When Jason Gesser announced that he was leaving his post as the head football coach of , it seemed near impossible that the school would find someone with the pedigree of the former Washington State University quarterback to replace him.
It turns out, the search committee only had to look as far as one of his former teammates.
Jeremy Thielbahr was announced as the new head football coach at Eastside Catholic on May 26. Last week, on Tuesday, the former WSU running back/tight end met with reporters to explain his decision to take the position and expound on his hopes for the program. Sammamish Patch has his responses.
A Chance Hiring
The fact that Thielbahr emerged on Eastside Catholic's radar was the result of a chance meeting. Two months ago, Gesser received a phone call from Thielbahr. He was in town and asked Gesser if he'd like to grab some lunch. Gesser asked Scott Garvis, who Gesser said "never eats" if he'd like to tag along. Garvis, Eastside Catholic athletic director, accepted and the three talked football while Gesser and Thielbahr caught up and then went their separate ways.
A few weeks later, when Gesser informed Garvis that he was a accepting a graduate-assistant position at Washington State University, Garvis thought back to the lunch guest. Did Gesser think Thielbahr might be interested in interviewing for the vacant position? Gesser and Garvis figured it was a long shot, given the fact that Thielbahr was coaching at the Division-I level, but decided to give it a shot.
That long shot ended up being a perfect gamble and a couple of weeks later, Eastside Catholic had its new football coach.
Fulfilling a Dream
Thielbahr has held many titles since his playing career at WSU ended. He started as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, before moving to Montana State University, where he coached positions on both offense and defense. Most recently, he spent four years at the University of Idaho, where last season he was the special teams coordinator and assistant running backs coach. But all through his stops on the collegiate level, he kept his eye on the position he always wanted: Head high school football coach.
“I initially got into coaching to get into high school coaching," Thielbahr said. "I think all coaches kind of, initially when they start thinking about coaching, they think back to their high school coach or people who have had an effect on their lives. I did the same thing.”
Thielbahr had opportunities to coach on the high school level before, including some area schools. But each time he interviewed, he left feeling like the school was not ready to buy into his vision on how the program should be run. When he met with Garvis and school president Sister Mary E. Tracy, he received a decidedly different response.
"They were excited to hear my ideas, they were excited to say, ‘Yeah, we can do that,’" Thielbahr said. "It wasn’t ‘Oh, maybe, maybe not, we’ll have to see.’ It was ‘Yeah, we can do that, that’s a great idea.’ These people have a vision and they saw my vision and their vision and I think fit.”
Building the Culture
Thielbahr is taking over a program that has been solid in recent years, but has not made any serious noise in the state playoffs. Eastside Catholic reached the quarterfinal round of the state tourney in 2006 and 2008, but has never won a state title and only advanced to the semifinal round once (1994). But Thielbahr is mincing no words when it comes to his vision for what the Eastside Catholic program should look like, saying he would like to model it after California powerhouse Mater Dei and Texas' Steel High School.
“Those people have two hundred kids out for football,” Thielbahr said. “It’s a fanatical environment and that’s what we have to get to here.”
Thielbahr's plan for creating that kind of environment is rather simple: Retain players and create memories.
"The main thing you've got to make it for kids in high school is an experience and a fun experience and a lasting memory," Thielbahr said. "My favorite memories weren't me running out in the Rose Bowl in  with Ryan Leaf. It was me running for an 80-yard touchdown in high school and seeing parents up in the stands and seeing the community rally behind you...I want to create those memories for these kids to have around here."
The culture Thielbahr wants to build is already in progress. Eastside Catholic has a star running back in Chevy Walker (939 yards, 11 TD's in 2010) and a solid quarterback in Trey Reynolds (16 passing TD's, 6 rushing TD's in 2010) and will return 35 players from last year's roster. Thielbahrd hopes to build on the group that Gesser coached and add some of his own personality.
“Jason’s done a nice job laying down the groundwork, these kids care about him, obviously he’s done a lot for him. It’s going to take time for the kids to get used to me…It’s going to be a process and I’m excited about this upcoming season.”
Thielbahr said he has already received a warm reception from the players. Some had grown quite close to Gesser. Thielbahr met with the team captains earlier in the week and received a surprising welcome from them.
"The first thing they said to me was, 'Hey coach, this is a culture of love and we're going to love you and support you and do whatever it takes to be as good as we can be,'" Thielbahr said. "I'm excited to hear that, you don't hear that a lot out of 17-year-olds' mouths."
Thielbahr admits that the adjustment to the head coaching position after years as an assistant has already been an eye-opening experience and that growing pains may occur.
“I’ve been a special teams coordinator, assistant head coach, recruiting coordinator at the college level, but this is more than I’ve ever had to do, already," Thielbahr said. "I’ve got to think more broadly about a program, than I ever have before.”
Thielbahr said he envisions his program adopting an aggressive nature on offense and defense, using a four-man front and an attacking approach on offense. The offense was never a problem for the Crusaders last season, but the defense was at the time. Eastside Catholic lost games in 2010 in which they scored 27, 38 and 43 points.
"On defense, we're going to be a four-man front and come after people, be aggressive and be sound," Thielbahr said.
In for the Long Haul
Having a coach that has spent nine years at the collegiate level step down to the high school level can raise questions about whether the move is merely a momentary stop before he returns to the college ranks. But Thielbahr insists that this is where he's always wanted to be and hopes he'll be around for awhile.
“I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t want to be here and there’s no doubt I’m here for the long haul," Thielbahr said. "I want to get this going at the highest pace I possibly can.”
Crusaders fans hope that long haul will come with a couple of state championships.