The new football coach at Palmer isn’t overly concerned with the addition of Valor Christian to the league, or the Terrors’ struggles in a 2-8 campaign in 2011 or the inability for area teams to break through at the 5A level.
Justin Rich is aware of all that awaits him, but this is a man who took helicopters into more than 200 combat missions in Iraq. Football tasks can’t help but seem less daunting by comparison.
“The coolest thing that I’ve done is I was able to take all of the guys in my platoon as a platoon leader in Iraq and bring everybody back safe and sound to their wives and their children,” said Rich, who was a captain in the Army before arthritis in his back led to his medical retirement in 2007. “That alone, if that’s the mountaintop moment of my life, I’d be very happy with that.”
Rich’s military career ended when he was in his early 30s, leaving him plenty of mountains to conquer. Turning to football was the most natural way he could see to utilize the lessons he’d learned in combat and as a leader.
Rich's only background in the sport came as a high school center who was invited to walk-on under Sonny Lubick at Colorado State before realizing he was too small to contribute. He stayed on in the sports information department and helped with video for the Rams before graduating in 1999.
After retiring, he caught on as a running backs coach at NCAA Division III Ithaca before he and wife Kirstin – natives of northern Colorado – moved to Colorado Springs as they followed her job. Kirstin works for a contractor that helps with property management for military housing.
Upon moving to Colorado Springs, Rich served as wide receivers coach under Rod Baker at Palmer in 2010 as the Terrors won their first playoff game in decades.
Last season, Rich spent the football season in Illinois, where he was co-defensive coordinator at D-3 Augustana.
“I would not have left Augustana for just any job,” Rich said. “But Palmer is special and the young men who play football for Palmer are special and it’s an honor to coach them. I really think we can build something there.
“I hope Palmer doesn’t have to make another hire at football coach for the next 25 years.”
Rich believes Palmer’s history as the city’s first high school and what he sees as an underrated academic reputation – giving him the chance to mix scholars and athletes on the team – are elements that make it one of the top jobs in Colorado Springs and a program that can routinely compete.
When it comes to on-the-field strategy, Rich will serve as defensive coordinator and employ a hybrid defense built behind three athletic defensive linemen. The rest of his staff has yet to take shape.
Palmer athletic director Robert Framel announced Rich’s hiring in an emailed press release Wednesday. Rich will replace Doug Miolen, who resigned in December after one season.
Framel noted Rich’s familiarity with Palmer’s program, his experience at the high school and college levels and his “great knowledge of how to help high school players make it to the next level.”
Framel also mentioned the combat experience that has shaped Rich’s perspective.
“His military background will be a great asset in teaching our athletes about life as well as football,” Framel said.
Rich promised nothing of immediate on-field success, other than to say he intends to run the program like a college team in terms of work ethic and preparation. Most of his attention is on the character side, where he is clearly experienced.
“There’s so many lessons that you learn in combat that you can learn on the football field,” Rich said. “That’s why I turned to sports. Ideally, I don’t want any of these guys at Palmer to have to be shot at to understand how important self-sacrifice and working hard and caring about your friends and your family is.
“If I can teach that at Palmer and if I can teach these young men that a great Palmer team would trump any individual success, then I’d be successful.”