FARGO — As a football coach for 35 years, Ross Hjelseth learned how to fire up his players. Now the former North Dakota State University assistant coach is taking his pep talks from the sidelines and locker rooms to the pages of his new book, “Winning Words: Speaking Life to Influence Others.”
No matter who the opponent was in each of the roughly 350 games he coached, he always prepared with the same mindset.
“Never once did I lay out a plan to fail,” he says from his home in Tacoma, Wash. “The motivational talk was something I laid out all week. Winning words were always what I was looking for.”
The project started in the late 1970s when he worked as an assistant coach under head coaches Jim Wacker and Don Morton at NDSU. Hjelseth kept a notebook with inspirational sayings and motivational memos.
Hjelseth stayed with NDSU until 1985 when he took over the program at the University of Puget Sound in Washington.
He would give copies of the notebook to friends over the years but didn’t think about doing much else with it. That was until 2015 when he had three surgeries for cancer and, while recuperating, started thinking of what else he wanted to accomplish in life. One of them was to write a book.
He reached out to his fellow coaches, asking for three expressions they use to motivate their teams.
Hjelseth uses selected sayings as a punctuation at the end of each of the 10 chapters.
Some sayings touched on faith, while others underscored the importance of discipline, perseverance or relationships.
Coaches like NDSU legends Wacker, Tom Mueller, Carl “Buck” Nystrom and Pat Simmers all responded. Concordia College's Jim Christopherson sent along his thoughts, as did University of Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck.
Other quotes came from coaches Fargo-Moorhead football fans may not know.
One of Hjelseth’s favorites came from Bob Lucey, head coach at Curtis High School in Tacoma. “Nothing grows on the mountaintop. Everything grows in the valley,” he told Hjelseth.
“On the mountaintop, we tend to relax and enjoy the view,” Hjelseth explains. “When we’re in the struggles of living in the valley, trying to climb the mountain, that’s when perseverance and life happen.”
While many of the sayings were written out and sent to Hjelseth, he recalls running into college football coaching legend Johnny Majors in his 80s at a conference. Majors died this summer at 85 and was remembered for, among other things, leading the 1976 Pittsburgh Panthers, featuring future NFL star Tony Dorsett, to a 12-0 national championship season.
Majors confided in Hjelseth that he had losing seasons throughout his career, but never allowed himself or his team to act like a loser.
“We’re never going to practice losing,” he told Hjelseth. “We’ll behave like winners, talk like winners and dress like winners and some day we’ll win.”
Hjelseth says his book isn’t just for coaches or players, but for students, families or anyone that needs self-esteem.
“There’s a lack of respect and we need to be more positive, full of affirmation as opposed to defamation,” he says. “I never heard anyone say, ‘I get too much encouragement in life.’ People are looking for hope, looking for affirmation.”