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Western Illinois' Elliott bucking the trend of veteran coaches in the league

Western Illinois Leathernecks head coach Jared Elliott observes his team before the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill., on Sept. 8, 2018. Mike Granse / USA TODAY Sports

FARGO — Western Illinois head football coach Jared Elliott was born in 1986. That happens to be about the time most head coaches in the Missouri Valley Football Conference got their start at the collegiate level.

Elliott, in his first year leading the Leathernecks, is a young guy in a veteran man's game. He'll face another tenured coach when Chris Klieman and North Dakota State visit Hanson Field in Macomb, Ill., for a 6 p.m. Saturday kickoff.

"I'm one of the young bucks on the block," Elliott said. "All the guys in this league, I look up to them and have so much respect for them. They've all been so gracious. The caliber of head coaches in this league is some of the best in the country."

The combined experience of coaching at the collegiate level for eight of the Valley head coaches is 238 years. South Dakota's Bob Nielson is the dean at 36 years followed by South Dakota State's John Stiegelmeier at 33. Illinois State's Brock Spack and Missouri State's Dave Steckel have each coached in college for 31 years.

Northern Iowa's Mark Farley has been at it for 30. Klieman and Youngstown State's Bo Pelini are on their 27th year in college coaching. Indiana State's Curt Mallory is on his 26th season.

Those years don't include head coaching experience in the Valley. Stiegelmeier (22 years), Farley (17) and Spack (10) are in double digits. The numbers also don't include experience at the FBS level. Spack spent time at Purdue, Pelini was the head coach at Nebraska, Steckel was a coordinator at Missouri and Mallory was at Michigan and Illinois.

"They've all been there at some point," Elliott said. "A lot of times it's not so much about age but what you've been exposed to and the lessons you've learned. Trust me, I'm still learning."

The Leathernecks are 2-3 overall, 1-1 in the Valley. They've been good at home knocking off nationally-ranked Montana 31-17 and opened league play beating Youngstown 45-38. The three losses came on the road: 26-23 at Montana State, 34-14 at Illinois and 33-16 at Illinois State last week.

WIU's record is probably a reflection of the mix of experience with the players, Elliott said.

"We have some really good leadership and maturity on this team," he said. "We have a lot of guys with a lot of starts under their belts. We also have a lot of new faces. Through five games, we have some maturity and growing to do on our team. A lot of times that doesn't happen unless they've been thrown live bullets."

In NDSU, Elliott said he expects the usual live bullets of a Bison team that does everything well. That's par of the course of facing Valley teams in general. Most of the head coaches have seen years worth of football.

Elliott and Southern Illinois' Nick Hill, in his fourth year as a college coach, are the exceptions. Elliott got his start in 2004 as an assistant at FBS Miami (Ohio). Former Western head coach Charlie Fisher brought him to Macomb in 2016. When Fisher took an assistant position at Arizona State after last season, Elliott was elevated to head coach.

"It's a tremendous privilege to be able to live out one of my dreams," Elliott said. "It's something I don't take lightly. I'm enjoying it. It requires you to be at your best every single week and how you prepare your team and staff."

Jeff Kolpack

Jeff Kolpack covers North Dakota State athletics, the Fargo Marathon and golf for The Forum. His blog can be accessed at www.bisonmedia.areavoices.com. On the radio, Kolpack & Izzo sports talk show runs from 9-11 a.m. every Saturday morning. April through August, the WDAY Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack runs from 8-9 a.m.

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