CEDAR FALLS — New University of Northern Iowa assistant football coaches Aairon Savage and Ryan Clanton are not that far removed from their playing days.
And, there was a time when Savage and Clanton stood on opposite sidelines for an important college football game in 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. Neither player factored in that game as Clanton was redshirting and Savage’s season and career had been cut short because of injury.
That game, however, has been brought up inside UNI’s coaching offices.
Savage’s Auburn squad claimed the 2011 BCS National Championship, 22-19, on a last-second field goal to beat Clanton’s Oregon team.
“Absolutely we’ve talked about it,” Savage smiled after a recent Panther spring practice. “I just hold up my hand and show him some rings.”
Clanton’s argument for superiority is much more technical in nature.
“I don’t think he was there. He is old,” Clanton deadpanned. “I’m young and fresh. We just talked about this the other day.
“Every time we have a kid in, every one of those kids tends to say Oregon was their favorite team growing up. I haven’t heard one person say Auburn was their favorite team. I don’t care if he thinks their team was better in that scenario, because everyone has decided on me so far here ... he’s like 0-10.”
Good-natured ribbing aside, UNI head coach Mark Farley hired Savage as defensive backs coach and Clanton to coach the offensive line exactly because of that competitive nature.
Farley was looking for coaches who have been part of a championship tradition.
“What I like about those two guys is they have championship backgrounds,” Farley said. “They have been part of programs that have done the things to become great. When you have that mindset you don’t accept anything less and that is what is good about Savage and Clanton is they only know one way ... that is the way to win.”
Savage was an all-SEC defensive back as a freshman at Auburn before injuries claimed part of the 2007 season and all of 2008 and 2009. In the Tigers’ run to the BCS championship, he started the first seven games before another injury wiped out his season.
With a master’s degree in bio-mechanics earned in 2010, Savage has spent time on the staffs at Auburn, Valdosta (Ga) High School, Georgia Tech, Arkansas Tech and last year at Army West Point.
“Everybody knows what UNI is about and everybody knows what the Missouri Valley Football Conference is about,” Savage said of what attracted him to Cedar Falls. “If you are a competitor, what other league would you rather be in? That is attractive to me and it attracted myself and my wife out here.
“I’m excited to be out here with an awesome coaching staff that has made the transition easier.”
Working with a young group of defensive backs, Savage says he has lot of teaching to do.
“Been preaching technique and effort to the ball,” Savage said. “It is a really good group, good people at heart that love football.”
Clanton spent the past four years at Ventura College in Los Angeles following his playing days. He’s got a more experienced group, but also a group that is missing some key pieces like Spencer Brown and Nick Ellis who are being held out because of injury.
“In the spring you are usually going to have some guys coming off injuries or surgeries and unavailable,” Clanton said. “We are working on the young guys and developing them, while those injured guys, they are getting better, too.
“It’s not like we go, ‘Have a glass of lemonade and enjoy yourself.’ They are behind us, making the same calls, working on the mental side of the game.”
Clanton, who was a senior captain on Oregon’s 2013 winning Fiesta Bowl team and also contributed to a Rose Bowl win in 2012, said his group attacks each day with a purpose.
“We’ve been working our tails off and having fun,” he said. “We have a different emphasis each practice so we can get better at something and really master it. We’re having a good spring so far.”