The St. Olaf football program is under new management this season, now led by former St. Thomas offensive coordinator James Kilian, who hopes to lead the Oles to their first winning season since 2012.
An Oklahoma native, Kilian played football for the University of Tulsa before he was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2005. He later played for the Atlanta Falcons, Hamburg in NFL Europe, the Nashville Cats in the Arena League and Winnipeg in the Canadian Football League. In 2009, Kilian began his coaching career as the offensive coordinator at Del City High School in Oklahoma. 2010 marked the beginning of his college football coaching career, which includes Tulsa University, Louisiana State University, Carleton College, University of St. Thomas and now, St. Olaf.
His decision to come here boiled down to several factors, including having the opportunity to be a head coach. When the position at St. Olaf became available, Kilian jumped at the opportunity to come back and coach in Northfield. However, Kilian remains stationed at his home in Minneapolis with his family, commuting down to Northfield as necessary.
When asked about his plans for the St. Olaf football team, Kilian detailed a multi- layered system reliant on three main areas of focus. First is character building, which leads to ethical trust.
“We talk about a brotherhood of trust, and it’s really a 3-prong attack,” Kilian said. “It’s very systematic. Simply, doing the thing you say you’re going to do, and it has to be a re-occurring experience.”
Next in his system is competency, which earns technical trust from coaches and fellow players. Kilian trusts his players to follow instructions on the practice field, which leads to enhanced reliability when it comes time to apply those same drills and lessons.
The final step is connection.
“It takes the longest to get there,” Kilian said. “That’s just personal trust. So now we’ve really connected as individuals. The actions of an individual reflects all of us. We’re all in this together.”
Teamwork and connectivity are central goals, which Kilian hopes to accomplish while taking the reins of St. Olaf’s football program. His general philosophy is, traditionally, the teams who are the closest are also usually the most competitive, emphasizing chemistry and compatibility over raw talent alone. To foster such a community, not only does Kilian have the Oles practice and work out together six days every week, but he also encourages team building activities off the field, such as bowling nights and barbecues, so players can connect as close friends in addition to their professional relationship as teammates. The team learns to trust each other, evolving football from a game to an act of connectivity.
In addition, Kilian also emphasizes the importance of intentionality.
“We talk about being intentional, not being on autopilot,” Kilian said. “The only way to do that is to think about the outcomes you want to achieve, whether it be in life or on the football field. When [the players] are intentional about what they want to achieve, winning football games are just byproducts of doing the right thing.”
Kilian uses football as a canvas and jumping-off point to create great, mature people in addition to highly skilled athletes.
“We talk about creating better young men, better people,” Kilian said. “We talk as coaches and players to have a ‘why.’ What’s our ‘why’? My why is to develop young men, better people, populating the communities they go into after graduation.”
This philosophy relates to Kilian’s expectation that 100 percent of St. Olaf’s football players use the Piper Center to properly explore career opportunities before and after graduation, fully utilizing as many campus resources as possible to help develop his athletes into well-rounded individuals.
Recruiting is one of the most important tasks for a college football coach. However, Kilian firmly believes that it’s crucial to find recruits who not only fit within the football program, but also embrace and fulfill the responsibility of being an Ole.
“We shouldn’t waste our time convincing them to come to a place that isn’t the best for them,” Kilian said. “Pick St. Olaf because it is the right place for you, and take football out of the equation.”
“All winning is is a byproduct of doing the right thing. Coaches talk about process, like it’s some mystery, and it’s not. We’re not result oriented. I don’t think you learn by being results oriented. It’s about being intentional and working hard, that’s the process. If we do that, we’ll be a good football team.