STILLWATER — When Mike Yurcich was announced — via Twitter, no less — as Oklahoma State's new offensive coordinator last month, one simple question quickly became the overwhelming one.
Those in the media and blogosphere scrambled to gather the basics of his resume:
*Gaudy offensive numbers as the coordinator at Shippensburg University, a Division II school in Pennsylvania.
*One Division I coaching job in 13 seasons, a two-year stint as a graduate assistant at Indiana nearly a decade ago.
*A quarterback at a high school powerhouse in Ohio and at the University of California — in Pennsylvania, of course.
*Once diagramed plays using Star Wars Legos.
Yet much about Yurcich still remains a mystery. He has yet to meet face-to-face with local reporters, only holding his first teleconference since being hired last week. He still hasn't seen his players live in practice.
So who is this guy hoping to maintain OSU's wild offensive success first obtained under Air Raid guru Dana Holgorsen and continued under Todd Monken? The guy who will play a significant role in evaluating OSU's starting quarterback competition, a process that begins Monday when the Cowboys open spring workouts?
He's a coach who's proud of the unconventional road he's taken through college football's lower divisions and the people he's met along the way. And he's confident in the coach — and person — he's become.
“I am who I am,” Yurcich said. “I come from a background that I feel very fortunate to have been a part of.”
Growing up in the football-crazed Cleveland suburb of Euclid, it made perfect sense that Yurcich wanted to play the sport at an early age.
Earlier than he theoretically could.
The Christian Youth league in Ohio starts in sixth grade, with a pee-wee prep league available the year before.
Yurcich already wanted to hit the field as a third-grader. Because he went to a small elementary school, coaches went ahead and let him.
And his position was already set.
“He started off as a quarterback, right from the get-go,” said his father, Chuck.
Mike started playing organized basketball and baseball around the same age, with his dad sometimes serving as his coach. During down time, the father-son duo often went to games around town, where Mike already showed an interest in the strategy of sports.
“This is gonna sound silly, even when he was in grade school,” Chuck said. “He was interested in playing the game, but he was also interested in the strategy — what we were going to do to beat the other team.”
He also excelled at that playing the game thing, too. And he became popular with both kids and adults because of his engaging personality.
“He was always sort of ‘that' kid,” said Charlie Smialek, a longtime teammate and classmate. “The best way to describe it was he was a step or a half-step better than everybody else, really, from the age of probably 10 years old up until we graduated (high school).”
The good news for Mike? The high school program was one of the state's best in the early 1990s. The bad news? It primarily used a rushing attack, producing tailbacks that starred at the college level such as Robert Smith, Tony Fisher and Mike's teammate, Pepe Pearson.
Still, Mike's arm caught the early attention of offensive coordinator Roy Pignatiello. So much so that during a playoff game Mike's sophomore season, Pignatiello wanted to switch to the young quarterback at halftime because the opponent kept stacking eight defenders in the box to stuff the run.
That proposal was ultimately vetoed by Euclid head coach Tom Banc, but the offense belonged to Mike the next two seasons. Euclid still probably didn't pass as much as a teenage Mike would have liked, but Banc's trust in his quarterback was most displayed in allowing him to audible and call plays at the line of scrimmage.
“Very, very intelligent,” Banc said, “as well as gifted and a tremendous leader. That's why we allowed him to audible as much as we did.”
Smialek believes that if Mike was playing in today's high school offenses, he would have thrown for 4,000 yards and earned a Division I scholarship.
Instead, his playing career sent him to two smaller schools in Mount Union and California, which eventually led him down this coaching path.
Mike often found his mind drifting when he went to the library in between classes at Mount Union.
That's normal for a college kid. But he didn't doodle in his notebook. He diagramed plays.
“I really developed a passion for the game,” Mike said, “and coaching really intrigued me at that time.”
During those two years at the Division III power in his home state, Chuck remembers his son consistently speaking highly of the philosophies of legendary coach Larry Kehres. But it was Mike's next coach, Kevin Donley, who gave him his first coaching opportunity.
Donley left California in 1997 to become the first head coach at an upstart program at Saint Francis, an NAIA school in Fort Wayne, Ind. He first brought Mike to the school as a graduate assistant and running backs coach in 1999. By 2002, Mike had been elevated to offensive coordinator.
“That was when I saw that this was obviously more than just playing and thinking about it as a hobby,” Chuck said. “This was now going to be serious.”
That gig sparked more than a decade of coaching at the lower levels, other than those two years at Indiana.
Mike downplays the struggles of those times, insisting he didn't feel like he was paying his dues and didn't fear he would get stuck in the Division II ranks.
“Good people are good people, and it's fun to be around them,” Mike said. “It's fun to see a young man grow from Point A to Point B and know that you had a little bit to do with that.
“That's really what it's all about at the end of the day. I don't care where you are at.”
But things are, of course, different in that world.
At Edinboro University, a Division II school in Pennsylvania that Mike coached at for six seasons, an offensive staff meeting often consisted of just him as the quarterbacks and receivers coach, and coordinator Scott Browning.
So Browning closely saw Mike's consistent, everyday growing process. It showed in his hours in the film room, in his phone conversations with other coaches about innovative tactics and in the way he worked with his players on the field.
“I saw a high-energy guy, a guy that coached with great passion,” said Browning, who promoted Mike to offensive coordinator when he became the head coach in 2006. “He was demanding of the players. He was very technique-conscious. And he's very detailed.
“It was very black and white what he wanted. When he coached a certain skill or task or technique, he was very clear in his mind and to the players what he wanted.”
Then the eye-popping numbers came at Shippensburg, particularly last season. Tops in Division II in total offense (529.92 yards per game) and second in passing offense (387.69 yards per game) and scoring offense (46.85 points per game). A Harlon Hill Trophy, Division II's equivalent of the Heisman, for quarterback Zach Zulli after passing for 4,47 yards and 54 touchdowns.
Even with all that success, Chuck said Mike was “always sending out resumes,” trying to find a situation where he could make a bigger impact. This past offseason, he was interested in the head job at John Carroll University, a Division III school near Cleveland.
Little did Mike know something better would be coming when OSU coach Mike Gundy called.
Mike Yurcich and Mike Gundy had no prior relationship before Gundy made that initial contact in early February.
Perhaps a mutual friend or colleague in the coaching world recommended Mike Yurcich. He's not sure. He's never asked.
But the interview process was pretty typical, yet fast. A couple phone conversations. An in-person interview in Stillwater. More phone conversations. Then an offer.
Chuck didn't even know his son was in contention for the job until Mike Yurcich called and said he had accepted the gig. And Mike Yurcich said he honestly never worried during the process about his status as a lower-division coach hindering his chances of landing the gig.
The past month has been understandably hectic for Mike Yurcich. He's got his wife, Julie, and two young children, Jack and Clay, moved to Stillwater. He's getting acclimated to a Cowboy coaching staff that has seen plenty of turnover this offseason. And he's devoted himself to learning the Air Raid spread, a system he says is similar to the one he ran at Shippensburg but still features plenty of new elements he needs to pick up.
The folks back home in Euclid, however, have been savoring Mike Yurcich's big break.
The news created a buzz in the hallways at the high school, where Smialek is now the principal and Pignatiello is still a teacher. It was recently a topic of conversation between Banc and a friend over breakfast, where they agreed that Mike Yurcich was the best quarterback Banc ever coached. And now, Smialek says the locals have a reason to watch the other OSU — as in, the school that isn't The Ohio State University.
When Mike Yurcich calls his first play for OSU's season-opener against Mississippi State in Houston, he'll still be a relative unknown. But many won't ultimately care who he is or where he coached before arriving in Stillwater. He'll be judged by his results.
Mike Yurcich is ready for that challenge.
“You work so hard for your whole entire career,” he said. “To see it flourish and to see an opportunity like this come my way, I couldn't be any more happy than I am right and now.”