Pop quiz: what do Knox College, Southern Mississippi University and Jameis Winston have in common? Hint: think Todd Monken ‘89. Monken was an All-American quarterback for the Prairie Fire in 1988; more recently, he was the head football coach at Southern Mississippi, where he inherited an 0-12 team that he turned into a 9-5, Conference USA-winning, bowl-bound squad. And as of last week, Monken is the offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he will have the opportunity to take control of a young team with one of the more promising quarterbacks in the NFL in Winston.
“You’re talking about a young team with young players, a young coach and most importantly, a belief in the system,” said Monken. “I’m extremely excited to coach some of the best players in the world.”
Flashback to 1985: Monken is a freshman at the College of DuPage, a community college in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. He isn’t playing football. And yet, he’s getting constant encouragement from then-Knox Head Coach Randy Oberempt ‘76, pushing him to transfer to Knox. Just three years later, after deciding to come to Knox, taking a year to get his feet wet and splitting time with Bob Monroe, Monken led all DIII passers in yards, completions and touchdowns en route to an All-American season. Monken himself defers much of the praise to the team around him, but Oberempt took a different tone.
“There is no one on that 1988 team who would say that Todd wasn’t the key component to our success that year,” Oberempt said. “The national attention in DIII generated by Todd, Bob, Rich Schiele, Chris Vogel and a host of very committed young men helped restore the luster to the Knox program.”
For Monken, however, much of his growth was not on the football field. Knox, Monken maintains, helped him grow as a person.
“I got a lot more out of Knox than Knox got out of me,” Monken said. “When I came to Knox, I was very capable of hiding academically … The small classes forced me to learn how to communicate, how to be a student. It was a blessing to be at Knox as I transitioned into being a man.”
The Buccaneers mark the ninth different institution Monken has worked for. He has worked a variety of jobs, as well, from a graduate assistant at Notre Dame in the early ‘90s to the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State. He had a brief stint in the NFL before this, as the wide receivers coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars. And as much as Monken would like for Tampa Bay to be his last stop, he’s betting he will move another couple of times.
“The profession I’ve chosen says you have to move to achieve goals, aspirations, dreams,” Monken said. “I haven’t necessarily tried to move, but I’ve chosen every job I’ve taken since the 90s. I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t made those difficult decisions, and I’m prepared to make another.”
For now, however, Monken is more than excited to be where he ended up. If you ask Athletic Director Chad Eisele, Monken’s teammate at Knox, the Buccaneers should be pretty excited with whom they hired, as well.
“What you see is what you get with Todd, and players appreciate that,” Eisele said. “That mentality goes back to his DIII roots; he knows what it’s like to come up from the bottom. He sees potential in everyone, and he sees that if they work to full potential they can achieve greatness. The guy I see coaching today is the same guy I played with 30 years ago.”
Oberempt has taken a similar mindset to the Eisele’s.
“In Todd, I see a very thoughtful, analytical, pragmatic, highly successful professional,” Oberempt said. “He still has a sense of humor and can be glib, but in that business you have to develop a bit of detachment as a head coach.”
Ask Monken, however, and detachment is not a major part of his coaching process. More than the Bowl appearance, more than the nine victories his Golden Eagles attained last year, Monken maintains the highlight of his time at Southern Miss is tied up in the relationships he fostered.
“In my opinion, the job of a head college coach is to graduate great men, on the field and off,” said Monken. “I have no regrets about how we as a staff went about that and the transformations we saw. Never once did we waver from that responsibility.”
In a similar vein, during Monken’s introductory press conference with the Buccaneers, he stressed the importance of relaxing and having fun. While noting that the NFL presents a greater challenge than college in that regard due to the monetary nature of the game, Monken noted a common truth: People do their jobs better when they’re enjoying it. As such, he’s going to try and change the culture of a team that hasn’t had much fun recently. The Buccaneers have been 23-57 (a winning percentage of 29 percent) over the last five seasons. The Bucs are approaching their fourth head coach in the last six seasons in Dirk Koetter, hired to replace Lovie Smith just a few weeks ago. While he may have a tall task ahead of him, former All-American Chris Vogel ‘90 believes Monken is more than up to it.
“He’s from a family of football coaches,” said Vogel. “Twenty-five years ago, he was the smartest guy on the field and since then he has applied himself to acquiring more and more knowledge. I can’t imagine him not being completely prepared to succeed.”
Indeed, Monken’s family appears to breed coaching talent: his father and all four of his brothers have coached their way into the Illinois High School Football Coaching Hall of Fame, and his cousin, Jeff Monken, is Army’s head coach. In that way, Monken’s job with Tampa Bay isn’t a surprise; it is, however, still a challenge.
“I haven’t ever looked too far down the road when it comes to coaching,” said Monken. “I have always promised myself I would work to the best of my ability wherever I am. There will be hurdles in Tampa Bay, but you’d better believe I’m going to make the most of this opportunity.”