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A Low Graduation Rate to NFL

For High School Coaches, Jump to the Pro Ranks is Rare

Redskins special teams coach Danny Smith received his big break after forming relationships with recruiters who were interested in Dan Marino.
Redskins special teams coach Danny Smith received his big break after forming relationships with recruiters who were interested in Dan Marino. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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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.

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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.

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