John Gutekunst carries a folded roster in his pocket at all times, intent on putting faces to the names of the 45 defensive players he just met for the first time four days ago. He is also becoming a student of East Carolina’s terminology.
After 50 years in coaching Gutekunst has probably seen every play and situation ever presented on the defensive end of the gridiron, but with 15 different stops along the way he knows that programs like to come up with their own distinct vocabularies.
He is well acquainted with the steps of entering a new program, even if coming in halfway through a season accelerates the process considerably. When Gutekunst was named ECU’s defensive analyst this week, kicking off his second stint in Pirate Country from the press box during Saturday’s Temple loss, Gutekunst knew that learning the landscape quickly was imperative if he was going to help right the ship.
His resume as a defensive specialist has been concentrated primarily along the East Coast, but from 1984 to 1991 he was stationed in snowy Minneapolis – first as the defensive coordinator under Lou Holtz at the University of Minnesota and then as the head coach for five seasons.
He has worked as an assistant at his alma mater Duke (twice), Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, South Carolina (twice), Rutgers, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Columbia and N.C. A&T. After he was fired from the Minnesota job, he even worked briefly as the coach for the Tampa Bay Storm in the Arena Football League.
It’s a dizzying number of pins to put on the map, especially since Gutekunst has tried several times to retire with his wife Leah to their “little cabin in the woods” in Chatham County. But he has a hard time saying no to the enjoyment of teaching the sport he loves and getting to know a new group of players – especially when an old coaching friend asks him for a favor.
Helping out a friend was the reason Gutekunst joined ECU’s staff the first time, when defensive assistant Rock Roggeman was battling cancer in 2009 and Skip Holtz needed someone with experience to help guide the Pirate defense in his absence. He lent a hand again a year later, when former Golden Gophers player Norries Wilson lost a coach from his Columbia University staff in the summer and desperately needed someone to fill the gap.
“I told Norries, ‘I knew you weren’t very good in geography, but East Carolina’s two and a half hours down the road; New York’s a little further,” he said. “But it’s one of my former players, and he was in a bind.”
He left New York in 2011 and settled back into his cabin, but in 2013 his phone rang again. It was Rod Broadway, the head coach at North Carolina A&T and a close friend of the Gutekunsts. He needed some help on defense, and fortunately his school wasn’t nearly as far as the Big Apple.
“It was like rent-a-coach there for a while,” Gutekunst said.
For the past three years, Gutekunst has finally settled into retirement. But he has known Scottie Montgomery for years because of their shared Duke roots, and he has coached across the field from Robert Prunty. Once again, he couldn’t refuse friends in need, or the chance to teach the fundamental brand of football Montgomery praises as “old school.”
“I thought, after three years, I might have gotten everything out of my system, but when you get a chance to compete again and be around players you take it,” he said. “And I believe in Scottie, and it’s a great chance to work with Coach Prunty.”
He has been wearing purple and gold for less than a week, but Gutekunst is clear about the roles he is called to fill in Greenville. During the week, he helps oversee practice and suggests plays and strategies, drawing heavily on the lessons he has learned over a half century.
“I tell them, ‘I’ve gotten beat trying to do things this way, and it didn’t work, and this is the better way to do it,’” he said.
On game day, he provides a veteran set of eyes in the press box, looking for areas that need quick adjustments and recommending fixes.
“On every play you do five things on defense,” he said, “There’s stance, your alignment, your key, (who you’re looking at to make your first move,) your responsibility — if it’s a run, pass or option — and then the last thing is to execute it. Four of those five things have nothing to do with talent. I can’t change talent; it will change as they start doing those four things better, because they’ll become quicker, faster, and more confident.”