Michael Sam will likely become the first openly gay man to be selected in the NFL Draft. He's Mizzou's first unanimous All-American in 53 years and a reigning SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year. And other than Sam himself, few people had more to do with his success than Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski.
"Coach Kool" has regularly churned out all-conference performers and highly-regarded NFL Draft prospects since he took over the gig in Columbia in 2001, when he followed head coach Gary Pinkel from Toledo.
Over the last five drafts, Kuligowski heard Sheldon Richardson (13th overall pick, 2013), Aldon Smith (seventh pick, 2011) and Ziggy Hood (32nd pick, 2009) have their names called in the first round. Six of his Tigers have been named first-team all-conference. Seventeen have earned one conference honor or another.
This may seem high for Kony Ealy, but he's going to be one of the stars of the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine later this month. His movement skills are outstanding for a player his size, and he has the versatility to move all over Atlanta's four-man defensive front. Ealy's production ran a little hot and cold throughout his career at Missouri, but outside of Clowney, he has more developmental upside than any player in this draft.
For a player who was rather raw in talent when he arrived as a four-star recruit three years ago, Ealy's development under Kuligowski was remarkable. He played sparingly as a freshman and saw his reps increase as a sophomore, but it wasn't until 2013 he burst onto the national scene with nine sacks, 43 tackles, and a pick-six interception.
Sam will eventually join Ealy in the NFL, though it might not be until the third day of this year's draft. The 6'2, 255-pound 'tweener ranks No. 11 on SB Nation's latest list of defensive ends, nine spots behind his teammate, with the Seahawks (of course) as his ideal destination. But Sam has often faced longer odds.
Turn back the calendar to 2009. Sam set foot on the University of Missouri campus as a nobody; he was a two-star recruit out of Hitchcock High School in Texas. He'd held respectable scholarship offers to Arizona State, Colorado State, Houston, and Iowa State, but had decided Mizzou was the right fit. Kuligowski had been his recruiter.
"When I got my ACT scores back, Coach Kool, my position coach, was the first one to say, ‘Did you get your scores back?'" Sam said. "I said, ‘Yes, sir. I qualified.' ‘Well, we want you to take a visit up here.' "
Sam saw some playing time as a true freshman, though he managed to appear in 11 games and record 24 tackles for a team that went 10-3, good enough to make second-team Freshman All-American. His reps increased the following year, though with quite a bit of talent ahead of him on the depth chart, he remained a rotational player who checked in primarily in pass-rushing situations.
"He's doing a good job," Kuligowski said of his backup. "He's making some good progress. He's put on some good weight and strength and stuff like that since last year, so we feel good that he's going to have a good future here."
Much like everything else in Mizzou's debut season in the SEC, 2012 was not particularly kind to Sam. The Tigers limped to a 5-7 finish, and Sam missed two of the team's final four games due to injury. He recorded just 4.5 sacks and 22 tackles in what some thought could be a breakout season.
The year that changed it all
With the rest of the country overlooking them, Sam and the Tigers began preparing for the 2013 season. During a team meeting in which the players told their teammates something they did not know about them, the future All-American told his teammates he was gay.
"Everybody in the room was like, ‘okay'," Kuligowski said. "I think it was something that, if not known, was certainly suspected by lots of guys on the team. Not everybody, but I think it was something that wasn't a surprise to us either."
Preparations for the season would go on without a hitch, despite the loss of another first-round talent.
"Everybody thought our D-line was doomed because Sheldon Richardson was gone," Sam later said. "I kind of took that as disrespectful."
The Tigers would go on to post a 12-2 record. They won the SEC East in just their second year in the conference and came up just short of a bid to play for the BCS National Championship. Sam racked up honors. He led the conference with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss.
With the Cotton Bowl title on the line, Sam strip-sacked Oklahoma quarterback Clint Chelf to save the game.
The Cotton Bowl hero was a crucial piece of a line Nick Saban had called the best in the SEC. That probably means Kuligowski's line was the best in the country, by extension.
"I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now without Coach Kool and his coaching methods," Sam has said. "I'm just very appreciative to have him as a defensive coach ... There's so much competition on the D-line that we feed off each other. Kony helped me get better, and I helped him get better. That goes for our D-tackles, too. And Markus Golden and Shane Ray. And Brayden Burnett. You put anybody back there, I think they could do what I do. Or Kony does."
Next up for the Tigers could be defensive tackle Josh Augusta, a 300-pound former four-star from Illinois who contributed as a freshman in 2013.
Now, as Sam takes the next few months to prepare for the NFL Draft, he will face a challenge tougher than any he faced at Mizzou: acceptance in a league that has never employed an openly gay player.
"He was able to do those things in [the SEC], so I would expect him to be able to do some of those things in the NFL," Kuligowski said. "We've had some guys drafted in the first round, we've had some guys drafted in the later rounds. I could see some of them that he's better than, and some of them that, perspective-wise, he may not be as good as."
"He's tough. He's mean. He's nasty," the coach told media on Monday. "He won't back down from anybody."