An emotional year for Jay Sawvel has reached a beginning and an ending. He knows he’s reached new career heights, as he prepares for his first full season as Gophers defensive coordinator, and he knows his father, John, won’t have many more chances to watch.
John has been fighting stage IV pancreatic cancer in Barnesville, Ohio, population 4,200, where the seeds for his son’s coaching career were first planted.
John wasn’t a coach himself, but the long hours he spent as an accountant for the Barnesville Hospital taught Sawvel everything he needed to know about work ethic.
“Minus recruiting, he had a coach’s lifestyle,” Sawvel said. “We didn’t take vacations, didn’t do a lot of that stuff. He was at our games, but he brought work home with him. He worked on Saturday mornings. He’s been self-made.”
John, 75, had hoped to see the Gophers play the Quick Lane Bowl in person last year but wasn’t feeling well. In January, doctors made the bleak diagnosis. Sawvel has flown back home to see his father for short visits, in between recruiting and defensive strategy sessions.
“It is what it is,” Sawvel said. “He deals with a lot of pain. When you go back, you get three hours where he’ll be awake, and then he’ll go back and lay down.”
Adversity and focus
As excited as Sawvel has been about this season — and particularly this Gophers defense — he’s had regular reminders about the bigger picture.
Beyond his father’s battle, Sawvel’s close friend and colleague, Mike Sherels, has endured multiple surgeries this month for an undisclosed medical condition. Sherels, the Gophers’ 31-year-old linebackers coach, remains hospitalized, with his family keeping details private.
But the players remain resolute in their focus, and Sawvel continues to bring his trademark intensity to the job. He assumed the coordinator duties last October, when Tracy Claeys took over as head coach for Jerry Kill, and officially was promoted in January.
Sawvel, 45, had worked as the defensive backs coach under Kill and Claeys since 2001, when they were at Southern Illinois.
“Jay has been with me a long time, and he’s a hell of a coach,” Claeys said.
Sawvel helped mold former Gophers defensive backs Brock Vereen, Cedric Thompson and Eric Murray into NFL draft picks. This year’s team has two other defensive backs — Damarius Travis and Jalen Myrick — with strong prospects for next year’s draft.
In his new role, Sawvel still works closely with the team’s defensive backs. But he’s in charge of the entire defense, “which I think is great because he’s not only yelling at us, he’s yelling at everybody,” Travis said, smiling. “It didn’t change a bit.”
Sawvel brings a tough love approach that mirrors the ones used by his own favorite mentors. It started with his first coach at Barnesville High School, Bill Dowler.
“He was very demanding, and I loved playing for him,” Sawvel said. “It was never something where he was trying to get out his own anger issues. If I didn’t do something right, he’d tell me about it. I wouldn’t be where I am today without what he did.”
Sawvel played linebacker for Mount Union and helped that Ohio school win the first of its 12 NCAA Division III national titles in 1993. Then he spent five years working as a graduate assistant, at Eastern Kentucky and Notre Dame.
“I was very fortunate,” Sawvel said. “The first three coaches I had in college are all Hall of Famers — Larry Kehres [Mount Union], Roy Kidd [Eastern Kentucky] and Lou Holtz [Notre Dame].”
Joining Kill and Claeys
After two years coaching defensive backs for Ferris State, Sawvel landed with Kill and Claeys at Southern Illinois. The staff’s success there and at Northern Illinois and Minnesota has involved a significant improvement on defense, with Claeys in charge on that side of the ball, and Sawvel serving as a top lieutenant.
“With my parents, the one thing I learned right away was chain of command,” Sawvel said. “You weren’t talking back. Those old Hot Wheels tracks — they hurt. So I’ve always been a stay-in-my-lane person.
“When I went to work for Tracy, it wasn’t hard to adopt a philosophy. A lot of it was stuff I liked and believed in anyway.”
Claeys has run a 4-3 base defense — four down linemen, three linebackers — but ever since the Quick Lane Bowl, the Gophers have been experimenting with more four linebacker sets.
After Dave Aranda left Wisconsin for the defensive coordinator job at LSU, he flew in to meet with Sawvel, sharing advice on personnel strategies.
“It goes back to what Coach Kehres said: ‘It’s all about our players. Who are our best players? And what are we asking them to do?’ ” Sawvel said. “If we’re going to ask guys to do things that they can’t do, then we can’t blame the players. It’s our fault.”
So Sawvel has been tinkering, getting ready for the Sept. 1 opener against Oregon State, knowing it’s a job that has made his father proud.
“My brother [Jeff] played defense; I’ve always been a defensive player,” Sawvel said. “So my dad would love a 10-7 football game far more than 42-38. That’s always been his way.”