TEMPE, Ariz. — It’s been an quite a ride for Arizona State offensive line coach Chris Thomsen the past two seasons.
First, Thomsen left his comfortable post as head coach at Division II Abilene Christian, where he had a 51-21 career record, in December 2011 to be the running backs coach on new ASU coach Todd Graham’s staff in Tempe. That lasted six weeks before the chance to coach offensive line at Texas Tech lured him back to the Lone Star State.
Next, Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville left to take over at Cincinnati, and suddenly Thomsen was interim head coach as the Red Raiders prepared for the Meineke Car Care Bowl, which they would win on a game-ending field goal.
Finally, Thomsen ended up back in Tempe, once again hired by Graham to coach running backs, though within a matter of weeks he shifted to offensive line duties. With spring practice nearly over, Thomsen sat down with FOXSportsArizona.com to discuss his winding coaching path and much more.
FSAZ: You had a good deal of success in your seven seasons at Abilene Christian. What was your biggest takeaway from your time spent there?
Thomsen: Really just being a head coach just gives you insight into the overall vision of a program. Going back to being an assistant, it’s a little easier to see why the head coach wants to do certain things and what he’s trying to accomplish from a big picture standpoint. That’s probably the biggest takeaway, just having the experience of being at the top of an organization. It’s probably a little easier to function as an assistant when you’ve been in that head role.
FSAZ: Given the success you’d had and what you had built at Abilene Christian, what made it the right time to leave when Todd Graham first offered you a job here at ASU?
Thomsen: I felt like I wanted an opportunity to coach at the Division I level. I played at the Division I level (for Texas Christian), and I just wanted to the opportunity to coach at this level. I felt like it was the right time, and it felt like we had kind of done what we set out to do at Abilene. It also felt like the right opportunity at that time.
FSAZ: What sold you on ASU as the right opportunity to make that leap?
Thomsen: Just coach Graham being from Texas and being familiar with him and seeing what he had done with programs. We have some common values. And of course I knew (offensive coordinator) Mike Norvell. He was actually a player when I was an assistant coach at Central Arkansas, so that was really more my connection, but I had always known Coach Graham and watched him and admired the work he’d done at different places. He’s done some incredible things. Those were the things that drew me to this opportunity.
FSAZ: Shortly after you came here, the offensive line opportunity at Texas Tech came along. Lubbock is about 2 1/2 hours from Abilene and about three hours from where you grew up (Vernon, Texas). Was the sudden change mostly about location?
Thomsen: More than anything was that it was an offensive-line job. There’s a difference. I was hired to be running backs coach here. With the offensive line, you’re coaching five guys. It’s a little bit different in terms of the coordination aspect of what you’re doing. So it appealed more to me to coach offensive line than it did running backs. That was the biggest factor, and then you throw in the aspect of being a little closer to home. That was part of it, but the biggest deal was just actually what I was coaching.
FSAZ: Was it hard to tell coach Graham you were leaving here after such a short time?
Thomsen: Yeah. That’s never easy. That’s never an easy conversation when a guy has given you an opportunity and then you go in six weeks later and say ‘Hey, I’m thinking about taking another position.’ That’s not an easy conversation, but he understood there were some significant differences in the two jobs.
FSAZ: How do you feel like you grew the most as a coach during your season at Texas Tech?
Thomsen: Tech has a different offensive system than what I had coached in prior to going there. So there was some significant differences from things I had done before. I think I grew a lot in just some of my knowledge of the game, having to be in a different type of system. The system here is more similar to what I have done in the past, but having that experience with Tech I think I learned some things that are helping me now. And then getting a year of recruiting under my belt at this level. I learned a lot about the recruiting process at this level because it’s different.
FSAZ: You’d been a head coach before, but was your time as the interim coach prepping Texas Tech for the bowl game kind of invaluable experience?
Thomsen: I thought it was big just because the basics of it are the same — you’re trying to get a team ready to play, trying to eliminate distractions and all those things that go along with getting a team ready to play — but at the Division I level there’s a lot more interest in the game than my prior head coaching experience. From a media standpoint, bowl prep, different activities around the bowl, moving your whole operation to a city like Houston, where it’s a lot different in terms of traffic and being able to get from place to place. But being at the Division I level you’ve got a lot of support helping you with those things. At the end of the day, no matter what level, it’s about getting guys ready to play. But it was great experience.
FSAZ: After Tommy Tuberville left for Cincinnati, was there any discussion of you possibly staying on at Texas Tech, as head coach or otherwise? Thomsen: No, not really. I knew what they needed me to do in the interim role. I never really had a conversation with the new coach, Coach (Kliff) Kingsbury. I’ve never met him before, he’s never met me, and typically in those situations you’re not going to be able to stay on. I talked to Coach Tuberville some about going up there with him, but then this opportunity came and I felt this was something I wanted to do more. I never talked to them about the head coaching position either. I pretty much knew staying at Tech was not going to be a possibility, so I was trying to figure out what was next pretty quick.
FSAZ: Did it surprise you at all that Todd Graham approached you again after having left a year earlier? Thomsen: Not really. I wouldn’t say it surprised me. Our relationship never changed. It wasn’t a bad deal when I left. I was glad there was an opportunity when Coach (Larry) Porter moved on. So it wasn’t a big shock that we talked again, primarily because it was a hard decision to leave (the first time). It was something I had spent about three days trying to sort out in my mind, so (Graham) knew that there was a strong desire on my part to stay the first time. FSAZ: Were the appeals of coming here the same as the first time around? It was still a running backs job initially, but was there more to it?
Thomsen: There weren’t really selling points. I knew the landscape. When you’re here six weeks you kind of figure out the lay of the city a little bit, the weather, what you’re selling in terms of a product and the school. There wasn’t a whole lot of “Hey, we could do this, this and this.” It was “Here’s the job, come on back if you want to.”
FSAZ: Was it more exciting coming here after having seen what the team accomplished in Graham’s first season?
Thomsen: No question, and seeing what the potential is. I felt like the potential was there when I first came here, and just the year they had was validation of that. There’s a lot of potential here to do some big things. FSAZ: So you’ve been back now for three months. What has been your impression of what’s happening around this program right now?
Thomsen: I think the players just know now what to expect from Coach Graham, and he and the staff have developed strong relationships with the kids. There’s a trust level there after year that you hope to develop as a staff. The commitment is there. I think these kids work incredibly hard. I think they’re very focused on one vision. I think (Graham) has been able to come in and establish that culture he wanted to. That’s always an ever-evolving process because you’ve got new players coming in every year that have to be acclimated to what you want, but I think after 14 months now there’s great progress there.
FSAZ: And what about your offensive line group? What’s developing there?
Thomsen: What’s developed that I’ve seen is Evan Finkenberg has kind of seized the leadership role of that group. The way he’s done that is primarily just by his work ethic, his day-to-day consistency. That’s what I really admire about what he does. He does a lot of good things as a player, but the biggest thing is when you’re the most accomplished player in your group and your work ethic is at a consistent level, people follow that. That’s what’s happening. Seeing that leadership evolve has been the biggest thing.
FSAZ: That’s a position that was a little thin last year but is starting to look like a position of depth now. How do you like what you’ve got in that sense?
Thomsen: In terms of depth, I would say it’s our biggest question mark honestly. Tyler Sulka has played in games, so you feel good about a guy like that. Mo Latu has played. Evan Goodman, he’s struggled with an ankle injury all spring. That’s been tough for him because I expected him to come in and challenge for one of those starting spots, but he just hasn’t been able to do that with his ankle. He’s out there trying to fight through it and learning some things mentally, but he’s got to have a real good training camp. Get healthy over the summer and then challenge for a spot in the fall. If he can do that then you feel like you’ve got some depth starting to develop. Then Devin Goodman, Stephon McCray, Nick Kelly — those guys have got to come on for us to have the kind of depth we need.
FSAZ: How great of a priority as been put on recruiting top offensive lineman here?
Thomsen: That’s huge. That’s everything. We lose two seniors again (after 2013). The emphasis is huge on recruiting and getting guys that can come in and play by either challenging for starting spots or providing depth. Anybody we bring in here we want them to be able to at least challenge for the chance to play right away. FSAZ: Going forward, is it still a goal of yours to become a Division I head coach?
Thomsen: If that opportunity presents itself, I definitely would look at that and consider that. In this business you can’t predict all that. The main thing I want to do right now is do a great job here, and if those opportunities present themselves some day I would look at that.