Photo: Air Force assistant John Rudzinski will coach from the opponent's sideline at Spartan Stadium.
Air Force assistant football coach John Rudzinski grew up under two strict rules in Green Bay, Wis., before he left home for the Air Force Academy. But the guidelines were unrelated to military academy preparation.
His father, former Green Bay Packers and Michigan State linebacker Paul Rudzinski, and his mother, Mary, imposed their rulebook as Michigan State graduates.
“I had to cheer for Michigan State and cheer against Michigan,” John said. “Those were the two rules in our house.”
Well, the former rule will be suspended for a week when Air Force travels to play Michigan State on Sept. 19 at Spartan Stadium.
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity,” Rudzinski said. “It will be a neat experience. The last game I went to with my Dad in East Lansing was when my cousin Jerry (Rudzinski) played for Ohio State (a 1997 Ohio State win). I obviously grew up around Big Ten football as a kid.”
He played linebacker at Air Force from 2001 to 2004, including All-Mountain West Conference honorable mention on the field and All-Academic team honors as a senior. The two-time team captain led the Falcons in tackles and won the Brian Bullard Award as the Falcons’ MVP. Graduation honors included Outstanding Cadet in Management.
Rudzinski served his five-year commitment as an Air Force officer and returned to the academy in 2010 when head coach Troy Calhoun hired him as a defensive assistant and assistant recruiting coordinator. He quickly rose up the ranks, promoted to linebackers coach in 2012 and 2013 and now his second year as secondary coach.
Coaching from Spartan Stadium’s visiting team sideline will provide a contrasting view from in the stands as a kid seated with his father, a second-team All-Big Ten linebacker for the Spartans in 1977.
John’s ’task is to find a way for Air Force’s defensive backs -- led by first-team All-MWC safety Weston Steelhammer -- to slow down quarterback Connor Cook, a projected first-round NFL draft pick leading a team expected to be ranked in the Top 10. Air Force is coming off a 10-3 season that included beating Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and winning the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy and a trip to the White House.
“It’ll be a great college football environment, and we completely understand they are one of the premier programs in the country,” John said. “We’ll have to execute at a high level for four quarters. If we can do that we can anticipate being in the game in the fourth quarter. At that point you determine who is the better team.”
It will be the second straight year the son of a former Michigan State player faced the Spartans. Last year Michigan State beat Wyoming with sophomore Tim Kamana starting at safety and his father Carter Kamana, who played for the Spartans from 1981 to 1984 out of Honolulu Kamehameha, watching from the stands.
At Air Force, the Falcons reach that high level of execution they require to compete with the bond of teamwork among overachievers playing in unison.
“It’s not always about one on one,” Rudzinski said. “That common bond you build with guys you go to school with allows us to play football as 11 men. We have a mantra that we may not be the biggest, strongest or most physically impressive looking team coming out of the locker room, but when the ball is thrown out there we’re going to play the best team game.
“For each young man we recruit, we look for guys that truly believe they are Division I football players regardless of their measurable. They may not have the measurables, but they better have that mindset to accomplish their goals.”
Rudzinski fit the profile playing for Green Bay’s Notre Dame Academy, particularly after missing his junior year with an injury that curtailed his recruiting exposure. He had walk-on offers from Big Ten schools Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois and offers from Mid-American Conference schools. But then Air Force knocked with an alternative route.
“My father did a great job of instilling in me the attitude that you are as good as anybody you play but at the same time anybody you play against can beat up on you,” John said. “You’ve got to out-work them. It’s the little things you do in the off-season.
“I was looking for a place to gain a world-class education and, coming from my football family, a place to play at a school with great tradition. After visiting the Air Force Academy, in my mind it was a no-brainer. I realized it would be big-time challenging and an atypical college experience. Nevertheless I felt it was something that would fit me and open up good doors for me after graduation.”
Upon high school graduation in 2001, Rudzinski departed for summer boot camp and then the August start of football practice. A month later the world changed with the 9/11 terrorists attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.
“That put into perspective the decision I made to go to the Air Force Academy,” Rudzinski said. “Obviously within weeks of that day fellow airmen were involved in fighting the threat to our homeland security.”
Air Force men and women cadets are trained for that post-graduation moment in their military career, whether they understand it or not in the early days of their otherwise irrelevant athletic careers.
Rudzinski’s passion for his Air Force experiences make it easy to see why Calhoun has him in the lead recruiting coordinator role while shedding the “assistant” label after his first year. Recruiting prospects at Air Force involves educating the athlete and family on the military academy challenges. Rudzinski’s bio page on the Air Force football website mentions how he and his wife Lauren admire members of the armed services and he enjoys the opportunity to mentor future officers.
“The opportunity to play Division I football and the decision to attend a service academy is a testament to the young men,” he said. “It’s about their upbringing from what they’ve experienced at their high school and from their parents. After the tragic attacks in New York and Washington, my experiences at the academy opened my eyes to the opportunity to serve my country and defend our security at home.”
--- Tom Shanahan has featured Army, Navy and Air Force athletes for nearly 30 years in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Voice of San Diego, Rivals.com and the Raleigh News and Observer. He attended his first Army-Navy Game after John Feinstein wrote in his book on the rivalry, “A Civil War,” everyone should attend the Army-Navy Game at least once. Air Force players will remind people their Army and Navy games are big, too.