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Craig Ochs: ex-Griz quarterback has faced enough crossroads to last a lifetime
They say that dealing with crossroads in life can build character. If that’s the case, Craig Ochs has a doctorate in character building.
For the former Montana quarterback it really started when he decided to forego his final two years of football at the University of Colorado, a place he had dreamed of playing, and transfer to the University of Montana.
Once he completed a stellar, but short, career at Montana, Ochs took a shot at pro football and wound up playing on a championship team in NFL Europe. It looked like it would set him up for at least a roster position with the Buffalo Bills, the team that sent him overseas.
But a major injury to his throwing shoulder produced yet another crossroad. Would he rehab the injury and continue trying to make it in pro football or would he just move on?
Ochs chose the latter, taking a coaching position on Bobby Hauck’s staff at UM. By then he was married and had a young daughter. The job didn’t pay all that well, and Ochs felt the pull to do something that would make the future brighter for him and his growing family.
Back to Colorado he went, originally planning to attend law school. Instead he went through a masters-through-the-law program at the University of Denver, specifically in natural resources law with a heavy natural gas and oil emphasis.
He planned to pair it with a full M.B.A. effort but had an opportunity he felt was too good to pass up.
For the time being, at least, Ochs seems to be settled into something he can stick with for a long time. He’s back in Colorado Springs, where he was born and spent the first 12 years of his life, working in the oil and gas distribution industry at Acorn Petroleum, a company founded some 50 years ago by his grandfather and his brothers.
Listen to the entire Craig Ochs interview
“They’ve grown it into a very successful company,” Ochs reported recently. “Even though my grandfather passed away seven years ago his brothers are still involved in it. Even though the economy’s a little bit down we’re doing okay.”
Ochs feels like he’s been through an M.B.A. program in the short time he’s been at Acorn.
“It’s amazing,” Ochs exclaimed. “Real world experience is pretty tough to beat at the end of the day, so I’ve learned a lot and I’m very grateful for it.”
Another draw to Acorn was that he’s third generation family in a business that doesn’t have a second generation. If Ochs hadn’t become involved there would be no one to carry the family business forward, so that’s what he’s being groomed for.
Oddly enough, if you Google “Craig Ochs, Colorado Springs,” chances are you’ll be directed not to Acorn Petroleum but instead to Giuseppe’s Depot Restaurant, another business venture he’s involved in due to family ties.
Acorn also does commercial real estate ventures and owns the old Rio Grande train station just north of the Acorn office complex. Giuseppe’s has been in the building for nearly 40 years and had become a local landmark owned by Joann and Ed Colt.
They recently decided to retire and Harlan Ochs, Craig’s grandfather and former Colorado Springs mayor, has put Craig in charge of the restaurant’s financial management.
“It needs to be clarified (that) I’m certainly not over there operating the salad bar or anything like that,” Ochs laughed. “I’m not involved in the day-to-day duties. We have general managers in place doing that.
“Really what we’ve provided is the capital and the cash flow a restaurant like that requires,” Ochs added. “So far it’s doing well. We’ve made some changes and freshened it up a little bit (and) we’ve been hearing a lot of good feedback from the community.”
What Ochs has learned, among other things, is to have “an incredible amount of respect for anybody who can make it in that industry. It’s very challenging (and) difficult and I’ve learned a lot from the standpoint that a good chef and manager are worth their weight in gold.”
Ochs and his wife, Jessica, now are raising two little ones: Lucy, three, who was born in Missoula, and son Trevor, who was born in Denver in August 2008.
“They are a lot of fun,” Ochs said. “Fortunately they got their momma’s looks but hopefully got my personality as well. Life’s busy, but life’s awfully good, too, so we’re very blessed.”
Ochs isn’t the only one in the family with an advanced degree at least in the works. Jessica is working on a master’s in professional Christian counseling online through Liberty University in Virginia. The program includes a couple of mandatory trips to Lynchburg for course work there.
Another student taking the course - although Jessica hasn’t met her - is conservative talk show host Sean Hannity’s wife, Jill.
At the time of this interview Ochs, like so many others inside and outside the business, was watching the oil leak situation in the Gulf of Mexico unfold.
“First of all it’s tragic from an ecological standpoint,” Ochs said, noting that his company is in distribution and not exploration, “and it’s just heartbreaking to see the damage being done.
“Where it’s really going to affect everybody is if the government does a knee-jerk reaction and closes down all drilling,” he added. “It’s going to affect the price of oil (and) force us to import more from OPEC and other countries. Let’s hope they can get it under control.”
Saying he prefers to look out the windshield and not the rear-view mirror Ochs still feels good about his decision to leave Colorado for the 2003 season.
“It was regretful from the standpoint that it ended the way it did,” Ochs noted, “but with that being said it led me to Montana where I had a great experience and made a lot of great relationships. I will always have a fondness for Missoula and the Grizzlies.”
It’s hard for Ochs not to wonder what might have happened had he not injured his shoulder so badly near the end of a semifinal playoff game for Frankfurt in 2006.
“I’m not going to lie,” Ochs said. “(It was) probably one of the lowest points I ever had was sitting in an emergency waiting room in Berlin waiting to get my shoulder looked at. I couldn’t even hold it in place.
“I was pretty down because I felt like I was playing at a level that I thought I could go back to Buffalo and really compete for a job . . . as the third quarterback there.”
His strong faith has always led him to believe things happen for a reason, so he was on to the next stage in his life, a brief but rewarding stay as an assistant coach at UM.
“I loved coaching,” Ochs said. “I really was grateful to coach Hauck for giving me that chance. (Leaving) was a personal decision for me. That’s a real commitment to be a coach. It’s not only the coach that’s involved but it’s (his) family as well. It was just something I wasn’t willing to do with my family.
“Had I been single, sure, I would have done it,” Ochs went on. “But with a daughter and now a son and my wife I just wanted to physically be more present than coaching was going to afford me.”
Ochs said he’s excited to see what Hauck and his staff can accomplish at UNLV and how Robin Pflugrad and his staff will keep the Griz program on track.
Ochs said you can’t always plan for everything that happens but you can control how you react.
Looking back on the number of major decisions he’s had to make at such a young age Ochs said he’s learned a lot, in part from making “my share of mistakes.”
He also said it should make him more fearless when it comes to making decisions in the future.
“Hopefully that sort of attitude can help me in business and my life in general,” he said.
Prior to his college career, Ochs made an early choice to concentrate on football, a choice he somewhat regrets.
“I loved basketball,” Ochs said, adding that he also used to ski quite a bit, “but I gave that up after my freshman year in high school because football, it was pretty obvious, was going to be my future.
“I’ve told people one of my big regrets was giving up basketball just because I think the break from football would have been healthy, the cross training and all the stuff that comes with that would have been healthy and good.”
Ochs ended up being an All-American at Fairview High in Boulder, establishing himself as one of the nation’s most promising quarterback prospects heading off to college.
In contrast Jessica lettered 12 times in soccer, softball and basketball and had college offers for all three sports.
Despite only being a Grizzly for two years Ochs put a bold imprint on the football record book at Montana.
His single-season completion percentage of .686 in 2004 remains a UM and Big Sky Conference record. And Ochs is tied for first with the legendary Dave Dickenson for most passes completed in a season with 309 (2004).
His 3,807 passing yards in 2004 are second in Grizzly history and his 33 passing TDs that season rank third.
Career-wise Ochs is tied for third in completion percentage at .657, is fourth in total offense per game at 233.9 yards, and fifth in passing yards per game at 225.8.
“That’s more a reflection of coach Phenicie and the offense he put in place,” Ochs said, “and the players I had around me. Somebody else was on the other end of the ball catching it. I had great receivers up there.
“Of course Justin Green and Lex Hilliard, when you have a running game like that and that type of threat, it just makes life easier on a quarterback.”
What he remembers most about his time at Montana was the beauty of the area and a “wonderful place to live (and) go to school.
“It’s just a blessing to be able to walk onto a campus that’s so beautiful (and) I think there’s just a vibrancy there,” Ochs said. “My courses certainly in the history department were top notch. I had some great professors and learned an awful lot.”
Ochs also thought the athletic department at UM was special. Despite the dominant niche football enjoys, Ochs was impressed with how all of the sports and their athletes supported each other and he’s excited to see all of them have success.
His father, Steve, still lives part of the time in Missoula where he has a practice as an anesthesiologist. Ochs is hoping to get back for a visit sooner rather than later. In the meantime he keeps track of what the Grizzlies are up to.
“I followed Montana with a lot of interest during the playoffs the last two years,” Ochs pointed out, “and I’m excited to see someone like Andrew Selle have such great success because I know he’s just such a first-class individual, not to mention some other players I remember through coaching.”
Asked about growing rumors that UM might move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision Ochs said the school and state would have to go in with their eyes open.
“If you’re going to do it you need to do the blueprint that Boise (State) did,” he said. “If you do what Idaho did, even though Idaho had a great (football) year last year and they’re starting to turn that program around, they had a lot of years there they just didn’t do very well.
“Boise, they just made a commitment,” Ochs added. “They sat there and said, ‘we’re going to make a I-A jump and we’re going to do it the right way with facilities . . . recruiting and everything.’”
Ochs sees such a move for Montana as “really exciting” on one hand because of the fan base and support, but he also said it will take “a significant financial commitment by the school and . . . its donors to pull that off.”
While Montana is the top dog in Big Sky Conference circles, especially in football, moving into the Mountain West or the WAC certainly would change the competitive climate, Ochs said.
It’s not lost on Ochs that he and Jessica were engaged and married in Missoula and Lucy came along while they were there.
“Obviously some very important life experiences I shared there with people that I love,” Ochs reflected. “I consider coach Hauck a good friend of mine. A lot of just neat individuals . . . I think highly of, whether I played with them or whether they were fans.
“To me I’ll always remember Montana as just a great place to go and grow up a little bit,” he added. “I grew into a man there and I think I was able to really turn the corner a little bit and mature and I’ll always be very thankful for that.”
By BILL SCHWANKE of the Missoulian