Kevin Sumlin and Co. better be at the ready come Saturday.
Aaron Pflugrad might know the Pac-12 better than anyone short of the oft-traveled Rick Neuheisel.
“I was 6 when my dad got a job at Arizona State on Bruce Snyder’s staff,” the Northern Arizona offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach said this week, days before his Lumberjacks travel to Tucson on Saturday to tangle with the Wildcats. “Then we went up to Pullman and dad was a Coug and I was a ballboy in the Pac-12. I got a good opportunity to see Reggie Bush and I knew I wanted to be a part of the Conference of Champions. Then dad took the job at Oregon…”
And that became young Aaron’s formal introduction into what was then still the Pac-10.
He blossomed as a senior at Sheldon High in Eugene, Oregon, earning first-team all-state honors after catching 59 passes for 869 yards and nine scores, one year after he dominated Pullman, Washington, with 840 yards and 14 touchdowns at Pullman High.
Undersized but overeducated in the intricacies of offensive football, Pflugrad earned a full ride at Oregon, played for the Ducks for two years, then transferred to Arizona State. As a senior, he had 44 receptions for 665 yards and five scores, earning an invite to the 2012 Casino Del Sol College All-Star Game and a brief run with the Philadelphia Eagles.
From there, he followed his father into the coaching ranks, serving as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Arizona State.
“In the third grade, I tried to take the SATs early so I could go and play for ASU,” he said. “Third grade was coming into the 1996 Rose Bowl season, Jake Plummer, that’s all I wanted to do. Fifth grade, they let me run routes on Thursday with the backup QB. I’d be pissed when school started because I couldn’t go to practice as much.
“That helped me focus on a goal and doing everything I can to accomplish it. But my sophomore year, I weighed 150 pounds and I never thought it would happen. Then I was blessed to have the opportunity with not just one but two teams in the conference.”
Of all the teams in his lofty West Coast résumé, one is lacking: Saturday’s opponent in Tucson, the Arizona Wildcats.
Of all his long-time foes, the Wildcats might rank at the top.
“I’ve gone against the Wildcats for 22 years,” he said. “They came up to Autzen and beat us, and another time we were up on them and Gronk goes off for 200 yards on Patrick Chung. My freshman year, we ranked No. 2 in the country and Dennis Dixon tears his ACL down in Tucson, and shatters my national championship dreams. Then Zendejas gets his extra point blocked, and the next year they beat us with Kish.”
Now coaching against the Wildcats back alongside his father, Robin, who serves as NAU’s assistant head coach and tight ends coach, Pflugrad, is ready for his fourth round against one of the two Pac-12 schools in Arizona.
Even if it means a matchup with his beloved former offensive coordinator, Arizona’s offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.
“Noel was my offensive coordinator at ASU and (Mazzone’s son and Arizona wide receivers coach) Taylor was our GA,” Pflugrad said. “I’ve known them for years. There is a great connection there. They work our camp, we work their camp. One game, we go to play Wisconsin, and we played them tough, lost by a point, and (Mazzone) brings in this Old Spice swagger. He knows how to get guys going. He was fun to play for.”
And now, fun to coach against.
“This is going to be my fourth one against UA or ASU, and I know what this game means to the kids of the state of Arizona.”
Someday soon, he may very well be coaching in a Pac-12 school, especially if his protege — senior quarterback Case Cookus, a potential NFL Draft pick — continues to thrive.
But for now, he’s savoring every opportunity to coach against it.
“I’ve been around the conference my whole life,” he said. “I could watch the Pac-12 Network every hour of the day. Each university is unique. I love the conference, and I’m really excited to go against a Pac-12 opponent. I have a great respect for the conference.
“They call it the Conference of Champions for a reason.”