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Back in the game

After tumultuous football career at MSU, former player finds another calling in coaching

July 12, 2010
Photo by Monica Preston | The State News

Eight months ago, Ryan Van Dyke’s day-to-day lifestyle was no different than those of thousands of other Americans. Working a nine-to-five job as a salesman in Colorado, Van Dyke was content trying to climb the corporate ladder.

But last December, something clicked.

“One day, I was kind of like, ‘You know what, I don’t know if this is right for me,’” Van Dyke said. “I wasn’t impacting anyone. No one cared about me.”

Once a high school All-American and the starting quarterback at MSU in 2000, Van Dyke bounced around professional football for a few seasons before leaving the game in 2006.

Three years later, after working in Okemos and eventually Colorado, Van Dyke realized he wanted more out of his job and his life. He also had another realization: He missed football.

And that’s when it hit him.

That’s when the man who once was the future of MSU football decided he wasn’t built for the business world. He wasn’t supposed to be cooped up in an office all day. He wasn’t supposed to be wearing a shirt and tie, working with people he probably would never talk to again.

Instead, Van Dyke came to the conclusion that coaching football — the game he’s loved most of his life — was his calling.

“I think coaching is the thing for me, and it was like an ‘aha’ moment when I figured that out,” he said.

Around the same time Van Dyke was contemplating a major career change, a person he calls a “role model” was making some changes of his own.

Rich Hulkow was Van Dyke’s head coach at Marshall High School in Marshall, Mich., and together, the two went to two state championship games, winning the whole thing in 1996.

On Dec. 23, 2009, Hulkow was named the head coach at Olivet College, a Division III school in Olivet, Mich., and the hall of fame coach said he knew right away who he wanted as his quarterbacks coach.

“I got the job, and (Van Dyke) was the first person I thought of,” Hulkow said. “When I called him and he accepted, I was really pleased to have him on board.”

Offering the job to Van Dyke on the condition that he goes back to school and graduates first, Hulkow said it was pretty apparent in that first conversation with Van Dyke that he had been itching for an opportunity such as the one at Olivet.

“He said, ‘You must have been reading my mind,’” Hulkow said, laughing. “He told me he was thinking about everything that was going on and how much he missed the game of football and all that stuff.”

Battered and bruised

The good fortune that led to Van Dyke getting his first college coaching job is not something the 30-year-old is used to, especially when it comes to football.

As a highly touted recruit who saw a great deal of success in high school, Van Dyke came to MSU in 1998 as a backup to then-starter Bill Burke.

Van Dyke appeared in seven games his first season, but already as a freshman, injuries began to haunt him when he sprained his left shoulder and missed two games.

The next year, still the backup behind Burke, Van Dyke missed two more games because of a sprained right foot.

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After the first two injury-plagued years as a backup, things finally began to look up for the junior prior to the 2000 season. Burke had graduated and Van Dyke’s only competition for the starting job was freshman Jeff Smoker.

But it only took until the first game of the 2000 season against Marshall, which was Van Dyke’s first as a starter, for the injury bug to come back and bite him. After throwing a pass, two defenders hit Van Dyke and sprained his thumb, keeping him out of three games.

“That was pretty debilitating,” Van Dyke said of the injury. “That was a really tough year. I kind of got checked.”

With the starting spot at quarterback open, Smoker took over for Van Dyke. And when Van Dyke returned after the injury, he struggled on the field and lost his starting job again.

A teacher

In a situation where some players would get frustrated, distance themselves from the team and resent the guy taking their job, Van Dyke took a different route and unknowingly started practicing for his future coaching career.

Instead of letting jealousy get to him, Van Dyke worked with Smoker, with whom he had grown close since coming to East Lansing.

“I was so focused on being a good player, but indirectly I really took it upon myself as my responsibility to help all the younger guys,” Van Dyke said.

“It was always kind of infused into me to teach like that, but I just never really put any thought into it.”

Although Van Dyke might not have realized the significance of his ability to teach at the time, Smoker did and appreciated that the battle for playing time between the two never became hostile.

“Ryan was one of the first guys that befriended me on the team and took me under his wing,” Smoker said in a statement from the MSU Athletics Department.

“When I first got to Michigan State, I was OK taking a backseat to him because I wasn’t fully developed yet, but after he got hurt I had to step right in there. Obviously we both wanted to play, but the competition never turned bad.”

Heading into the 2001 season, the senior Van Dyke and sophomore Smoker were competing for the starting spot at quarterback again.

After the competition went on through the spring and fall, head coach Bobby Williams gave the starting job to Smoker.

The two quarterbacks split equal time through the first six games of the season and Van Dyke threw for 569 yards and four touchdowns in those games. As Van Dyke played well and continued to improve, though, it only was fitting his MSU career would be ended early by an injury.

This time against Minnesota, Van Dyke suffered a concussion and broken jaw, which left him with his mouth wired shut. No longer playing football for the Spartans, Van Dyke wanted to jump-start his NFL career and did not graduate.

“To tell you the truth, I just kind of quit,” Van Dyke said about ending his college career in that fashion. “I was really embarrassed and humiliated. I just kind of quit school and focused on trying to make it in the NFL.”

Finding his way

On April 21, 2002, Van Dyke accomplished his goal of making it to the NFL when the Seattle Seahawks signed him as an undrafted free agent. But he was released by the team before the regular season.

He was picked up by the New York Giants at the end of the 2002 season, only to be released again in 2003.

After taking a break from football, Van Dyke played for NFL Europe’s Cologne Centurions in 2004 and led the league with 2,003 passing yards and 16 touchdowns.

His stop in Europe was followed by brief stints with the Los Angeles Avengers and Grand Rapids Rampage in the Arena Football League before he retired as a football player in 2006.

“I just didn’t want to play anymore,” Van Dyke said.

“I wanted to do the whole business world thing and got an opportunity to start with a corporate company, so I did that.”

But the love for the game never left ­— something that was obvious to Jim Pignataro, the man who helped Van Dyke come back to school to graduate before he started coaching.

“He clearly still has a passion for the sport,” said Pignataro, the associate athletics director for Student Services and director of Student-Athlete Support Services at MSU.

“He was really excited when he came to me, and I think that was the motivation to get him through school.”

Pignataro helped Van Dyke plot out what classes he needed to take to finish school. He said it is nearly impossible for someone to get a college coaching job without a college degree.

By taking one three-credit online class last spring and 11 credits in the first session of classes this summer, Van Dyke now has the requirements to graduate with a communication degree this August and start his coaching career.

“I feel like I’m doing what I want to do; there’s no doubt in my mind,” Van Dyke said.

Just beginning as a coach, Van Dyke said he hasn’t thought too much about where he will be in the future, as long as he is coaching.

However, he said he would be lying if he said he hasn’t thought about coming back to MSU to find the success as a coach he never had as a player.

“I love Michigan State; that would literally be a dream come true,” Van Dyke said. “I feel like I have unfinished business. I feel like I never reached my potential as a player, but how cool would it be to reach it as a coach?”

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