Football: Who is Northwestern offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian?

Charlie Goldsmith, Sports Editor

Jameis Winston needed a ride home.

It was the summer of 2015, and it was late. These were Winston’s first days as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ starting quarterback after being selected first overall in that year’s NFL Draft. Winston didn’t even have a car yet, and by now all the other teammates and coaches had left.

Winston would stay in the facility long into the night to watch film with his quarterbacks coach, Mike Bajakian. Most nights, Bajakian drove Winston home.

“Mike and Jameis had some really good years,” said Zach Grossi, the Buccaneers’ former offensive quality control and coach Bajakian’s right-hand man in Tampa Bay. “Jameis wanted to learn, he wanted to be great. So he stuck around with Mike.”

Now Hunter Johnson, Andrew Marty and Aidan Smith will be taken under Bajakian’s wing. Bajakian was hired as Northwestern’s offensive coordinator in December, bringing over a decade of coordinator experience with him.

Bajakian called plays at Central Michigan (2007-2009), Cincinnati (2010-2012), Tennessee (2013-2014) and Boston College (2019) in addition to working with Winston as Tampa Bay’s quarterbacks coach from 2015-2018.

Taking over one of college football’s worst offenses, Bajakian has a daunting challenge ahead of him at Northwestern. But those who know him say he’s up for it.

“He’s one of the smartest people that I know,” said Dan LeFevour, Bajakian’s star quarterback at Central Michigan and one of the leading passers in NCAA history. “In all the times he’s called plays, he’s ran a different offense every time. And he’s been effective every time.”

In the film room, he’s a “mad scientist crossed with a high school teacher”

On Joshua Dobbs’ first day at Tennessee in 2013, he walked into the quarterbacks’ meeting room expecting to be overwhelmed. It can be difficult for a freshman quarterback to learn a new offense, new formations and new teammates.

But Bajakian didn’t want to talk about any of those things. Bajakian surprised Dobbs by pulling up defensive film instead of offensive film. Bajakian explained the difference between a Cover 2 defense and a Cover 3 defense.

Listening to Bajakian methodically explain basic football principals, Dobbs says he suddenly felt at ease.

“He was really teaching us ways to defeat those coverages,” Dobbs said. “He was teaching me the other side of the ball to understand a defensive coordinator’s mind. That really helped me learn the game of football. He expanded my mind.”

Bajakian prioritizes teaching quarterbacks why they need to make certain decisions, Dobbs said. Eventually, he ran some of the most detailed film sessions Dobbs has ever been a part of. Bajakian enjoys spending 15 or more minutes dissecting one play. He’ll test his quarterbacks’ knowledge by asking questions like, “If the safety blitzed on this coverage instead of dropping back into coverage, what would you do differently?”

Those in-depth film sessions worked for Dobbs, who now plays for the Jacksonville Jaguars. And they worked for LeFevour who threw for 12,905 yards at Central Michigan and was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the sixth round. Bajakian also left a lasting impression on former Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros, now one of the best quarterbacks in the Canadian Football League.

“He knows playing the quarterback position is not necessarily how well you throw the ball,” said Derrick Lett, Bajakian’s former assistant at Tennessee. “You’ve got to know when to throw it, why to throw it. He does a really good job teaching the quarterbacks how to get into his head on why he’s calling a play.

He’s one of the biggest personalities on the football field

According to Lett, Bajakian isn’t a “normal” offensive coordinator.

If the offense looks sluggish in practice, Bajakian will substitute himself in on defense with no pads, cleats or helmet. He’ll play cornerback or linebacker alongside the scout team to try to provide some energy. During strength training sessions at Tennessee, Bajakian would go up to the offensive linemen working out and dare them to throw him off his feet to the ground.

Bajakian hasn’t played football in over two decades, but he’s taken his fair share of hits as a coach.

“As long as players want to learn, they’re going to love playing for Mike Bajakian,” Lett said. “He’s going to keep teaching every day no matter what the circumstances are, and his level of preparation is never going to change.”

Bajakian brings the same energy on gameday. As the quarterbacks coach in Tampa Bay, he wouldn’t watch Winston warm up before a game. Instead, Bajakian took reps right alongside Winston, and Bajakian competed with Grossi to see which of the assistant coaches could complete the most passes.

“That was something we always looked forward to, just getting to sling it in all these cool stadiums,” Grossi said. “Sometimes you had to battle the elements, or your shoulder was a little sore. We never had much sleep, so you always had to battle that. And the quarterbacks would always get into it with us.”

He’s proven to be a great recruiter

In December of 2012, Joshua Dobbs was sitting in French class wondering where he was going to attend college. He’d committed to Arizona State, but Dobbs was having second thoughts.

All of a sudden, Bajakian knocked on the door and pulled Dobbs out of class. They talked for an hour.

“I thought that was just one visit and then he was going to be off telling the same thing to the next quarterback down the street,” Dobbs said. “But he came two more times that week. He was the reason I went to Tennessee.”

Dobbs wasn’t the only great quarterback Bajakian recruited to Tennessee. Bajakian recruited Nathan Peterman, who eventually started 8 games in the NFL. And Bajakian recruited Riley Ferguson, who transferred to Memphis after Bajakian left for the NFL, and Ferguson became a first team all-conference player.

“It was important for me to have a coordinator who was very hands on with the quarterbacks,” Dobbs said. “The way he communicates brought the best out of me. He says what he wants from you and shows you how you fit into that puzzle.”

As a play-caller, he had all the answers

When Bajakian became Central Michigan’s offensive coordinator in 2007, LeFevour was a sophomore. In the first meeting between the coach and the starting quarterback, LeFevour had a point he wanted to get across.

“I told him ‘I’m a fast guy, you want to add some quarterback runs or anything?’” LeFevour remembers.

“And he was like, ‘we’ll see.’”

LeFevour had run for 521 yards the previous year. But he wasn’t the only weapon in the offense –– Central Michigan had two star running backs on the roster and Antonio Brown starting at wide receiver.

In Bajakian’s first season, they all wound up having career years. Running a traditional spread offense, LeFevour threw for 3,562 yards and ran for 1,122 yards. The two running backs, Ontario Sneed and Justin Hoskins, combined for 1150 yards on the ground. And Brown caught 102 passes for 1,003 yards.

“(Bajakian) is very confident in how he wants to attack defenses,” LeFevour said. “I can’t remember a time he was incorrect.”

When Bajakian was hired to run the offense at Cincinnati, he tailored the spread offense to feature tight end Travis Kelce, now the best player in the NFL at his position. Kelce caught 45 passes for 722 yards in his senior year, and the Bearcats had back-to-back ten win seasons with Bajakian running the offense.

“Kelce was gonna be great no matter what scheme we ran,” Collaros said. “(Bajakian) knew that, but he also made it a priority we get him the ball.”

When Bajakian became the offensive coordinator at Tennessee, he had better athletes across almost every position of the roster, like future Pro Bowl running back Alvin Kamara. The Volunteers ran a “shotgun spread offense with pro style principals,” Dobbs said.

That meant Tennessee ran most of the same formations Bajakian used at his previous two stops, but the plays were designed for the quarterback to get the ball out more quickly to a playmaker in space. “That system prepared me for the next level,” Dobbs said.

From 2015-2018, the Buccaneers were a vertical passing team that featured Winston throwing the ball down the field regularly to playmakers like Mike Evans.

Then at Boston College last season, Bajakian’s offense ran the ball over 50 times per game. All ACC running back A.J. Dillon rushed for 1,685 yards before declaring for the NFL Draft in December.

Bajakian has coached almost every mainstream offense, but he’s proven to be successful at getting star players to be even more successful.

“In general, he always likes to get the ball out really fast to his playmakers,” Lett said. “He lets them make plays. He’s big on recruiting speed and playmakers by getting the ball out quickly.”

He remembers the glory days of his career fondly

Bajakian likes to talk about the time he was the quarterback for the Chicago Bears. He never, you know, was actually on the roster, or any NFL roster. But Bajakian got close enough.

Bajakian was the Bears’ offensive quality control coach from 2004-2006. In 2006, the Bears had one of the best defenses in NFL history and made a run to the Super Bowl. The team was also short on quarterbacks.

So one week, head coach Lovie Smith had Bajakian run the scout team offense.

“He claims he completed all his passes as the scout team quarterback,” LeFevour said. “I think I’ve heard that story five or six times. That’s the one story that he always likes to brag about.”

He also has a hidden talent

Dobbs isn’t accusing Bajakian of cheating. But he isn’t not accusing Bajakian of cheating.

If Bajakian loves one thing more than football, it’s ping pong. He hosted an annual ping pong tournament every Thanksgiving when he was at Tennessee, and Bajakian won it every time.

What’s the strong point of his game?

“Serve, forehand, backhand, underhand, anything,” Lett said. “He’s probably a professional ping pong player in a previous life.”

In the 2014 tournament, Dobbs remembers not being able to even return Bajakian’s serve. Dobbs considers himself a decent ping pong player, but he lost 21-3. There was nothing to blame but his paddle.

“Maybe he’s putting special slippery stuff on everybody else’s ping pong paddles so he can just dominate,” Dobbs joked. “Make sure all his future QBs know that they must bring their own ping pong paddle. You go over to his house to play, and he’s got to be cheating.”

Despite the controversy, Dobbs said those tournaments were highlights of his college experience. Since Thanksgiving was in the middle of the season, Dobbs wasn’t able to go home. But Bajakian made Dobbs feel like he was celebrating the holiday with family.

“That just shows how he was able to bring that family environment into the QB room,” Dobbs said. “Everyone was competing to start, but for us to come over Thanksgiving together just shows how he keeps that family atmosphere incorporated into the offense.”

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