As members of the media circled Rick Kaczenski on Monday to ask about going back to the place that used to be home, the coach couldn’t help but think of a scene three years ago.
It was an Iowa practice and Kaczenski was going through individual drills with his defensive linemen on the visitors' sideline at Kinnick Stadium.
“You think you’d ever be coaching on this side of the field?” standout defensive end Adrian Clayborn asked him.
“At the time, you think you’re going to be at that place forever,” Kaczenski said, recalling the conversation. “I said, ‘I dunno.’ He said, ‘Yeah, you might need security.’”
Kaczenski had to laugh remembering that line now.
“Hopefully I won’t need security being on the visitors' side,” Kaczenski joked.
Oh, yes, the first-year Husker defensive line coach admitted it will be an odd experience going back to Iowa City to coach against a Hawkeye team he was part of just a year ago.
When it comes to hugs from the other side, Kaczenski isn’t sure there will be many of those Friday.
“Ah, I dunno,” he said. “Any time you leave for an in-conference school, things are going to change. … It’s going to change relationships. It’s going to change the way people look at you, the way you look at people. That’s just part of it. But that’s what made it really tough on not just me, but my wife also. Because we built a heck of a life because of the opportunity Kirk Ferentz gave us. So that was a really difficult part of it.”
Kaczenski was a grad assistant for Ferentz from 2005-06 before the Iowa head coach elevated him to be in charge of the defensive line.
It was a position “Coach Kaz,” as his players and fellow coaches call him, held for six years, helping in the development of current NFL linemen such Clayborn, Mitch King and Matt Kroul.
In 2010, Iowa ranked sixth nationally in rushing defense and seventh in scoring defense. Bo Pelini was impressed as he watched those Hawkeye defensive lines.
"In my opinion, a coach's resume is on the film,” Pelini said. “I liked the way he coached, the way his guys played, the technique they played with, the attention to detail they've obviously been coached with."
So Pelini approached Kaczenski that year about the possibility of him joining the Husker staff.
But the timing wasn’t quite right. Pelini ultimately hired Ross Els and Corey Raymond to fill two defensive coaching spots.
Still, Kaczenski said his exchanges with Pelini proved beneficial.
Kaczenski actually briefly accepted a job as an NFL assistant that year, he said, but didn’t like some of the details in the contract.
“He actually gave me a lot of advice on the NFL and things like that,” Kaczenski said of Pelini.
A year later, Pelini called Kaczenski again. The timing was right.
The first half of his first season at Nebraska came with some serious bumps in the road -- those 653 yards by UCLA, those 63 points by Ohio State.
But Nebraska’s defensive line has seemed to find some key answers as the season has progressed, playing its part in helping the Huskers climb to 19th nationally in total defense.
The Huskers have also seen improved numbers in sacks (25th nationally) and tackles for loss (51st). A year ago, the Huskers were 84th and 112th in those categories, respectively.
Iowa, meanwhile, is 116th in sacks and 105th in tackles for loss this year.
Kaczenski said the most important thing in his first year at Nebraska hasn’t just been learning the defensive system, but learning how to teach that system, and what to emphasize.
“There’s a lot of defense. You can’t cover every little thing,” he said. “There’s those minor details that are going to lead to big plays on our side if we don’t take care of things.”
Kaczenski has done his best to share what he knows about Iowa’s personnel this week with his fellow coaches.
“But you get to this time of the year, and there’s plenty of tape, what you see is kind of what you get,” he said.
Players have been ribbing him since the Minnesota game about his return to Iowa.
“I think he’s definitely kept his emotions in line when it comes to this. I haven’t heard him talk much about it,” said senior linebacker Alonzo Whaley. “But he probably circled this game on his calendar for the sake of he’s a Nebraska Cornhusker now.”
Iowa may be 4-7, but Kaczenski knows the Hawkeyes are going to be ready to give their best punch.
He’s sure there is nothing that is going to be easy about Friday's game.
“Throw out the records, throw out the statistics, throw everything out the window, and our guys understand that,” Kaczenski said. “Our guys have a great grasp of that right now. It’s going to be a tough challenge, man.”
It’s a challenge, he says, that’s about two programs, and not him against the school where he used to coach.
"When it comes down to it and we run out of that tunnel, it’s all business. It has nothing to do with me. … It’s about those players between the white lines.”