Redskins' Jerry Gray nears long-held goal of being a head coach

Redskins assistant Jerry Gray wanted to be a head coach by 40. At 46, he's a finalist for the opening at Memphis.
Redskins assistant Jerry Gray wanted to be a head coach by 40. At 46, he's a finalist for the opening at Memphis. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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By Rick Maese
Friday, November 27, 2009

As the Washington Redskins prepared to take on the Philadelphia Eagles last month, talk swirled around Redskins Park that Jerry Gray, an affable assistant in charge of the secondary, would be named the interim coach if owner Daniel Snyder chose to fire Jim Zorn midway through the season.

It certainly wasn't how Gray wanted to assume the throne of any football team, but his career aspirations were not up for debate.

"If you get a chance to do that, you want to do that," Gray said at the time of a head coaching job. "You want to make sure you're not just an assistant your whole career."

A month later, the Redskins are again just a couple of days away from facing the Eagles, and Gray's name is again attached to a head coaching position -- this time the vacancy at the University of Memphis. Gray is one of two finalists for the position and a decision is expected as early as Monday.

For the Tigers, it'd be a fresh start with a new, unfamiliar face pacing the sidelines on Saturdays. For Gray, 46, it'd be the final step up the coaching ladder, the one he's been trying to make for several years.

In 2006, Gray interviewed for the Houston Texans' head coaching job. "I set a goal: When I was 40, I wanted to be a head coach," Gray told reporters at the time. "When I was 40, I was a defensive coordinator and interviewed to be the head coach at Cal."

He didn't get the Cal job, didn't get the Texans job and eventually left his defensive coordinator position with the Buffalo Bills in 2005 and rejoined former Bills coach Gregg Williams in Washington.

In Gray's fourth season in charge of the Redskins' secondary, his group has the league's top-ranked pass defense, which enters Sunday's game allowing opposing quarterbacks an average of only 161.6 yards per game. While his discussions with Memphis have been no doubt greased by Gray's close relationship with Frederick W. Smith, a Redskins' minority owner, chief executive of FedEx and a major Memphis booster, those close to Gray say it's only a matter of time before he's a head coach somewhere.

"I've been working my tail off for years doing everything I can for Jerry to be a head coach," Williams, who was in charge of the Redskins' defense from 2004 to 2007 and is now the defensive coordinator in New Orleans, said recently. "I think he deserves to be a head coach in this league, he wants to be a head coach in this league. He's exactly what the league needs."

Coaching is a second career for Gray. He was a heavily recruited quarterback out of high school in Lubbock, Tex., and later one of the best safeties to ever come out of the University of Texas. As a pro, though, Gray switched positions again and played nine seasons at cornerback. He was the NFL's defensive back of the year twice and played in four Pro Bowls, earning Pro Bowl MVP honors in 1990.

"His football knowledge is, I would say, to the max. He knows so much," Redskins' cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "Not even his coaching. You'd still think Jerry could play with how much he knows. He's calling out stuff on the sidelines. His knowledge of the game is so advanced, and it helps when you got a coach that played the position, not just a coach that's just coaching football."

Rogers says Gray is as much a father figure as he is a position coach, and while players say they respect that their coach once played the game himself, Gray doesn't talk about his 28 career interceptions or the four seasons he was named an all-pro.

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