High School Football

He played in the NFL, led a D-I program. Now at 63, he’s a first-time high school coach.

John Zamberlin owns a mile-long football resume.

He played six seasons in the NFL, ran his own Division I college program and even coached in the pros. But at 63, he’s embarking on a new adventure this fall as a first-time high school football head coach.

Meridian High hired Zamberlin in February to replace Mike Virden, turning to the former Idaho State coach to rebuild its once-proud football program. Since then, Zamberlin dove head first onto the learning curve of running his own high school football program.

“It’s rejuvenated me,” Zamberlin said. “I’m fired up. I’m excited.”

Zamberlin first came to Idaho in 2007 to take over the Idaho State program. He built Central Washington into a regular NCAA Division II contender, going 63-41 and winning four conference titles in 10 years. But the success didn’t translate to Idaho State, where the Bengals went 6-39 before the school fired him after four years.

John Zamberlin brings extensive experience to the Meridian High football program. The former Idaho State coach, NFL linebacker and CFL coach will lead the Warriors this fall in his first season as a head high school football coach. Darin Oswald doswald@idahostatesman.com

He spent one season as an assistant at Weber State until its head coach, Ron McBride, retired, then caught on as an assistant with the Hamilton Tiger Cats of the Canadian Football League. He coached three years outside of Toronto before the Tiger Cats installed Zamberlin as a West Coast scout.

He’d never lived in the Treasure Valley before but knew the area from his days recruiting at Idaho State. The low cost of living, easy airport and proximity to his family in Washington convinced Zamberlin and his family to put down roots in Meridian.

Those roots held when the Tiger Cats overhauled their scouting department the next year. Instead of moving back across the continent or scouring for another job, he stayed in Meridian.

“I’d asked a lot of my family,” Zamberlin said. “We moved around a few times. … At that point in time, my son was going to be a senior (in high school) and my daughter was going to be a freshman.

“I said, ‘You know what? It’s time I start looking at the family.’ Not that we never did. We were a football family and did what we had to. But I didn’t want to pull them out of that environment again.”

John Zamberlin watches his Meridian Warriors compete in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl 7-on-7 high school tournament Friday. Darin Oswald doswald@idahostatesman.com

Zamberlin opted to give the high school ranks a try in 2016. He’d previously only coached one season at a high school in the early ‘90s, but he got his teaching certificates from Washington reinstated and longtime friend Scott Criner found him a spot on his staff at Rocky Mountain.

Criner followed a similar path as Zamberlin, coaching in college and professionally before ever taking over a high school program. He nearly left Timberline High to take a job as Zamberlin’s quarterbacks coach at Central Washington, so he didn’t hesitate to install the experienced football mind as his linebackers coach.

“The key is the level of patience,” Criner said. “If you ever watched him with his special ed kids, you know he has a tremendous amount of patience and love for kids. That’s what makes him a good coach.

“If you watched John at Idaho State or Central Washington, he’s a father figure to those guys. He’s not just the guy who made the decision to give scholarships. He was concerned about their family lives.

“His values are extremely high. If I’m a parent, I want my kids around that guy.”

Meridian High football coach John Zamberlin addresses his players between games at the annual Famous Idaho Potato Bowl 7-on-7 tournament Friday at the Optimist Youth Sports Complex in Boise. Darin Oswald doswald@idahostatesman.com

Criner and Zamberlin have long talked about the differences between coaching at the high school, college and professional levels. Neither see the chasm that most outsiders think separates the jobs. Both simply say, “coaching is coaching.”

Zamberlin admits he spends more time managing paperwork, equipment and academics now than he did at the college level, where universities employ entire departments to take care of those concerns. But he said his coaching style and lessons are largely the same today as they were in college or even the pros.

“The biggest thing, I believe, is you’ve got to build bridges with these kids,” Zamberlin said. “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care about them.

“You’ve got to relate to them, coach them hard, coach them in a positive way. You’ve got to be there for them.”

Zamberlin applied for the vacant head coaching jobs at Rocky Mountain in 2017 and at Eagle this offseason after one year as the Mustangs’ linebackers coach. Both schools went in different directions, but Meridian pounced to recruit him to Pine Avenue.

“He’s taught me a lot of stuff at ‘backer that I’ve never known before,” Meridian linebacker Emmitt Sallee said. “He’s shown me new drills, new footwork, new ways to tackle. He’s really helped me open up what I’m able to do, and I’ve seen him do that for a lot of the other players, too.”

Meridian hasn’t posted a winning season since 2011 and last won a playoff game in 2007. But with 17 returning starters, including six who made the all-conference team last fall, the Warriors are a trendy pick to throw a wrench in the traditional power structure of the 5A Southern Idaho Conference.

Criner said that fits Zamberlin better than stepping into a ready-made program. His skill set of walking the halls, building daily relationships with players and relating to families from different backgrounds makes him a threat to return Meridian to contention.

“John, whether he likes to hear it or not, is a great fit for Meridian High School,” Criner said. “He’s phenomenal with kids. He will make them a great program. There’s a leadership style that fits some places, and he’s got that.”


Kaden Birch caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from Colby Jackson in the waning seconds of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl 7-on-7 tournament championship game Saturday, leading Rocky Mountain to a come-from-behind, 37-34 victory over rival Mountain View.

It’s the first Potato Bowl 7-on-7 title in program history for Rocky Mountain, the reigning 5A state champion.

Capital won the tournament’s lineman challenge for the third year in a row earlier Saturday afternoon. It also won the tug-of-war championship, beating Eagle in the final. The summer event started in 2010 and no school had ever swept both the lineman and tug-of-war titles before.

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