Updated: August 24, 2014 at 12:13 pm
Ron Vanderlinden came to Air Force this past offseason after spending 13 years coaching linebackers at Penn State. His 36-year career, which is as impressive as you'll find for a linebacker coach, includes four years as Maryland's head coach, five years spent at Northwestern that saw the Wildcats reverse their fortunes with two Big Ten championships and nine years at Colorado that included a shared national title.
The Michigan native talked with The Gazette's Brent Briggeman about his transition to the Falcons.
Q: Has there been an adjustment period for you?
A: The football is the same, but yes in my appreciation for what these young men go through. You know coming in that it's going to be unique and different, but, boy, they're really special young men and I love coaching them.
Q: How would someone in your position and with your résumé end up at a service academy at this stage in your career?
A: Well, to be very honest, I've had a lot of opportunities through the years. You get to a point in life where I was very accustomed to coaching some great young men - the same thing at Northwestern. So, when you look at what's next, my aspirations are to get with a program that has great young men in it, which is certainly the Air Force. Then I had met coach Calhoun the year before and had heard nothing but great things about him. I knew that this would be a great program that just reaped integrity. So it was really something I was seeking and looking for was to be in a program like this.
Q: Did Northwestern provide a blueprint for how you'd go about recruiting here, or is this a whole different world?
A: It's a different world, but at Northwestern and really at Penn State to a large degree you are looking for more than just an athlete; you're looking for the student part of it. I enjoy recruiting here because you can offer a young man such a great opportunity. It's one of the best educations in the world, combined with Division I football and a superior program that's got a great history of football. And then leadership training. For the right young man, what a great opportunity to jump-start life.
Q: Do you notice ears sort of perk up with recruits when you also discuss your own résumé?
A: You know, I sell more the positives that the Air Force has to offer. If a young man wants to play linebacker and does a little research, I think that's helpful. But right now I just try to sell coach Calhoun and what Air Force football is all about, because it's such a great offering.
Q: Your career path has been well known from your time at Colorado forward. Where were you before then that landed you in Boulder?
A: I was at Ball State in Indiana. I went to Bowling Green as a GA for a year. Michigan as a GA for two years under Bo Schembechler - really fortunate. Ball State for two years as the offensive line coach. Bill McCartney went from Bo's staff at Michigan and got the head job at Colorado. So I went from Ball State to Colorado for nine years and we went from worst in the country to a national title. Then of course when I was at Northwestern with Gary Barnett, he had been here at Air Academy.
Q: When you spent all that time up the road in Boulder, what was the perception of Air Force?
A: We had tremendous respect. When we were still trying to get the thing off the ground, Air Force was winning. Air Force helped us put in the wishbone. Coach DeBerry's staff was very, very good to us. So we put in the wishbone and really that got us off the ground and saved our jobs. We would come down here and see a very successful program. That was in like '85, that time where I think Air Force beat Notre Dame four years in a row in that stretch. Chad Hennings was playing here. They were great. We had nothing but the highest regard, and they had better facilities than we did. It was overall, at the time, a superior program.
Q: In recent years this coaching staff has been stocked full of Air Force graduates. Was that a topic of conversation with Troy Calhoun, that perhaps an outside voice was needed and you would be able to provide it?
A: No, that really wasn't. I think coach Calhoun was just looking for someone that would be a good fit for the academy and a good teacher and hopefully he saw the kind of character and integrity he was looking for to be able to be in his program.
Q: You were obviously at Penn State during one of the most tumultuous scandals in college football history. Were there any lessons that came out of being there through that?
A: Inwardly it didn't affect us. I mean, it affected us, but it didn't change anything. We were still coaching young men who were great young men. It happened a decade ago; over a decade ago. It was a media . you know how media loves drama; they live for it. You know what I mean? They love what's going on in Missouri just because it's ratings. It sells. But it didn't affect us. We had a job to do and we had great young men that bought in and it changed everything overnight in terms of the new staff and all, but that was going to happen anyway. Joe could only do that for so long.
Q: I know coaches move around and most probably don't look beyond what they're doing right now, but could this be a long-term destination for you?
A: When you look at me, nine years at Colorado, 13 years at Penn State, you know, I'm not a guy looking for the next job. Coming here, I wanted to go somewhere where I could really enjoy the people, and that's what I found here. Wonderful staff and coach Calhoun is a terrific, terrific head coach. I mean, he is really good in every way. He's a terrific football coach, understands the game, he's got great vision, he's such a solid individual. I mean, you witness every day just the way he talks to that team, who does that? Right?
Q: You've been with some great coaches from Bo Schembechler to to Gary Barnett to Joe Paterno, so even in that context you still feel Troy Calhoun deserves that praise?
A: Very much. As I look you eye to eye and God as my witness, absolutely.
Q: Is there anything about him that particularly stands out?
A: He is a great football coach, and what I mean by that is he understands every aspect of the game on both sides of the ball and special teams. He steers the ship in all three areas and is very involved, and yet he lets us all coach. But make no mistake, he knows exactly what is going on. He is fully entrenched. He is the hardest-working recruiter we have, honest to God. He spends more time contacting the recruits than all of us. I don't know where he finds time to do it all. Then he's great with the players. He's just great. I know coach DeBerry was much the same here, but I can't imagine a better fit for the academy than coach Calhoun. I believe that strongly, he's as good as anyone I've been around, and I've been fortunate to Bill McCartney have been around some really good people and coaches. He's at the top of the list, maybe it's 1 and 1A. This guy is as good as any, he really is.
Q: In terms of your guys at linebacker, do you like what you have?
A: I really do. I like my guys.
Q: Will their play be a big key to turning things around here?
A: You know, the only thing that I can speak to is defense and linebackers. I think coach (defensive coordinator Steve) Russ is leading us in a great way. I think he's good, he's smart and he's on top of it, and I think all of us are really pulling together and working hard under his leadership. So I'd be surprised if we don't see significant improvement, I really would.