From Farm to Football: SDSU Head Coach John Stiegelmeier Retires after National Championship |

From Farm to Football: SDSU Head Coach John Stiegelmeier Retires after National Championship

By Ruth Wiechmann | for Tri-State Livestock News
Coach Stig says his early days on the farm helped instill a work ethic that he, in turn, encouraged in his players.

South Dakota State University’s ‘winningest’ coach has announced his retirement just weeks after leading his team to a National Championship victory over North Dakota State in Frisco, Texas. John Stiegelmeier, fondly known by the Jackrabbits as ‘Coach Stig,’ is a native of Selby, South Dakota. He graduated from SDSU and has coached there for thirty-five years, including serving as head football coach since 1997, and retires with a record of 199-112.

After compiling the most wins ever achieved in one season, the Jackrabbits met the nine-time FCS champion Bison head on, and for the first time, the Bison fell in Frisco.

“Competing against NDSU for the championship was doubly special,” Stiegelmeier said. “First, because we were playing for the national championship, and also because for the second time this year we were up against the team that makes up the best rivalry in FCS football. There was so much energy with the stakes raised and bragging rights on the line. It was also fun because we know them so well in terms of coaching against them. It was really special for both teams.”

Stiegelmeier felt that a highlight of the championship game for the team was getting to play in front of a very honoring Jackrabbit crowd; fans made the effort to show up in Texas and made themselves heard in the stands. On a personal level, seeing his players’ accomplishment was the best part.

“To step back and see those guys on the stage before I got up there, see their joy and accomplishment, that was the best part for me,” he said. “I did tell them during our community celebration in Brookings, be champions in everything. This is not the ultimate championship: be a champion citizen, husband, father, neighbor. You know what it feels like, you know the hard work it took.”

The Jackrabbits 14-1 2022 season included two wins in North Dakota during the regular season.

“The back to back wins against NDSU and UND were highlights of our season,” Stiegelmeier said. “In both games we fell behind early but were able to come back. It had nothing to do with my half time speech, it had everything to do with a bunch of young men believing in themselves and going out and being themselves. It was a team of individuals saying, ‘I can do this,’ and going out there and getting it done.”

A script flipping victory over Montana State in the semifinals was the final step to get the team to the championship game.

“They led the nation in rushing yards, and we had a dominating performance against really good team on really cold day!” Stiegelmeier said.

NDSU has won the FCS championship nine times in the past eleven years. They have never lost a championship match and have a history of being a dominant force in college football, including in Division II days. The championship game was the first time SDSU has beaten NDSU twice in the same season.

Coach Stig celebrates the recent National Championship. Stiegelmeier family | Courtesy photos

“With all respect to NDSU, we played a dominating game,” Stiegelmeier said. We can’t claim we are NDSU, they have won nine championships. But this year we were 1-0 in Frisco; that day we became national champions. They were great sportsmen; all their players and coaches were very honoring to our team. Their good sportsmanship is a credit to their program. It’s part of the respect we have for each other. It has been fun to be part of this rivalry.”

Stieglemeier has fostered a ‘family’ culture in the SDSU football program. This has brought a number of former players back to work at SDSU as assistant coaches. Four former players were part of the 2022 coaching and staff. One of these men, Jimmy Rogers, has been promoted to take Stiegelmeier’s place as head coach. Rogers has been the Defensive Coordinator since 2019. He played for SDSU in the 2006-2009 seasons, and was part of the first Division I team to make the playoffs in 2009.

Stiegelmeier says, jokingly, that he was raised in a John Deere 5020 tractor.

“I grew up in the same area where my parents were born and raised,” he said. “Both sets of my grandparents lived within walking distance from us in Selby. When it came to farming we worked. I don’t think I ever saw a row crop as youngster; dad grew wheat, rye, oats and other small grains. I was taught that hard work leads to success. My grandfather, my dad, my uncle and my aunt all farmed. I don’t think it was ever thought that one of my parents’ three sons would not be a farmer. It was not that we were small thinkers, farming was what you did. It was a calling.”

The grind of putting on dirty clothes from the day before, working sunup to sundown with a midday delivery of lunch to the field was simply a way of life. Stiegelmeier says that it was the best upbringing.

But for him, the calling was different.

“My plan was to be a high school math teacher and athletic coach,” Stiegelmeier said.  “I had the opportunity to become a student coach for the football team at SDSU, and that experience piqued my interest in coaching college football.”

Small things can make a big difference. Stiegelmeier keeps a card on his desk that bears the question, “What if I had missed the class where I was invited to be a student coach?”

“If I had missed that one class I wouldn’t be in this office,” he said. “God made me to be a coach. When you figure that out in life, that’s the direction, that’s the calling. You know where you’re supposed to be.”

While farming was not his calling, it provided the setting to develop a strong work ethic, patience, character, and a long term vision for growth in other areas of life, including his coaching career.

“Dad would get us up early on Sunday mornings to go feed the cattle,” he said. “If it had snowed, we’d always shovel off the steps of our church on our way home. Dad believed that we needed to do this as members of the church and society. That was our service.”

John’s father, Milton, taught his boys by example to work hard, and the importance of doing things right. When he was a teenager, John complained about the flax strips Milton planted in the summer fallow fields.

“I told him I thought it was stupid,” he recalled. “Dad told me, ‘We don’t do it for us, we do it to take care the land for future generations.’”

Milton and the boys planted rows and rows of trees for a shelterbelt at the farm.

“Dad taught us to work hard, and it was no cliché,” Stieglemeier said. “We hoed trees by hand and used a tiller to keep the weeds down around them. He would drop us off with a hoe and a water jug and say, ‘I’ll be back.’ We fed the cattle with pails, and it felt like training for the Olympics; when we were little we couldn’t carry two at a time, and they were so heavy we had to swing them up to get the grain into the bunk. It was quite an evolution to grow to the point where I could carry two buckets and think it was easy.”

Coach Stig says his early days on the farm helped instill a work ethic that he, in turn, encouraged in his players.

Stiegelmeier said that both in and out of football he has had some incredible mentors.

“I have been blessed with numerous people who have influenced my life and my coaching,” he said. “Two coaches who made a huge impact on me were Jim Kretchman, who I coached under at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and Mike Daly, who I coached with both at the University of Wisconsin and again at SDSU. Outside of football, my dad and my older brother, Jim would probably be the top two. I have had several unbelievable mentors.”

Stieglemeier said that a conversation with Jim inspired ‘Make A Difference’—M.A.D.— the theme of the SDSU football program.

“One year, I saw Jim on my way to visit a recruit, and when we were back for Christmas a few weeks later, he asked me how things went,” he recalled. “I told him about this particular young man’s really tough home life. Jim recognized that I didn’t pay attention to that, during my visit I had been focused on doing my job and that was it. He grabbed my hands and with tears in his eyes, said, ‘You need to make a difference.’  That changed me, slowly, over time. It has become the theme of our program. It’s so important to pay attention to people, to be there for people.”

Jim passed away after a farm accident when he was only forty-seven, but his encouragement to John continues to make an impact.

Stiegelmeier’s father, Milton, lived what he taught his boys: to work hard, be men of character, and the importance of caring for people.

“Dad was the picture of a man of character,” Stiegelmeier said. “Later in his life my dad told me, ‘Big things take a long time.’ There are no quick fixes, no shortcuts in life. If you want to have success as a farmer or a coach, you need to stay the course. After my twenty-sixth year as head coach we’re national champions. That defines what he said.”

And those trees that the boys tended? Today they are forty feet tall and continue to provide shelter for wildlife and livestock.

Stiegelmeier said that his family has been very supportive of his career as a coach.

“All four of our children, our daughter in law and son in law and our grandchildren all went to Frisco,” he said. “It’s not an easy trip, especially with little people, but they’re all in. Our four grandkids came to press conference after the game with me. Our kids understand what they missed out on as a child of a coach, because of the long hours I put in. Sometimes it feels like chasing somebody else’s kid instead of your own.”

John and his wife, Laurie, have been married for forty-three years. He describes his coaching career as a joint venture and often describes Laurie as the real ‘head coach.’

“Laurie has either been by my side or by our kids’ side taking care of them,” Stiegelmeier said. “She has supported me through prayer, fed anybody I brought home, fed our seniors every fall. For every win she has made Rice Krispie bars for our players; she has made over 24,000 Rice Krispie bars through the years.”

Stiegelmeier believes that he had the best job in America.

“We have really, really special student athletes,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to know them beyond their height, weight, and ‘forty time.’ I want to know who their parents and grandparents are. We work as hard as any program I know of to become a true family by investing in our players.”

While Stiegelmeier says that he has always been optimistic as a coach, he said that six years ago when SDSU had their first semi-final loss that the possibility of one day becoming national champions became a realistic possibility to everyone in the program.

“Our players are a reflection of what I learned on the farm,” he said “They embrace hard work. One of the greatest proofs of this happened when we were preparing to play in spring season of 2021. Eighty-nine guys gave up four weeks of vacation and came back over Christmas to work out on their own. Another profound moment happened in 2004 when I stood on the practice field with a bunch of guys who had been recruited to be Division II players. They were all kneeling. I asked them to prove to me and the program that we could compete at the Division I level. There was probably some peer pressure involved but every one of them stood up. Those guys believed we could change the face of SDSU football and they did. We did.”

Stieglemeier has intentionally made his priorities of faith and family a part of the SDSU football program.

“I incorporate both faith and what it means to be true family into our football family,” he said. “Nearly every text I send I say ‘I love you. Coach Stig.’ You don’t say that unless you are willing to go deeper. It’s pretty powerful. There is no greater thing you can say to an individual than ‘I love you.’ And then you need actions to back it. We have a ‘non-football’ meeting every week during the season, and the rule is we can’t talk about football. We sit around and talk about life: good things, tough things, worldly things, whatever is going on. That doesn’t happen in a football program, that happens in a family.”

When he began his coaching career, Stiegelmeier never imagined such a lengthy tenure at SDSU.

“A big part of us always wanted to spend some time here,” he said. ‘Did I think it would be thirty-five years? No. But it has been a special place in our hearts and our family’s hearts.”

Retirement may mean some adjustments, but John is looking forward to having more time with his family.

“If I can be a present grandfather and be around these little people, that will be the greatest joy,” he said. “I love to grow a big garden, that’s the farmer in me. Laurie puts it all up so it’s a joint effort; I grow it, she freezes it and pickles it. I am looking forward to spending time with my best friend, Laurie. A highlight for us is dinner on the deck with a fire and watching the sun go down together.”

Stiegelmeiers are thankful for their time as a part of Jackrabbit football.

“At least once a week over the last twenty-six years, Laurie and I have said to each other, ‘Can you believe how blessed we are?’ And the word BLESSED has gotten bigger and bigger as we’ve gone through this journey together. It’s been really special.”

Coach Stig and his family celebrate the recent victory. He looks forward to spending more time with them.

Editor’s note: This story’s author, Ruth Wiechmann, grew up in the shade of the trees Jim (her father), her Uncle Jerry and her Uncle John Stiegelmeier nurtured near Selby. Her cattle now enjoy the protection and shade of those trees.