Utah football: Christensen brings 'up front' approach to offense
At the end of Jim Harding's first semester, before winter break, Toledo offensive coordinator Dave Christensen wanted to tell the redshirt freshman just how much he meant to him.
"He called me in and let me know that if he had to rank all the linemen, I was the worst O-lineman that he had," Harding recalls with a laugh.
Merry Christmas, huh?
It wasn't what Harding wanted to hear, though, it's what he needed to hear. He went on to start four years at Toledo and followed Christensen to Missouri, Wyoming, and now Salt Lake City as Utah's offensive line coach. Christensen may huff and puff, Harding says, but it's because he wants what's best for his players.
"I like to be up front with everybody that I deal with," Christensen says, "and not pretend to be something I'm not.
Meet the new boss • Here's a few things Christensen is or at least has been: Animated. Honest. Brash. Above all, maybe, creative.
"He's an X and O's guy," says Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel, who is to Christensen what Christensen was to Harding. "Those X and O guys are always drawing plays. [Even] out with their wives, drawing plays."
The two met when Christensen was a GA and Pinkel offensive coordinator at Washington, and later coached together at Toledo and Missouri. At the latter, Christensen helped his mentor install one of the nation's most successful spread offenses. He also called the plays.
"He's got a natural skill for it," Pinkel said. "He just does. I called plays at Washington when I was offensive coordinator my last seven years there, and we had a lot of success, but he's a much better play-caller than I ever was."
Still, Ute fans can be forgiven if they're not giddy at the notion of another offensive coordinator.
First it was Dave Schramm succeeding Andy Ludwig after Utah's Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama in 2009 (and going 54th in total offense). Then Aaron Roderick and Schramm in 2010 (52nd). Then Norm Chow in 2011 (109th). Then Brian Johnson in 2012 (108th).
Last year, Johnson and Dennis Erickson split the duties and the blame when things went south after quarterback Travis Wilson injured his throwing hand and was later benched due to a pre-existing arterial condition in his brain.
Now there are no honeymoon periods for Ute OCs.
"For somebody we love" • Ironically, Christensen, 53, grew up roughly 30 miles north of Seattle in Everett, Wash., where Erickson, 66, was a hometown hero. "I was a guy trying to do the same thing that he did," he says.
After playing on Washington's offensive line from 1980-82, Christensen spent the better part of a decade climbing the coaching ladder in the Evergreen State while his wife, Susie, sold cars to pay the bills. He had practically no income for the first five years of their marriage, and his mother-in-law was horrified to learn that Susie was funding his master's degree.
"She felt like I should be in college to get my master's," Susie says. "But football's what makes him tick. Always has. He's had a passion for it since I met him."
Eventually they left behind Susie's six-figure sales job so he could make $18,000 as an offensive line coach at Idaho State. While in Pocatello, the Christensens befriended another tireless assistant coach and his wife, Kyle and Jamie Whittingham.
The couples were kindred spirits. Both coaches were all-business on the practice field, and Christensen chuckles remembering the mustaches he and Whittingham both sported. Jamie was by Susie's side, working as a nurse at the local hospital, the night Susie gave birth to their son, D.J.
So when some 23 years later Whittingham approached Christensen about becoming Utah's OC, Susie told her husband, "If we're going to do this again, let's do it for somebody we love."
Back in the bigs • Casual college football fans may know Christensen for his behavior on an October night in 2012, when his intensity got the best of him.
Feeling that the Air Force QB had faked an injury, Christensen called Fighting Falcons coach Troy Calhoun "Mr. [expletive] Howdy Doody" and a "fly boy" while walking off the field. He apologized and was suspended for a game, and it remains a blight on his resume.
"All around, [he's] a very good person," Harding says. "I think at times that gets lost because of how he is at practice and how passionate he is about the game."
Make no mistake, Whittingham is counting on Christensen's fire to rekindle an offense that finished 76th overall last season and an abysmal 103rd on third down.
He was hired because he's "very straightforward, very honest, demanding," Whittingham says. "There's just an air of leadership about him."
Though he was ultimately fired, Wyoming finished 22nd last year in total offense and quarterback Brett Smith may be drafted come May. In his five seasons at the helm, Christensen led the Cowboys to two bowl games and beat Colorado State for the Bronze Boot in four of five tries.
He takes over a Utah offense that is more talented than that which he and Pinkel inherited at Missouri, he says, though less so than the Tigers he left for Laramie.
"It's drastically different coaching at the BCS level," he says. "We have a budget here. We can do the things that we need to do to compete."
To be up front, in the spirit of Christensen: He has to.
Dave Christensen file
Age • 53. Hometown • Everett, Wash.
Most recent jobs • Head coach, Wyoming (27-35); offensive coordinator, OL coach, Missouri; offensive coordinator, OL coach, Toledo; OL/running backs coach, Idaho State
Family • Wife, Susie; kids, Katie, D.J. and Emily
Salary • $500,000