Most of the older University of Northern Colorado football assistants have five to 10 years of experience, with the recent college graduates having the fewest. There is one exception.
Linebackers coach James Pazak (pronounced Pay-Zack) made a major career change when he accepted the full-time position with the Bears.
He has plenty of football experience, though the majority comes on the field as a player. In fact, Pazak spent the last 20 years working as a speech pathologist on the West Coast and was a part-time junior college assistant the last two seasons.
The new Bear was actually seeing a patient when head coach Ed Lamb called with a job offer. Pazak was hired to be the director of operations, but he was promoted after Zach Cable received an NFL job.
“I have kind of a unique way of getting here,” Pazak said. “It’s a big change but a good change. Suddenly I could see myself (on this) trajectory. Football is one of those jobs where it’s like you can just keep doing it.”
Getting back into football
Pazak began missing football about four years ago.
As luck would have it, his college position coach now works with the Dallas Cowboys and his professional coach also lived in Dallas. When Pazak attended a conference in the area, he met up with them. Pazak met up with the two when he was in the area for a medical conference to present research he conducted, which was published in the Annals of Otology, Rhinology & Laryngology.
They helped him connect with College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California. Pazak expected to join the staff as a part-time defensive backs coach in 2020, but the pandemic put a halt on those plans.
Thankfully, his offer was still good a season later. He coached the Cougars in 2021 and 2022, helping the team earn postseason appearances in both seasons.
It was a tough couple of years, Pazak admits. He managed to coach and hold his speech pathology job, but the hours were long. Many days, Pazak did football-related work from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. Then, he’d go to the hospital or clinic and work there for the day. He’d end his day at the field for practice.
“I knew real quick into it, I was like, ‘I gotta figure out how I’m gonna get into this full time,’” Pazak said. “I made my list of all the people that I needed to make sure I connect with, and Ed was definitely top of the list. I didn’t want to connect with him until I knew my family and I could really do it, because it’s a big change. Luckily, I have a great wife and kids who are eager.”
‘I wanted that around me’
Lamb and Pazak go way back. Like, the-head-coach’s-first-gig-out-of-college kind of way back.
Northern Colorado’s head man got his start with the University of the Redlands in California, serving as defensive line coach and defensive coordinator. Lamb helped the Division III Bulldogs earn three championships and one second-place finish.
Pazak praised Lamb for being “the real deal,” even as a rookie coach. He was — and still is — competitive, honest, straightforward, authentic and thoughtful. Lamb has carried a tough but compassionate demeanor, as well.
”He’s the type of coach where he believed I was better than I really was,” Pazak said. “That helped me.”
The linebackers coach actually only played under Lamb for two seasons, earning all-conference recognition. He grew up playing a multitude of sports but went to Redlands as a basketball player. Pazak said he was on the smaller size for a football player, which is why his college career started on the court instead of the gridiron.
He asked his coach if it would be OK for him to try and play football. This came after being a bench player for two seasons and allowing his body to develop.
“I love the physicality of football, so I played basketball with a football mentality,” Pazak said, noting he racked up the personal fouls. “I played man-to-man defense all the time, so I knew I could do it.”
That’s part of the reason he loved playing under Lamb. The defensive scheme was a combination of his two favorite sports.
“We created a ton of turnovers, so it’s almost like playing basketball,” he said. “It’s like a full-court press defense on the football field.”
Upon graduation, Pazak played in the Italian Football League, winning the Superbowl Italiano four times and the Eurobowl three times.
During his professional career, Pazak would travel back to the United States during the offseason to work on his graduate degree. He ultimately had to return full time to complete it and started his speech pathology career. Pazak taught patients how to eat and talk again, and sometimes he’d perform endoscopies to evaluate a patient’s throat and vocal chords.
That doesn’t sound like a guy who, despite playing the sport, would end up coaching. Still, Lamb isn’t concerned by his shorter resume or experience level.
“What I’ve found is: any success that I’ve had has been much stronger correlated with the strength of the people around me than the experience of the coaches or the creativity of the playbook,” Lamb said.
Coaching is more than just tactics, physical techniques or plays. That stuff is readily available online or through mentoring. Character, passion and collaboration aren’t as easily taught.
That’s why Lamb is so confident in his new assistant. He learned how to evaluate a problem and collaborate with others to determine a treatment plan. Pazak has developed time management skills and critical thinking.
He’s also an optimistic person.
“Each one of these guys on the staff made an impression on me, changed the way I look at the game, and they each did that in an individual way. In Pazak’s case, it was energy and enthusiasm,” Lamb said. “He just always brought a smile and a positive energy to every practice, game and was a big part of our success.
“I know there were many days when his energy, his enthusiasm, his excitement picked me up and brought up my level of performance. I wanted that around me.”
It’s easier to teach schematics than 20 years of lived experience. Lamb praised Pazak for maintaining positivity while putting in a lot of hard work and long hours to learn the team’s strategy, calling his efforts a “great example to everyone” at UNC.
Pazak is just grateful for the opportunity and excited for the season. They’re all eager to show everything they’ve been working on and, hopefully, get the Bears program going in the right direction for a sustained period of time.
“The players are giving everything they have, and they’re ready to show the community that they can play,” Pazak said. “It’s almost like we’re holding them back a little bit so that once the season gets going, they’ll be full court. It’ll be fun.”
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