SMSU FOOTBALL: ‘I’ve been blessed to stay at one place’
Cory Sauter steps aside as head football coach at SMSU after 12 seasons
MARSHALL — Cory Sauter’s career in football almost stopped shortly after it began. As an undersized underclassman at Hutchinson High School, Sauter had thoughts of walking away from the game but was convinced to stay in the program by the team’s head coach. Sauter stayed with it, and as a result, has led him on a path that has taken him to the highest stages of competition in places all over the world.
On Tuesday afternoon, Southwest Minnesota State University Interim Director of Athletics Bruce Saugstad announced that Sauter has stepped aside from his position as head football coach after 12 seasons, effective immediately.
Saugstad added defensive coordinator Shay McClure will take over as Interim head coach and a head coaching search will start immediately.
“I want to thank Cory for his years of service, hard work, and dedication to SMSU and Mustang football,” Saugstad said in a press release. “He has made a positive impact on many of our student-athletes and his coaching staff during his tenure.”
Sauter said each season, they evaluate the direction of the program and its coaches and players and just felt it was time to make a change.
“After the season, we always evaluate coaches, players and our program and after this season, we just felt it was in the best interest to make a change,” Sauter said. “Ultimately, it’s about the student-athletes and the program and we just felt it was the best path for all parties involved.”
Sauter added, “You never know how long you’re going to be somewhere with coaching and I’ve been blessed to stay at one place for a lot of years. Marshall and SMSU are great places and it’s been a blessing to be a part of it.”
Making the big leagues
After making the decision to stick with football in high school, Sauter continued to grow as a player and get noticed by college football programs. Sauter would attend the University of Minnesota, where he set several records at quarterback, including being the all-time career leader in pass completions (539), pass attempts (945) and passing yards (6,834). After graduating from the U of M in 1997, Sauter continued his aspirations of playing pro football, signing as a free agent with the Arizona Cardinals in 1998 and spent part of the season on the practice squad. The next two years he was with the Detroit Lions and a brief stint with the Barcelona Dragons in NFL Europe in 2000 before returning to the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears from 2001-2003. In 2002, Sauter appeared in one regular season game with the Bears, completing six of his nine pass attempts for 59 yards.
Continuing to lead
After hanging up the cleats in 2004, Sauter started his coaching career in 2006 with the Hamburg Sea Devils in NFL Europe as their quarterbacks/receivers coach before coming back to the Golden Gophers that fall to serve as their defensive backs coach. After a season as the quarterbacks coach for the Berlin Thunder, Sauter joined SMSU as its quarterbacks/pass game coordinator/offensive coordinator in the fall of 2008. The following year, the Mustangs averaged 36 points per game, their third-highest mark in school history, scoring 30 or more points in eight games (single-season record).
Sauter said he helped out at football camps at a few colleges and universities to get a feel of the coaching side of the game and that helped transition into pivotal positions to jumpstart his coaching career.
“When I got done with the NFL in 2004, I took a year to reflect and start working on my coaching career. I helped out at several camps, including the University of Minnesota, Winona State University and St. Olaf College, just to get a feel of the coaching aspect,” Sauter said. “When I took the position in NFL Europe, I was part of the entire process, from the draft to training camps and everything in between. I came back to the States and was offered a graduate assistant position with the University of Minnesota as their defensive backs coach under Glen Mason and then I went back for a second stint in NFL Europe, so I was really able to get three seasons of coaching in two years and it was a great way to jumpstart my coaching career.”
When NFL Europe folded during Sauter’s second round of coaching there, he was on the search for a new position. Enter SMSU.
“My wife actually found the SMSU job for me,” Sauter said. “Coach [Eric] Eidsness was there, so I applied and got the quarterbacks coaching job and I just enjoyed getting my feet wet early on. In 2010, I took over as head coach and I’ve been here ever since.”
On March 29, 2010, after a month as the interim head coach, Sauter was named the 10th head coach in program history at SMSU. Sauter’s first season at the helm saw the Mustangs go 4-7 before posting a 3-8 record in 2011. The next year, SMSU’s offense took a step forward, setting a school record in rushing touchdowns with 23 and recording its second-highest amount in rushing yards at 1,888 yards. The Mustangs also ranked 62nd in scoring and 65th in total offense in the country that season.
In 2013, Sauter and the Mustangs had their first winning season during his tenure, earning a 7-5 record and a fourth-place finish in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, its highest placement in the conference since 1999. SMSU also set 13 single-season records and appeared in its third postseason game in team history, falling to Pittsburg State (Kan.) in the Mineral Water Bowl.
After going 3-8 in 2014, SMSU bounced back in the 2015 season, improving its win total to eight games (school-record at Division II level of play), and reached as high as No. 9 in the NCAA region rankings before just falling short of qualifying for the NCAA playoffs. The Mustangs led Division II in the regular season in first downs with 312 and scored 366 points (fifth-highest mark in school history).
The 2016 season saw SMSU start the year in thrilling fashion, with the Mustangs stunning No. 19 Minnesota Duluth 42-38 for its first-ever victory against a nationally-ranked team in Division II before posting five wins on the season. The next few seasons were up-and-down for the Mustangs, with SMSU winning nine combined games in three years, but saw several players set historic records. Wide receiver Nate Huot set the SMSU and NSIC career reception record in 2017 at 269 catches while quarterback Blake Gimbel had career numbers in 2018 in completion percentage (.623), passing yards (3,381), pass completions (293) and was second in passing touchdowns at 25 and wide receiver Daniel Davis led the NSIC in receptions and receiving yards in consecutive seasons (2018-19) and led Division II in receptions per game and was third in receiving yards per game in 2019.
Sauter said all of his players have had a huge impact on him and the bond he’s created with them over the years is something he won’t forget.
“The reason why you get into coaching is the players, at all levels,” Sauter said. “Just the bond you have with these guys is special; they invest so much and football is a sport unlike any other because you work so much and put in a lot of time to prepare and you get so little time to actually play. I have a special spot in my heart for football players because they invest so much just to get something in return. Our kids grow, learn and develop each day and leave here a better version of themselves.”
After the Mustangs’ 2020 season was canceled due to COVID, SMSU went 2-9 this past fall, winning both of its games on the road. Sauter finished with a career record of 45-77, including a 44-75 mark in the NSIC.
A new chapter
As for the next phase of his life, Sauter said everything is still pretty fresh, but he’ll look at all opportunities and him and his family will make a decision on what’s best for them, whether it includes coaching or not. He added he’s extremely grateful for the amount of support he’s received.
“I can either look at any potential coaching opportunities and find one where I can make an impact or I get out of coaching and find something that fits my skillset. Just from being a head coach, I’ve been exposed to so many different realms, but I haven’t put any thought into it yet. And it needs to be a family decision with my wife and two daughters,” Sauter said. “Things are still pretty new and fresh right now and the biggest thing I’m doing is responding to the people who have reached out. I’ve gotten a crazy amount of support from everyone and it’s pretty overwhelming but it’s also a pretty cool fraternity that we’re a part of.”