College Sports

Ties bind Bulaga, Hurricanes’ coaches

Bryan Bulaga (right) celebrates Marian Central’s 22-7 victory against Kaneland in the IHSA Class 5A football state semifinals in 2006. Bulaga, who will start tonight at left tackle for No. 10 Iowa in the Orange Bowl, has kept in close contact with several coaches from his days at Marian. (Northwest Herald file photo)
Bryan Bulaga (right) celebrates Marian Central’s 22-7 victory against Kaneland in the IHSA Class 5A football state semifinals in 2006. Bulaga, who will start tonight at left tackle for No. 10 Iowa in the Orange Bowl, has kept in close contact with several coaches from his days at Marian. (Northwest Herald file photo)

Marian Central offensive line coach Steve Spoden has watched almost 20 of his former players go on to play in college in recent years.

After tonight’s Orange Bowl game in Miami, Spoden and Marian Central might be able to boast sending a player to the NFL.

Bryan Bulaga, a junior offensive tackle at Iowa and one of Spoden’s star pupils, told reporters in Miami that he would announce whether he would leave school for the NFL after the game against Georgia Tech, which will air at 7 p.m. on Fox.

“I wear my emotions on my sleeve,” Spoden said. “All of my linemen are special to me. ... But if I got to see Bryan’s name come up (on TV in the NFL Draft), Coach Softie might just shed a tear.”

Spoden and Marian offensive coordinator Dirk Stanger have had front-row seats for the 20-year-old Bulaga’s development, which included Bulaga being named the Big Ten Conference Offensive Lineman of the Year this season.

“It’s transformed from a coach-player to more of a coach-friend relationship,” Stanger said. “It’s been unique and fun to see that transformation.”

Spoden and Stanger have served as trusted confidants throughout Bulaga’s career.

“I’m always going to want their opinion,” Bulaga said. “They know my game better than anyone.”

The three have often called, sent text messages, and exchanged thoughts on football and life, something Bulaga has found invaluable.

“Despite the age difference, I’m always going to consider them friends,” Bulaga said before the Hawkeyes left last week for Miami. “They’ll be friends of mine for the rest of my life. These are guys who are going to be at my wedding. They’ll be involved in every significant moment in my life.”

As a high school sophomore, Bulaga joined the Hurricanes varsity and began working with Spoden, who was a three-year starter on the offensive line at Northern Iowa in the 1980s.

“He scared the heck out of me at first,” Bulaga said. “He’s a big, intimidating guy. But he helped me learn a lot about the game.”

Bulaga’s learning curve, though, started at a more advanced level than others.

When Marian played Harvard and star running back Dan Haeflinger in a playoff game, Spoden got his first glimpse of Bulaga’s abilities.

During that game, with Bulaga playing defense, Harvard handed the ball off to Haeflinger, who suddenly was stopped by Bulaga for no gain.

“That’s when I knew Bryan was going to be special,” Spoden said. “I talked to [Harvard coach Tim Haak] and he said Haeflinger had never been stopped for no gain.”

During the next two years, Spoden and Stanger – who played quarterback at Wisconsin from 1993 to 1997 – were crucial in helping Bulaga rise to one of the nation’s top high school recruits.

“They really pushed me into the weight room,” Bulaga said. “I really appreciated that. They’d tell me not to just get by on my athletic ability.”

Although Bulaga’s athleticism was “freakish,” according to Spoden, the Iowa star’s work ethic was just as admirable.

“He didn’t have to work harder than everybody else, but he did,” Spoden said.

When it came to recruiting, Stanger played a key role.

“He was there for every bit of it,” Bulaga said. “When my parents (Joe and Kathi) weren’t there, he was.”

Stanger insisted he was “more of a sounding board” during the recruiting process for Bulaga, whose maturity at a young age was noticeable.

“At 16, 17 years old, he could tell who was being genuine and who wasn’t,” Stanger said.

During Bulaga’s time in Iowa, the bond between him and his former coaches strengthened despite their respective busy schedules.

“They gave me the support and feedback that I needed,” Bulaga said. “I can pretty much guarantee that most high school coaches don’t have the relationship with their players that they do.”

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