<You have now entered a college football coaches’ chat>
The coaches in this text group are all Division I guys. They don’t necessarily work together or even coach against each other, but they have one specific thing in common – they all started in small ball. While their stories are different, their experiences are very much the same, weirdly summed up by one perfect, unexpected image.
“These are dudes – they get it,” said Army Tight Ends Coach Matt Drinkall of his group text mates. “We all did the deal where we are on a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride home after a game sharing half a Dominos pizza with our backup quarterback – we all lived that.”
The sentence about sharing pizza on a bus ride home took on a life of its own, growing and changing with each coach - a colorful game of Telephone.
“Yeah a cold pizza,” exclaimed former Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez. “One that arrived about five hours earlier.”
Rodriguez, who started his coaching career as a student assistant at West Virginia in 1985 before taking over several small school programs, explained that the pizza is a metaphor for the grind.
“If all you did was coach at the highest level and you didn’t have to grind through a high school, junior college, small college, whatever - you get spoiled,” said Rodriguez. “I tell my guys, I would not hire anybody on my staff that hadn’t had some experience at the high school, or small college type of level because they are used to working and grinding. And I think that the best coaches have done it.”
Rodriguez is right, some of the best coaches at both the college and NFL level have done it – Gus Malzahn, Chip Kelly, Matt Nagy, Bill Snyder – the list goes on. They have painted their own fields, packed their own lunches and worn every single hat possible.
“You know I when I first started out, I did all that – move the water pipes, on the tractor, clean the toilets, I mean everything,” shared Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn. “I think it gives you a great foundation and appreciation. And since I’ve been in college one of my things was, I want to give as many high school coaches the opportunity, that same opportunity I’ve had.”
Malzahn began his coaching journey as a high school defensive coordinator in Arkansas at Hughes before accepting a head coaching job at Shiloh Christian High School in 1996 and then Springdale High School in 2001. The coaches he met during that time are guys he still stays in touch with today.
“Eliah Drinkwitz, the head coach at Missouri, he was a volunteer coach for me at Springdale High School and I’m the one that got him in college football,” said Malzahn. “And Chip Lindsey, the head coach at Troy, he was an off-the field for me. Bobby Bentley, the tight ends coach at South Carolina was a former high school coach and coached off-the-field. So yeah, I stay in touch with a lot of them.”
Small ball coaching tree roots run deep. But beyond the bond, coaching at a lower level allowed guys like Malzahn the freedom to try new schemes and ultimately change the way college football is played.
“I tried some things in high school that I probably wouldn’t if I started out in college,” admitted Malzahn. “Back then we might have been the first to run a no-huddle offense the entire game…Everybody was skeptical and it may even have been some guys on our staff that had some questions.”
Younger coaches took note of Malzahn’s unique path and creative process and followed suit.
“That’s where a guy like Gus Malzahn, who comes up through high school gets to experiment and do things his own way,” acknowledged Drinkall. “That was my favorite part about coaching at Kansas-Wesleyan, was no one cares. I could do whatever I wanted. I didn’t have pressure from fans or alumni or high-level recruits. I could try all this stuff out and if I liked it, I could work at it.”
In 2018, Drinkall led Wesleyan to its first conference championship since ‘02. The Coyotes posted a program-best 13-1 record and shattered numerous school and conference records. And Drinkall’s innovative offense caught the eye of Army head coach Jeff Monken.
So, while some coaches stick to the straight and narrow, others like Drinkall prefer the messy, often long-winded route with less notoriety but more freedom to learn and grow. And win championships of course.
“The time that you are given at a small school to implement a program just doesn’t exist at the Division I level,” said Temple Co-Offensive Coordinator and Tight Ends Coach Mike Uremovich. “You get to really build your own identity as a head coach but you are also doing everything. I mean you are helping pack sandwiches; you are helping with the laundry; I painted the practice field at St. Francis every week because we didn’t have anybody to do it.”
Uremovich is a member of that aforementioned text group – he and Drinkall crossed paths when coaching in the same conference back in 2011 and have been friends ever since.
“That was the fun part of smaller football,” said Drinkall. “And there is a group now that did it and had success and found our way into Division I and we are pretty tight-knit. These guys are some of the best people and coaches you’ve ever met.”
Guys like Tulane Offensive Coordinator Will Hall, who has 14 seasons of various college play-calling under his belt and whose roots lie in the run-based, triple-option system that his father, Bobby Hall favored. And Uremovich and his former high school teammate and childhood best friend, Temple Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers Coach Jeff Knowles.
“I went back to my alma mater as a graduate assistant – I was a 31-year-old GA and had a two-year-old son,” laughed Knowles. “Then the opening came at NC State, they had a new position for quality control. Just like Matt Drinkall got his shot up there at Army, that was kind of my chance to show what I can bring to the table.”
Uremovich and Knowles ended up at Northern Illinois and are now coaching opposite each other under Rod Carey at Temple, curating offense and defense for a head coach that values small ball beginnings.
“Mike’s stories of painting the field – I can picture him out there as the head coach with his shins all covered in paint,” joked Knowles. “But you want guys that have done that, carried their own bags. That’s a big deal for our head coach and it’s something that he tells our younger coaches.”
Some coaches are afraid if they leave the Division I pipeline, they will be forgotten and never find a way back into the exclusive club. But Knowles subscribed to the “be where your feet are” mentality.
“There’s GA’s now that if they don’t get a Division I job they are disappointed and ready to get out of it,” said Knowles. “I always tell people, if I wasn’t here at Temple, I would still be coaching at St. Francis and I would be happy. I loved it, we had fun – those staffs were close together. Like Drinkall said, you are eating pizza – we used to stock up the cooler for every road trip, we would have a case of Diet Mountain Dew and everybody would bring their own little candy that they liked. I always tease Mike, had he stayed there, we would all still be there.”
Despite the long hours, multitude of jobs and an overwhelming amount of work, many look back on the small ball days as some of the best in their coaching careers.
“We went back and visited when Chip (Kelly) was at New Hampshire and I was at Clemson and scouting unknown guys, we spent a week or two together just talking ball,” remembered Rodriguez. “There was a little group of us, outliers I guess you could say at the time, as far as scheme wise – that was when it was fun.”
That long bus ride home still looms large for many of these coaches, the memory of cold pizza and close quarters a reminder of their modest start.
“I always liked driving the bus to keep my mind on stuff,” said Malzahn. “I would be very comfortable driving that yellow dog to a game right now, let’s put it that way. Coaching in high school gave me a big advantage, getting my feet wet and setting my foundation as a coach. I’ll always be grateful.”
The ties that bound Malzahn’s small ball generation has inspired this new wave to look out for one another.
“We all have each other’s back and stay in contact,” confirmed Drinkall. “We are all knocking on the door; somebody’s going to get a head job.”
And no doubt several “congratulations” texts will pop up in the group chat when they do.