Inside Read: Top coordinators face unusual financial quandary
In December 2011, Gus Malzahn resigned from his position as Auburn’s offensive coordinator to take the head job at Arkansas State. The move made sense, as Malzahn hails from Arkansas and desired to start his career as a head coach.
But the decision also came with a decisive risk, one that more and more high-profile assistant coaches are facing as the financial gap widens between the Power 5 conferences and the rest of the college football. Malzahn took a $450,000 pay cut from his coordinator position at an SEC power to become a Sun Belt head coach. Malzahn bet big on himself and won, as he returned to Auburn a year later as head coach and now makes $3.85 million per year.
But his salary decrease in order to eventually further his career has become a common risk-reward proposition in an era where million-dollar coordinators are becoming common and the highest-paid MAC coach made slightly more than $500,000 last year (Ohio’s Frank Solich, according to USA Today’s database).
“It’s not a new issue, but it’s a bigger issue,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. “The ‘have and have-not’ issue is making it bigger. It’s hard for a top coordinator paid $750,000 and higher to take certain jobs in the FBS.”
It’s a vexing choice looming over more and more coordinators as college football’s hiring and firing season -- “moving season” as it's called in the industry -- is upon us. In order to one day obtain head coaching jobs in the $3 million per year range, coordinators such as Clemson’s Chad Morris ($1.3 million), Alabama’s Kirby Smart ($1.38) and Michigan State’s Pat Narduzzi ($904,583) are forced with the prospect of taking jobs for less money and with fewer resources. Those three coordinators make more than the highest paid head coaches in Conference USA, the MAC and Sun Belt, according to available 2013 data (the only competitive school from last year is East Carolina, which is now in the American Athletic Conference).
“I can have fun being the boss of 50 guys on defense,” said Narduzzi, who turned down overtures from Connecticut last year, in an interview earlier this season. “I don’t need to be the head coach. I don’t see myself taking a step backwards for a headache.”
That’s not a majority opinion, however. Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said earlier this year that he realizes being a so-called “hot coordinator” can cool quickly. It’s something that was reinforced in August when Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Braxton Miller injured his shoulder and was lost for the season. Herman has helped the Buckeyes recover without Miller, but being a high-profile assistant can be tenuous.
“You have to weigh the future risk, but there’s also a future monetary benefit because you are going to make more being a coordinator here than you are being the head coach at somewhere like Kent State,” said Herman, who earns $650,000 per year. “You have to weigh that, the risk of the window closing, the risk of the money you are going to be walking away from.”
The trend of coordinators facing the prospect of taking a pay cut for head jobs coincides with a dueling trend of Power 5 schools hiring fewer coaches that lack head coaching experience. In the past three hiring cycles, 26 of 34 coaches hired in the Power 5 had FBS or NFL head coaching experience. Of the eight coordinators that got a Power 5 job, three were promoted from within (Oregon’s Mark Helfrich, Syracuse’s Scott Shafer and Rutgers’ Kyle Flood). That means just five coordinators have been hired for the top jobs without college head coaching experience -- Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury, Pittsburgh’s Paul Chryst and Penn State’s Bill O’Brien.
“It kind of makes sense intuitively,” said Ohio State’s Smith. “A coordinator really hasn’t sat in the seat and made the hard decisions on student-athlete issues, dealing with parents or tough personnel issues with staff. If you’ve done it before, your transition should be easier.”
The anecdotal evidence shows that hiring a coordinator for a top head job involves the risk of on-the-job training. In the Twitter era, one blunder on the sidelines or in a press conference can lead instantly to national embarrassment. Risk-averse athletic directors also hire search firms, who tend to advise the safe play because most lack football-specific expertise. The last coaching cycle with a heavy run on coordinators came in 2011 when seven of the 11 coaches at schools now in Power 5 leagues were coordinators. This could be considered a turning point, as Colorado’s Jon Embree was a disaster, Florida’s Will Muschamp is on track to be fired and only Stanford’s David Shaw and Vanderbilt’s James Franklin can be considered definitive successes.
That leaves top coordinators, like Notre Dame’s Chuck Martin, who took a $200,000 pay cut to leave the fighting Irish for Miami (Ohio) last year. Martin was a successful Division II head coach, going 74-7 and winning two national titles at Grand Valley State before joining Brian Kelly at Notre Dame in 2012. Even his head coaching success and helping the Irish to an undefeated season and national title game appearance couldn’t get him a head coaching job that came with a raise. Did the pay cut give him second thoughts?
“It did a little bit," Martin said. "Not enough though. It was a no-brainer for me. I want to be a head coach. I want to be with my guys. I want an academic school that’s down and has a winning tradition. (Miami) is a slam dunk. For me, seven years from now ...”
Martin’s point is that if the fit is right, future rewards will follow. And no one will be happier than Miami administrators, as it would mean that Martin will have turned around a team that entered this season on a 16-game losing streak. (Miami is 2-8 but has been far more competitive than last year). Ultimately, the choice comes down to the fit, resources and the ability to win. That’s what high-profile coordinators across the country will be determining as moving season gets into full swing in the next few weeks.
“You’re really betting on the situation,” Herman said. “As good as I think I am, there are some situations that I don’t think Vince Lombardi could be successful in. You are betting on yourself, but you’re betting on all the information that you could conceivably absorb when you’re trying to make that decision.”
1. Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon leads by example
Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon doesn’t consider himself shy. He’s just not very talkative. Even his rare Tweets are short. “I lead by example,” Yeldon told The Inside Read. “I don’t really say too much unless I have to.”
Entering his team’s SEC West showdown at LSU on Saturday night, the notoriously tight-lipped junior still isn’t saying much, especially with a right foot injury that’s not expected to keep him out. Not that he has to after his two previous games against the Tigers. He had the game-winning catch in a 21-17 triumph in Baton Rouge in 2012, the year the Crimson Tide went on to win the BCS title. Last season, he rushed for 133 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries in a 38-17 victory.
The 6-foot-2, 221-pound Yeldon entered this season as a Heisman candidate, but under first-year Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has just 618 yards and five touchdowns on 120 carries. His yards per carry is the lowest of his career (5.2) after rushing for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns on 207 carries last season.
Yeldon’s demeanor is just like another running back he looks up to, the Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch. Earlier this year, Yeldon re-Tweeted Lynch’s quote in January at a Super Bowl media session in which he told the media he only showed up to not get fined by the NFL. “He’s just a laidback guy,” Yeldon said of Lynch. “He doesn’t say much. He just plays through all the talking.”
Yeldon is more vocal than Lynch, especially when it’s not about football. Bring up his pickup basketball games at Alabama’s rec center with junior walk-on defensive back Zach Houston, a high school teammate, and suddenly he opens up.
Yeldon proudly molds his hoops game after another star who’s far more talkative -- LeBron James. “I got that inside-outside,” Yeldon said. “I can go dunk, shoot, dish it out. I can do all things.”
Yeldon is also a big Netflix fan. He’s watched all the episodes of Breaking Bad, but didn’t like its finale (“It could have ended a lot different.”). He’s into Friday Night Lights, but his favorite show is Prison Break (“The brother did all that stuff from his tattoo and he was able to break his brother out of prison and all those other guys.”).
Yeldon also likes fast cars and would someday like to own a Ferrari Spider, but in the meantime babies his Tahoe with frequent washes. And when Yeldon mentions speed, he’s quick to point out too that he’s the fastest of the Crimson Tide running backs.
“They're always scared to race me,” Yeldon said.
When Yeldon’s playing days are over, he’s thinking of going into coaching. He’s not sure if he’s got the personality to be a head coach, but sees himself as an offensive coordinator running an I-formation attack, of course.
He might want to talk to his coach Nick Saban about a job as an assistant. He doesn’t allow them to be interviewed during the season.
2. Ohio State’s Miller making most of tough situation
Braxton Miller’s biggest game of the regular season was supposed to be Saturday at Michigan State. It would have likely been the one that weighed the most in his Heisman Trophy candidacy and the Buckeyes’ quest to make the College Football Playoff. Instead, the two-time reigning Big Ten Player of the Year will be on the sidelines after he had season-ending surgery on his reinjured throwing shoulder in late August to repair his torn right labrum.
But as disappointing as injury has been, it’s actually been a blessing in disguise for Miller. It’s allowed him to mature not just as quarterback, but also as a student, teammate, son and perhaps most importantly as a father to his two-year-old son, Landon.
“He’s turned [it] into the most positive experience,” Ohio State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman told The Inside Read.
Herman praised Miller for balancing his academic, football and rehabilitation responsibilities with fatherhood. The younger Miller is a fixture at practices, drawing smiles from everyone. “He might be the cutest kid on the face of the planet thanks to his mom, not Braxton,” said Herman with a laugh. “He’s ridiculously cute and funny and well-mannered. He’s a cool kid.”
Miller only stopped wearing the sling on his right shoulder a couple of weeks ago. Physically, Miller’s focus has been healing and strengthening the muscles around his shoulder. “He’s been very diligent,” Herman said. “That’s been very encouraging. He’s grinding away at what could be a very monotonous and hard-to-see-the-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel process. He is attacking it everyday with extreme vigor.”
Miller has also been helpful with the intangible part of playing quarterback at Ohio State for steadily improving redshirt freshman starter J.T. Barrett and redshirt sophomore backup Cardale Jones. “He’s been a really good shoulder for them to lean on,” Herman said. “He’s done a great job.”
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer made it clear earlier this season that Miller will be his starting quarterback when he returns next season as a fifth-year senior.
Said Herman, "He’s still pretty good.”
3. Balanced BC becomes bowl eligible
Boston College (6-3) became bowl eligible last Saturday with a 33-31 win at Virginia Tech. The Eagles were decimated by graduation, losing the nation’s leading rusher (Andre Williams), the school’s all-time leading receiver (Alex Amidon) and a steady quarterback who started 46 career games (Chase Rettig).
So how has BC compensated? A simple formula of a steady rushing offense, penalty-free play and not turning the ball over. It doesn’t sound too glamorous, but that fits second-year coach Steve Addazio’s style.
“We are what we said we were going to be,” Addazio told The Inside Read. “It’s what BC has to be and has been in past. We’re a tough, physical and disciplined football team.”
The numbers back up Addazio’s assessment. BC ranks No. 9 nationally in rushing offense, No. 14 in time of possession and No. 13 in fewest penalties. Those aren’t the type of statistics that you put on billboards, but they do help you win games. Internally, there’s a pang of regret at BC that it is not 8-1. The Eagles fell to Clemson, 17-13, after sophomore tailback Tyler Rouse dropped a potential touchdown pass in the game’s waning moments. BC also fell at home to Colorado State, 24-21, a game it led 14-0 late in the second quarter and didn’t trail until the final 62 seconds.
The Eagles were expected to take a dip this season, as it appeared that former coach Frank Spaziani’s recruiting tailed off as his tenure sputtered to a close. But the combination of some solid upperclassmen like senior center Andy Gallik, talented freshmen like tailback Jon Hilliman and graduate transfer quarterback Tyler Murphy have melded together. Don Brown’s defense has been stout, ranking No. 19 nationally and mixing in an influx of freshmen with steady veterans.
“We’re not going to out-talent people,” Addazio said. “We’re going to play like a team. It’s all the things I love about football and college football.”
Outside of Jameis Winston, few quarterbacks in the ACC have had better seasons than Murphy. He’s the league’s third leading rusher and has been an adequate enough passer -- with few threats at receiver -- to keep teams from selling out on the run. And he keeps on winning. “He’s a good player,” Addazio said. “He’s proven to be a good player. He’s gaining confidence.”
BC is winning and staying bowl eligible while turning over its roster, a tricky balance. Addazio said that 26 players have left the program since he took over, a combination of attrition from injury, transfer and players who simply weren’t good enough. That doesn’t count those who’ve exhausted their eligibility, which has left BC playing with 71 healthy scholarship players right now. It may take two more years for BC to get back to 85, but things are going according to plan for Addazio.
“It’s awesome,” he said of getting Win No. 6. “The goal is to stay bowl eligible while rebuilding.”
• First-year TCU co-offensive coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie have received plenty of praise for their fast-paced spread offense that has the Horned Frogs in the thick of the College Football Playoff race entering Saturday’s pivotal game against Kansas State. But while their scheme is often besmirched privately by defensive coaches across the country for being gimmicky, there’s another factor too often being overlooked.
“They are super talented on offense,” Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury told The Inside Read.
Kingsbury would know after his team was trounced by TCU last month, 82-27 in Ft. Worth. He said wide receivers Josh Doctson, Kolby Listenbee and Deante’ Gray as well as running backs Aaron Green and B.J. Catalon could “play for anybody in the country.”
“And then the quarterback, they’re letting him be him,” Kingsbury said of junior Trevone Boykin. “They’re letting him freelance. You can tell they’re not cutting the field in half. It’s all progression read stuff. Then you incorporate the quarterback run stuff and it’s just like the perfect storm.”
Kingsbury said the base of what TCU does offensively is the same as Texas Tech’s and what West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen ran as Oklahoma State’s offensive coordinator in 2010. Meacham was the inside receivers coach under Holgorsen that season, while Cumbie was co-offensive coordinator and outside receivers coach for Kingsbury at Texas Tech last season.
Kingsbury’s been impressed by the new wrinkles that Meacham and Cumbie have added each week, complete with trick plays and pop passes. “Every week, there’s probably 10, I wouldn’t say gimmick, but real schemed up concepts,” Kingsbury said. “It’s good stuff and then they’re attacking people because they can play fast and do a good job of executing.”
Boykin’s ability to extend pass plays and still be able to run for first downs adds another dimension to the offense. Kingsbury said Boykin reminds him of Johnny Manziel, who Kingsbury called plays for when Manziel won the Heisman Trophy at Texas A&M in 2012.
“It’s pretty much impossible to stop unless [they] turn the ball over,” Kingsbury said. “That’s the beauty of having a guy like that. Because even if it all falls apart, he’s still going to somehow make a play out of it.”
• The comeback that Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston engineered in last Thursday night’s 42-31 win at Louisville was just the latest reminder of the talent vs. character dilemma that NFL teams will face in May’s draft.
“If you need a quarterback, it’s going to be a tough decision to make,” an NFL scout told The Inside Read. “He’s really good. Like really, really good.”
Winston’s latest comeback from a 21-point deficit against the Cardinals continues to impress those in NFL circles. He also overcame a 17-point lead at North Carolina State earlier this season and led the Seminoles back from an 18-point hole against Auburn to win the national title last season.
The scout said he doesn’t know how NFL teams could say Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is a better quarterback than Winston, at least on the field. The only exceptions might be Philadelphia and San Francisco because of their offenses, according to the scout.
“The guy’s playing in a pro-style system, he’s making all the checks at the line of scrimmage, his teammates like him,” the scout said of Winston. “Oh, and he’s making plays in the clutch.”
Despite Winston’s checkered past, the scout wouldn’t be surprised if Winston ended up as a top 10 pick in the draft should he leave after this season as expected. There’s an increasing sentiment in the league that many overreacted to his one-game suspension earlier this season after he stood on a table and yelled a sexually-explicit remark demeaning to women.
“Outside of the rape ordeal, which who knows what happened there, everything is just being immature,” the scout said. “It’s dumb college s---. How many times has somebody said something dumb in the cafeteria before? How many kids shoot a BB gun? It’s just dumb stuff that young guys do. He’s simply immature.”
• East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley had an extra week to prepare for a visit to Temple, but was still concerned. “That’s one we’ve had circled,” Riley told The Inside Read nearly two weeks ago.
The Pirates played their worst game of the season and lost five fumbles in a rainy 20-10 defeat last Saturday, which ruined their chance to be the Group of Five’s one automatic berth in the six New Year’s Day bowls. On the other side, it was a huge win for second-year Temple coach Matt Rhule as the Owls beat a ranked opponent at home for the first time in school history.
The 39-year-old Rhule is quietly turning heads in his return to Temple, where he was an assistant for six seasons. His team opened the season with a stunning 37-7 road rout of Vanderbilt. Many thought the Owls should have hired Rhule instead of Steve Addazio in 2010 when Al Golden left for Miami, but he still stayed another season as offensive coordinator. He left to be assistant offensive line coach of the New York Giants in 2012 and then succeeded Addazio when he left for Boston College.
Now, Rhule has Temple just one win away from being bowl eligible for only the fifth time in school history behind an aggressive defense that’s 11th nationally in points allowed (18.4 per game).
• Washington coach Chris Petersen is saying what NFL scouts have said all along about his star linebacker turned running back, Shaq Thompson. “He’s just a football player,” an NFL scout told The Inside Read two weeks ago.
Petersen made similar comments earlier this week in a rare push for the 6-1, 228-pound junior to be part of the Heisman conversation. Thompson had 215 all-purpose yards (174 rushing on 15 carries) and a touchdown in Washington’s 38-23 win at Colorado last Saturday.
It was his second straight game playing running back (he had 98 rushing yards on 21 carries in a loss to Arizona State) because of injuries and first exclusively at the position after getting carries in a few games earlier this season. That was after the former starting linebacker had already scored four defensive touchdowns this season, more than any player has in a full season over the past 10 years.
“He’s little, but he’s really good,” the scout said. “He’s kind of rangy. He looks like a safety kind of.”
The scout pointed out that Thompson is bigger than Tampa Bay Buccaneers star linebacker Lavonte David, a second-round pick in 2012. Whether it’s as a safety or linebacker, the scout projects Thompson as a first- or second-round selection and expects him to leave early for May’s NFL Draft. Said the scout, “He’ll be interesting.”
• Retiring Troy coach Larry Blakeney knows what it will take for the program’s next coach to be successful. After all, he’s spent the last 24 years guiding the Trojans from Division II to an FBS team that won five straight Sun Belt titles. He’s the winningest coach in school history (176-112-1), the school’s field is named after him and he’s in Troy’s athletic hall of fame.
Blakeney’s tenure is the second longest among active coaches behind Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer. “We’ve done some things that we’re proud of,” Blakeney told The Inside Read.
The 67-year-old Blakeney announced his retirement last month amidst his team’s woeful 1-8 start this season. His last winning season was in 2010, the end of his five straight Sun Belt titles and when his team beat Ohio in the New Orleans Bowl.
“I think they need a younger guy that’s maybe an assistant at major schools who understands what big time is like,” Blakeney said. “It’s probably going to be who can splash the most water.”
Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown, Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins and Texas running backs coach Tommie Robinson figure to be considered. A darkhorse candidate could be Green Bay Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr.
Brown was an assistant at Troy from 2006-09, while Robinson played on the school’s 1984 NCAA Division II national championship team. Collins has ties to Alabama from 2007 when he was the Crimson Tide’s director of player personnel and Whitt Jr. was raised in Auburn, where he later was a walk-on wide receiver.
Blakeney believes Troy should strongly consider hiring a youthful black coach. “There’s a lot of great young black coaches out there that are ready,” Blakeney said. “If you really want to get ahead of the curve and you’re going to take a chance anyhow on an up-and-coming assistant, there’s some of those guys out there that could really raise some eyebrows and (help) recruits around our region of the country to come here.”
In retrospect, Blakeney said he should have retired after 2010. He jokes that his successor will probably paid twice what he makes (he receives approximately $480,000 annually) and get a new football building.
Blakeney plans to spend the first year of his retirement trying to help raise money for the building. He would also like an indoor practice facility to be built so the Trojans no longer have to practice in gyms during inclement weather. He calls Troy’s football facilities probably the “lowest and oldest” in the Sun Belt. The building he and his staff are housed in was built in 1971.
And after turning out NFL stars Osi Umenyiora and DeMarcus Ware, Blakeney admits he’s low on players. “We’re not very good for a lot of reasons,” Blakeney said. “Mainly players, schedule, facilities. It all sounds like sour grapes, but we’ve survived here for a while.”
In the meantime, Blakeney is doing all he can to win his team’s last three games this season. So much that he nearly didn’t sign off on a reunion that will be held for him after his final game, a Nov. 29 home date against Louisiana-Lafayette.
But Blakeney is doing it for another reason -- to try to get former players more involved with the program. He wants his replacement to be successful too.
• Rumors that Mack Brown is in high demand for head coaching jobs was recently exposed as hot air when SMU athletic director Rick Hart Tweeted that no one involved in the Mustangs search has contacted the former Texas coach or his representatives.
“It’s Mack trying to get a notch in his belt and saying I can get SMU if I want it, but he really thinks he can get a big-time job like Michigan,” a source close to Brown told The Inside Read. “I just don’t think he’s going to settle.”
Brown has said he won’t make a decision on whether he will return to the sideline until late this month or next month, but his attorney Joe Jamail has stoked speculation. He told the Austin American-Statesman that Brown has been offered coaching jobs for money comparable to what he received at Texas and that he had been approached by SMU.
The source is unaware of any such job offers and said Brown should accept one of them if they truly exist -- now. “It’s sad,” the source said. “People are going to hammer him about the same thing -- when he’s going to retire?”
Q&A with Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck
After going 1-11 last season, Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck righted the boat. His team’s 41-10 win at Miami (Ohio) on Saturday was their sixth and made the Broncos bowl-eligible in arguably college football’s biggest turnaround this season. The youngest head coach in the FBS at 33, the energetic Fleck has done it with his spirited “Row The Boat” mentality. The Inside Read caught up with the former NFL wide receiver to discuss the high-octane philosophy and Fleck beating his best cornerback.
We’d be remiss if our first question wasn't about your catchphrase, “Row The Boat.” Where did that originate and what does it mean?
Well, it’s a never‑give‑up mantra. It comes from just like a family‑type, never‑give‑up attitude. It takes everybody to row the boat a certain direction. So, the oars are the energy that you bring your life, your family, your program, yourself every day, your attitude to change your best every day. The boat is the sacrifice. What are you willing to give up for something you’ve never had? The third part is the compass, which is the direction. So, where is your life pointed? Who’s leading your life? Are you the leader of your own life? Do you let what other people say about you effect you? So, that’s the compass. The oars, the boat, and the compass. Those are the three aspects that “Row The Boat.”
You’ve done a polar plunge with “Row The Boat” written on your chest, a “Row The Boat”-inspired Harlem Shake video and apparently it has its own dance?
It does. Kind of, yes, what we’ve instilled as a fourth‑quarter tradition here at Western Michigan. This program’s had two championships in 108 years. It’s never won a bowl game. So, what we’ve done is try to make this a place special. One of the ways you’re able to get the fan base here, we’ve got a DJ here. The DJ in the fourth quarter plays, “Row The Boat,” a song that we have. And everyone in the stands, all 30,000 start rowing the boat in one direction. Kind of like “Jump Around,” it’s just not as cool yet.
You do realize you look slightly crazed doing it, right?
Absolutely. Yeah, if you’re not going to do it with passion, why do it?
The turnaround you have had this season after last year, now that’s crazy.
Well, it’s crazy to some people looking in. It’s not really crazy -- it was the vision and the plan we’ve had all along. We’re playing 18 freshmen. We’re one of the youngest teams in the country. We had one of the best recruiting classes in the history of the conference last year, if not the best. Our 2015 class might be better than that. And we’re just going to keep getting better every single day. These kids play with what we call the “How.” It entails a lot of things: a nekton mentality, Prefontaine pace, farmer’s alliance, heart-work and a hungry dog is a dangerous dog, and the word family -- forget about me, I love you. It all entails everything we do. It’s how you do it. That’s what gives you your name at the end of the day.
You’ve coached under Jim Tressel, Jerry Kill and Greg Schiano. If you could only hire one, who would it be and why?
I would say Jim Tressel, because he is a combination of Greg and Jerry. He was everything in one. He had a unique way of making everyone feel important. No matter what my job title was, I was important to him and the job I did was very important to him. He always made you feel that way. He would demand your best, but he’d also make you feel like your job and what you were doing was just as important as his and that was really neat.
You were an accomplished wide receiver at Northern Illinois and used to wear cleats so you could run routes while you were wide receivers coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012. Are you faster than any of your skill guys?
I don’t know if I’m faster, but I’m wiser. If you go online, you can find me going one-on-one in training camp with our best corner (Donald Celiscar). I’m not going to say I won, but I won. I ran a dig route. He wanted it. He kept talking smack all training camp. So the last day, I went out there. It was for sprints. I was going to have to run five, six gassers if I lost. The team ended up running. What can I say? The problem though is I’m 33 years old, I haven’t played football for how many years and I can still go out there and win on a route.
You have 25 commitments in your current recruiting class, which is unheard of this early. It’s a group ranked by one service ahead of the likes of Florida, Missouri and Stanford. How have you done it?
We’ve done it by just being us. I think a lot of people try to be things they really aren’t. There are a lot of people that don’t like me because I’m who I am, and there are a lot of people who like me because of who I am. One thing we are here is we are exactly who we say we are. I think we’re a little different than most in terms of the energy we bring to our program, the passion we bring to our program and we’re never closed here. We’re always open. So anytime you want to come by, anytime you want to see us, we don’t set things up in terms of we’ve got to be on our A-game because this person is coming. We’re just us and if you love us, then come. I always tell recruits, if you don’t like me, don’t come here. A head coach is 85 to 90 percent of your college experience because it’s not just football, but it’s your entire culture that the head coach creates.
Back to “Row The Boat.” Did your parents never let you do that as a child or something?
(Laughing). No. I’ve just always been a little bit different. My dad always used to put me with older kids. So, if there was a nine‑year‑old baseball team, I was seven and on that team. He always positioned me to fail. It didn’t make me a failure because failures quit. But he encouraged failing on a daily basis. I’d go down the street and get beat up by the older kids and he’d tell me to go back down and find a way to play with them. He was always making me change. He was always making my oar stay in the water no matter what adversity or success that came. He always kept me grounded and said, “Hey, you can be better today.” I’m the type of kid that would come in after shooting hoops until 11 p.m. It’s dark and he’d say, “You’re done?” And I’d say, “Yeah.” He’d say, “Well, there is someone else out there shooting one more basket than you.” He was right. He’d say, “Well, I’ll pull the car around and put the lights up on the hoop if you want me to.” But he let me make the choice.
And that’s kind of where “Row The Boat” started. When I knew I wanted to become a head coach, I started thinking of different words that everybody could get involved with … Now here in town, you look at an oar and you think of the football program because we have pink ones for breast cancer, we have red ones for the American Heart Association, blue ones for autism, yellow ones for troops that come home in Kalamazoo. We just give them out. It’s a way to connect the community to our football program and a way for people to understand no matter what you’re going through just keep rowing the boat. Calm seas or storms, you’ll get out of it if you keep your oar in your water.
• Willie Simmons was answering phones, picking up orders and delivering supplies for a friend’s Nashville-area construction company. Just a couple of weeks earlier, he had been one of college football’s youngest and brightest offensive coordinators. His unit at Middle Tennessee State had been tops in the Sun Belt in total offense.
But it all came crashing down in October 2011 when he abruptly resigned after being charged with aggravated assault of a woman he was dating (he later entered a pre-trial diversion program). It was a life-changing experience for Simmons, professionally and personally.
“I was able to do a lot of soul-searching,” Simmons said. “It really brings an appreciation to the game. It makes you realize how precious this game is. It makes you realize how precious life is. It was kind of a revelation that allowed me to put things in perspective.”
These days, Simmons is back as an offensive coordinator and with another prolific attack, this time at Alcorn State, which is first in the FCS in scoring (45.1 points per game) and fourth in total offense (531.6 yards per game) behind his run-option scheme. The Braves have a 7-2 record this season and have scored more than 50 points on five occasions, including a 77-48 win at Prairie View A&M in their last game.
“I tell the coaches all the time, we’ll look back at this down the road and really appreciate the year that we’re having,” Simmons said. “Some teams aren’t scoring as much as we have playing basketball.”
Simmons was hired at Alcorn State by Jay Hopson, the first non-black head football coach in the history of the Southwestern Athletic Conference. The link between the two is Hopson’s close friend, Tyrone Nix, who became an assistant at Middle Tennessee State after Simmons was already gone, but still heard rave reviews about him.
“I’m just blessed to be here and hopefully re-establish my reputation as a good person and football coach,” Simmons said.
Simmons said the aggravated assault incident will be expunged from his record Nov. 14 after he satisfied requirements that included community service and an anger management class. He declined to elaborate on the specifics of the incident.
“It’s behind me,” Simmons said. “I’ll let the public form their own opinions of it. For 31 years, I had done a job of establishing myself as a person who did the right things, made good choices and cared about people. I did the best I could. That’s who I am. One situation, no matter how people look at it, doesn’t define you. It’s what you do as a result of that situation that makes you who you are.”
Simmons’ coaching hiatus allowed him to spend time with his daughter, Raven, who he took trick-or-treating for the first time, and other family. The former Clemson quarterback realized the importance of making time for all of his roles in life.
He admits he probably wouldn’t be with his wife, Shaia, who he married in December, without his resignation from Middle Tennessee State. The couple is expecting their first child, a girl, in February. “It was really a blessing in disguise,” Simmons said. “You can get consumed with coaching. A lot of things you take for granted and put aside. It made me a better coach, person, husband, father and Christian.”
Just 34, Simmons has aspirations of returning to coach at the FBS level and still hopes to be a head coach. He had some opportunities to make the jump back as an assistant prior to this season, but decided it would be better to remain at Alcorn State to continue to become more patient and multi-dimensional as a play-caller.
Simmons isn’t running from his past. He is candid about his domestic-related incident and continues to try to publicize the issue, particularly with his players.
He hopes to draw even more attention to it someday as a head coach. “We need to save lives and bring awareness,” Simmons said. “We need to do things to help not only the victims, but the perpetrators. They need just as much help. We must do better as a society.”
• Damon Cogdell remembers the start of the Miramar (Fla.) High pipeline to West Virginia. It was during his sophomore season at the Miami-area school when a defensive back named Eldridge Williams signed with the Mountaineers in 1994.
“We were like, what is West Virginia?” Cogdell recalls.
But after a junior college stint, Cogdell followed Williams to Morgantown three years later. Now, Cogdell is back at West Virginia in his first season as defensive line coach and the pipeline to Miramar High is flourishing more than ever.
Of the Mountaineers’ 21 commitments, five are from Miramar, part of a recruiting class that is ranked among the nation’s top 20 by two services. It’s a connection Cogdell further reinforced during his 12 seasons at Miramar, including his last seven as head coach during which he won a state championship in 2009. He sent seven players to West Virginia, including eventual NFL players Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey.
“Those kids love me,” Cogdell said of his former players at Miramar. “I love those kids.”
Cogdell’s success at Miramar gave him chances to leave for collegiate assistant jobs prior to this season, but the timing wasn’t right. Plus, the 39-year-old’s dream was to return to West Virginia.
Because of his lengthy relationships with high school coaches in Dade and Broward counties, Cogdell feels like he an advantage recruiting the talent-rich area. He and running backs coach JaJuan Seider have emerged as perhaps South Florida’s best recruiting tandem.
“It really helps,” Cogdell said of his tenure at Miramar. “It makes it easier because they know what type of person I am and what I’ll do with their kids. I’ve painted the fields on Thursdays and cooked for the kids. They trust me. It’s been a blessing.”
When Cogdell was at Miramar High, he said many players wanted to play for him, but were unable to because they lived outside the district. Now, Cogdell’s pitch is that they finally can play for him.
He’s also no longer getting questions like he once asked about the Mountaineers. “It’s a different ballgame,” Cogdell said. “They can come to West Virginia and taste the success that I’ve been having.”
Growing up just down the street from the original Johnny’s Tavern in north Lawrence, Kan., Clint Bowen used to get lunch there on Fridays with his late grandfather, Roscoe Husted. Back then the wide-eyed Bowen marveled at his grandfather and his friends, who drank beer and told stories about their fishing adventures on the banks of the Kansas River just outside the sports bar. “I was eating fries and thinking I’m hanging out with the big guys,” Bowen said.
Now the interim Kansas coach takes his two sons, Banks, 10, Baylor, 8, to Johnny’s. Bowen orders the Johnny Wilson, a hamburger with Swiss and American cheese with bacon, which is named after the tavern’s founder, and fries. "It’s a good, old-time greasy burger,” Bowen said. “By the time you eat it, the bun has just soaked it all up.”
For his kids, Bowen orders Johnny’s hand-tossed New York style pizza, which customers call “the best pizza around.” He also likes the flamingo wings.
When Bowen played at Kansas in the early 1990s, he often went out on weekends at the original Johnny’s, which has a unique clientele and is still a popular hangout. It claims to have the longest running beer tap in Lawrence. “Literally right down the middle on a Saturday night, it’ll be a Harley crowd next to a fraternity and sorority group,” Bowen said. “It gets going a little bit.”