Nick Bhardwaj will always remember the Powerade bath at Arkansas State. Not because of how cold it was on the back of his neck—or the fact that the sideline cleared out shortly before he was dosed in liquid ice—but because his defense, on his call, gave up a touchdown before the victory celebration began.
“I was pissed,” Bhardwaj said with utmost seriousness. “The guy came over to take my headset with two minutes left and I didn’t know why. Then everyone next to me started to clear out and I had an idea it was coming. To be honest, though, I was still thinking about the score we gave up.”
Such mentalities are typically acquired over time. It has taken Nick Saban decades to master the art of the unhappy sports drink shower, but not the 25-year-old CEO from San Francisco given the keys to a football Ferrari.
It took him just one afternoon.
The Head Coach
To put it bluntly, Bhardwaj’s resume is much more interesting than yours or mine. Still in his mid-20s, he’s now embedded in the app world, leading a tech company—Beyond Games—that is hoping to make a splash in the mobile and tablet arenas.
Before that, he was a college dropout at San Jose State after dabbling with the idea of practicing law. “It wasn’t for me,” Bhardwaj said. “So I made a change.”
From that change he turned his focus to online poker, putting his analytic prowess to good use and even playing full-time for a while. Once he got tired of that, he tried his luck as a part-time high school teacher—just your run-of-the-mill transition.
Eventually he touched down into the tech world, which is where his current professional interests lie. For a weekend, however, he put those duties aside, picking up a headset and putting down the endless stream of code.
He was the head coach of a college football team, at least for one day.
It was an opportunity made possible by Arkansas State. The Red Wolves auctioned off a coaching spot in their annual spring game on eBay, a move that drew significant attention and intense bidding.
The posting caught the eye of Bhardwaj as he stumbled upon it while searching for his daily dose of sporting news. A junkie of all sports, the possibility of coaching a major college football team in its spring game was instantly attractive.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Bhardwaj said. “A lot of my mentors and people close to me have stressed the importance of building experiences. There’s no materialistic thing that could replace something like this.”
As the bidding increased—starting at $2,500 and bumping up throughout the week—Bhardwaj kept up the ante. He didn’t quite know when he might stop, because how do you put a cap on something so unique?
“My brother sent me a message telling me to check out this awesome opportunity and included a link to the Arkansas State eBay page,” Bhardwaj laughed. “I responded, ‘Dude, I know. I’m the leading bidder right now.’”
When the auction finally closed, Bhardwaj’s bid of $11,700 was victorious. With his date on the sideline sealed, it was time to get to work.
This was not a publicity stunt for him or a means to get more eyeballs on a business he hopes to grow. This was a young man with means, a passion and the chance to do something no one else had done.
Instead of focusing on the way to seize the opportunity and market the business he runs, Bhardwaj took this time to prepare. He spent the next few days learning about the Arkansas State program, the offense and the style.
“Madden and NCAA are one thing, Bhardwaj said of the popular video games. “But I wanted to know what would happen when you got into the thick of it.”
There’s a reason for this, a mentality that explains why someone with no affiliation with Arkansas State—let alone someone who had never stepped foot in the state of Arkansas before the weekend—would spend a generous down payment on a luxury car for access to a program he didn’t live and breathe.
It’s in his blood to coach, to lead and to love sports. It’s why when asked about his sporting idols he fired off the names “Belichick” and “Walsh” rather than the players were accustomed to hearing.
Perhaps the leap from head chair to headset is smaller than one might believe. At the very least, Bhardwaj was anxious to find out.
Let’s start with the home movie theater capable of seating 20 people in the booster’s home. That might seem like an odd place to begin when discussing the opportunity to coach Arkansas State’s spring game, but it’s also a perfect place to begin.
Bhardwaj’s experience in Jonesboro, Ark., included accommodations at the home of a nearby Red Wolves’ booster. This home—or perhaps compound is more appropriate—included access to a home theater, golf simulator, popcorn machine and just about every whiskey you could ask for.
The infinity pool? It’s under construction. In case you were curious.
He was there for the game, but as he soon found out, his experience included so much more. There was the wining and dining, the handshakes, the press conferences and endless amounts of free swag in his very own locker. But he was there to work.
Once he dropped off his luggage, he became a sponge.
In the days leading up to the spring game, Bhardwaj followed first-year head coach Blake Anderson everywhere, asking questions and pushing his involvement in the process as far as they were willing to allow.
“Wherever coach Anderson went, I was there,” Bhardwaj said. “They were handing me the exact same things that they were handing every other coach in the meeting. It was fantastic.”
His desire to learn led to access the average college football fan would die for.
He sat in with offensive coordinator Walt Bell—a coach he guarantees will be leading his own team sooner than later—and he absorbed the offense, the calls, the checkdowns and the mindset that comes with a high-power spread offense. One night, after he came back from dinner, he and Bell spent time watching tape well past midnight.
If he wasn’t learning about the spread or getting a crash course on special teams, he was likely in the defensive room. Defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen spent hours with Bhardwaj, breaking down the various coverages and blitz packages at his disposal. It would come in handy later on.
“When they weren’t busy, I wanted to learn,” Bhardwaj said. “Anyone I could have access to, I listened to. They were really open to helping me.”
Such help included plenty of hours in the film room. Altogether, Bhardwaj tallied roughly 10 hours of film in Jonesboro: Three hours with coaches, three hours by himself in Arkansas State’s state-of-the-art viewing chamber and four more hours ‘after hours’ as he vacuumed up more knowledge heading into the game.
He loved every second of it.
His pregame speech could have been better, at least by his own accord. But with his moment in front of his team shared—and with the film room sessions behind—it was time for Bhardwaj’s sideline debut.
His team, the Black team, was going up against the Red team. In a surprise move, former Arkansas State coaching legend Larry Lacewell was on the opposing sideline, hoping to spoil the young man’s coaching debut.
Lacewell wasted little time putting the new head coach on his heels, running a fumblerooski out of the wishbone in his very first drive for big yardage. The game was moving fast, and he had a hard time staying with it at first.
“It took me a bit of time,” Bhardwaj said. “The whole first quarter I felt like I was 10 seconds behind on everything. I wasn’t seeing the right play immediately, and it was frustrating. I’m not a guy who likes to feel lost like that.”
Soon, however, the Black team took over and Bhardwaj settled in.
As part of the experience, Bhardwaj was able to communicate through the headset and identify certain matchups he thought his team could expose. He also made play suggestions and had the final say on all fourth-down calls.
I’m sorry to disappoint you, video-game fans. But he did not decide to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 19-yard-line in the first quarter.
His call sheet—which he brought home with him—included roughly 60 plays, 30 on offense and 30 on defense. As more plays were called from this sheet and he logged more on-field minutes, the game started to slow down.
The Black team’s offense got rolling—in large part because of quarterback Fredi Knighten’s big afternoon—which meant it was time to change it up. It was time for a trick play.
The situation, one Bhardwaj identified before the game, called for it.
Shortly after the second-string team was giving way for the third-stringers, Bhardwaj called for a halfback pass. After throwing to running backs in the flat all day, he felt the opportunity for something more was there.
“I wanted to ensure that there was a change on the field with the players and that we had a down where they wouldn’t be sending pressure,” Bhardwaj said on calling the trick play. “So we ran it on first down.”
The result was a picture-perfect 70-yard touchdown pass from the back, one Bhardwaj knew they had well before the pass was ever thrown. The film hours had paid off.
“The corner and the safety bit and the closest defender was 25 yards away,” Bhardwaj said. “It ended up working out perfectly.”
On defense, Bhardwaj called five blitzes on the afternoon. The first four worked out brilliantly, ending in three sacks and a batted pass. The last blitz called, which came as the game was winding down, ended up resulting in a long score for the Red team—one of their few big plays of the day.
Moments later, the Powerade waterfall engulfed the man who was still dwelling over his decision to send pressure.
Nick Bhardwaj just got the Powerade bath... https://t.co/edkx0Q2Fk2— Chris Hudgison (@ChrisHudgison) April 19, 2014
Despite his mixed emotions at the time, Bhardwaj led the Black team to a comfortable 48-17 victory. It wasn’t even close. His experience—one that proved to be much more than a fan simply enjoying life on the sideline—was complete.
“It was one hell of an experience,” Bhardwaj said. “These guys at Arkansas State were willing to help and were truly genuine. I hope this is a relationship I can continue with the school.”
As for the prospects of coaching and a life in sports, Bhardwaj didn’t completely close it out. His obsession with numbers and analytics certainly has a place in all sports, especially in an era where numbers rule. He also could see himself getting into high school coaching if the opportunity ever presented itself down the line.
For now, however, it’s back to the real world—back to San Francisco. Back to lead a company on the verge of breaking through in a crowded market. The college dropout turned poker player turned teacher turned CEO can officially add head coach to his resume, although it’s off to his next endeavor.
“I am retired,” Bhardwaj said. “For now.”
All quotes obtained firsthand unless stated otherwise.