SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — John Stiegelmeier was more than a coach to the South Dakota State University Jackrabbits football team, he was family.

“Stig is at the top of my list as far as mentors, you know he’s had the most influence on me personally, other than my dad,” former safety Conrad Kjerstad said Friday over the phone.

Kjerstad was a Jackrabbit from 2006 through 2010 and like many SDSU players, he formed a long-lasting bond with the head coach who he describes as a “genuine good person that really cared about you as a human being.”

“He brought the family side of it more so than I expected,” Kjerstad said. “I never really had that experience through athletics until SDSU where it was a family. And when you’re spending 80 or 100 hours a week with guys, you’re around for four or five years of your life– it is your family.”

Stiegelmeier was the head of that family, Kjerstad explained, taking an interest in players beyond the game and long after they graduated. Kjerstad now lives in western South Dakota but he’s still in regular contact with the coach. He was saddened to hear of the news of the coach’s retirement ahead of yesterday’s announcement.

“But then I know Jimmy Rogers personally, played with Jimmy Rogers,” Kjerstad said. “One hundred percent respect for Jimmy Rogers; me and his last game was the same game.”

Rogers, who played for the Jackrabbits between 2005 and 2008, thanked Stiegelmeier Friday at a press conference announcing his move to head coach.

“When I sat in his office 17 years ago, as a player, as a student-athlete… One of the first questions he asked was, ‘Why do you think you’re being recruited?’ and I gave him my response and his response was, ‘I don’t care, we believe in you,'” Rogers recalled. “I would say those words changed my life.”

Faith, Family, Football

Former defensive back Dale Heiden was a Jackrabbit during Stiegelmeier’s transition from defensive coordinator to head coach.

“Even from day one he allowed the assistant coaches to coach and own their respective responsibility,” Heiden said. “He would move between the different position groups, and he was always taking notes. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed that with him on the sidelines even today, Stig’s always taking notes.”

Heiden and Kjerstad are both members of the Jackrabbit Former Players Association and are in regular touch with other Jackrabbits, as well as Stiegelmeier himself. It’s a relationship that hasn’t been impacted by time or distance.

Jazzmine Jackson: Do you think his coaching style, especially the emphasis on faith and family values, lends itself to such a strong former players association?

Heiden: I think that absolutely. Ryan McKnight referred to it as ‘The Brotherhood’ and I mean that locker room carries outside of football and into life, too.

Missouri Valley Coach of the Year, John Stiegelmeier, celebrates his first national championship win.

Heiden added that he finds himself still utilizing the lessons Stiegelmeier taught him more than 20 years ago in his personal and professional life.

“You’ve heard it probably a million times but as you know, make a difference and be a difference maker,” Heiden said. “And I think that that is a that’s a working value that which is instilled in the football team.”

Heiden recalled one instance of Stiegelmeier being that difference maker that he preached to the team.

“We had a player that was under some sort of financial hardship; he was a scholarship player but was having some financial challenges at home,” Heiden said. “And Stig made sure that player got some extra help going into the second semester… Those are impactful moments that he didn’t have to do anything with that, and he did.”

Kjerstad remembers the coach as someone who didn’t curse and didn’t lose his cool, He looks back on his time playing for the Jackrabbits with gratitude.

“You know, when you’re a college kid, you might think that’s a little quirky in the beginning, but somebody that carries themselves with that much discipline and showing that, you know, you don’t really need to do those things,” Kjerstad said. “You might think it’s uncool in the beginning, but by the end you’re actually think it’s kind of special maybe.”

The impact Stiegelmeier has on Kjerstad extends to his own children as well with his son bearing the legendary coach’s name.