The butterflies have never left the pit of Brian Jensen’s stomach. Over all these years of football — as a player and a coach, at the high school and college levels — the buildup to each and every game, big or small, leaves his insides a roiling cauldron of nerves and anticipation.
Few people, if any, who will set foot on the artificial turf of the Tacoma Dome for Saturday night’s Class 4A state title game will have followed Jensen’s footsteps to get there. It’s a zig-zagging pattern no wide receiver would ever run.
And yet, where he has ended up is the place he ultimately discovered he was supposed to be.
After seven years chasing the college coaching dream — reaching the level of offensive coordinator at Idaho State — Jensen returned to Tacoma two years ago to the job he left as Bellarmine Prep’s offensive coordinator. And there hasn’t been one moment of regret since.
“This is home, and I hope to be here a long time,” Jensen said.
It has always been home for Jensen. Born in Tacoma, he was a star quarterback at Curtis High, helping lead a talented Vikings squad to a 30-14 win over Newport in the 1990 4A state title game at the Kingdome.
From Curtis, he went to Central Washington and earned four letters and a 1995 NAIA national championship ring. Life without football was never an option, and he quickly took a coaching job at Bellarmine.
“I was really blessed having the opportunity to work here right out of college,” Jensen said.
But the siren song of coaching at a higher level called to him. After five years at Bellarmine – including the last three as the offensive coordinator – Jensen left to join John Zamberlin’s coaching staff at Central Washington.
“I got that bug to go test and challenge myself,” Jensen said.
And once that bug bites, the itch just won’t go away.
As a quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator at CWU, Jensen helped the Wildcats put up video game-like numbers. He was instrumental in turning a Washington State transfer named Mike Reilly into one of the most prolific passers in NCAA Division II history.
When Zamberlin got the Idaho State job in 2007, Jensen eagerly followed him to Pocatello. After two seasons as the quarterbacks coach, he was promoted to offensive coordinator. He was moving up the coaching ladder rung by rung, building a résumé and a career.
But along the way, Jensen learned something about that ladder. Climbing it wasn’t always enjoyable, especially with a wife at home and a first child on the way.
His daughter, Rylee, was born after spring football in his first season as the Bengals’ offensive coordinator. As so often happens, the responsibilities of being a father often conflicted with the pressures of being an offensive coordinator.
“Your priorities change a little bit once you start to have a family,” he said.
The life of a college coach is far from glamorous, particularly in a conference like the Big Sky. It’s hours upon hours of work for relatively small compensation.
“You have to really love it because it’s a lifestyle, not a job,” Jensen said.
Besides the long hours and lack of pay, there is an uncertainty to college coaching. Turnover among college assistants is constant. Head coaches get fired, and staffs get fired with them. It can be a vagabond existence.
In the first two years of Zamberlin’s tenure, he had a 4-19 record at ISU.
“I didn’t want to put the uncertainty of where we were going to be or how we are going to make it from staff to staff or city to city on (my family),” he said. “I didn’t want to put them through that. In the big picture, and my responsibility to my family, that wasn’t fair to them, or at least to me it wasn’t.”
So after the 2009 season, Jensen looked to return to where it all started. He reached out to Bellarmine Prep principal Chris Gavin in hopes of returning as a teacher and a coach.
“I knew I wanted to coach and teach,” Jensen said. “I knew I wanted to do that with my family. I knew my roots were here. And I had a great support system here. For Bellarmine and Mr. Gavin to open that door, it’s just been an incredible gift.”
His timing was pretty good, too. His first season back at Bellarmine featured several fresh-faced, highly athletic sophomores who are now seniors. Such players as quarterback Sefo Liufau and wide receivers Calvin Chandler and Jacob Salazar have made Jensen’s transition back to high school pretty easy.
“They had a lot of talent, and they were eager to learn,” Jensen said. “That’s a coach’s dream. It makes it easy.”
Of course, it’s still different coaching high school players.
“It’s just their football experience,” he said. “They just don’t have that base of football experiences to rely on or reflect back.”
But Jensen understood it better than someone else making that transition.
“Because I’ve been at the high school level before, it was easier,” he said. “I had a reference base. I knew what I could bring back, what I could do and what things they could maybe do.”
No player has benefitted more from Jensen’s college-level experience than Liufau. The News Tribune All-Area player of the year has blossomed into one of the top quarterbacks in the Northwest and has committed to play for Colorado next season. Always a stellar athlete, Liufau has added some polish to his game.
“We’ve added more and more to Sefo’s plate,” Jensen said.
And Liufau knows the importance of his time spent with Jensen.
“(Jensen) has kind of been the main coach who has helped me progress at quarterback and as a leader — everything from drops to reads to film-room study,” Liufau said. “I do not see myself (as a quarterback) today without him as a coach.”
It’s that last word of Liufau’s comment that matters to Jensen.
It doesn’t matter if he’s in high school or college. He’s a coach. And that won’t change.
“It’s the same,” he said. “It’s the work. It’s seeing the final product. You want to see the athletes having success. I still get the butterflies every game.”Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483