Kaepernick-Ault relationship survives some tough tests
Colin Kaepernick tried not to think too much about what just happened.
But this much he did know.
One second he was in the game, in the middle of his senior year, with 42 starts already under his Nevada Wolf Pack belt, marching his teammates down the field toward another touchdown. And before he could say “Chris Ault,” he was standing on the sideline next to his never-satisfied head coach.
And his head coach was yelling at him.
“He just wanted me to take a different look at the defense,” said Kaepernick of his 11-play benching on the night of Oct. 30 at Mackay Stadium in a 56-42 victory over Utah State. “Did it piss me off? Of course it did. But that’s just coach.”
Chris Ault has never been afraid to get under the skin of his quarterbacks, no matter how many school and NCAA records they might have on their resume.
“It’s never good enough,” said Ault, proudly stating the four-word essence of his coaching style.
The out-of-the-blue benching showed more than anything else how far the Ault-Kaepernick relationship had evolved through the years. Ault, after all, never yanked a freshman, sophomore or junior Kaepernick from the game for 11 plays, especially in front of the home crowd.
But he did it to the senior, battle and Ault-tested Kaepernick.
“No, he wasn’t going to lose me mentally because of that,” Kaepernick said. “We’ve been through too much at that point. Our relationship has grown over the years. I didn’t take that personally like I might have when I was younger. Don’t get me wrong, I never wanted it to happen again, but I knew what he was trying to do.”
For Kaepernick, though, the night of Oct. 30 was a red-shirt season flashback.
“That was the toughest time of my career,” said Kaepernick, recalling his initiation to Ault and Wolf Pack football in the fall of 2006. “I just felt like I was never going to satisfy him.”
A lot of things went through a young Colin Kaepernick’s mind that pivotal fall. Why doesn’t he like me? Will he ever like me? Will I ever play quarterback for this university? Did I make the right decision by coming here? Is the old man crazy?
“Everyday it was something else,” Kaepernick said. “It felt like I was never doing anything right. He was pushing me real hard. So, yeah, there were time we butted heads a little.”
Kaepernick, who exposed himself to Nevada football for the first time in Ault’s quarterback camp the summer after his junior year at Pittman High in Turlock, Calif., was now in Ault’s grueling boot camp.
“When I first got here I definitely thought, ‘OK, you’re not in high school anymore,'” Kaepernick said. “In high school you get to the point where you can do no wrong. When I got here I could do no right.”
Ault saw a young quarterback with a world of potential, a kid who had a wingspan that could touch both ends of the Reno Arch at the same time, needed just three strides to get from Reno to Fernley and could throw a football over the summit of Mt. Rose. But he also saw a young man who desperately needed a coach.
“I saw an unpolished quarterback,” Ault said. “A terrific athlete but raw. I told him the truth. His throwing mechanics were not good at all. He threw sidearm, like it was a baseball.”
The truth hurts, especially if you are a young, wet-behind-the-ears, impressionable athlete taking the first big step toward your dream of becoming the next Randall Cunningham, Michael Vick, Steve Young or Vince Young.
“In high school I had demanding coaches, but nothing like Coach Ault,” Kaepernick said. “Nothing to that extreme.”
Kaepernick didn’t know it, and Ault would certainly never tell him, but the gruff, demanding head coach saw something special in the skinny, long-legged quarterback with the funky throwing motion.
“He was always so competitive,” Ault said. “You could see that right away. He never liked to throw a bad ball. I loved that about him.”
The two also had something very special between them right from the start, something that a little yelling would never destroy. There was a loyalty, a trust between the two of them even before Kaepernick stepped on campus.
“He looked me in the eye when we were recruiting him and told me, ‘Coach, I don’t care what you’ve heard. I’m not going to play baseball. I want to play college football. I think I can become pretty good.”
Ault trusted him. And Kaepernick has always been determined to reward that trust.
“Coach Ault was the only guy who believed me when I said I wanted to play college football,” Kaepernick said. “I’ll never forget that.”
The two always felt like they owed each other something. But Kaepernick still needed a little pep talk. Oh, he still had confidence in his own ability but he wondered if his head coach would ever have that same confidence. It’s why he called home to his father Rick one day during his first season at Nevada.
“I began to wonder if I was ever going to play here,” Kaepernick said. “Coach Ault was yelling at me as usual and I just called my dad and we talked about everything that was going on. I’ll always remember the thing my dad told me. He said, “Coach is yelling at you and I know that’s tough. But just remember that he wouldn’t be spending all that time yelling at you if he didn’t think you had the potential to get better.'”
It was almost as if Ault coached Kaepernick’s father on what to tell the young quarterback, who was obviously approaching a critical crossroad in his career. But he didn’t have to. The two men, after all, felt the same way about their young quarterback.
“I just fell in love with the kid right from the start, ” Ault said. “He’s one of the most unselfish players I’ve ever coached. He’s like a son. And, like a son, you never want him to fail. You never even want him to throw a bad ball. You want him to be perfect so nobody can criticize him. I was yelling at him and staying on him more out of love for what type of kid he was.”
Kaepernick, after that talk with his father, began to understand why his gruff head coach was tough on him.
“Coach Ault is going to yell at you until you get it right,” Kaepernick said. “He was forcing me to really look hard at myself and the things I was doing wrong. And when you are young like that, that’s hard to do sometimes.”
That’s why, after just four games of his first active season (2007), Kaepernick was still a bit impatient. Starter Nick Graziano had just beaten UNLV with a touchdown pass with 27 seconds leftin the game and appeared to have a lock on the starting job.
Kaepernick did the math. Graziano was just a sophomore, just a year ahead of him. If Graziano played well, and after the UNLV game he was doing exactly that, he could be the starter through the 2009 season.
It was time for a little one-on-one talk with the demanding head coach.
“That week he came up to me and said, ‘Coach, can I meet with you?'” Ault said. “I had no idea what he wanted to talk about. But I was concerned because he was obviously frustrated.”
Ault, though, had a pretty good idea what the conversation was going to be about.
“He just told me, ‘I know Graz is the starter but I was just wondering when you think I might get my chance,'” Ault said. “I just told him what I tell all my quarterbacks. ‘Keep working hard and you never know when your opportunity will come.'”
Kaepernick was asking Ault a question that really had no answer.
“Coach told me to prepare for every game like I was going to play,” Kaepernick said. “So I took that to heart.”
“And the rest is history,” Ault said.
Graziano broke his foot a few days later against Fresno State and Kaepernick, the kid who threw a football as if he was turning a double play at second base, hit the ground running.
It was like seeing the Beatles perform for the very first time in a dark, dingy club in Liverpool. In just three quarters against Fresno State, with a grand total of six career passes on his resume, Kaepernick threw for 384 yards and four touchdowns. The very next week, in his first career start at Boise State, he threw for 243 yards and three scores and rushed for 177 yards and two touchdowns in a 69-67 overtime loss.
Wolf Pack football history had suddenly changed forever. And Kaepernick will now bring a 31-16 record as a starter, as well as a truckload of school and NCAA records, into the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Jan. 9 against Boston College.
But none of that has ended the yelling and coaching. Remember, it’s never good enough. If Hollywood ever puts a soundtrack to the Colin Kaepernick Story, it will be a tape of Ault yelling.
Fast forward to the Boise State game just a little more than a month ago on Nov. 26. Thanks to the ever-present ESPN cameras this season, there was Ault for all the world to see once again, yelling at his star quarterback in the final seconds of the greatest victory (34-31 in OT) in school history.
Down by seven, first-and-goal from the Boise State 7-yard line. The season, not to mention his legacy as a Wolf Pack quarterback, on the line. And there was Kaepernick, wasting about 20 seconds off the clock before calling a timeout and frustrating his head coach.
“We had a play called that was a slam dunk touchdown,” said Ault. “But when Kap lined up he saw the Boise defense was lined up differently. The problem, though, came when he just didn’t call the audible quick enough and it cost us a timeout.”
The next thing you saw was Kaepernick trotting over to an irate and frustrated Ault on the sideline. It was also a moment that kind of summed up the entire Kaepernick-Ault relationship down through the years. A part of Ault wanted to rip his head off and another part wanted to hug him.
“He’s become so good at seeing what the defense is trying to do to him, it’s unreal,” Ault said. “He’s got a great football mind now. And he’s not afraid to tell me what he sees out there. That play against Boise was a great example. I didn’t know what he was doing out there. But he saw something that we couldn’t see from the sideline.”
“He’s a perfectionist,” said Kaepernick, who went back out on the field against Boise after getting yelled at by his coach to toss the game-tying touchdown with 13 seconds to play. “But I’m the same way. As soon as I step on that field I want to be perfect.”
Perfection doesn’t require a friend. Perfection requires a demanding coach.
“Coach isn’t going to be your best friend,” Kaepernick said. “It’s not a buddy-buddy relationship with Coach Ault. It’s definitely player-coach. It’s always about football. And that’s all right with me. My mind is always focused on football, too.”
“I’m not a buddy-buddy kind of guy,” Ault agreed. “I just always believe that there always has to be a coach-player relationship. My job is not to be their buddy. My responsibility is to coach them.”
And that’s just fine with the tough-minded Kaepernick. This is a guy, after all, that the public throws words like “Heisman” and phrases like “sure-fire NFL draft pick” at his feet like they are fresh-cut roses. He doesn’t need any more friends.
All he’s ever needed from Ault is a coach.
“You know, when you are young, sometimes you don’t see why a coach is so tough on you,” Kaepernick said. “You kind of feel like he’s picking on you a little. But now I know he was just trying to make me the best I can be. I’m so thankful to him for doing that. I wouldn’t be the player I am right now without coach Ault.”
Ault talks of Kaepernick like he is a proud father.
“The good ones get to the point where they see there is a method to my madness,” said Ault, who called Kaepernick the greatest player he has ever coached. “They learn to accept what I’m saying and listen to me.”
Kaepernick, to his credit, always listened to Ault. It’s why he will go down in history as the greatest Pack player in history let alone the greatest quarterback.
“My relationship with Coach Ault is definitely one of the most important relationships I’ll have in my life,” he said.