ATHENS - Mike Ekeler is on his third job in three years, and the coaching profession is not known for its stability. And yet within two weeks of being hired by Georgia, Ekeler has already done the unthinkable.
He bought a house in Athens. So he has literally bought into the idea of staying around, despite never having lived in the eastern time zone prior to this month.
“They’re gonna have to take me out of here at gunpoint,” Ekeler said. “This is where I want to be.”
Yes, it’s a testament to Ekeler’s desire to settle down with his family, which includes four children. It’s also a contrast from his days at Indiana – just a few years ago – when for a time he lived in a van at the stadium.
And it’s a testament to what kind of character Georgia is getting as an assistant coach that, when asked about living in that van, Ekeler responded:
“Down by the river, eating government cheese.”
Yes, a Chris Farley/Matt Foley reference.
To say Ekeler won over the room in his first Georgia press conference would be an understatement.
Many of his comments should also win over the fan base, especially when it comes to Georgia’s beleaugured special teams.
Besides coaching inside linebackers, Ekeler will serve as co-special teams coordinator, presiding over punt return, kickoff cover, punt return, and field goal/extra point block. Here’s what Ekeler said he told head coach Mark Richt during his interview, after breaking down film of Georgia's punt return unit:
“Coach, you set a record an NCAA record for being in punt safe.”
Richt, asked about that later, went into a long defense/analysis of that, did confirm he laughed at Ekeler's comment.
"I did chuckle, because I knew I did call punt safe a lot," Richt said.
Then there’s what Ekeler said about new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, hired last month.
“That guy, he reminds me of somebody I played for, and coached with starting out. He reminds me a lot of Bob Stoops,” Ekeler said. "I mean he’s got some amazing qualities. A tremendous leader. A great focus. Knows exactly what he’s looking for. And he has no ego. And the reason he doesn’t have an ego is because he’s a great teacher, and he’s very confident in what he believes in, and he knows what it takes to get there.”
Ekeler was the defensive coordinator for three years at Indiana, before moving on to the linebackers job at USC. Perhaps it’s still his long-term goal – as it is for almost any coach – to be a head coach or coordinator. But Ekeler vowed that he’s in a different place right now.
“I say it very humbly, but I want to be the best linebacker coach in football,” he said. “And that’s where my focus is. I want to be at a university like the University of Georgia and work with great people. And coach Richt, if there’s a finer human being coaching this game, I haven’t met him.”
Ekeler had no direct connection to Richt (even though both are Nebraska natives) or to Georgia. But he pursued the job, soliciting Tom Osborne, Bo Pelini and Lane Kiffin to reach out to Richt.
And one person who attracted Ekeler to Georgia was Jon Fabris, who was a defensive assistant under Richt until being fired in 2009.
“He talked about Georgia about 30 seconds when I worked with him,” Ekeler said of Fabris. “He absolutely loves the University of Georgia. He loves coach Richt. Everything about it. To him, this is home, and he loves the people, and he’s a great man, and a great coach. I consider him a tremendous friend.”
Then Ekeler did a quick impression of Fabris:
“Yeah man, yeah man,” he said, in a hurried voice to mimic Fabris. “He’s nuts. We called him the mad scientist.”
Ekeler doesn't lack for character either, quite obviously.
When asked what he's looking for in linebacker recruits, he responded: "Trained killers." Nobody laughed, so Ekeler smiled and said: "That was supposed to be a joke."
Talking about his playing days at Kansas State, where he walked on after coming to campus to play baseball, Ekeler said he "I set an NCAA record for having the most fun of anybody who ever played the game. I guarantee it'll never be broken."
Finally, the story of living in the van.
While at Nebraska, one Mother's Day he bought his wife a 45-foot, 500-diesel, turbo-charged, Cummings-engine RV. A few years later it came time to leave for Indiana, he parked the RV in the end zone at the Hoosier's stadium, living in that for a few months.
Alas, the van is gone now. Ekeler sold it when he took the job at USC.
"When we moved out to California it was a bit harder to find a spot to look for that thing," he said. "The neighbors really didn't want that in their driveway."