By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 10, 2008
His friends and family say that Chris Meidt views the world through a filter colored by a knack for mathematics. That aptitude played into his choice to pursue a career as a football coach.
After all, the game is played on a grid. What would be more appropriate for a spreadsheet junkie who uses terms such as "allocating resources" even when the topic of conversation is breaking down the 11 players that constitute an opposing defense?
"It all correlates to numbers," Meidt said at Redskins Park last week, where he is in his first season as an offensive assistant coach with Washington. "It correlates to time and space and location. That's just how I see things. It's space and time. Are people in the right place at the right time?"
It was understandably surreal one morning last February when Meidt had to take his guiding analytic principle and apply it to himself. When newly named Redskins Coach Jim Zorn asked his old friend Meidt to leave Division III St. Olaf College to join the Redskins, it forced a major decision.
Was Washington the right place? Was this the right time?
"We never had any intention of leaving," said Meidt, 38.
Taking the job would have been an easy choice for most of those in football's coaching ladder, where grueling hours and single-minded determination are the prerequisites for advancement. But Meidt found a more well-rounded experience at tiny St. Olaf, a liberal arts school located in the one-time dairy industry town of Northfield, Minn., where townspeople long ago adopted the motto of "Cows, Colleges, Contentment."
After years as an assistant coach, Meidt turned his first head coaching stint into a revival, breathing life into the football team at St. Olaf by building a high-powered offensive attack and posting a 40-20 record in six seasons.
His most enduring work, however, came away from the football field, where Meidt immersed himself in the community. Meidt, his wife, and three kids, were fixtures at Emmaus Baptist Church. Meidt served on several church committees, and for six years sang bass in a quartet.
"Chris really enjoyed the chance to take off his football cap once in awhile," said Rob Ryden, a fellow member of the group that came to be known as "The Four Coaches."
When a local youth baseball program needed volunteers, Meidt spent his offseason organizing the effort. When a local youth football league nearly folded because of a shortage of coaches, Meidt rearranged St. Olaf's Thursday football practices so he and nearly a dozen players could serve as volunteer coaches.
When his growing church needed to add another staff member, it was Meidt who reconfigured the budget to make the move affordable.
"He had a way of helping people to see possibilities that we otherwise weren't able to see," said Will Healy, senior pastor at Emmaus.
Very few opportunities would have enticed Meidt to leave. But one of them came to pass the day Zorn called.
The two first crossed paths in the mid-1990s as assistant college coaches in Minnesota, where Zorn coached quarterbacks at the University of Minnesota and Meidt served as offensive coordinator at Division III Bethel University.
Almost immediately, they clicked because their coaching styles were complementary. Meidt appreciated Zorn's vast experience, regarding him as a mentor who could challenge his football mind. In the following years, Meidt often visited Zorn at his NFL coaching stops, spending two or three days at a time trading ideas and concepts.
Meanwhile, Zorn admired Meidt's analytic abilities and resourcefulness, tools that allowed Meidt to view the game from an alternate perspective. Meidt's ability to multitask -- especially his knack for quickly deciphering, sorting, rearranging, organizing massive amounts of information -- made him even more impressive.
"He thinks different than I do," Zorn said. "His mind kind of works on a grid, very linear, horizontal and vertical lines . . . whereas I sort of have this swirl to the way I work. I have a little bit of a circular motion in the way I work."
Their shared faith off the field only further cemented the bond.
Unlike virtually all of his current colleagues on the Redskins staff, Meidt never coached at a major college or professional football league. Still, the friendship was strong enough for Zorn to ask Meidt to come to Washington, where he would handle various aspects of the playbook and help oversee the quarterbacks.
Back in Northfield, friends hoped Meidt would be flattered but ultimately pass on the chance, and his knack for careful analysis did little to make the decision less agonizing.
"There was huge reluctance," Meidt said. "It was a wonderful life there."
But friends and family said the opportunity was ultimately too big to pass up. Meidt was convinced by his wife Allison, who likened the move to his "calling."
"It's not just a loss for football," said his father, Gerhardt. "It's a loss because of his involvement in his church and his community. His loss is more than just losing a football coach to another football team."
The adjustment has been as tough as expected, with Meidt turning in long hours at Redskins Park. Pals back in Northfield have gotten used to getting late night calls, made as Meidt drives home at the end of the day.
But on those calls, he tells friends and family alike that he finds his job exhilarating, that in the final analysis, each day in Washington is starting to feel more like the right time, the right place.