There was a select list of schools UW-Eau Claire head football coach Dan Larson said he would leave his alma mater for. Unfortunately for the Blugolds, one of them came calling.
Larson officially stepped down from his position as head coach on Friday to accept a running backs coach position with North Dakota State of the Division I Football Championship Subdivision.
“This is fairly bittersweet,” Larson said at a press conference in Zorn Arena’s Gold Room Friday. “It’s exciting from a professional standpoint to be taking another step. It’s also extremely hard to leave a school of this caliber, a program of this caliber.”
Defensive coordinator Matt Ebner will serve as interim head coach while a national search is conducted.
“His ascension to the Division I ranks is an opportunity that I knew firsthand, professionally, you just can’t pass up,” Eau Claire athletic director Dan Schumacher said. “As much as I want him to stay, the team wants him to stay and the institution wants him to stay at his alma mater, we know the Blugolds are about excellence. ... I deem it an honor for Blugold football that North Dakota State came calling for our head coach.”
Larson spent three seasons as the head coach at Eau Claire, posting a 7-23 record. The 2018 campaign was the most successful under his watch. The Blugolds went 4-6 overall, their highest win total since 2012, and slotted in at sixth in the WIAC with a 2-5 record, their highest conference finish since tying for sixth in 2013. He inherited a team that went 0-10 in 2015-16, the Blugolds’ final year under the direction of Todd Glaser.
Larson joins a dominant powerhouse in the FCS. The Bison are coming off a 15-0 season and their seventh national title in eight years. Head coach Chris Klieman left following the season after winning his fourth title in five years to take the head coaching position at Kansas State. Matt Entz, who previously served as North Dakota State’s defensive coordinator for five years, was promoted to the top position. With Larson’s hire, Entz has completed his inaugural coaching staff.
Larson said North Dakota State reached out to him late last week about going to Fargo for an interview. He was offered the job Thursday afternoon and accepted Thursday night.
While Schumacher said the school will look at candidates from around the country, he has encouraged members of the current staff to apply. The Blugolds would like to retain Larson’s staff but understand that can limit the pool.
“We have a young staff, an experienced young staff that has families,” Schumacher said. “As it usually goes, a new head coach comes in and he wipes out the staff. We really have some excellent coaches, so it will be a juggling act to see what can be done in that area to continue to support the current coaches here because I believe in the current coaches we do have. But, it’s also not fair to a new head coach, as Dan had the opportunity to bring in his staff. To hamstring a new head coach into doing that, you can only go so far before you lose a candidate.”
Larson, unsurprisingly, gave his remaining assistants the stamp of approval.
“We’ve got a lot of special coaches that are still on our staff,” Larson said. “The assistant coaches I hired three years ago were guys that, from my standpoint, were going to be the ones that were going to drive our program. I was maybe going to have a vision but it was them that were going to put it in motion. ... For those guys to still be a part of this program, as much as I am leaving it, these guys are going to continue to drive it.
“It takes a village in order to build a successful program. All you have is one person stepping away from the village. That’s it. The reason why it’s going to continue to be successful, the reason why this program will continue to take the steps forward is because a majority of the village, 99 percent of the village, is still here.”
Ebner re-joined the Eau Claire staff when Larson arrived three years ago. He previously served as the defensive coordinator at UW-River Falls from 2013 to 2015 and was an assistant focusing on the defensive line with the Blugolds from 2008 to 2010. Like Larson, Ebner is a UWEC graduate.
The head coaching job was posted online on Friday with six minimum requirements: A Bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution, strong leadership and communication skills, commitment to athletic excellence within an academic environment, knowledge of NCAA rules, prior college experience as an offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator or associate head coach and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusivity. Schumacher said the plan is to gather candidates until Feb. 4.
“We’re in a different position now,” Schumacher said of the process compared to three years ago. “We were 0-10. It’s a different narrative when you’re 0-10 when trying to convince someone to take this job. What’s the upside of taking this job when you’re an 0-10 football team? It took someone like Dan who has a little something extra for the institution because he’s an alumnus, and that was the compensating factor that really turned the corner for us. Now we’re doing this search in a position of strength.”
Larson said he isn’t leaving the Eau Claire football community, just adjusting his role from head coach to alumnus. From that standpoint, he made his pitch to potential applicants.
“If someone reached out to me and said ‘Why would I take this job?’, one, our players here understand what it takes,” Larson said. “We’ve got great players that have committed so far. We’ve got great recruits that are going to come on campus over the course of the next three weeks that are going to see what Eau Claire is all about. This is one of the top academic schools in the Midwest. This community continues to grow and continues to better itself. Our facilities are continuing to improve ... and lastly, we have a great staff here. We’ve got everything here in order to be successful.
“If anybody was asking why I’d take this job, it’s because it’s the best Division III job I think in the country, it’s the best in the WIAC, and it’s only going to continue to get better.”