Phil Elmassian has a football coaching resume that screams two things: He’s a gypsy at heart and he knows a thing or two about defense.
In 38 years as a career assistant, Elmassian has worked at schools of every size, from Ferrum (Va.) Junior College and Illinois State to LSU and the University of Wisconsin.
Elmassian has had jobs in the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences. He’s worked for the likes of Barry Alvarez, Frank Beamer, Nick Saban, Joe Tiller and George Welch. He’s helped three Bowl Championship Series programs claim league titles. He’s been a part of winning seasons at four Big Ten schools.
So when Elmassian, the second-year defensive coordinator at UMass, gets jacked up about what he sees in an opposing scheme and style, you take notice.
In preparing his defense for its season-opening game against the Badgers on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, Elmassian did some video research on new UW coach Gary Andersen.
“God dang, I’m impressed,” Elmassian said.
Though ultimately focused on the UW offense and the tendencies of new coordinator Andy Ludwig, Elmassian found himself captivated by footage from the UW-Utah State game last season.
He loved what he saw from Andersen, the Utah State coach at the time who ultimately came to Madison to take over the Badgers after Bret Bielema left for Arkansas.
“You watch how they play on defense, how those kids chase that ball and play so hard,” Elmassian said of a unit that finished eighth in the nation in points allowed per game. “I’ve showed our players their defense against Wisconsin just to try and show them how the game should be played.”
Elmassian went on to laud Andersen for his body of work at Utah State, which was 8-16 his first two seasons and 18-8 the next two before Andersen was summoned to UW last December.
“He took that program back from the dead,” Elmassian said. “It was dead, dead, dead. I’m impressed.”
This is the same Elmassian who coached UW defensive backs from 1997 to 1999. During that stretch the Badgers won consecutive Big Ten titles and back-to-back Rose Bowls. The top of their marquee belonged to Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Ron Dayne, but also up there was a defense that allowed opponents fewer than 13 points a game in 1998 and 1999, ranking in the top five nationally.
“You just think about the players there and it was a blast,” Elmassian said, rattling off the names of Jason Doering, Mike Echols, Jamar Fletcher, Chris Ghidorzi and Bobby Myers. “Those kids were phenomenal. They were unforgettable.
“Coach Alvarez was phenomenal. We were fortunate enough to be there at a good time, going to two Rose Bowls. It’s a lifetime of memories. It was a great time and a great place.”
Elmassian, 62, said he had good reason to leave Madison. Saban, who has led Alabama to three of the past four national titles, was at LSU at the time and needed a defensive coordinator.
“It was $70,000 more,” Elmassian said with a laugh. “I loved being the secondary coach for Barry, but I was making $80,000 at Wisconsin and (got) $150,000 at LSU at the time.”
Elmassian has been in the business since 1974 when he graduated from William & Mary, where his coach was Lou Holtz. Elmassian has never been at a major school for more than four straight years in part because employment circumstances change on a dime.
He and his wife, Mary, the parents of three grown children, have lived in 14 states and he has twice worked at Virginia Tech and Purdue. In one stretch Elmassian worked at Virginia Tech in 1994, moved west to Washington in 1995 and came back east to Boston College in 1996.
Will he ever put down roots?
“Who knows?” he said simply. “We’ll see.”
UMass might be that place. The Minutemen, coached by Charley Molnar, are in their second full season as a Football Bowl Subdivision program in the Mid-American Conference. They were 1-11 last season and are looking for gradual improvement this time around.
Elmassian said he believes UW players and fans will appreciate what they see in UMass.
“They will see a team that’s going to play as hard as you can play,” he said. “I’ll be disappointed if that doesn’t happen.”