Photo courtesy of Geoff Martzen.

By Colton Pouncy Jul 28, 2020 18

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Back in mid-February, on the heels of some news that left his job status uncertain, Geoff Martzen felt his phone buzz. He’d just received a text message from his boss. It was short and sweet, only a few words. But it was the confirmation he’d been waiting for. And, perhaps, a bit of validation as well.

“You ready to go?” the text message, from one Mel Tucker, read that day.

This exchange occurred shortly after Tucker was hired to become the head football coach at Michigan State. It was Tucker’s way of letting Martzen know there was a spot for him in East Lansing should he choose to accept it.

Though they’ve worked together for only one year, Martzen is viewed as one of Tucker’s most trusted and loyal staff members. In January 2019, Tucker hired Martzen to be his director of player personnel at Colorado. He was tasked with scouting, targeting and identifying high school athletes to play for Tucker — a coach who considers recruiting the lifeblood of his program — in his first stint as a collegiate head coach.

In their lone season together, they saw eye to eye on a number of strategies. The two developed a strong working relationship, and there was no reason for it to end so soon. Tucker asked Martzen to join him after he accepted the Michigan State job, and it didn’t take much persuasion.

“He’s a guy that I would’ve followed anywhere,” Martzen said of Tucker. “He could’ve taken a job at any school in the country and if he asked me to come, I would’ve gone.”

Martzen’s career to date has taken him from the West Coast to the Southeast to the Midwest, and he’s now set to enter his first season as Michigan State’s chief of staff. It’s somewhat new territory for Martzen, but it’s a challenge he’s excited to take on.

His experiences have prepared him well for his current role, and any others that might come his way. This is why he feels confident about his new gig, despite starting over at a new school. This is why he was one of the first hires Tucker made at Michigan State. This, and everything that led to this moment, is why a simple text message is all it took.

Martzen is a West Coast kid, hailing from the small town of Reedley, Calif. The entire city is about 5.2 square miles, with a population of roughly 24,000 citizens — about half the size of East Lansing. From a young age, Martzen had aspirations that stretched beyond the reach of his hometown, almost as if he knew football would take him elsewhere.

When he was in high school, Martzen coached youth football. When he was an undergrad student at Fresno State University, he coached high school football — serving as the offensive coordinator for his alma mater, Reedley High. He remembers those days fondly. It’s what sparked his initial interest in a career in football. So, after graduating from Fresno State, he set out to begin his coaching career, taking the road less traveled to make it happen.

Martzen finished his coursework and graduated in December 2011. In the months leading up to that, he applied to every school in the SEC, hoping to land a role as a student assistant with one of the conference’s football programs. After narrowing down the field, Martzen settled on two options: LSU and Alabama.

If you’re an avid college football fan trying to nail down the timeline of events and why it came down to these two programs, chances are you already know the answer. LSU and Alabama are two of the sport’s elites, and in less than a month, the schools would meet in the BCS National Championship Game with a title on the line.

Since Marten was torn between the schools, he let the game choose for him.

“In my head, a naive kid from a country town, I thought that I would just walk into an SEC school and they would be fired up to have me volunteer for them,” Martzen said, laughing. “It conveniently came down to LSU and Alabama and they happened to play each other in the national championship. Alabama beat them, so I went to Alabama. It was really that simple. I didn’t have any connections there. I don’t know anyone there. It just came down to a game, really.”

In January 2012, Martzen packed his belongings and headed to Tuscaloosa to begin what he assumed would be the start of his coaching career. This was the best decision Martzen could’ve made. Alabama is a program that’s been known to both build and revive careers. It ultimately did the same for Martzen … just not in the manner he expected.

Martzen can laugh about it now, but back then, he struggled to get his foot in the door at Alabama. Before enrolling, Martzen had conversations with advisers about potential opportunities with the football program and got the sense he’d be able to land something upon arrival. Instead, he was placed in the compliance department. This wasn’t part of the plan.

Early on during this stint, a staffer in the department could tell Martzen wasn’t particularly interested in this side of the business. Martzen informed him of his dream to be a coach and how he moved to Alabama to work with the football program. The staffer made note of this and did his best to pull some strings, reaching out to his contacts with the football staff. Martzen was later connected with Ed Marynowitz, who was Alabama football’s director of player personnel at the time.

Martzen begged Marynowitz to let him volunteer for free. His entire plan was contingent on landing a role — any role — with the football program. However, there simply wasn’t room. For a kid who took a leap of faith moving from California to a brand new state with no prior connections, Martzen was humbled by the industry before he even joined it. For a brief moment, it appeared his venture was all for nothing.

“It was kind of a tumultuous time in the beginning,” Martzen said. “There were times where I didn’t think I would get in and I was already looking to transfer back home, just because there was no reason for me to be in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, if I wasn’t going to be working with the football team. That came down to the wire for sure.”

Shortly after the February signing period that year, there was some movement in Alabama’s recruiting department. Marynowitz reached out and offered the spot to Martzen, giving him a reason to stay, and the opportunity of a lifetime.

Here, in a small, 10-by-10 room located in Alabama’s football building, the blueprint for modern recruiting was birthed. Marynowitz — who is regarded as one of the best minds in the collegiate personnel business — was responsible for putting together a cutting-edge recruiting department to acquire the talent head coach Nick Saban craved. To maximize the department’s potential, Marynowitz leaned on support from student assistants. He personally taught and guided them. He gave them big projects and had them connect with coaches. Their success was the department’s success, and Marynowitz was cognizant of this.

Marshall Malchow, a fellow intern at the time, helped fill Martzen in on the expectations of a student recruiting assistant at Alabama and what would be required of him. Malchow joined the department in 2008, so he knew everything there was to know about this role by the time Martzen arrived four years later. Over time, the two grew close.

“He was definitely different,” Malchow said, recalling his first impressions of Martzen. “He was a little bit of a fish out of water in the Southeast, but I just knew that he was humble and eager to learn and pick up anything he could. Recruiting in the Southeastern Conference, especially at Alabama — we may not have always had the No. 1 class but, for the most part, we were getting the guys that we wanted. Geoff picked it up pretty quickly and easily and was willing to do the small things that it took to be in this industry. There’s a lot of monotonous tasks in recruiting that may not seem meaningful at the time, but he did them the right way, didn’t make a ton of mistakes and you could tell it was something he was serious about.”

Here’s how it worked: There were 12 student interns. Each had a specific task or focus area. Evaluations, marketing, converting DVDs to VHS tapes so Saban could sift through film — whatever was needed, really. Each of the nine on-field assistant coaches was assigned a personal recruiting intern from the group of 12. Through this process, they covered plenty of ground, meticulously scouring the nation for the best prospects. Potential targets were discussed between multiple parties. Few stones were left unturned. They had all the information they needed to make informed decisions, in an effort to bring in the biggest, fastest players to fit Saban’s system. During the 2011 season, Saban’s staff consisted of names like Kirby Smart, Jeremy Pruitt and Jim McElwain — each of whom would go on to lead SEC programs and install a similar recruiting style. In the years since, other schools around the country have followed suit. The formula originated in Tuscaloosa.

The student roles in the recruiting department were typically assigned by seniority, meaning a newcomer like Martzen wasn’t initially paired with a staffer. However, that gave him more time to get his feet wet and learn the trade. One of Martzen’s tasks was to help manage the school’s video database and cut together highlight tape of incoming freshmen for that class. Yes, that would make them eighth graders. These were formative years, to say the least.

Photo courtesy of Geoff Martzen.

“If you’re at the University of Alabama and you’re kind of on the cutting edge of this personnel stuff, you have to have the most up-to-date database and the most dialed-in process in the entire country,” Martzen said. “I was assigned to build the eighth grade and incoming freshmen database for them. That was my big project there. I loved it, I was all-in. At the time, I would’ve told you that I was probably the person to contact for eighth-grade football in America. It was insane, but I was so happy to be a part of something.”

The concept of investing in a personnel department, at least the way Alabama did, wouldn’t become widely utilized until a few years later. Martzen was there for the early stretch of Alabama’s run, along with others. He was able to see the process up close. Couple this intensive approach with the coaching of Saban and the resources at Alabama’s disposal, and you have a dynasty in the making.

With each passing year, the origin stories of the students in this recruiting department grow more and more significant. Several members of the recruiting department back then have gone on to find success working in the NFL and for other collegiate programs. Marynowitz was hired by the Eagles to be Chip Kelly’s vice president of player personnel, before returning to Alabama in 2016 as the school’s associate athletic director for football. Matt Lindsey, an intern at the time, is now the director of player personnel at Ole Miss. He was named Football Scoop’s player personnel director of the year in 2018. Drew Hughes, another Bama recruiting intern, has led the personnel departments at UCF, NC State, Florida, Tennessee and, most recently, South Carolina. Similar to Saban’s coaching tree, the personnel seeds planted in those early years have been fruitful.

Malchow and Martzen, like others, benefitted from this environment.

“Ed would just take time every day to teach us new things and we were all really passionate,” Malchow said. “A lot of the guys around the country that you see now in different recruiting departments are from Alabama or have Alabama ties, just because the way Ed trained us. We were just doing it at such a higher level than any other staff and no one had the big staff that we had. The things we were doing, in my opinion, we were just a really well-oiled machine.”

“The biggest thing I learned at Alabama was what goes into winning,” Martzen said. “I think there’s kind of this perception that it comes easy to programs like that, but the effort level is higher than anywhere I’ve been. And maybe it looks like it comes easy because of the type of workload and the emphasis on the details that goes on in a program like that. It really set me up, and I think the biggest thing I took from that is the way my peers worked. Being able to implement that sort of style was really helpful.”

After graduating from Alabama in 2012, Malchow accepted a job at Boise State working for the school’s personnel department under head coach Chris Petersen. Petersen was intrigued by Alabama’s recruiting practices and targeted some of Marynowitz’s interns to join his staff. Shortly after Malchow took the job, Martzen joined him.

From a personnel standpoint, there’s a transition period when you go from a school like Alabama — flush with resources and a national brand — to a program like Boise State. The talent pool is smaller. The staff wasn’t as large. There were more responsibilities. The facilities weren’t as updated. The players targeted had to be willing to work, willing to be coached, willing to be developed into good players over time. And you couldn’t afford too many misses.

This sort of DIY experience ultimately paid off for Malchow and Martzen. Petersen worked with them to identify the talent he wanted while giving them the space to learn on the job. They were better for it, and the hours put in helped to advance their careers.

“I think it was a good opportunity for us to learn literally everything within the job,” Malchow said. “With transcripts, we had a person for that at Alabama. We had a person for, like, every task at Alabama. At Boise, you’re doing everything from film to the visit for every single kid that comes on campus. You’re just really well-versed and it makes you very versatile, working at Boise State, because you have to wear so many different hats. Whereas at Alabama, you’re very specific.”

“It was kind of like going from little fish, big pond to big fish, small pond, for lack of a better analogy,” Martzen said. “But essentially, the biggest thing I got to see at Boise State was Marshall take what we learned at Alabama, what he knew at Alabama, and try to implement that into a small-market team. It was an invaluable experience because I would have to do that later in my career several times. So it was really cool to see the ideals, the processes, just kind of the fundamental beliefs that we had at Alabama go to a completely new program, opposite side of the country, different conference, all this stuff, and be implemented successfully.”

After this stint at Boise State, Martzen and Malchow went their separate ways. This coincided with the rise of other former Alabama recruiting interns, too, as that first wave began to land jobs at other Power 5 programs and NFL organizations.

In 2013, Martzen’s career took him to Provo, Utah, to lead BYU’s personnel department for two seasons, which was another adjustment based on the type of prospects the school targeted on the recruiting trail. From there, he moved on to Colorado State for three years, before landing a job closer to home at UCLA in 2018, working for Chip Kelly.

Malchow followed Petersen to the University of Washington. He spent two seasons there, helping Petersen turn the program into a Pac-12 force in short order. Even in Seattle, Malchow’s Alabama connections continued to pay off.

As a student recruiting intern, Malchow was paired with then-Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. In 2016, when Smart left Alabama to take over at Georgia, he hired Malchow to be his personnel director. This is where Malchow got to know a rising coach named Mel Tucker.

Tucker, a defensive backs coach for Alabama’s 2015 national championship team, followed Smart to Georgia to become his defensive coordinator. Smart instilled a renewed emphasis on recruiting upon his arrival at Georgia and, having both worked for Saban, Tucker and Malchow shared a mindset when it came to recruiting practices. Malchow got to see the way Tucker operates as a recruiter for three seasons in Athens. They worked well together. In 2017, Malchow took home FootballScoop’s player personnel director of the year award. In 2018, Tucker’s last year at Georgia, 247Sports ranked him as the nation’s 14th-best recruiter after helping the school sign the No. 1 class in the country.

Malchow believes Tucker is everything a director of player personnel could ask for in a coach.

“Mel’s a beast,” Malchow said of Tucker. “I know he hashtags relentless on everything, and that’s the best way to describe Mel. I always say with NFL and college prospects, you want ‘and‘ players. Like, he’s big and he’s fast and he’s got great character and he’s physical and he’s got good grades and he comes from a good background and he’s got an edge to him — all that stuff. Mel, I would describe as an and coach. A ‘but‘ coach is like — this guy’s super-intelligent, but he can’t really recruit, but he can’t really relate to kids. Mel is the ultimate definition of an and coach. He can do it all. He’s a great DB coach. He’s a great coordinator. He’s great at building relationships with the players. He’s great with the boosters. He’s a guy that checks a ton of boxes. It’s really hard, in my opinion, to find a guy like Mel that can do so many different things at a high level.”

When Tucker left Georgia in December 2018 to become the head coach at Colorado, Malchow reached out. Tucker was in need of his own personnel director, and Malchow called to recommend Martzen for the job.

Photo courtesy of Geoff Martzen.

It was a pairing that made sense on a number of levels. Martzen had ties to the state of Colorado after working at Colorado State. He’s a California native who had just spent a year at UCLA, so he could theoretically help attract players from the talent-rich state to Boulder. Not to mention he learned the trade from Marynowitz, which means he learned from Saban. Just as Tucker did.

Martzen had heard good things from Malchow about Tucker as well. Martzen, too, received a call from Malchow, encouraging him to interview for the job. The timing was good, because Martzen was willing to listen. With Martzen in search of an opportunity that would allow him to expand upon his responsibilities, Tucker offered everything he was looking for. Once it was arranged and completed, it was clear they’d found a match.

“He offered me the job and I accepted on the spot,” Martzen said of Tucker. “I just knew the vibe there was different. Working for him, we clicked really quickly to the point where I would spend hours in his office — whether we were evaluating tape or talking about other things. Even when he was traveling for whatever reason, I was traveling with him. Our relationship just clicked.”

As Colorado’s player personnel director, Martzen was able to pick up on Tucker’s tendencies in a hurry.

Tucker is specific when it comes to the types of recruits he targets, Martzen said. There’s no gray area or uncertainty. He regularly watches tape of athletes and meets with members of his recruiting department to explain the tools, body type preferences for each position, mental makeup and other components he looks for in a prospect. This effort from the top down helps the filtering system run efficiently. By the time a potential target is suggested, it’s typically an easy decision to move forward with an offer.

Building trust between a coach and personnel director often takes time, but not in this case. This is why the decision to bring Martzen to Michigan State was an easy one.

“Geoff is an outstanding evaluator of talent and players,” Tucker said of Martzen. “He’s a tireless worker and a competitor. He really understands the importance of recruiting and how it’s the lifeblood of the program.”

Since arriving in East Lansing, Martzen has been Tucker’s right-hand man. He was initially hired to lead MSU’s personnel department, but after Tucker took over in February, Martzen saw his role shift in real time. He has a good read on the coaches who were hired and what they bring to the table. He helped target and hire a number of off-field staff members. His input in building a program was valued, and he proved to be a versatile asset. This led to a promotion of sorts.

Martzen is still involved in recruiting from time to time, willing to lend a hand when he can. But that’s no longer his title. In March, Scott Aligo was hired to lead MSU’s player personnel department. Aligo had known Martzen for a while, with the two first meeting at a player personnel retreat years prior. It was Martzen’s idea to hire him away from Akron so he could take over the department Martzen was originally hired to run.

In the process, Martzen earned the new title of chief of staff, which requires a big-picture mindset, a versatile background and the drive to get things done. In this job, he’s essentially an extension of Tucker. His goal is to be a resource to everyone in the program, specifically to those who are off the field. This includes the football operations staff, recruiting team, creative, equipment managers, strength-and-conditioning coaches, name, image and likeness planning, etc. He wants to help eliminate obstacles for his colleagues and allow them to thrive in their specific departments, serving as a layer of protection for anything that might slow them down.

“Where I was needed evolved,” Martzen said of his new role. “We just kind of thought that my ability could be better utilized in a little bit more of an overarching role. That kind of changed relatively quickly. And then building the staff was fun. … We had a ton of talent already in-house that we were able to keep around, and then going out and supplementing what we had with some more important pieces like Scott (Aligo), like (creative director) Derek (Marckel), like (director of on-campus recruiting) Lisa (Ben-Chaim), like (on-campus recruiting coordinators) Tessa (Akers) and Lauren (McCree), it was fun. It was fun watching it all come together.”

Malchow, now the director of player personnel at Texas A&M, said Martzen’s promotion to chief of staff within a single year speaks volumes. Based on everything Martzen has achieved thus far in his career, it appears a move like this is warranted. This is a guy who coached youth football in high school and high school football in college — and knew then he wanted to pursue a career in this industry. He let a football game essentially determine his future. He moved to a region of the country without any previous ties, confident that he’d be able to make a name for himself. He’s worked with and learned from some of the best in the business — from Nick Saban to Chris Petersen and other notable figures along the way — and determined what it takes to be successful.

Martzen has never been afraid to tackle a challenge. All it took for him to accept his latest one at Michigan State was a text message.

“I think the opportunity here is more realistic than other places,” Martzen said. “I think that we have to be the best that we can be in how we brand ourselves, we have to be the best that we can be in how we market ourselves, we have to sign the players that we want to sign. … If we do all of those things and become the top in each of those categories, everything else will take care of itself. We have great coaches, we’ve got a great leader, we have an unbelievable amount of resources, we have a great administration — everything is set up. We just have to take care of the other end of things. I really think (the possibilities are) endless.”