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It was the spring of my junior year of high school and I was playing leftfield when I raced in to catch a shallow pop‑up. I called off the shortstop, but it had been raining before the game, and so he slipped and fell, his shoulder colliding with my right leg. Somehow I still caught the ball before crumbling to the ground. But when it was all over my right leg jutted out perpendicular to my body and a large part of my tibia and fibula poked through my skin.
I was certain that my dream of playing SEC football was over. Growing up in Florida and Georgia, I'd watched games with my father, Larry; I'd envisioned him someday watching
me in those same Saturday games. Now that possibility appeared as shattered as my bum limb, which required a 17‑inch steel rod and three screws. Would I even be able to run again?
But my father taught me that you've just got to get back up and work, and after months of intense rehabilitation, I managed to walk on at Georgia, where I earned a scholarship as a redshirt freshman and was named captain my senior year, in 1994. So you see: I'd been knocked down and then gotten back up long before Florida dismissed me as its coach in 2014.
I know that at South Carolina, I'm replacing a legend in Steve Spurrier. I also know that I was by no means a sexy hire. I told my new athletic director, Ray Tanner: Let's not win the press conference; let's win football games.
We did a lot of good things at Florida, had good kids in the locker room. We played strong defense and special teams. We simply had an issue on offense and that comes back on me.
So what does a coach do? For me, it's always important to see new perspectives. I can reflect on my experiences working in the past for Nick Saban, Mack Brown and Tommy Tuberville. You learn what to do and what not to do. I spent last season as Auburn's defensive coordinator under Gus Malzahn. He's a heck of an offensive coach, and to see the tempo of his scheme was an important experience. To sit behind the head coach's desk for four years and then be back on the other side—that was impactful in a lot of ways. One thing I was reminded of at Auburn was how much I enjoy being on the field, sitting in the meeting room and developing players. ... As a head coach you miss some of those things, which is why I make a point of still teaching a position group at South Carolina, the safeties. In practice, I now try to spend as much time with the offense as I can, but I still believe you should play to your strengths, and coaching defense is one of mine.
\n Another strength is my emotion. I'm a competitive guy. And I believe that a player takes on the personality of his coach. I want our players to be focused, on and off the field—and yet, there's nobody in this world that likes to laugh more than I do. As emotional as I am, I don't get lost in things. Nick taught me that. He impressed upon me the importance of being technical in extremely good and bad times. That really stuck with me.
My father died unexpectedly two years ago, but I'll never forget what he told me my freshman year at Georgia when I broke my collarbone. (Yep, another obstacle.) I remember wondering, Does God really want me to play college football? Or is he sending me a message? My dad visited me in my dorm. A former high school coach and longtime principal, he always tried to make a positive out of everything. But here I looked right at him and said, "Don't try to make a positive out of this."
"Oh, in time this will be very positive for you," he told me.
And he was right. Those injuries taught me to control the things you can. You can control your mind‑set and, as a coach, the mind‑set of your team. That's why on the wall in my office I've got the 17-inch rod that once helped heal my leg. It's a reminder that I've been knocked down before. But know this: I will get back up.