It’s difficult to overstate the importance of college football to life in East Tennessee. Drive within a hundred miles of Knoxville, and you’ll see Volunteer Orange everywhere: street signs, grocery store displays, porch flags. The East Tennessee area code 865 even spells out VOL. On Saturdays, the streets are jammed at sunrise and boats docked near campus are tied 10-deep into the river. When kickoff rolls around, over 100,000 people crowd into Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium. To people here, football is a central part of life—a topic of conversation 365 days a year.
But the past seven years in Knoxville have not gone as planned. During that stretch, Tennessee has finished above .500 only twice and has shuffled through four different Head Coaches. One, who left for USC in the middle of the night, is so reviled in town that the locals named a sewage plant in his “honor.” Win here, and you become a legend. Lose, and you better start prepping your resume.
This is the workplace for Mike Bajakian. As Tennessee’s Offensive Coordinator for the past two seasons, Bajakian is a household name throughout the Southeast. Since graduating from Williams two decades ago, Bajakian hasn’t lived in one place for more than three years. He’s coached at every level from high school to the NFL, including coaching a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears. Far from a straightforward rise, Bajakian’s up and down journey illustrates the importance of commitment and hard work when pursuing a dream.
Like many kids, Bajakian grew up a sports junkie. A star on his youth teams, Bajakian set his sights on playing at the highest level. When it became clear he wouldn’t make it as a professional athlete, Bajakian began planning for a career in coaching.
Bajakian originally planned on coaching and teaching at the high school level, but after an independent study with the Williams coaching staff during winter study his senior year, he got hooked on college coaching. Because even entry-level college coaching jobs are difficult to get, Bajakian began his career at Delbarton Prep School, teaching math and coaching football and baseball. “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. 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.”
After two years at Delbarton, Bajakian was offered a Graduate Assistant coaching job at Rutgers University. His salary dropped from $30,000 to $10,000 and his hours went from manageable to never-ending, but it was the break Bajakian needed. After two years at Rutgers, Bajakian spent six months at Sacred Heart, then two more years at the University of Michigan. After that, he finally became a full-fledged position coach, working with Quarterbacks at Central Michigan. After three years at Central, Bajakian’s Head Coach resigned, and he was left without a job. Searching for any possible opening, Bajakian settled on a job at Delaware State.
“I got [to Delaware] on a Monday. Thursday morning the phone rings. 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 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, Bajakian drove from Dover to Philadelphia, left his keys under the mat of his car for his Mom to pick up, and boarded a one-way flight for Chicago. A limo met him at the airport and brought him to dinner with the Bears coaching staff. Later that night, he was offered a job. “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.”
Late in his third season with the Bears, just as the team was gearing up for a playoff run, an old coworker from his days at Central Michigan named Butch Jones called. Jones had just gotten the Head Coach job back at Central and wanted Bajakian to come on as 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.”
After a heartbreaking loss in the Super Bowl, Bajakian drove to Michigan. He spent three years with Jones at Central Michigan, three more together at Cincinnati, and then went with him to Tennessee. After going 5-7 in their first season in Knoxville, Bajakian helped guide the Vols to a 7-6 record this year, including their first bowl win since 2010.
Bajakian’s life now is a whirlwind. He arrives in the office at 6:30 a.m. most days and rarely leaves before 10 or 11 at night. “I run home for dinner for about half an hour on Monday night to see my three kids. Sometimes if we have a home game, I get to stay in and cook them breakfast on Friday morning before going to work. During the offseason, you’re always traveling with recruiting. All year long, we get about 5 or 6 weekends off.”
But to Bajakian, the hard work is worth it. A teacher at heart, when asked about his favorite moments as a coach, Bajakian doesn’t focus on big wins, he talks about wedding invitations and calls from former players when they first become dads. “When we get a hold of [the players], they’re 18-year-old young men who think they know it all but still have a ton of growing to do. Success for me is having an impact on a young man that has an influence in his life and is able to help him be a better person, a better father.”
As part of that mentorship process, Bajakian frequently reflects back on his own collegiate experience. “[Williams] exposed me to a lot of different people and a lot of different thoughts. I truly believe that it made me more worldly and that’s something I try to pass on to our players. 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.”
You can read Bajakian’s full interview here.
Update: Following the 2014 season, Bajakian accepted a job as the Quarterback’s Coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.