What did your journey into football look like?
Like every teenager, I wanted to go play professional football. It became evident early on that that wasn’t going to be a part of my future. I knew that to stay involved in the game I was going to have to take up coaching.
Initially my thought was that I would become a teacher and a coach. For winter study my senior year I did an independent study with the coaching staff, however, and really got an itch to coach at the college level. College coaching jobs are hard to come by so to gain experience I went to a high school and taught math and coached football and baseball.
Then I got an opportunity as a graduate assistant at Rutgers. From there, it’s been a whirlwind. Every two or three years, I’ve taken on a new opportunity. I spent two years at Rutgers as a GA. Then, I took a job for six months as the quarterback’s coach at Sacred Heart University and then two more years as a GA at Michigan.
From there, I got an opportunity to be the Quarterback’s Coach at Central Michigan. That’s where I linked up with Butch Jones, the Head Coach here at Tennessee now. We spent three years together until our head coach resigned. When you’re an assistant and the head coach resigns, you lose your job. I ended up taking a job at Delaware State University.
I got there on a Monday. Thursday morning the phone rings. I didn’t even know I had an office phone. A woman on the other end says, ‘this is Robin from the Chicago Bears, can you hold for a call from Jerry Angelo (the Bears’ GM)?’ I’m thinking this is one of my college buddies. It turns out that the head coach I had GAed for at Rutgers had just been hired as the Offensive Coordinator for the Bears, and he requested, unbeknownst to me, that I be brought along as part of his staff.
Mr. Angelo asked me how quickly I could move, and I said, ‘listen, I have three bags and they’re all packed in my car.’ That afternoon, I hopped on the plane and went to Chicago.
It was an exciting time – to get to go to the NFL – it’s the pinnacle of the profession, and I was a young coach at the time. I spent three years in Chicago. When Butch Jones called me in December during the third year, we had one game left in the regular season and had already clinched the number 1 seed in the playoffs. He said that he was interviewing for the Head Coach job at Central Michigan where we’d worked together, and he wanted me to come back and be the Offensive Coordinator.
I said, ‘Butch, it sounds great. I’m in. Just let me finish the season here.’ We ended up getting on a roll and going all the way to the Super Bowl.
I flew back from the Super Bowl Monday morning, packed my office up on Tuesday, and drove to Central Michigan on Wednesday. I was the Offensive Coordinator there for three years. From there, we made the jump to Cincinnati where we spent three years. Now we’re in our second year at Tennessee.
Prior to senior year at Williams, were you solely focused on coaching high school?
I always thought I’d be a teacher and a coach. I saw myself in a classroom teaching math and coaching on the side. I really enjoyed my two years teaching, and I often say that my experience teaching in the classroom was probably one of the most important experiences I’ve had in terms of my professional development. I was able to hone my teaching skills in the classroom – and so much of coaching at this level – both college and the NFL – is teaching. You spend more time in the classroom than you do on the football field.
When you were coaching high school football, did you consider deviating from the college coaching path?
When I was at Delbarton, I still thought that there would be a good chance that my future would be in teaching. I never thought that I would do anything other than coach and teach, but I was a teacher first and a coach second. I wanted to flip that and focus more of my attention on the coaching aspect.
Playing division 3 football where there isn’t a big network in terms of coaching, you have to reach out and make those connections. While I was at Delbarton, I approached the head coach and told him that I was thinking of making the jump to the college level. He called the Receiver’s Coach at Rutgers who, as it turned out, was good friends with my high school coach. So not only did I have the recommendation of the guy I was working for, but my high school coach strongly recommended me. That was the seeds of my network. I then reached out to a couple Williams graduates. Dave Clausen is the Head Coach at Wake Forest. At the time, he was the Head Coach at Fordham. Kevin Morris has been in the profession for a long time. They were both very receptive, and I’ve since developed relationships with them because the Williams coaching network is somewhat small.
Was your goal always to come to a big-time football school like Tennessee?
Yes. When I first got involved in college coaching, my goal was to be a coordinator at the highest level possible. I’ve expanded that to the desire to be a Head Coach now. Playing at Williams, I loved my experience as a student-athlete in both football and baseball. I was a dual sport non-athlete – at least by comparison to the guys I’m coaching. I would recommend that experience to anyone with similar skillsets to me, but being a competitor, you always want to compete at the highest level possible so coaching at a major division 1 university is something I’ve always strived for.
Your life is probably pretty alien to most Williams alums. What is life like for you as a coach in such a football obsessed area?
Football at Tennessee is the topic of conversation 365 days a year, and there’s a lot of pressure that goes along with it. The hours are pretty tough. The travel in the offseason is a grind. I’m usually in here by 6:30, and I don’t go home until 10 or 11 at night. I run home for dinner for half an hour on Monday night to see my three kids. We have family night here where most of the families come eat here, but my kids are 1, 2, and 3 years old so it’s tough for my wife to pack them up. Thursday is our night off. Sometimes if we’re home, I get to stay in and cook them breakfast on Friday morning before going to work. So if I’m lucky, I get to see my kids for an hour three days a week. That’s the toughest part of it, but my wife does a great job bringing them around as much as possible.
During the offseason, you’re always traveling with recruiting. All year long, we get about 5 or 6 weekends off.
On the flipside, it’s extremely rewarding because you’re dealing with young men who are very impressionable, and you’re having such a big impact on their lives.
What is the most rewarding aspect of coaching?
It’s the relationships. There are so many emotional peaks and valleys in this profession. The wins are extreme highs and the losses at this level – shoot, lives depend on our ability to win football games. You go through so many ups and downs that you develop a bond not only with the players but with your coworkers that I don’t imagine exists in other professions.
With the players, when we get a hold of them, they’re 18-year-olds who think they know it all but still have ton of growing to do. To have an impact on their lives not only athletically and academically but also personally is rewarding. You see guys grow up and mature, and you like to think that you have some input in that process.
Are there any moments if your time as a coach that stand out?
Getting wedding invitations to former player’s weddings or having former players call you because they’re excited that their wife is pregnant with their first kid. I’ve always tried to be an example to these young men on how to be a good husband, how to be a good father. It’s often after they’ve left, that you get a letter or a text that says, ‘thank you,’ that’s really rewarding.
I’ve been a part of a lot of really exciting games – last minute wins, last minute losses. The opportunity to win an NFC championship game and go to a Super Bowl. I’ve been part of 6 or 7 conference championship teams. At Michigan, beating Ohio State on the last game of the season to win a Big Ten championship – those are exciting, and I couldn’t put my finger on one of them, but that’s definitely an attractive piece of the profession.
How has the Williams experience served you?
I truly believe that Williams made me more worldly and that’s something I try to pass on to our players and encourage them to do with their college experience. It would be easy enough for them to go through their experience at Tennessee as just a football player. I make sure we start off every meeting talking about their personal lives or current events so they understand that there is life outside of football. The reality is that only a small percentage of guys, even at this level, are going to go on to play in the NFL so we better prepare them for life after football.
How have you come to define success?
The most obvious is wins and losses but that’s not how I view success personally. Yes, it’s an important part of this profession. Make no mistake, you won’t get very far without the wins, but it is about relationships. Success for me is having an impact on a young man that has an influence in his life and is able to help shape his point of view on how to be a better person, a better father.
What advice would you offer a Williams student thinking about becoming a coach?
It starts with your network. Use all the tools that exist, starting with your network at Williams. I can’t tell you how many times I get calls from Williams students who want to go into coaching, and I make a point of answering those calls and getting back to them. There’s a place in my heart for Williams and for alums from Williams. The advice I give them is: get out there. Little things like going to coaching camps, often times for free, are what make the difference. You have to go get experience and treat every day like it’s a job interview. When you go work at a camp or expose yourself to other coaches, you better know that you’re making an impression. In the back of my mind, if I ever get a head coaching job, I have a list of guys who I would want on my staff. So jump right in and don’t be afraid to have some energy and passion, but it starts with your network and it starts with making sure your willing to work your tail off and often times without reimbursement.