmeier’s career. A win would give the Jackrabbits their first-ever national championship after so many years of trying. But regardless of if the Jacks win or lose, Stiegelmeier knows he’s living out his dream

“I am certain God made me to be a coach, so there’s some accountability to that assignment in life,” Stiegelmeier said. “I felt a responsibility to do what I felt called to do. So it’s easy to jump out of bed and feel you’re living a calling.”