ASU Bowling star-turned-Lopes’ Head Coach keeps strong ties with mentor
By: Jim Howell/GCU Club Sports Information Director
They used to be on the same team. Coach and player. Mentor and protégé.
Now opposing coaches. On archrival squads. Time for brooding press conferences? Accusations of stealing signs? Refused handshakes after matches?
Good luck with that. You obviously haven’t encountered Grand Canyon University Bowling Head Coach Ben Canfield and his former coach, ‘rival’ Arizona State University Bowling Head Coach Jordan Nassberg.
“Ben is the greatest person I’ve ever met,” said Nassberg, who one quickly discovers never gives short answers to anything. “I expect Ben to be president of the school in the next 30 years. He’s everything you’d want in that position.”
“More than just a coach, but a friend and a life mentor,” added a more subdued yet just as sincere Canfield. “I never would’ve expected the type of relationship we have to come about. He’s a friend for life.”
On the surface, they seem like polar opposites. Canfield projects a quiet, somewhat even-keeled focus. At the alley, whether he’s a coach or participant, he is always pleasant, but attention to detail is always driving him. Nassberg is unabashedly outgoing, making sure everyone at a tournament is going to enjoy themselves a little bit more by an interaction with him. He doesn’t limit conversation to those just wearing his school colors, either. In fact, he may be sometimes more conversational with the other team’s players and fans at times.
While that doesn’t seem like a working combination, it has been. From the time that the two first joined forces, when Canfield, who discovered his love for bowling while at Horizon High School, ran into Nassberg while starring at a Junior Bowlers’ Tournament. Canfield recalls conversation: “I don’t remember much. He talked a lot, and I didn’t talk much.” Nassberg recalls talent: “I explained some things about bowling with him, and we connected. I saw Ben’s natural delivery, and I told him, ‘I hope you love bowling, because you’re going to be doing it the rest of your life.’”
Like any quality friendship, it took time for each to see how one’s talents benefited the other. For Nassberg, who’s been the Sun Devils’ head coach since 2004, the freshman and sophomore versions of Canfield fit the mold of someone extremely talented, but still trying to find himself. “Ben had never been around people who cursed, or weren’t part of a ‘Christian-structured’ environment, and it took some adjusting on his part,” recalled Nassberg. “I told him that he needed to set his own boundaries, and stick with that. Why move away from the atmosphere of bowling if you love bowling?
The advice stuck, and not only gave Canfield the confidence to move into a leadership role in his junior year with the Devils, but gave him one of an endless amount of future life lessons from his coach. “I became the captain of the team, and I was in charge of a lot of stuff. That started our bond, and we started travelling more on non-college weekends to other tournaments. You could just tell, because we started having conversations about other things besides bowling. Life in general. That’s when I realized our friendship was something special.”
Canfield flourished under Nassberg’s guidance in Tempe, winning four National Collegiate Bowling Coaches Association Academic All-American awards as well as a Club Team Bowling Coaches Association 2nd Team All-American honor. He also unknowingly set himself up to move straight into coaching for the growing rival across town.
“(GCU Director of Club Sports) Dan (Nichols) was looking for someone,” said Nassberg. “I was going to take the job, but one of the parents of one of my bowlers rebuilt my mouth (I’ve had a lot of teeth problems all my life), so I stayed (at ASU). (I) referred Ben to it, and thought maybe after Ben ran it for a couple of years, that I would come to GCU. But after seeing what Ben has done with it, it’s his job.”
Added Canfield, “He was pretty instrumental in bringing me here, and helping me with my first year of coaching. Helping me understand what needed to be done, and how best go about developing players and building relationships. My overall general approach to bowling is very similar, because he’s the one who taught me.”
Similar approaches? Maybe. Similar styles? Not even close. At the recent ‘GCU-ASU Grudge Match’ at Thunder Alley, the two were a study in opposites. Canfield worried about the minutiae of the match: the lane assignments, the scoring, even the Phoenix traffic that prevented several Sun Devil bowlers from arriving on time-prompting Canfield to delay the start of the tournament. Nassberg was ‘working the crowd’, keeping both teams’ bowlers loose and laughing during warmups, and introducing himself to fans on the sidelines.
But that contrast wasn’t out of character for either. “I’m a little bit more organized than Jordan, and he’ll be the first one to admit that,” said a smiling Canfield. “I’ve got the ‘structure’ part down a little bit more than him, but that’s just who Jordan is. He’s a great ‘prep’ coach, and so once you get on the lanes, he lets you do your thing. He’s not afraid to let you fail. Bowling is such a big part of his life that he cherishes every moment that he gets to spend-even if it’s just talking about it to someone he just met.”
Nassberg wholeheartedly agrees. “He’s no longer a college kid. He’s an executive and a college coach. Ben’s already better than me in 99% of the things we do. My coaching style is free will. Whatever you do best, we’re going to explore that. You build off strengths. Mentor someone to be better than you are. Eventually, they will take you where they’re going, because they know you have their back.”
At the end of the ‘grudge match’, the Lopes celebrated their first-ever win in the event, but they were congratulated by more than just those wearing purple. “It’s an interesting dynamic,” said Canfield. “I still want to beat them every time we’re out there, and it makes it more fun when we do. But off the lanes, we can go hang out. We can all eat dinner together.”
For the two ‘rival’ coaches, dinner is just a small piece of it. In fact, the mentor already knows what’s going to happen when his protégé… brings another protégé.
“Can’t wait until Ben’s a father. I’m gonna spoil his kids.”