Maryland past brings Heffner to NU

Danny Daly

Following an illustrious college career and brief stint in the NFL, Pat Fitzgerald started his coaching days in 1998 as a graduate assistant at Maryland. Former Northwestern defensive coordinator Ron Vanderlinden, who was in his second season as the Terrapins’ head coach, gave Fitzgerald the job.

One of Vanderlinden’s top assistants was Bob Heffner, the offensive line coach at the time and offensive coordinator the next two years. Even though Fitzgerald stayed only one season, he made an impression on Heffner and the rest of the staff.

“You could tell that he was a young person with very, very good presence,” Heffner said. “That’s usually a good sign that people look for in a head coach.”

It took more than a decade, but Heffner and Fitzgerald were reunited. After Adam Cushing was promoted to replace departing offensive line guru Bret Ingalls, who signed on with the New Orleans Saints to mentor their running backs, Heffner agreed to become the Wildcats’ new superbacks coach.

Heffner’s rapport with Fitzgerald played a major role in his decision to come to Evanston.

“I knew what kind of man he was and what kind of program he was going to run,” Heffner said. “The first thing I look at is who I’m going to work for, and that was a big, big plus.”

Having spent the past eight years at Lafayette College, a prestigious liberal arts school in Easton, Penn., Heffner was attracted to the type of student-athlete at NU. The move was also a step up in terms of competition, as Lafayette is a member of the Patriot League in the FCS.

So far, the players have not disappointed.

“I’ve been impressed with our players since the day I walked in here and saw how many of them came in and introduced themselves to me and asked me where I was from and told me where they were from,” Heffner said. “You don’t find that everywhere.”

Heffner first coached as a graduate assistant 30 years ago at Temple, his alma matter. He was working on getting a teaching degree so he would be able to coach high school football.

After one season in the high school ranks, one of Heffner’s coaches at Temple took a coordinator position at Illinois State. Heffner was initially brought in as the defensive line coach, but the former guard switched over to the offensive line in 1982. Heffner has also coached in the Arena Football League, the Canadian Football League – where he was Doug Flutie’s co-offensive coordinator – and at Northern Illinois.

Heffner’s wealth of experience has been invaluable for his players this season.

“He’s been around the game for a long time,” sophomore superback Drake Dunsmore said. “He knows all the technique stuff, the whole grand scheme. He’s able to not only explain our position, but explain to us where we fit into the scheme to the offense.”

Until now, Heffner had never coached a position with a range of responsibilities quite like the superbacks. He enlisted the help of his fellow assistant coaches to help him adjust.

“It’s been a little different,” he said. “I’ve had to learn to be a wide receivers coach. I spent a lot of time with Coach (Mick) McCall and Coach (Kevin) Johns on learning those type of things. Coaching wide receivers, technique-wise, was a whole new deal.”

Whatever Heffner is doing, it seems to be working. The superbacks have 35 catches for 364 yards through seven games, far surpassing the nine receptions and 52 yards that position produced a year ago. Coming off of an injury, Dunsmore is in the midst of a breakout season.

Though Heffner appears calm on the surface, he has a fiery side that has rubbed off on his unit.

“If you do something to get him going, he’ll erupt like a volcano,” senior superback Mark Woodsum said.

Heffner’s sense of humor can also lighten the mood during practices. Dunsmore called him “quite the comedian,” and Heffner stressed the importance of having fun when the situation is appropriate.

The transition to coaching a different position at a new school halfway across the country has been a success.

“When you come into a new situation, it’s tough as an assistant coach,” Fitzgerald said. “Bob’s done a great job and he’s a great addition to our staff.”

[email protected]