Photo Credit: Nebraska Athletics

Dr. Susan Elza Brings Leadership, Connections to Nebraska Football Administrative Staff

March 01, 2023

Matt Rhule encountered the Texas football machine when he arrived at Baylor. He knew he was an outsider entering a guarded society. So he reached out to Texas high school and college football institutions. He arrived an outcast who wanted to build bridges.

By doing so he won over swaths of Texas football coaches. Dr. Susan Elza became a fan as well. She was the executive director of the University Interscholastic League at the time, tasked with unifying and leading all high school sports across Texas’s nearly 3,000 high schools. Elza attended Baylor practices when work brought her to Waco and became a close friend of Rhule’s. He tried to hire Elza when he joined the Carolina Panthers but the timing wasn’t right. When Rhule’s name became associated with Nebraska in last year’s coaching search, she wondered if that was a possibility. Then Rhule called her with a job offer.

“There just was not any way I was going to say no to this opportunity,” Dr. Elza told Jessica Coody in the latest Huskers Sports Network podcast.

Elza is now Rhule’s chief of staff. She described the job as handling off-the-field objectives so Rhule and his coaching staff can focus on on-field football. Rhule wants the Huskers to practice on grass this spring. Part of Elza’s job is pushing to make that happen. She’s also taking huge responsibility in making the move to the Go Big Project as seamless as possible.

Former Huskers now in Texas high school football praised Nebraska’s hire. Cody Glenn, now running backs coach at Cypress Fairwood, praised Elsa’s hire when he spoke with Hail Varsity last month. Glenn said she did a “fantastic” job leading the UIL and has no doubts she’ll help turn the Nebraska football program around. Native Husker Andrew Shanle heard the news leak that Dr. Elza was coming to Nebraska. The current head coach at Cypress Ridge High School then texted her congratulations and high praise for Nebraska. You’ll love it, he told her. His mind eventually stirred to Husker fans who might not comprehend the magnitude of her career move.

“I don’t know if the people of Nebraska understand how powerful the hire of Dr. Susan Elza has been,” Shanle said. “As soon as that hire was made, I didn’t think the people of Nebraska truly understand what that means.

“She is connected with high schools throughout the state and people absolutely respect her.”

Elza discussed her recruiting connections with Coody. Elza also highlighted other members of Rhule’s administrative staff with Texas connections. Sean Padden, Rhule’s general manager, worked in the football operations wing at Baylor for three seasons. Special teams quality control analyst Josh Martin is from Texas and spent last year coaching at Little Elm High School. He was previously a full-time assistant at SMU and Arizona State. He is also the son of Joe Martin, current president of the Texas High School Coaches Association. Combine them with the Texas ties among the coaching staff and their intentional Texas presence comes full circle.

“If you’re not recruiting Texas, you’re not doing everything you can to win,” Elza told Coody. “There’s a hotbed of talent there. I told (Rhule) I can help with that.”

The vast majority of college coaching staffs outside of Texas recruit Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston if they visit the Lone Star State. Some may branch out to recruit Austin, San Antonio, El Paso, Plano and Arlington. Elza’s connections tie her to schools all over Texas. Hidden gems don’t exist as much in the nationalized recruiting apparatus with highlight film and information available at a finger’s swipe. Overlooked athletes, however, still exist in the deeper pockets of Texas. Tucked away in the shadows of metro skyscrapers, they bide their time to flourish. Elza at one point said they look for speed, a certain framework build and recruits with high character. The kind of kids who aren’t highlighted every Friday by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football.

There aren’t many who escape the spotlight of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football. That outlet’s managing editor, Greg Tepper, joined Hail Varsity for a talk earlier this winter. Part of the conversation steered toward Dr. Elza. She was a college softball player who immediately started coaching when the UIL sanctioned high school softball. She worked her way up to athletic director, where she spent more than two decades before leading the UIL. Teaching remains a passion of hers. She still teaches a college course, Best Practices In Coaching, at Texas A&M. There she discusses aspects of leadership, something she’s passionate about that directly contributed to her success at the UIL.

“She won the respect of Texas high school football coaches very early on in her tenure and that’s one of the things that I think is going to serve her well in this role,” Tepper said. “I’m curious to see how they use her, deploy her, because she does have reach.”

She’s tough, strong, savvy and a good communicator. While Texas high school football coaches command a lot of attention, Dr. Elza navigated the political tightropes in addressing them while making sure the feedback of every other sport and as many coaches as possible were heard. In one of her crowning achievements at the UIL, every Texas high school sport continued throughout the strictest COVID protocols in 2020.

Beyond sports, she was the first female head of the UIL. She told Coody it was bittersweet to see all the headlines about that. While she didn’t want to be known for that, she recognized her platform and performance helped show other women they have a place in male-dominant sports spaces. She’s still a softball coach at heart and admitted she might “fan girl” when she meets Nebraska softball coach Rhonda Revelle. Dr. Elza wants to meet every coach at Nebraska and caught herself making an excuse for not when talking with Coody. She off-handedly identified the excuse and suggested that meant she had to do an up-down, a reference to head coach Matt Rhule and his instillment of accountability.

Dr. Elza loves Nebraska already. She enjoys the unified one-team sentiment, all the way down to the luggage tags at LNK Airport. She knows the entire state counts itself among the Nebraska fan base. That fan base has fallen on hard times, cheering for teams that couldn’t yield the results of old. This coaching staff, Dr. Elza said, is dedicated to making the program better and getting it back to a place of immense pride for the fans.

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