Update Sunday: South Dakota State won its first national championship with a 45-21 win over North Dakota State on Sunday.
After not being able to help deliver the South Dakota State football program its first national title during his time under center for the Jackrabbits from 2014-2016, Anchorage’s Zach Lujan has the Jackrabbits on the precipice of achieving that feat in his first season as the team’s offensive coordinator.
“Obviously having been a part of this program for a long time, I bleed blue,” he said.
The team is back in the FCS national championship game for just the second time in program history — and the first time since coming just short of winning a title on a last-minute touchdown by Sam Houston State in the 2020 season. The game was played in the spring of 2021 because of COVID-19.
“They scored the game-winning touchdown with 16 seconds left, so it feels good to get back and get some revenge and kind of get that bad taste out of our mouths a little bit,” Lujan said.
The team they’ll face Sunday at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, is one they haven’t lost to since the 2019 FCS powerhouse North Dakota State University.
The Jackrabbits have been the nagging thorn in the side of the Bison as they are responsible for half of their mere six losses over the past three seasons.
“It’s been a really good rivalry, a lot of hard-fought games,” Lujan said. “I think I’ve played and coached against them about 15 times now, so we know each other really well.”
A former South High gunslinger who led the Wolverines to a large-school Alaska state championship in 2012, Lujan believes that being on the sideline calling plays is not the same as being on the field executing them — but it is still a challenge.
“It’s a little different as a coach, where so much is out of your control, versus the player, where you kind of go out and do the damn thing,” Lujan said. “It’s very enjoyable from its own standpoint, and most of my job as a coach is done early on in the week, getting the guys ready to play, versus game days where they just go out and do their jobs.”
As someone who has been part of this particular rivalry with NDSU, he says the overall message that he imparts to his players is pretty simple.
“Take a breath, enjoy the moments and be you,” Lujan said. “You don’t gotta do more than you’ve done to get to this point. Just go out and do your job.”
The Jackrabbits and Bison play Sunday at 10 a.m. AKST. The game is on ABC and also streaming on ESPN+.
He worked his way up the ranks on the staff of longtime SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier, and in his first year calling offensive plays, he has the Jackrabbits averaging 33.3 points per game. That’s played a huge part in their 13-game winning streak, which began after they scored just a field goal in their 7-3 loss to FBS Division I Iowa in their season opener.
“We get a lot of really talented players who make our job easier as coaches,” Lujan said. “It’s been fun to build off some of the things we’ve done the last couple of years. They also run a similar offense but now adding my touch, my flavors to it all.”
He had been serving as the team’s quarterback coach since 2019 and has especially enjoyed developing a relationship with starting signal-caller Mark Gronowski.
“To see him grow and develop as a player and take those strides has been cool to be a part of,” Lujan said.
Gronowski is having the best season of his career with 2,744 passing yards and 23 touchdowns to just five interceptions, and he has added another 351 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing.
He was the team’s starter as a true freshman the year they went to their first national championship game but suffered a torn ACL in the title tilt and missed all of the 2021 season.
“It was obviously tough for him, but in some ways, it was a blessing,” Lujan said. “We brought in a transfer quarterback, and he was able to sit back and learn a lot from him in terms of how to watch film, how to approach games, and growing within the offense and the cerebral aspect of things.”
The Jackrabbits have made it to at least the semifinals in four of the last five seasons, which coincides with the time Lujan has been serving as an assistant on the coaching staff, first as a running backs coach and now as the orchestrator of an explosive and balanced offense.
“It’s been such a change from when I first got here (as a player) and how excited we were to just make the playoffs,” Lujan said. “Now the expectation is not just making the playoffs, but making a run and hopefully bring home our first national championship year this year.”
Taking a step back to find a new passion
Lujan’s dream job coming into college was to be a sports agent. But after being supplanted as the team’s starter under center during his senior season, he found a new passion.
“The way my senior worked out was I was a team captain, but I was the backup quarterback, and the starting quarterback at the time was a young guy,” Lujan said. “I coached him up on the sidelines a little bit and thought, ‘This was pretty cool.’”
He began to enjoy it more and more, and after being a graduate assistant for a year, his coaching career officially began and has been getting brighter ever since.
His goal this time last year was to become the Jackrabbits’ next offensive play caller, and he achieved it. As far as his long-term goals, he’s happy that he’ll be coaching on Sunday this week but doesn’t know if he wants to pursue a career in coaching at the NFL or some other professional level in the future.
“We’ll see what’s next, but I’m going to enjoy being where my feet are and enjoy the moment,” Lujan said.
Inspiring his peers and the next generation
He takes a lot of pride in being from the Last Frontier, and in attendance for the big game will be several members of his family, as well as a handful of friends, former teammates and adversaries, some of whom are one and the same.
Among the contingent of his supporters will be a group of friends he’s known for more than a decade. All but one of them played on the same team together in middle school before going to play and star at different high schools.
The group of Lujan, former Dimond wide receiver Ryan Brady, former Service defensive back Matthew Ilalio, former East utility player Jared Laws, former Juneau quarterback Phillip Fenumiai and former West quarterback Conor Feckley combined for three large school state championships from 2010-2012, and their tight-knit bond remains strong to this day.
“It’s a fun friend group and we were all super supportive of each other throughout high school and throughout college,” Feckley said. “We’d always wake up on Saturdays, and all of us would text each other ‘good luck’ in our games.”
Now that they all have transitioned into adulthood with spouses and families, the group chat is still alive and well, and they remain close to the college game through Lujan.
“It’s transitioned into basically just texting Zachary every Saturday now wishing him a ‘good luck’ and ‘go Jacks,’” Feckley said. “Ever since he’s been there and kind of climbing the ladder, we’ve been super supportive of him.”
Lujan bought the entire group tickets to the game, and they plan on having a big dinner the night before the game in addition to hanging out afterward, win or lose.
“We’re just excited as hell. He said, ‘If you guys can make it down, I’ll buy you all tickets,’” Feckley said.
He and Lujan started coaching around the same time, and they even coached together at some football camps while he was a graduate assistant at Dubuque University and his friend was just getting started as a running backs coach at SDSU.
“He’s a coach through and through,” Feckley said. “He’s full of confidence, he’s great at being able to explain things in depth. He’s got a great young mind. I think Zachary is going to end up putting himself in a really good position that not a lot of Alaska coaches have in the past.”
Now the quarterbacks coach at his alma mater, Feckley believes that Lujan has the potential to continue to thrive and eventually coach at the highest level of college football in the FBS.
“He inspires me just for that fact that he’s very confident in what he does,” he said. “He’s not afraid to take risks or opportunities that others may talk themselves out of or think that they’re not ready for. He’s not afraid of that moment. He chases that moment.”
Despite never being the biggest or strongest athlete in high school or college, Feckley always admired Lujan’s drive and preparation, which are attributes that he believes have helped him become such a successful young coach.
“I think that same demeanor and that same mindset that he used as a player, he transitioned into coaching,” he said. “Rather than executing the play to perfection or to the way he would’ve practiced, he’s creating the play and doing the best to manipulate defense and put his guys in the best position to be successful.”
Because Alaska is so isolated from the rest of the nation, Lujan believes there is a lot of underdeveloped talent that dwells in the 49th state each year. He hopes his story can inspire some of those aspiring future collegiate athletes and coaches to stay determined, branch out and reach high.
“It’s cool for me to see kids when I go back home who are trying to work at it, are trying to make it work, doing all that kind of stuff,” he said. “That’s kind of what I like most about coaching is being able to give back to kids, give back to youth, and hopefully in some ways my story show them that you can do it. Put your head down and work, and great things will happen.”