God, Family, Academics, Football: 31 years through the priorities of Larry Kindbom

| Senior Sports Editor

I. God

On the first day of football practice in 2013, a player accidentally dropped an entire tray full of food on the floor. The loud bang and enormous mess made the event a spectacle to all that were present. When head coach Larry Kindbom arrived on the scene, then-freshman quarterback J.J. Tomlin was expecting a crucifixion, for Kindbom to rip into the player, to make an example out of him. Instead, he witnessed an act of grace. Kindbom kneeled to clean up the mess using paper towels himself. After four years of playing for the Bears, three of which were spent rewriting the school passing records, this story has stuck with Tomlin as the epitome of coach Kindbom’s leadership style.

Curran Neenan | Student Life

Kate Kindbom kisses her husband, Larry Kindbom, after the Bears football team fell in overtime against Millikin University last Saturday afternoon. The Kindboms have been part of the Washington University community for over three decades. Larry was the 2018 AFCA Good Works Honorary Head Coach.

“Since freshman year, my first day on campus, I [have] respected Coach K,” Tomlin said. “He is a servant leader [and] great role model. Someone who, when I really look at his life and priorities, I would be more than honored to emulate.”

To be a servant leader is often aspired for but rarely achieved. Kindbom is an exception that proves the rule: A man so perfectly described by the term that it seems like it was invented to embody him.

“You can read about servant leadership, you can watch and listen to podcasts about servant leadership,” Athletic Director Anthony Azama said of Kindbom. “I got a chance to see it up close and personal.”

Coach Kindbom’s dedication to his community is well-documented. In 2009, he won the Grant Teaff “Breaking the Silence” Award at the 2010 American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Convention in Orlando because of his work with the Jason Foundation on youth suicide prevention. He has also served on the board of advisors for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

“Coach K would tell us his priorities from the first day he recruited us,” Tomlin said. “God, family, academics, football. So for me, and I think a lot of other players, it was similar.”

One way that coach Kindbom’s values influenced his players was his focus on positive mental attitude.

“He preaches it in his football program,” Aaron Keen, who played for Kindbom from 1990 to 1993 and coached under Kindbom from 1994 to 2002. “It [was] kind of a corny thing. When we were playing, we always use the term PMA. And we break every huddle with that with those with those three letters. We always talked about positive mental attitude. So far down the road here, his positive mental attitude and outlook on life, it just has impacted everything that I do. It has made me a much better person, and that’s something I learned from Larry Kindbom.”

Years after players have left Washington University, “positive mental attitude” sticks with them as a guiding mantra.

“I’ve never forgotten, you know, how important it is to keep a positive mental attitude,” Brandon Roberts, who played for Kindbom from 1999-2002, said. “When you’re around people with confidence and positivity, that rubs off on people. He has always rubbed off on me in that way. When things got challenging—academically or athletically, you’re tired and you’re in the dog days and the weather’s starting to get cold—having that positivity and just some words from a good person, it does a lot.”

II. Family

To describe a community like a family is often an exaggeration, but to say that Kindbom has created family-like bonds with his players over the years is an understatement.

“When I needed an extra parent, he was an extra parent,” Jeff Doyle, a former All-American who played for Kindbom from 1990-1993, said. “Now I think of him more as a friend, but he’s still he’s got kind of parent status with me as well.”

He invests time in getting to know his players as people.

“He would get up on the bus and walk around…and talk to guys individually and not ask them you know, ‘What do you do on a 22 ice, or 32 dive or 27 quick screen right,’ or whatever,” Doyle said. “It was, ‘Hey, how’s it going? How’s chemistry treating you? How are you doing in chemistry lab?’ You know, things that mattered and frankly, the kinds of questions that that as a parent you should be asking your kids. He was really good at that.”

Even now, those who have been around Kindbom still see his relationship-building skills as a strength to be emulated.

“I’ve told a lot of players that I’ve coached [that] if I can have a relationship with them as players like Coach K had with us, [then] I feel pretty good about what I’m able to do as a coach,” Keen said. “There’s still a picture of Larry Kindbom sitting on my wall in my office. And if I’m ever challenged by a player or situation, I’ll look at that picture and I’ll remind myself how Coach Kindbom would have dealt with it. It puts things in perspective for me.”

Just like blood relationships extend over time and distance, the bonds that Kindbom forms with his players extend past careers and over hundreds of miles without weakening. Brian Allen, Wash. U.’s offensive line coach, played for Kindbom at Kenyon College in the 1980s. Over the course of the 1990s, he and Kindbom maintained their relationship. When an opening arose in Wash. U.’s coaching staff in the early 2000s, Allen was Kindbom’s choice.

“He called me on a Monday night. He goes, ‘I think I want to offer you the job. So when would you like to start?’” Allen said. “And I was like, ‘How about Friday?’”

Allen has now been coaching at Wash. U. for 19 years. In that time, he has seen how rich Kindbom’s connection to his players is as well as how thorough his commitment to family is.

“My father passed away in February, and one of the things that kind of helped me through that [was that] I got to spend the last month with him.” Allen said. “Larry would call me for lunch every day, just to see how I was doing. See if there’s anything he could do, which obviously, there wasn’t a ton of things that he could do, just let me know that he was there if I needed to talk about it or just something else to talk about…I’m back just outside Columbus, Ohio, and I kept on saying something to Larry about ‘Well, I appreciate you allowing me to take the time to be here.’ And his response was always ‘Well, that’s where you should be, that’s where you need to be. Don’t worry about anything around here. We’ll handle it. And you just take care of your dad and spend your time with him.’ I knew he was that kind of man anyway, but that just solidified some things.”

Kindbom also serves as a link that connects his players long after their playing days are done. This summer, when Wash. U. alum John Keen passed away, it was Kindbom who delivered the news to Doyle and Keen’s other teammates.

“Effectively he was the phone chain to let a bunch of us know that John had passed away so [John’s brother] Aaron didn’t have to do it,” Doyle said. “That’s where he sits with us.”

III. Academics

66 players coached by Larry Kindbom have been accepted into medical school. Coach Kindbom is the winningest football coach in Wash. U. history, but this statistic stands as a point of pride for him and the athletic department.

It takes a special kind of coach to build a winning program at a school like Wash. U. Players need to be able to deal with the rigor of the academic work as well as the responsibilities of football. The schools that Kindbom found himself competing for recruits with—often elite academic institutions with Division I football programs—were tough match-ups. But Kindbom held his own. He did not win every recruiting battle, but he won over many exceptionally talented and academically focused students over the years.

“I was looking at a lot of Ivy League schools and Washington University,” Aaron Keen said. “I was from Cheyenne, Wyo. So I didn’t really know much about Ivy League schools other than they were really good schools. I probably would have been a fish out of water. I think a school in the Midwest ended up being a perfect fit for me.”

In 1990, one of Kindbom’s players, Chris Warlick, discovered two gene markers for a heart disease and was invited to present at a prestigious conference. He was going to be the first undergraduate to present at the conference. But Warlick was conflicted about whether to go. The conference fell on one of the last Saturdays of the season and Warlick was the No. 2 receiver for the Bears. To Kindbom, this was no conflict at all. “God, family, academics,” Doyle described the interaction. “There you go. Problem solved.”

In 2002, Roberts became the first—and only—Division III athlete to ever win the Vincent DePaul Draddy Trophy, often referred to as the “Academic Heisman.” According to Roberts, now a pediatric anesthesiologist, Kindbom and the coaching staff at Wash. U. were accommodating of his demanding schedule as he prepared for medical school, helping him along the path towards becoming a doctor.

“I remember having to miss a few days of [twice-a-day practices] to take my MCAT,” Roberts said. “My senior year, I was late for practices one day, every week, because I had a lab that was only offered at [the] time that practice was being held. That was never an issue. Not to say coaches wanted me to miss practice, but they understood I didn’t have very many options. And that was never a problem. Coach K always talked about priorities, you know: God, family, academics and football. They really stay true to that, and I love and respect that to this day.”

IV. Football

As phenomenal as Kindbom the man is, Kindbom the football mind is equally brilliant.

“Kindbom was pretty ahead of his time as far as what he was coaching us to do, you know, what we’re doing schematically,” Allen said of his time playing under Kindbom. “We’re a little bit different than other teams that we played. We threw the ball over the place.”

Wash. U. has been a solid football team for so long that it is easy to forget that this was not always the case. The year before Kindbom arrived, Wash. U. had not managed a winning season in 11 years.

“I didn’t even realize it at the time going through the recruiting process,” Keen said. “I think Sports Illustrated had ranked Washington University one of the bottom 10 football programs in the country. When Coach K took over, he completely changed the culture of that program.”

After posting a 4-6 record in his first season as the Bears head coach, Kindbom’s teams have only finished below .500 4 times in 30 years. In his second season as the coach of Wash. U., Kindbom led the Bears to a 7-3 record. The highlight of that season was an upset 7-6 win against University of Rochester—then one of the best teams in the country. The win announced to the rest of the University Athletic Association that Wash. U. was back.

“It gave players [in] our program a lot of confidence in what we’re going to be able to do in the years that were there,” Keen said.

A large part of this early success stems from the strength of the recruits that Kindbom brought in. Doyle, for example, was a two-time All-American. Kindbom had once offered to help Doyle transfer to a Division I school where he would get more attention from scouts, but Doyle chose to remain at Wash. U. for all four years. After his senior year, he played in a collegiate all-star game for scouts.

Five years after Kindbom arrived in St. Louis, in 1994, Wash. U. won its first UAA conference title. They then went on to win the next two.

Perhaps the greatest feat that Kindbom has achieved on the football field is his constant revitalization of the Bears’ systems. Instead of being tied to a specific scheme, Kindbom has a knack for creating schemes to bring out the best in his personnel.

“I realized how football smart he is and how quickly he can pick things up when he’s looking at scheme,” Keen, who now coaches at Division I Eastern Michigan University, said of his observations when moving from a player for Kindbom to a coach under him. “I think the biggest thing that I probably didn’t see as a player is that he’s probably less concerned with the scheme and he’s is a little bit more concerned with personnel. So he’s always looking at ways to attack another team based on the personnel he’s seen.”

In 2014, realizing that players he had and the scheme he was running were not working well together, Kindbom retooled his scheme. The next season, the Bears finished 6-4. The following year, 2016, the team took a leap forward. They finished 8-3 as Tomlin threw for nearly 4,000 yards.

“The hallmark of a good coach is working with what you have and adjusting your scheme and everything you do, like the personnel,” Tomlin said. “He really released me from expectations and just wanted to have fun playing the game. [When] we get to a point where we’re executing at a high level and having fun, that’s really where the game of football becomes complete.”

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