Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Aurora to Lincoln and Back: Cole Ashby is Right Where He Wants to Be

August 19, 2020

The steaks were put on the grill and we settled in to talk Cole Ashby coaching football. Except for Ashby’s new boss, the head football coach at Aurora High School, Kyle Peterson, the conversation naturally veered right into basketball.

It’s the first half of the first round of the 2012 Class B Nebraska state tournament and Aurora is playing Scottsbluff. The Bearcats would go on to win the game, but one of Peterson’s fondest memories of Ashby came after a first quarter that saw Ashby, then a student, and the Huskies on the right side of the scoreboard.

“He had a breakaway layup, completely uncontested—it was a run-out—and he pulled up from 21 feet and hit a 3,” Peterson said.

Ultra-competitive and ultra-confident is how Peterson, who has been with the school since 2001 and was an assistant football coach when Ashby was playing, would describe Ashby. There wasn’t any showboating to be done after passing up a layup for a long ball, only a simple calculus: three is more than two and Ashby wants nothing more than to beat you.

As a basketball player, Ashby sounds an awful lot like Los Angeles Clippers point guard Patrick Beverley. “He’s one of those kids you love him when he’s on your team, you hate him when you’re playing against him,” Peterson said. “He pestered people to death on the basketball court.”

And as a football player for Aurora, he was the kind of guy who just knew how to draw you into a 15-yard penalty. Coaches thought Ashby’s greatest trait as a wideout was his blocking.

“That goes to his nature,” Peterson says. “That’s an unselfish behavior, and that’s just kind of the person he is.”

Coaches are swamped right now, what with the COVID-19 pandemic showing a complete and utter disregard for the usual professional affinity for schedule, but if you ask to talk about Ashby they answer right away. They use words like passionate, dedicated, and driven. Ashby has had football in his blood since he was born.

A coach’s son. Ashby says he was a daddy’s boy growing up. Jeff, his father, has been coaching high school football all of Cole’s life. Now he’s at Wood River coaching the Eagles, and before that he coached eight-man football for Giltner High School and before that at Harvard High School. Cole remembers elementary school nights where he’d jump in the car with dad and drive an hour to pick up football film on VHS tapes.

The tape was in the VHS player as soon as they got home.

“I’d sit there and not really know what I was watching but I knew I enjoyed it,” he said.

His dad is the reason his love of football and his love for coaching began. When at Harvard, Cole was a ballboy for his father’s team. The exact timeline has been lost a little, but Cole remembers the details just fine. Jeff had just moved to an up-tempo offense, so Cole and the other ballboy would wear these bright yellow shirts to help officials quickly identify where they were. Cole was in elementary school.

One weekend, Jeff was going for win No. 100. The high school cafeteria was all ready with a cake and cookies to celebrate a potential victory, but Cole remembers watching workers start to stuff them away for another day at halftime while his father was in the team locker room trying to get his players to wake up.

“They were down like 40-8,” Cole said. “I was in shambles. I was devastated. I was waiting for my dad to get his 100th win so we could celebrate.”

But something flipped in the second half. Harvard just kept scoring. A lineman Jeff affectionately called “Big Richard” converted a two-point conversion attempt in the game’s waning moments to complete the comeback. “They ended up throwing a rinky-dink pass to him and he caught it and won the game,” Cole said. Cake was in order after all. But just as soon as it was out, Jeff’s mind was moving on to the next opponent.

He celebrated that night, of course, but Jeff you don’t coach high school ball for as long as he has if you’re in it for the personal glory. An example set for his son. Cole doesn’t want to coach for the six-figure salary. The reason is much less selfish.

“Constantly having (his father’s) kids, his former athletes, former students come up to me and tell me how much he meant to them and how much he helped their lives, that was kind of like a cool moment for me,” Cole said. “When I became old enough to have those conversations, I thought, ‘Man if I can have half the impact he’s had on kids, the positive impact he’s had on his students, I think I could consider my life a success.’”

Toward the end of high school and into his early days of college, Cole thought teaching was the path for him. At any level, coaching is inherently about teaching, but that’s maybe most true in high school.

“When people would come up to me and tell me how much my dad meant to them, it wasn’t just kids who played football, it was kids he taught in PE or health,” Cole said. “He had a strong passion for kids.”

One Cole shares.

From 2013 through 2016, Cole worked as a student equipment manager for the Nebraska football team. He started when Bo Pelini was the head coach. He was hired back when Mike Riley took over the program ahead of the 2015 season. He considers Danny Langsdorf one of his greatest mentors.

“My goal at that time was just to show that I was a hard worker and I enjoyed what I was doing, I was passionate about it,” Cole said. “Just slowly built that relationship with Coach Langsdorf and Coach (Keith) Williams that they knew they could trust me and I was going to be there for a good reason.”

After practice one day, Cole asked Langsdorf, Nebraska’s former offensive coordinator under Riley, if they could chat in Langsdorf’s office. Cole wanted the coaching staff to know he wanted to do something more, he wanted to ultimately coach. He said he wanted to be a sponge in the background, work on learning the ropes. Initially, there wasn’t a graduate assistant gig available for Cole to work toward.

Good things happen, though, if you’re the right kind of pain in the butt.

“I had gotten a really good recommendation from (assistant AD in charge of football equipment operations) Jay Terry about what kind of worker he was, and he had been very passionate to me about wanting to coach and diligent about seeing if there was a spot for him,” Langsdorf said. “I felt like it was something he really wanted to do.”

Nice way of saying Cole bugged the hell out of Nebraska’s OC until he wore down. “That’s what I mean about passionate,” Langsdorf said with a laugh.

Right after Cole graduated, in June of 2017, NU had a spot come open: a graduate assistant working with Langsdorf and Williams, the team’s wideout coach. Cole was golfing with friends when he got a call. Langsdorf wanted to see him work a Friday Night Lights camp.

“Some of these jobs are hard to just sit in an interview,” Langsdorf said. “I think a lot of times with guys, seeing them in action coaching a camp or a clinic or something and you get a chance to work with them and know what they’re about, those are way better job interviews than sitting in a room.”

Cole made it obvious the job should go to him. Peterson says relationship-building is something that comes natural to Cole. Langsdorf agrees. Cole had built a foundation of trust. Langsdorf knew he’d have a guy he could count on, and Husker wideouts would come to know a guy who’d genuinely care about them as people first.

“You know, that graduate assistant route is not an easy route,” Langsdorf said. “It’s a lot of long hours and low pay. I think the fact he knew what he was getting into, I felt like he was really passionate about getting the job and working and I appreciated that about him.

“There are so many things they’re asked to do, so if you get a guy that’s passionate about it and worked hard and was always around and available, those are the best guys, the guys who are willing to put in the time and put in the work to get your prepared for what you needed to have done.”

Cole was setting up drills in practice, running drills in practice, running film breakdown, preparing meetings, creating cut-ups, scouting, sifting through high school tape to create lists of guys to target in recruiting. Grad assistants live a woefully under appreciated existence.

“I’m certain there were plenty of things I had him do that he wasn’t real excited about, but I wouldn’t have known what those were,” Langsdorf said. Cole just put his head down and did what needed to be done because, to him, it was all part of the job and the job was worth it.

There’s something to be said about three different coaching staffs wanting to keep you around. Cole’s Nebraska time began with Pelini, and then when Nebraska cleaned house once again after the 2017 season, new head coach Scott Frost and wideout coach Troy Walters again kept Cole on board.

“You never want to see a coach go, but just having that opportunity to see three different coaching styles, three different offensive styles is unique for someone my age to go through in, what was it, five years with three different coaches?” he said. “You kind of develop your own style. You kind of get to pick and choose from each coach what you like that they did and what you didn’t like.”

Some things just stick in the brain for years. Like current defensive coordinator Erik Chinander yelling, “Hats to the ball!” The thing Cole feels like he’ll use the most in his coaching career he learned from Williams.

“The one that just constantly resonates with me was Coach Dub always saying ‘Gotta mean something to you,’” he said. “If it doesn’t mean anything to you, you’re not getting anything out of it. He’d always say it if he’d see someone slacking off, if he saw someone not doing the right thing, he’d say ‘Man, it’s gotta mean something to you. If you really want to be great, if that’s the reason you came to Nebraska, this has to mean something to you.’”

And really, that’s why Cole is back in Aurora now. It means something.

For the Huskies, Cole will coach outside wide receivers and defensive backs, as well as teach strength training classes. Peterson’s shortlist when making the hire was small, and he wanted someone who viewed the position as more of a long-term project than a stepping stone.

“One thing he did say that was memorable was he said he’d always hoped to come back to Aurora, he just didn’t know at what point in his life that would happen,” Peterson said.

“It’s Class-B competition, so in a lot of ways it’s really high-level competition but you still get the small-town deal, and it’s not for everybody. Cole knows all the ins and outs that come with living here. I think that’s why he was interested and that’s why we were so interested in him.”

I asked Cole what his endgame was in coaching. Forecast 25 years into the future, where’s he at?

“If I’m back at the college level, I’ll be super happy with it, but right now, a high school head coach building a strong culture and a strong program I can put my finger on and know I had something to do with it would be incredible for me,” he said. “It would be a success for me.

“Honestly I don’t know in 25 years where that’ll have me, I always thought I wanted to coach at the highest level, but just being able to have an impact on kids is kind of where my value lays right now.”

Peterson said he felt like Cole had some collegiate opportunities he turned down for Aurora. He jumped in with both feet, in the middle of a worldwide pandemic no less. Just recently, Cole bought a house in town. Roots, you might say.

From coaching some of the best wideouts in college football to teaching in a city with a population under 5,000, and at the end of the day, it wasn’t a very difficult decision.

“It happened a little bit earlier than expected, but I couldn’t say no,” Cole said. “I always knew Aurora was where I wanted to raise a family and end up, so I couldn’t say no. I couldn’t pass it up.”

This time he took the layup. It was worth more.

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