Cal Poly

Cal Poly football program infused with energy — and perspective — by return of coach Payam Saadat

Cal Poly defensive line coach Payam Saadat is starting his third stint with the Mustangs this spring. He works with Colin Dzubnar during a drill at practice earlier this week.
Cal Poly defensive line coach Payam Saadat is starting his third stint with the Mustangs this spring. He works with Colin Dzubnar during a drill at practice earlier this week. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The voice of Payam Saadat booms through the crisp morning air at a recent Cal Poly spring football practice.

The veteran defensive coach is putting lineman through the paces, physically draining them at an hour when most people are just taking their first sip of coffee. The players are tattered, with projected starters Kelly Shepard and Jason Patterson sidelined while recovering from offseason surgery. Senior reserve defensive end Colin Dzubnar has his right hand wrapped in a bulky cast.

Saadat offers little sympathy.

It’s just the way head coach Tim Walsh wants it.

When he hired Saadat this winter to replace defensive line coach Eti Ena, who left after three seasons for his alma mater, Eastern Washington, Walsh set out to find someone brimming with enthusiasm who could provide fresh perspective both schematically, technically – and, perhaps most important, psychologically.

And Saadat, now in his third coaching stint with Cal Poly, certainly has all three. Much of it is defined by learning a tragic lesson more than 20 years ago during his playing days at Washington State University – of which he is reminded by every day thanks to his amputated left hand.

“In some ways, my path does come out in different times, but I don’t jump on a pulpit and give my (story) humbly to why I blew off my hand,” he said after last Wednesday’s practice. “It’s something that, it’s me now, it’s a part of me.”

It was April 19, 1993.

Saadat and his friend and teammate Harvey M. “Buddy” Waldron IV constructed a pipe bomb in Saadat’s apartment using an 8-inch long, 1 ½-inch wide galvanized pipe, filled with gunpowder and wired to an alarm clock.

Motivated by curiosity, they planned to detonate the bomb in a wheat field outside of Pullman. The two never made it to that wheat field.

With Waldron driving and Saadat holding the device in the passenger seat, the bomb exploded in his lap. The 21-year-old Saadat spent 11 days at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. His hand was amputated two inches below the wrist, in addition to several other medical procedures.

Waldron, a 22-year-old Bellevue, Wash. native, died from head injuries at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane one day after the explosion.

Saadat returned to Washington State ahead of the 1994 season, wearing No. 44 in honor of Waldron.

The Cougars won the Alamo Bowl that year with the No. 2-ranked defense in the country. Teammates voted Saadat as the recipient of the annual Frank Butler Award for spirit and the H. Fred Bohler Award for inspiration. The coaching staff chose Saadat for the team strength award, becoming the first Cougar to win all three honors in a single season.

A familiar face

It’s that type of strength that Walsh was looking for when a familiar name resurfaced.

His team had just come off a trying 4-7 season, and the eighth-year head coach saw Saadat’s name come across his desk.

Around that time, Saadat had just completed his second season as the defensive coordinator at Division II Central Washington. Wanting to return to the Division I ranks, he applied for the open position at Cal Poly, hoping to return to the Central Coast where he’d found professional success years earlier.

Before he knew it, Saadat was standing in front of Mustang boosters on signing day at Alex G. Spanos Stadium speaking with conviction about each of Cal Poly’s incoming defensive line recruits as part of Walsh’s 18-player recruiting class.

It marked the official start of his third stint coaching in San Luis Obispo.

“I think the ingredients that he’s bringing as far as defensive mentality and a passionate mentality about playing on the d-line,” Walsh said, “is something that we really need and I’m excited to see it grow.”

Though Walsh and Saadat were only loosely affiliated before his hiring in February, the longtime assistant already has quite a reputation at Cal Poly. The Santa Monica native coached the Mustangs’ inside linebackers in 1996 and 1997 and later returned for his second stint as a linebackers assistant in 2004.

Saadat was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2006, a role he thrived in over the next three seasons. He helped develop three consecutive Buck Buchanan Award winners in linebacker Jordan Beck (2004), defensive end ChrisGocong (2005) and linebacker Kyle Shotwell (2006).

“You’ve got to have a little bit of understanding of the Cal Poly way,” Saadat said. “I think that helps you as a coach foster in this environment.”

Curiosity gone wrong

Cal Poly is halfway through its spring training camp, a 15-practice schedule that consists of early morning workouts at the Upper Sports Complex.

Dzubnar, who’s being counted on to take more reps this spring, is getting used to Saadat and the “fanatical” effort he expects in sessions despite the clock showing 6 a.m.

To fully understand that perspective of a man who’s spent more than two decades coaching, it’s important to revisitSaadat’s playing career.

After graduating from Santa Monica High, Saadat walked on at Washington State. He was an undersized linebacker in the then-Pac-10 at 6-foot-1 and 219 pounds, and was most valuable on the Cougars’ scout teams. He was credited with one tackle in five years at Washington State.

People in Pullman, and later around the country, came to know Saadat for the accident that occurred just before his senior season.

Saadat doesn’t go out of his way to bring it up, but if someone wants to talk, he is willing.

“They may hear it in what I’m talking to them about and why it is I say what I say,” Saadat said. “The tone of what I’m speaking to them about, the words I choose, the passion behind it.

“They can probably rationalize that, you know what, I bet some of that stems from the fact that he went through a horrific accident through no fault but his own.”

The accident and yearlong federal and state investigations that followed have been well documented nationally.

A young, first-generation American Iranian tied to a deadly explosion was bound to grab headlines. Saadat was never charged in the incident, and the investigation was dropped shortly before he earned his degree in biology in 1994.

He returned to Southern California, and was a member of Cal Poly’s coaching staff two years later.

Saadat said he has never intentionally used his experience to teach the importance of life decisions, but he hopes players understand “you don’t need to get to such a devastating point to learn something.”

“There’s so many more road signs before that point,” Saadat added, “that if you just heed to and you understand and you’re aware of, you won’t have to hit a brick wall going 1,000 miles an hour. That’s what I did.

Saadat said 10 or 15 years ago, players he coached would occasionally ask about his amputation.

“Now they just Google it,” he said.

A new identity

If all goes according to plan, Walsh hopes to see Cal Poly’s defensive front take on the personality of its new coach.

The Mustangs are transitioning from a 4-3 defensive front to a 3-4 formation, something defensive coordinator Josh Brown is masterminding. With six fifth-year seniors projected to start in the front seven, the Mustangs have an experienced group with intriguing potential.

“From the start of practice, even at 4:50 a.m. when we get here, Coach Payam has the most energy,” said junior nose tackle Fino Elisaia. “That’s something that we feed off of as players because as much as we want to be energetic at the beginning of the day, it’s hard to at 6 a.m.”

Saadat emphasizes two things to his players that are non-negotiable: Do what’s asked of you at the speed you’re being asked to do it.

Throughout his 20-year career, Saadat has always believed mental and physical toughness can’t be turned on one day per week.

Players, specifically offensive and defensive linemen, must train their minds and bodies to sustain that effort over the course of a four-month season.

“You have violence on every snap of the football,” Saadat said. “Therefore, your mental capacity to handle that play in, play out, and still do the things that’s demanded of you, that’s not any small task right there.”

Payam Saadat Coaching Career

  • Cal Poly (1996-1997)
  • Western Washington (1998-2003)
  • Cal Poly (2004-2008)
  • Army (2009-2013)
  • Central Washington (2014-15)
  • Cal Poly (2016)
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