After coaching Division I football at colleges such as the University of Colorado Boulder, Northwestern University in Illinois and UCLA in California, John Wristen returned to the school that gave him his start — Colorado State University-Pueblo.
He played for CSU-Pueblo — then the University of Southern Colorado — from 1980 to 1983, and was all-conference quarterback. The next year the school fielded its last football team for more than two decades.
During that hiatus, Wristen traveled the country coaching at various schools and, in 2007, came back to build a football team for Pueblo once again — this time, from the sidelines. He walked into the job without any players or coaching staff and within a year developed what would shortly become a team worth remembering.
Within three seasons, Wristen led the ThunderWolves to their first Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Championship. In 2014, Wristen led the team to the national championships.
Now in the program’s 10th year, the team has already lost seven starters to season-ending injuries. Despite the adversity, Wristen said he and his ThunderWolves will continue to go to work every game.
“I’m very proud,” he said. “I had a vision when it started 10 years ago and it’s pretty close to that vision.”
What has changed the most in the 10 years?
I think our facilities have improved over the 10 years. I think our expectations have continued to rise and I think being a part of the CSU-Pueblo community has really been a great interaction for our student-athletes.
What are the strengths of this season’s team and what are you trying to improve?
I think our strengths are our offensive and defensive linemen. We have faced a lot of injuries this season. … So, we’ve had a “next-man-up” mentality. It’s been wonderful to watch those guys step up and seize the moment.
What do you think about the potential of the most recent players you’ve recruited?
I really like the recruits we have in our program right now. We always say the proof is in the pudding whether they can handle the adversity, the work ethic and expectations we have. Time will tell.
What is it going to take for the ThunderWolves to get another national championship?
You’ve got to have a lot of luck on your side. You’ve got to keep putting your head down and go to work and hope things fall your way. We’re going to continue to strive for that. It will take a lot of luck, but you just have to work and hope the ball bounces your way.
What is your favorite part of coaching Division II football?
I think, in any part of coaching, my favorite part is being able to take kids where they can’t take themselves and come together as one to form a plan. That’s what I get a lot of satisfaction out of.
What did you do before coaching college football?
Well, I knew I always wanted to coach and teach, so I was a high school coach and teacher in Texas for a year and a half. Then I was a high school teacher and coach at Rocky Ford High School. Then I got into this crazy thing, college coaching, and went to Fort Lewis College [in Durango]. Then I went to CU, then Northwestern and then I came back to CU. Then I went to UCLA and then I started this program, CSU-Pueblo football, from scratch.
You said you always wanted to be a coach. Why?
I didn’t see myself being an accountant like my dad. I didn’t understand the business world or how to get into it. I had always been around athletics and the coaches that had touched my life, I wanted to be one of those guys that touches someone else’s life and pass it on.
What do you do in your free time?
I love playing golf. I love just hanging out and I love to barbecue.
Who is your favorite professional NFL player?
I have three of them. Morgan Fox, defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams. He is a CSU-Pueblo graduate. Ryan Jensen is the starting center for the Baltimore Ravens. He’s a CSU-Pueblo graduate. Mike Pennell, he’s the starting defensive lineman for the New York Jets, also a CSU-Pueblo graduate. I’m just glad they get to live their dreams. That’s something they all always wanted.
What is something you want people to know about the team you’ve built?
I know that this program wants to represent the university, the city of Pueblo and ThunderWolves fans in a first-class manner. … We appreciate playing in front of our home fans.
Where do you see this program going in the next decade?
I see maximizing each day and learning from each day and growing from each day — not making the same mistakes over and over again. … If I can help the kids understand this is hard work, then they will eventually be great employees in turn at some business.