Built from scratch: Calumet College roster to be 60-plus strong for first season of sprint football
WHITING — Andrean was on its way to Eastside for the Class 2A semistate when Jay Novak had to pull off at a rest stop to field a phone call.
The new head coach for the new sprint football program at Calumet College was juggling his work as an assistant with the 59ers and his full-time job as Dean of Students at East Chicago Central with his recruiting for the Crimson Wave, and waiting until the high school season was over was not an option.
“It was a hard balance,” Novak said. “We had to build a whole team from scratch. We didn’t have anything. We didn’t have a ball. I had the E.C. job during the day, Andrean, then I was the Cal College coach, on the phone and social media all night. Guys in Las Vegas are two hours behind, it’s only 11 (p.m.) there. My wife thought I was crazy. Thank God for (Andrean coach) Chris Skinner. I have a ton of respect for him. I’m grateful to Andrean and Calumet College. They didn’t make me stop. They let me finish it. It was a dream season.”
The 59ers beat Eastside that night on their way to the state title and Novak also got his guy as Brandon Salvador, a state champion quarterback from Georgia, eventually began the first player to commit to the Crimson Wave.
“He reached out to me on Twitter,” Novak said. “His dad was his head coach. He’s a player. He went to the whole (sprint) league. He’s an undersized kid who just wanted a chance. He’s a short guy, but he plays like 6-5, He’s just a leader. He can run, throw. We offered him, they visited, and they were all in. He’s a guy we wanted in the program. We’re going to learn as we go. It’s a fast game, and he fits the mold. He had some intagibles.”
After several coaching stops over 20-plus years at the high school level, Novak has had a number of impactful experiences as a college coach before he’s even coached a game.
There’s the story of state medalist powerlifter Hunter Boatright, a 5-foot-9, 180-pound offensive lineman from Dawson, Texas, who recently signed with Cal College.
“I called him up, he couldn’t believe it,” Novak said. “He said he thought he was going to go JUCO, now he has a new lease on his football life. He said, I’m going to tear it up, coach. I said, yeah, I know you are. He made the statement in a hometown article, Jay Novak had my future in his hands. That touched me. You don’t realize the impact you have. That’s why I’m in this business. There are kids out there who think they don’t have a chance and we’re here to give it to them. I want to help them continue to be great men.”
Novak’s been on the job since early September and he and his staff have built a roster of 60-some signed players, well above the original goal of 40. The 2022 class could stll have some additions and ‘23 recruiting is well underway.
“I’m a high school guy. What am I going to do?” Novak said. “I started by asking other coaches, (Wabash) coach (Don) Morel, (former Valparaiso University coach) Dale Carlson was a big help. Twitter is the big recruiting thing. A lot of kids out there post their film. There’s Field Level and NSA. We use the websites where kids post their stuff, put their numbers, SAT scores, GPAs. It all goes into being accepted here. We used that model.”
Cal College allowed Novak hire a staff right away and he promptly assigned the other seven coaches to certain parts of the country and it went from there.
“We just hit it in all areas,” he said. “We’ve logged a lot of miles, flying and driving. We have a pool of money. As the roster grows, we have to stay within a percentage. There’s a whole process before we even go after a kid. After we reach out, we follow up with a text, tell them we’re interested, and give them forms to fill out, applications, (financial aid). They have to tell us what they qualify for. It helps when we try to figure out numbers, how to fit them in. They got to do some work to show us they’re interested, then we move forward from there.”
A couple inherent obstacles in the process are the lack of familiarity with sprint football and the fact that players can not weigh more than 178 pounds.
“We get a lot of, is that 7 on 7? Do you guys wear full pads?” Novak said. “They’re not educated on what sprint is. After we reach out to them, we tell them to Google the east coast league, Army and Navy. It’s been going on since 1934. Then they’ve got a better understanding. Some guys just aren’t interested. Some kids are fired up, especially the linemen.”
Novak is drawing the recruiting line at around 195 pounds.
“If a kid is just chiseled, we’re going to tell them, hey man, we’re probably not the school for you,” he said. “You don’t have any weight to lose. We’re going to do this safe. The strength coach, he helps with diet, nutrition. There’s also the trainers. We don’t want a kid trying to lose 15, 20, 30 pounds. It just doesn’t make sense. If they have a stomach on them, we know we can work with them.”
In a players market where the skill positions are plentiful, Novak has had success finding linemen, crediting the work of assistants Ben Geffert and Jon Buckner.
“They’ve done a great job targeting guys on the field level, Twitter,” Novak said. “I’m pretty excited about that group. I’ve had undersized guys for years. There’s a ton of receivers, DBs, running backs, quarterbacks. Those are the glory positions. We’ve done a great job to find some real tough, undersized kids who are very good at getting off the ball. They’ve proven they can handle big guys, different sizes. They’re like, what? I’m going to play against guys my own size? They’ve been moving 300-pounders. We’ve been blessed to find some really self-motivated, undersized guys.”
Given the unique nature of the sport, with such a limited disparity in weights, Novak knows there will be more position movement come practice time than there would be on a typical football team.
“We’re recruiting guys who are selfless, like, wherever you need me,” he said. “My quarterback said, if you want me to play tackle, coach. Some kids are, I’m this or that. We’re going after high-character kids. At this point, we have an idea who our linemen are, but there might be guys when they get here who are third or fourth at receiver/DB and they could be second at O-Line. They’re closer to getting on the field there. When a kid can see they can excel in it, they run with it. We’ll have to see what we’ve got. We’ll try guys in all the spots, then get together as a staff, and see what’s best for our team. I imagine there will be some shifting of positions.”
While Cal College is recruiting nationally, its base is in the Region, which will comprise over half of its initial roster. Portage and Michigan City both have at least six players on the team.
“The administration’s been amazing,” Novak said. “They’ve been so supportive of me. I always say they’re the true closers, once (kids) meet the president, vice president, athletic director, the people who help them. I’m not saying it because I work here, but if I was a kid coming out of school, this is the place to be. This place is a big family. It’s a small school. Everybody’s going to know who you are, where you’re from. It’s a four-year school. There’s athletic and academic money, a Master’s program. They’re going to have long-term success. We’re going to help you succeed, get to your goal. It’s an investment for the school. I think this thing is going to catch fire.”
Novak knows players could use Cal College as a launching point to ‘traditional’ football, but wants to make the experience so positive that such a decision wouldn’t be an easy one.
“Only three percent of high school kids play at the (college) level,” he said. “We tell them you don’t know where sprint going to take you. Obviously, we want to retainn them. You could get a tryout with the USFL, XFL, CFL. You never know. There are avenues to play pro ball and this us another avenue for people to get film on you. You might get recruited Division 2, Division I, or play four years here and get your degree. That’s success to us. That’s how we define it. There are things here that will help them once they get their degree. It’s going to be hard to leave because of the culture we’re going to build.”
Head coach Jay Novak will have a roster of over 60 players for Calumet College's first season of sprint football, featuring a string contingent of Northwest Indiana talent.