Meet Brian Yauger, The College Football Coach Turned Marijuana Entrepreneur
Bros, meet Brian Yauger (the guy in the middle). Yauger, meet bros.
For those of you who recognize Yauger either by his face or by his name, you’re already a bit ahead of the game. For those of you who don’t, Yauger entered the college football scene in 1998 when Rob Ryan, then the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, brought him on as graduate assistant. Yes, that Rob Ryan, the mildly successful son of the great Buddy Ryan and brother of the dog food eating, pretty-much-equally-as-mildly successful Rex Ryan.
“Yaugs was great,” Ryan told FOX Sports writer Bruce Feldman. “I had to have him. He was a huge asset to us. He’s smart, hardworking and the players really respected him. He’s an excellent teacher.”
But here’s a hot question: Was Yaugs actually great at playing football, or just coaching it? Well, according to the Feldman:
Yauger was an average high school defensive lineman at Austin’s Westlake High, then spent a season at Southwest Texas State (now known as Texas State) playing for Dennis Franchione before transferring down to NAIA Hardin-Simmons. The scouting report on him: 6-foot, 240 pounds. Not very strong. One skill. A decent first three steps to rush the passer. He started two games his entire college career.
Can we guess why he was probably sub-average at high school ball? Here’s a hint: He was probably smoking weed.
Yauger remained at Oklahoma under Ryan’s tutelage for two seasons before Ryan ran off to work for the Patriots in 2000. After Ryan left, Yauger had no luck finding a full-time position in Oklahoma or anywhere in his current vicinity. So he ended up as the linebacker coach for the Columbia University Lions.
Living in Manhattan was cool. He had smart players, interesting boosters and a surprisingly hefty recruiting budget to travel the country and search for talent with the grades for the Ivies. He stayed tight with Ryan and once brought his girlfriend up to Boston for a football weekend. She dumped him on the drive home. Ryan’s wife didn’t paint the rosiest picture of life as a football wife.
In 2002, after going 0-7, Columbia cleaned house and kicked pretty much all of the coaches to the curb. Out of work, Yauger travelled to Sweden to become a defensive coordinator for the Arlanda Jets. Recognizing quickly that Sweden is probably where most coaching careers go to die, Yauger returned to the USA and bounced around as a defensive coach in the Division II/Division III range. Realizing his career was probably plateauing, Yauger came to the realization that he needed to make a change soon or else he would live the rest of his life not being able to afford to live on his $30,000/year salary.
So he got into the ganja game.
Well, actually, first he got into the construction game. Between when he left coaching behind and 2014, Yauger ran a construction company called Cool Earth that did around $650,000/year, which is by no means small potatoes. Then, in January 2014, one of his old high school buddies hit him up and convinced him to pack his things and move to Seattle to help him get his new marijuana business off the ground.
Even though Yauger knew nothing about pot, he shut down his construction business, packed all his clothes and his Golden Retriever and drove to the Pacific Northwest. His buddy had Yauger, the old defensive assistant, gathering intel on all aspects of the burgeoning marijuana industry so they could make smart investments.
“He was very big on engaging attorneys and guys who specialized in marijuana,” Yauger said, “so, I’d sit in their offices asking questions — ‘What are the laws? What are the barriers to entry? What are we allowed to do? What is the vetting process?’
Despite having literally not the first inkling on how to run a marijuana business, Yauger found a strange sort of solace in chasing down leads and potential buyers/sponsors. It reminded him of coaching football, most notably the recruiting and road-living. However, Yauger always quickly realized that the sale of legal marijuana was by no means the most lucrative business in the world.
“None of these guys are rolling in it,” he said — no pun intended. “It’s so regulated.”
And, because it was so heavily regulated and taxed, his boss came to Yauger’s apartment on New Year’s Eve 2014. The guy was bailing on the pot business. There were too many hoops to jump through.
“I was floored,” he said. “It felt like when you get fired in coaching. I was mad. I was sad. I just watched football for a couple of days, drank some beers, and then January 2, it was time to figure out what to do next.”
On January 3rd, Yauger had a meeting with the CEO of another Washington-based marijuana company named Ativas (which, yes, is sativa backwards). Who was the CEO? Well, he happened to be a former executive of ESPN named Adam Smith. After the two of them traded war stories about their respective backgrounds in sports, Smith told Yauger:
“You’re the guy I call when I want to find out what’s going on around the state (in the marijuana industry). If you can figure out a way to monetize that, you can have a good business.”
So Yauger did. After realizing that there was no way to actually track the sale of marijuana, Yauger began going to all the dispensaries in the area and asking the owners if they would like to invest in a marijuana-selling analytics tool. Most of them said yes, allowing Yauger to establish and run FrontRunnerData.com and MJTicker.com. Both of these databases launched to huge success, allowing him to open his own dispensary, which Feldman describes as another highly lucrative venture:
As Yauger exits off I-5 and turns into what looks like an industrial park, we get to what used to be a Scholastic book depository. This nondescript structure is now the most prolific pot factory in the state. Yauger tells me to get my ID out as we approach the front of the building. A security camera — one of 280 on the premises — peers down. A woman behind a glass counter asks us to sign in. It feels like you’re in the waiting area of a massage spa. Except for the glass case with neon lights on the right side of the room that displays many of the company’s array of pot products. One other distinctive element: the overwhelming scent of weed. It will be everywhere for the rest of what proves to be a two-hour visit. Actually, it’ll seize residence in my nose and go everywhere with me for the rest of this three-day trip to Seattle.
We met Yauger’s contact at Northwest Cannabis Solutions, Jerry, the company’s legal counsel. A 30-something self-admitted light pot smoker who says it makes him paranoid, Jerry gives us a tour after we slip on white coveralls. One of the biggest fears in any processing plant is allowing mites or any other pests near. The first big room we enter looks like an airplane hangar only with a ton of lights and a big flag of a marijuana leaf in the middle. Eight workers in hairnets and coveralls are seated alongside a row of large black cases filled with the uncut dried-out plant. Each has on a pair of surgical gloves and is trimming away.
In a different part of the building there are deep cells that each look like big garages where more weed is nurtured and grown in different stages. Each cell has a different strain. In another area is their kitchen, where a half-dozen workers in aprons are spreading out chocolate across baking pans. In one month, this place produced 1,400 pounds of marijuana. It also spends $85,000 each month on electricity. Such overhead is a big reason why the retailers in this business are taking home a lot more money than the growers.
Before we leave the facility, Yauger and Jerry try to arrange a night out to get beers. This part of the business also reminds Yauger of coaching. “It’s like junior recruiting where you’re trying to establish relationships,” he says. “I like knowing the people in the industry, what they think and how we can help them.”
What’s most interesting about Yauger’s story is the parallels it holds. As we look at the state of college football today, we see some coaches standing the sidelines who are making the same amount of money as some NFL coaches. Twenty years ago, when Yauger attempted to break into the college coaching game, it was simply viewed as a stepping stone towards a higher pedigree of employment. Similarly, twenty years ago, the only thing selling pot would get you is a few nice pieces of jewelry and a one-way trip to prison. Now, in 2016, the country is in a place where it’s by no means impossible to imagine the country-wide legalization of pot in the near-future. And where did Yauger get in? On the ground floor. So, while he began his career with aspirations of success on the sidelines of the football field, he fulfilled them on the sidelines of a different field, one full of pot plants that he helped grow into money trees.