Nobody doubts Steve Bernstein’s dedication to football.
He spent nearly 40 years as an assistant coach at some of the NCAA’s top programs, building secondaries for top-25 teams and watching dozens of former players get drafted into the NFL.
Nobody doubts his patriotism, either.
A Vietnam veteran and former Marine captain who was awarded a Purple Heart, Bernstein’s drive and demeanor are founded in the time he spent in the Corps.
Those two sides of Bernstein came together in 2011 as part of the U.S. Men’s National Team that won a gold medal at the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) Senior World Championship in Austria. Bernstein instructed Team USA safeties under head coach Mel Tjeerdsma.
“It’s the second time I’ve gotten to represent the United States,” Bernstein said. “It’s a great honor and a great responsibility, too.”
A Bellflower, Calif., native, Bernstein joined the Marine Corps after graduating from college. He said going from campus to the military was a transition that shaped the rest of his life.
“In college, you have no real responsibilities, then in the military you have a lot of responsibilities – including those to the people you are serving with. After being in that situation, it guided my coaching career. You never know what is going to be there tomorrow, so get what you can get done today.”
Bernstein was the assistant head coach at Virginia until his retirement in 2008. His coaching resume also includes Northern Illinois (2004-05), Arizona (2001-03), LSU (1998-99), Texas (1992-97), Illinois (1988-91), Colorado (1985-87), Virginia Tech (1978-84), Wake Forest (1973-77) and Utah State (1970-72).
Four of those stops included positions under Team USA defensive coordinator Lou Tepper, who said no one prepares his players and his fellow coaches better than Bernstein.
And nobody who played for Bernstein ever forgets him.
“Steve is one of the most unique personalities in college coaching,” said Tepper, a former head coach at Illinois who also worked alongside Bernstein at Virginia Tech, LSU and Colorado. “He is one of the best recruiters I’ve been around because he is so demanding yet so positive.
“He’s not a yeller, but he gets his point across. He’s soft-spoken in many respects. In all honesty, he made every game-planning session meeting I had 40 minutes longer because he questions everything, leaving no stone unturned.”
Bernstein said that approach comes from military life. In college, overlooking a detail might result in the other team scoring a touchdown. A mistake in Vietnam could cost people their lives.
“One is not nearly as serious as another, but being methodical teaches you that everything is important,” Bernstein said. “I try to be sure that everything is covered, that once my guys get put into a situation, it will come natural to them.”
Bernstein demanded the same 100 percent effort from his stars as he did his walk-ons who would never play a down. By holding everyone accountable, the level of the entire group rises.
He said the players didn’t always understand at the time what he was doing, but most got it once their time in football was over.
“David Tate, who I coached at Colorado and went on to play with the Chicago Bears, called me ‘the kind of guy you love in retrospect,’ ” Bernstein said. “Another guy at Illinois, Marlon Primous, started his own business after football. He didn’t understand in college why I was always on him to be on time. Now, he does.
“You don’t have to be a tyrant, but you have to be demanding. You do the drills the right way, the technique the right way, so it all becomes natural after a while.”
Three years after retiring, Team USA brought Bernstein back to coaching, this time with a United States flag on his chest instead of his upper arm – but the same sense of pride in his heart.
He won’t compare football to the Marines – they are two different worlds with vastly different stakes.
What he learned from both, however, are what makes him the man he is today.
“In football and in the service, you are part of a team and you get called to account for what you do,” Bernstein said. “You have responsibilities, and you had better live up to them so you don’t let others down.
“Football is a game that teaches life lessons, where there are stars but not heroes. Combat is a lesson in life and where there are real heroes doing sometimes menial jobs. In both, though, you have to trust the guy next to you, and he has to be able to trust you.”
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