LINCOLN — It was during his five years in Iowa City that Erik Chinander first felt that coaching itch.
Ask Nebraska’s defensive coordinator about the highlights of his playing career as a Hawkeye, and he won’t mention playing in the Orange Bowl to cap the 2002 season. The fact that he went from a walk-on in 1998 to a solid option on the offensive line by his senior year doesn’t come up, either.
“I knew very early,” he said, “that I was much better at helping the other guys get lined up and do what they were supposed to do than actually doing it.”
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Iowa shared the Big Ten title in 2002, his final season, and he celebrated with his euphoric teammates and coaches afterward in a locker room in Minneapolis. A few weeks later, he spoke with his coach about a job. Kirk Ferentz was wrapping up his fourth campaign with the school.
We’d love to have you if there was an opening, Ferentz told him. But the best thing to do is get out and find experience where you can.
“So far the advice they gave me to spread my wings has been really good, and we haven’t turned back,” Chinander said. “I’m glad of where I’m at.”
He landed in Lincoln after previous stops at UCF, Oregon, the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and Northern Iowa. But Chinander never lost touch with his alma mater. He playfully argued with Scott Frost about the merits of the Hawkeyes during their time together in Oregon. Before he took the assistant job with Chip Kelly and the Eagles in 2013, he reached out to Ferentz for input.
Ferentz can still speak in detail about his former player, who as a boy bounced between his hometown of Allison, Iowa, and Waterloo. About how Chinander’s father, Gene, was a longtime high school football coach and his brother, Bret, is an engineer for John Deere.
“Chins has done a great job, and he’s really paid his dues,” Ferentz said. “… He’s just done a great job. He’s been rewarded, and he’s a really good football coach and a good person.”
Chinander would like to note for the record that this isn’t the first time he’s coached against Iowa. While he was an assistant with UNI, the Hawkeyes won 45-21 in 2005, then prevailed 17-16 in 2009 by blocking two last-second field goals the coordinator still laments. On years the schools didn’t meet, the coaching staffs occasionally collaborated on ideas.
But the 38-year-old went out of his way Tuesday to note that his parents and other family and friends will be wearing red in Kinnick Stadium on Friday. His favorite location in the entire Husker complex, he said, is where the Tunnel Walk’s red carpet meets the Memorial Stadium turf under an engraving that says, “I play for Nebraska.”
“I coach at Nebraska; I get to coach at Nebraska,” Chinander said. “There’s no doubt about it, I grew up in Iowa. But home is where the heart is and my home is in Lincoln — my heart’s in Lincoln.”
NU players Monday empathized with their coordinator. Safety Tre Neal said it would surely be “different” returning home. Linebacker Luke Gifford said the defense wants to play especially well in his honor. Mohamed Barry said the Blackshirts will help him get more excited for the future than the past.
Frost jokes that Chinander is finally on “the good side” after all those years of debates. But he can also imagine what his friend will feel upon arriving at Kinnick.
“I’m sure it will be as emotional for him going over there as it was for me coming back here,” Frost said.