To understand why Jake Dickert was ready to lead a Washington State football team in turmoil last October, you need to understand his journey to Pullman.
The journey began at a small Division III college in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and continued in spots such as Sioux Falls and Mankato, Cape Girardeau and Brookings, and Fargo, and Vermillion and Laramie. Places hundreds of miles — literally and figuratively — from Power Five FBS programs.
Instead of learning from coaches such as Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Dabo Swinney, he learned from John Miech, Craig Bohl, Scottie Hazelton and many others with lower profiles, but with much to teach.
The family moved eight times in a nine-year span — each move presenting another chance to learn. Each move made him more prepared to take over in Pullman.
The word “sponge” is often used to describe Dickert. He uses it to describe himself.
“He worked for a lot of really good coaches, and he sponges all the knowledge,” said Miech, Dickert’s coach at Wisconsin-Stevens Point and the man who gave Dickert his first coaching job. “The young coaches who think they know it all and don’t listen to people — those guys fall to the wayside. Whereas your sponge guy, like Jake Dickert, he knows what’s going on.”
Dickert, 38, set goals to be a coordinator by age 30 and a head coach by 40. Check and check.
His big chance came when WSU named him interim coach at midseason last year after Nick Rolovich and four assistants were fired for not following the state mandate to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Dickert not only held the team together, he helped it thrive.
“There are a lot of people who in moments of adversity, prepare in that moment,” said Dickert, whose team begins spring practices Wednesday. “I feel like I prepared my whole life for that moment.”
One day after Washington State’s 40-13 Apple Cup win over Washington, the “interim” tag came off. Athletic director Pat Chun knew the right man for the job was already in place.
“When he took over as interim coach, we were a team that was fractured, we had a coaching staff that was fractured, and to get through that year was pretty significant,” Chun said. “In the middle of October we went through something unprecedented with our program, and to watch him emerge as a leader was really significant. As we sit here today, l’m really happy where we’re at and am excited about what the future holds for us.”
Dickert is happy his coaching goal was achieved in Pullman, a place that provides the highest level of college football while allowing his family to live in a small city like so many others they have lived in and loved.
Finally, Dickert is ready to settle down.
On the move from the start
Dickert was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, about a half-hour west of Milwaukee.
He didn’t stay there long. His father, a teacher who became a school administrator, changed jobs and locations every few years — going from one small Wisconsin town to the next.
“I moved six times growing up, and if you put the six towns together, it wouldn’t add up to 25,000 people,” said Dickert, a big fan of the Green Bay Packers, Milwaukee Brewers and Milwaukee Bucks. “I’m Wisconsin through and through. Beer and cheese run through my veins.”
Dickert grew up playing basketball, football and baseball. Before his senior year in high school, the family moved from Oconto to Kohler.
“We had 25 kids, freshman through seniors,” Dickert said of Kohler High School, which competed against bigger schools. “We got whipped on a regular basis. It was hard.”
But Dickert did enough as quarterback to attract the attention of Miech at Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He had considered himself more of a basketball player but decided to play football for Miech.
Dickert was a backup quarterback for two seasons before moving to receiver. He quickly made an impact at receiver and led the conference in receptions as a senior (56) despite missing a couple games after an appendectomy.
“He was an outstanding athlete,” said Miech, who said Dickert was a vocal leader who always let you know what he was thinking. “The kid can run, and like all quarterbacks he could catch the football.”
Dickert got a degree in math and was set to take a job outside Milwaukee as a high-school teacher and coach. But Jake’s father Jeff knew his son had some desire to coach at the college level, so he gave him some advice that would be life-changing.
“I had those feelings (of coaching in college) as well, but I started teaching and coaching, and once you start doing that — you get a salary, benefits, and you start a family — there is no way you can go back and become a (unpaid) graduate assistant,” Jeff Dickert said. “So I said, ‘If you want to do the college thing, do it now.’ ”
Jake declined the teaching job and asked Miech about becoming a graduate assistant.
“He thought it was a great idea but said, ‘I don’t want you to coach on offense,’ ” Dickert said. “He said, ‘Your brother (Jessie) is on offense, and you know all those guys. I want you to learn something new and different, and eventually it’s going to really help your career.’ It made sense to me.”
So much to learn
Dickert impressed Miech while working with the secondary.
“He was a hard worker, and you could tell he would be successful,” Miech said. “He was probably — I don’t want him to get a big head — one of the smartest kids I was around with respect to how fast he picked up everything. His first year as a coach, you could have him on his own with the players.”
Said Dickert: “That is the great part of lower levels. I’m a graduate assistant, but I’m coaching my own position group. I did all the (film) breakdown, the game planning and the practice planning. There is education at the lower levels.”
Dickert left after a year to become a graduate assistant at North Dakota State, where he worked under Craig Bohl, now the coach at Wyoming. He spent three seasons at North Dakota State — the final two as safeties coach — working under defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton, now at Michigan State.
Dickert said Hazelton, Bohl and Miech were his three biggest mentors.
“He was very bright — a math major — and his ability to solve problems became apparent quickly to me,” Bohl said. “I told him someday I was going to hire him back, but I was going to have someone else pay for some of the learning-curve mistakes — and he did a remarkable job at all the other schools he was at.”
There were many. He moved nearly every year before rejoining Bohl seven years later. Dickert said his wife Candice, whom he met when they were juniors at Stevens Point, is the hero in his ascension.
“That’s because he never was the one that had to do the actual moving part,” Candice said while laughing. “In the beginning I wasn’t sure what I had signed up for. It was all new to me. I didn’t know in this profession that there is a lot of moving involved.
“Once we realized moving is sometimes what it takes to have success, then yes. I know who Jake is, and I’m probably biased because I’m his wife, but I believe 100% in him, and I knew he would get to this point.”
Dickert’s goal to be a coordinator by 30 was achieved when Jerry Olszewski, whom Dickert had worked with as a graduate assistant at Stevens Point, hired him at Division II Augustana in South Dakota in 2013.
After two seasons as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Minnesota State in Mankato, he made a move his father disagreed with: He took a job as co-special teams and safety coach at FCS South Dakota State.
Bohl had become the coach at Wyoming, and Dickert thought the best way to get rehired by Bohl was to get coaching experience at the FCS level.
“It’s sad, but a lot of times in major college football whether you are the right guy or not, they will say, ‘We can’t hire this Division II guy because that would rile up the fan base,’ ” Dickert said. “I felt if I wanted to coach at a Group of Five (FBS school), I needed to get (back) to FCS.
“That was a big leap in faith. I went from a coordinator at Mankato where we almost won a national championship to a DBs coach at South Dakota State, and was taking a pay cut. That was probably the hardest decision I’ve ever made, because I could still be at Mankato. I loved it. My family loved it, and it was close to home.”
The move paid off when Bohl hired Dickert at Wyoming a year later as safeties coach, where again he worked under Hazelton, who was defensive coordinator.
Bohl noticed a big difference in Dickert after seven years apart.
“Just from the number of years of experience working at all kinds of different levels,” Bohl said. “Also, he had been a defensive coordinator, so he had experience leading a group of young men beyond being a position coach. He had experience interacting with other coaches in a leadership role, and that became very apparent when we hired him back.”
It was at Wyoming when Dickert changed his goal from being a head coach at any college that offered scholarships to being one at an FBS school. After two years, Dickert was promoted to defensive coordinator and linebackers coach when Hazelton left for Kansas State.
The next year, Rolovich hired him to lead the WSU defense.
Now he leads the whole team. Miech isn’t surprised.
“A bunch of guys went out and visited Jake at Mankato, and they came back with his defensive playbook,” Miech said. “And they are going, ‘This thing is 3 inches thick.’ That’s Jake Dickert. I think he is going to be very successful.”
Dickert is grateful that he beat the odds, and knows he is “carrying the flag for other lower-level coaches.
“There are so many coaches who don’t get the opportunity because there is a stigma about hiring lower-level coaches,” he said. “When these guys get the opportunity, like myself, I think a lot of really good things can happen.”
The end of the trail
Jake Dickert has found his dream job, coaching a Power Five program in a small city.
He has no desire to leave for the big city.
“God no, I’m a small-town guy,” said Dickert. who has three children with Candice. “My drive to work is eight minutes. At South Dakota State my drive to work was 14 minutes, and I complained every day. My wife will tell you that’s a fact. I love visiting (big cities), but I couldn’t do it. It isn’t me, it isn’t my personality. … I value that if my boys are playing soccer, I can get to their games in 10 minutes. These are the things that money can’t buy that I value in my life, and it’s why this is such a great fit.”
Candice Dickert is also ready to settle down.
“100% ready,” she said. “You want to get to a place where you can set down roots — especially now that we have three kids and they are getting older.
“We are very thankful and grateful to be staying in Pullman. It is so Jake. It is so our family. So many of the stops we’ve had were at smaller schools, smaller towns. That’s where we’re happiest. Pullman fits us as a family and our personalities.”
Jake Dickert said he’s sometimes asked what’s next.
“Nothing is next,” he said.
The Jake Dickert file
College: Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
Family: Wife Candice, daughter Rylee, 10, and sons Jett, 7, and Jace, 5.
Did you know? Earned 12 letters at Ocanto and Kohler high schools in football, basketball, baseball and golf. … Was National Honor Society member in high school and was on the dean’s list at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where he majored in math.
Step by step
A look at the coaching stops for WSU football coach Jake Dickert.
2007: Wisconsin-Stevens Point, graduate assistant, Division III.
2008: North Dakota State (Fargo), graduate assistant, FCS.
2009-10: North Dakota State, safeties coach.
2011: South Dakota (Vermillion), special teams/safeties, FCS.
2012: Southeast Missouri State (Cape Girardeau), defensive backs, FCS.
2013: Augustana (Sioux Falls, South Dakota), defensive coordinator, Division II.
2014-15: Minnesota State (Mankato), defensive coordinator, Division I.
2016: South Dakota State (Brookings), co-special teams/safeties, FCS.
2017-18: Wyoming (Laramie), safeties, FBS.
2019: Wyoming, defensive coordinator/linebackers.
2020: Washington State, defensive coordinator/linebackers.
2021: WSU, defensive coordinator, interim coach, coach.
Jake’s take: Could he, without any help, recite year by year where he has been each of the past 15 years? “I can do it. You want me to do it? We’ve been ingrained in those places and those people. Those places shaped us so much and it has been a wealth of experience.”