By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 24, 2009
Steve Bush sat in the bleachers with the rest of the coaching staff in January 2008 as his football team walked out under a blue and gold balloon archway into the West Genesee High School gym in Camillus, N.Y. The school was celebrating the achievements of its fall sports teams.
It was Bush's third season with the upstate New York school, his 13th year coaching high schools, and his team had just finished an 11-2 campaign that included West Genesee's first New York state AA championship. "It was a nice little event," Bush recalled.
A few hours later, Bush received a phone call from a friend: Tony Sparano. Bush had coached with Sparano at the University of New Haven and Boston University in the late 1980s. Sparano, an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys at the time, was a candidate for several NFL head coaching jobs.
"He was putting his staff together to present in his interviews and things and wanted to know if [joining his staff] was something I'd be interested in doing," Bush said. "And I absolutely was."
Within weeks, Bush was headed to Miami to join Sparano, who had been named head coach of the Dolphins.
For many of the hundreds of high school coaches at schools in the D.C. area, making a leap like Bush's would be a dream come true. But Bush's journey is relatively unusual. Most NFL coaches -- and those in the higher echelons at the college level -- start their careers at lower-level positions in the pro or college ranks. Climbing the ladder from high school is more difficult, and, according to several coaches interviewed for this story, depends more on connections than coaching ability.
Only 20 percent of the 610 coaches in the NFL this season say they started their careers at the high school level, according to media guides from the 32 teams.
"There is somewhat a matter of luck," said Gregg Williams, the former Redskins defensive coordinator who started his career coaching high school in Missouri. "But I believe this: In order to get a chance to show somebody what you know, you have to know someone first to get in the door. It's who you know before what you know."
Williams, now the defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints, said a phone call made on behalf of a former team manager landed him some time in the office of University of Houston Coach Jack Pardee, which got him his first college job.
"It works that way though the rest of life. Every day is an interview after that," Williams said.
For Redskins special teams coach Danny Smith, opportunity came in the form of Tom Moore, a wide receivers coach from Clemson who recruited the Pittsburgh area where Smith was an assistant coach at Central Catholic High.
At the time, a young quarterback prospect named Dan Marino was on the Central Catholic roster. And Marino's talent drew plenty of recruiters to the area.
Smith formed relationships with several of the recruiters, he said, and eventually Moore helped secure a graduate assistant position for Smith at Clemson.
If not for the personal relationships with those coaches, however, Smith said he never would have had a chance to start a professional coaching career.
"Those recruiters could attach a name with a face," Smith said. "Had I not met them personally or spent time with them or had something they wanted, like our players, I would have been sending them a letter and that would have gone in with the 100 other letters they got that week."
Smith's story is similar to that of many other coaches who worked their way up from the high school ranks.
Redskins offensive coordinator Sherman Smith got a call from a former teammate, the late Randy Walker, who wanted Smith to join his staff at Miami (Ohio).
The most well-known example of high school-to-NFL success is that of retired Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, who started his career as a history teacher and high school coach in California before eventually coaching in five Super Bowls, three as a head coach.
Yet for every Holmgren or Williams, there are thousands of high school coaches around the country who never get the opportunity to prove themselves at the next level.
Some veteran high school coaches in the D.C. area said that while they had interest early in their careers, offers were limited and the low pay of college graduate assistant positions -- the usual starting point for young coaches -- were unrealistic as they started families.
Others say the volatile lifestyle of college and pro coaching was not as attractive as the relative security of running a high school football program.
"I've had opportunities in the past to go to college and the main reason why I decided to stay was, years ago when I did have the opportunity, my children were young and I wasn't sure whether I wanted to make the jump or didn't want to make the jump," said longtime DeMatha Coach Bill McGregor, who has compiled a 259-36-3 record during his 27 years as head coach at the Hyattsville school. "It sounds glamorous and looks glamorous and it's better pay, but you don't have an awful lot of security. . . . I know a lot of assistant [college] coaches right now and they've been at five, six, seven, eight schools. That's a lot of uprooting and moving. I think it's a tough life."
Park View Coach Andy Hill, who has a career record of 27-17 in four seasons at the Sterling school, said he has applied for college job openings in past years but has not received even a phone call back from any of the schools.
Hill, 31, played two years of NCAA Division III football at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and is known for his innovative offensive schemes. But with few contacts at the next level, and no college coaching experience, the opportunities have not come.
High school coaches often are overlooked in favor of coaches who start off as graduate assistants or assistant position coaches at the college level, Hill said.
"I would love to have a crack because I see what the good recruiters do and what the poor recruiters do," said Hill, who acknowledged his window to make the leap is closing. "I like to read about what the college coaches do . . . and I like to think, 'How would I do that?' That's why I think about making the jump. . . . [But] the initial step of getting a job in the college game, I think that's the biggest challenge."
For many of the coaches now deep into their careers and at the pinnacle of the coaching world, their experience coaching at the high school levels remains integral to their development as teachers.
Williams still sends thank you notes to the panel of coaches and administrators that interviewed him for the head coaching job at Excelsior Springs High School in Missouri, where he had starred as a quarterback. It was that panel, he said, that ignited a desire in him to coach at higher levels.
A 25-year-old assistant football coach at the school, Williams said during the second interview he realized he wasn't going to get the job. And when they asked him what he planned to do if it was not offered to him, Williams was blunt.
"If I don't get this job, the people in this room that make the decision are going to give me the biggest favor that's ever been given Gregg Williams before," he said. "If I get the job, I will retire here . . . and I'll do what the [coaches] did for me growing up. I'll do that for all the other kids in this district and I'll retire here. If you make me leave, I'm going to get a head coaching job in the area. And you know what? If I do well there I want to go coach college football. And if I do good enough there, I think I'll try coaching in the National Football League."
Williams said each of the six-person panel laughed or snickered at him. And so, at each step in his career -- from his first head coaching job at Belton (Mo.) high school, to his first college job at the University of Houston, to his first NFL stop with the Houston Oilers, to his first NFL head coaching position with the Buffalo Bills -- Williams has mailed each member of the panel, whom he said he still counts as close friends, a simple thank you note.
"It was a positive note but what I was also doing was sending a message: Don't cap your kids' dreams," Williams said. "You thought it was funny that I had a dream to do this, and why am I doing this. . . . It was a lesson learned for me and a lesson learned for them."