Mike Krysl walks the sideline during Army’s Sept. 7 game against Michigan. The Black Knights lost, 24-21, in double-overtime. (Photo courtesy of Army Athletic Communications)
Andy Lierman needed an offensive coordinator.
He found so much more in Mike Krysl.
“He had a quality about him that drew people,” Lierman said.
During an August phone conversation, Lierman spoke about the man he once knew as the young coach who helped transform his high school program, and who he now knows as the man in charge of Army’s special teams.
“Looking at where he’s at now — not that I would have known he was going to be there, but when he told me that he was going to coach college football, I knew he’d do well.”
In 2012, Lierman had been hired as the newest head coach of Lexington High School, about an hour east of Kansas City, Mo. He needed to build his coaching staff and put the word out to local collegiate programs in the area to send him any graduate assistants with a background in education.
Lierman said the pair hit it off during Krysl’s interview inside Lexington’s library. Gripped with a grease board, the two men shared their philosophies in football and coaching. Krysl was a special coach.
“I knew that the minute I met him,” he said.
Arriving at West Point
The first thing Krysl learned about when he was hired as Army’s special teams’ coordinator in 2018 was the rivalry with Navy.
“Everywhere you go in the football building it says, ‘Beat Navy,’” Krysl said. “You can’t look at a five-yard area on the wall without seeing, ‘Beat Navy.’
The annual meeting between the armed forces academies dates nearly 130 years with the game being canceled 10 times during that span. Games have been canceled due to World War I (1917, 1918), disagreements over player eligibility standards (1928, 1929), and a near duel stemming from an argument between an Army general and a Navy admiral canceled games between 1894 and 1898.
“It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Fourth of July,” he said during a June phone call. “It’s a big-time deal … Once you experience it one time, it’s hard to experience anything else that would top that.”
Despite the magnitude of such a historic game, it doesn’t change the way Army’s football team practices. Drills are run the same. The meetings are the same.
It’s just a game. Just like the interview to become a special teams coordinator for an FBS program was just an interview, even for a guy from Hillsboro, Missouri. After years of coaching at the high school, Division II, and FCS levels, Krysl found himself interviewing with Army and Georgia in the same week.
This whole profession is about being lucky, Krysl admits. One or two big breaks is how he went from being a grad assistant at a Division II program to being a part of the coaching staff at West Point.
If the NCAA didn’t allow FBS programs to add a paid 10th assistant to their coaching staff, there might not have been an opportunity for Krysl to advance from the FCS, at least not in 2018. If an old teammate hadn’t already been on Army’s coaching staff, Krysl might not have been tipped off that the Black Knights were interested in hiring a special teams coordinator.
If Krysl had never met Willie Fritz, he might not even be here.
Fritz, Tulane’s current head coach, is the man responsible for teaching Krysl everything he knows about coaching special teams.
“Which coming from him is a lot because that’s kind of his baby,” Krysl said. “If he didn’t like being the head coach so much, he could probably go be a special teams coordinator in the NFL, if he wanted to.”
Fritz was the head coach at Central Missouri when Krysl played (2005-2007). He led the turnaround of the program and gave the program it’s first playoff season in 2002 before leaving in 2009 as the Mules’ winningest-coach (97 wins).
After Fritz took the head coaching job at Georgia Southern, he reached out to Krysl to see if he wanted to run the kicking game, and to be Fritz’s “right-hand man.”
Krysl was juggling three jobs at West Virginia State University when he got that call.
The Division II program hadn’t won more than three games a year between 2011 and 2015, and had just two winning seasons since 2011. West Virginia State finished 0-13 in 2013, Krysl’s only season with the program.
Krysl was the offensive line coach, the tight end’s coach, and the strength and conditioning coach. The running backs coach was an intern who would receive a helping hand from Krysl, too.
Three and a half jobs. One salary of $20,000.
“I didn’t care,” Krysl said. “I was just happy to be coaching.”
The football program had four full-time assistants, not including the head coach.
“It’s not like these Division II schools — any of us — are Alabama. We all have different responsibilities and different jobs,” UCM offensive line coach Hank McClung said.
Like Krysl, friend and fellow assistant coach Derrick Sherman had multiple jobs. In addition to coaching receivers, he was the team’s equipment manager. If he wasn’t watching film with Krysl, there was a good chance Sherman was washing practice jerseys until midnight so players could have something to wear the next day.
“You kind of got to pay your dues.” Krysl said.
Krysl learned so much under Fritz, but nothing more profound than how to care about others as people, rather than players or coaches.
“There are some guys in the business that have worked for guys that can’t say that,” Krysl said. “I’ve been lucky, that’s for sure.”
‘95 percent of the job’
During Krysl’s first season with Army, he had a surefire kicker in then-senior John Ambercrombie.
Every time Ambercrombie lined up in 2018, points were a virtual guarantee. He nailed all seven field-goal attempts and converted all 44 of his point-after attempts prior to the Navy game.
During that afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field, Ambercrombie lined up for his first field goal attempt: a 33-yard field goal attempt in the first half. A conversion that would have given the Black Knights a 10-point lead over the Midshipmen.
“It’s a field goal try for Abercrombie,” said Jim Nantz during the CBS national broadcast. “Who’s seven of seven so far on the year.”
And just as Nantz finished his sentence, Ambercrombie missed. “Make that seven of eight,” Nantz added.
Abercrombie’s kicking streak was a blessing and a curse. With each conversion, everyone expected him to make the next one, and the next one, and the next one…
“Man,” special teams coordinator Mike Krysl recalled saying to Abercrombie at the time. “You can’t worry about that. You just have to go out there and kick the damn thing.”
The most important aspect of Krysl’s job is being there for his players.
“John was already such a cool, laid back guy,” Krysl said. “That he benefited a lot from knowing that, if something goes wrong, he knew that I was going to take the bullet for him, not him.”
Abercrombie later hit a 33-yarder in the third quarter and converted both point-after-attempts.
At this level, players are already so skilled at their position, Krysl said they know what mistakes they’ve made before they even come back to the sideline. It’s Krysl’s job as the coach to let them know that, should they miss, the target won’t be on their back. It will be on his.
“Those guys have to know you have their back. That’s 95 percent of (the job).”
‘They knew he cared’
After a quick start, Lexington hit a “speed bump” midway through the 2012 season-opener. The offensive line was struggling.
Krysl, who was up in the press box, asked to speak with the offensive line through a coach’s headset.
“He got on the headset with each of those kids in between the series,” Lierman said. “You could tell that he was calming them down. Of course, I’m on the headsets so I can hear him on the main headset. He’s leading those guys in a moment when everyone was kind of hesitant and up in arms and didn’t know what to do.”
Krysl was calm yet stern.
“There’s just a leadership quality about him that when you meet the guy,” Lierman said. “It’s just infectious. That to me encompasses what he did.”
In his one season with the team, Lierman said his offensive coordinator was a big part of the program’s culture change.
“He’s a big part of that because of the way he treated the kids,” he said. “He took that group of young men … and got them to buy-in. In that moment I felt like he got true buy-in from those guys because they knew he cared.”