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Saturday Morning Quarterback
Nov 18, 2012 12:00 am
Tenn. Tech: A cradle of coaches
As the 1983 college football season drew to a close, Middle Tennessee State needed only to beat a one-win Tennessee Tech team in the season finale to go to its first NCAA I-AA playoff. But the Golden Eagles came into Murfreesboro and spoiled the Blue Raiders' plans 12-8.
That was a good MTSU team which went to the national semifinals the following season and enjoyed an undefeated regular season the year after that. Tech, meanwhile, didn't win another game for two seasons.
And you wonder why when you look back at Tech's coaching staff.
Gary Darnell was in his first season as Tech head coach after serving as defensive coordinator at Kansas State, from where he brought most of his staff, which included offensive coordinator Dennis Franchione, graduate assistant Gary Patterson and defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas.
Tech went 3-29 in Darnell's three seasons, but it didn't keep them from getting big-time jobs and enjoying success elsewhere.
Franchione worked his way up the ladder to TCU and then to Alabama before bolting the Tide for, in a reversal of Bear Bryant's move 44 years earlier, Texas A&M, a move which rankles Crimson Tide fans to this day. He is in his second season as the head coach at Texas State.
Bumpas went to Tennessee to coach linebackers and special teams and was on the staff of the 1985 SEC and Sugar Bowl-champion Vols. He has continued to bounce around college football and is now defensive coordinator at Texas Christian, where his boss is Patterson.
While Franchione's stock has dropped on the college football coaching exchange, Patterson, his TCU successor, is one of the top names in the game. He coached the Horned Frogs to a Rose Bowl championship and his name is being linked to expected openings at Arkansas and Tennessee.
Even Darnell did just fine, landing as a defensive coordinator at Florida, where he served as interim head coach during Emmitt Smith's senior season just before Steve Spurrier was hired. He went to Notre Dame as defensive coordinator under Lou Holtz before landing the head job at Western Michigan, where he took the Broncos to back-to-back Mid-American Conference championship games and became the school's winningest coach.
Returning to the BCS ranks, Franchione hired him as defensive coordinator at Texas A&M and replaced him as interim coach to finish the 2007 season.
"All those guys, you could tell at the time they were very motivated," Alexander recalled. "They were good coaches. They had all the things you look for when you look for coaches to be successful.
"I still stay in touch with Coach Darnell. I've always followed those guys."
But the 3-29 caught up with them and Jim Ragland came in for the '86 season. One of Ragland's assistants, who arrived in '87, had the most common American name one can have - Mike Smith. Smith coached Tech's defensive line, a unit in which Alexander was a senior.
"Was very impressed with him then," Alexander said of the current coach of the Atlanta Falcons. "He was just a young go-getter energetic coach. Intense guy. You could tell he was a hard worker."
Alexander returned to Tech almost a decade later as an assistant coach. By then, Smith was the defensive coordinator under Mike Hennigan, who had coached Smith at East Tennessee State, a school which no longer plays football.
Alexander and Smith shared a press box booth in 1996 and '97 as Tech's upstair defensive brain trust.
"That was quite an experience," Alexander said. "You see guys totally different from when you played for them. He's very prepared.
"The same things that make him so special right now were special then," Alexander said of Smith, whose Falcons have the NFC's best record at 8-1. "He's a guy without an ego. He's very loyal to his players and coaches who worked hard for him. I wrote him a note when he got the job with the Atlanta Falcons and didn't expect to hear anything back from him. And he wrote me back a hand-written card. I keep that thing hung over my desk. It shows when you have success, you remember everybody that you met along the way.
"His former players mean a lot to him. You ask anybody in the profession about Coach Smith and they'll say he's a hard worker and he's loyal."
One of his former players is future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis. Smith's brother-in-law is former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, who opened the door for Smith to enter the NFL after a dozen years at Tech. Smith was the linebackers coach when the Ravens broke the Titans' hearts in 2000 on the way to the Super Bowl championship.
"It's always about getting that right opportunity," Alexander said. "And you make your opportunities, too, and he's made his opportunity and he's done great with it and I couldn't be more happy for him."
Smith's advancement created an opportunity for Tech wide receivers coach Gerald Brown, who was hired to be the running backs coach with the Falcons.
"He had never coached in the NFL, but [Smith] didn't worry about that because he knew the guy could coach," Alexander said.
Not only did Tech's coaches from the '80s and '90s go on to bigger and better things, but many of the Golden Eagle players have become successful coaches at the high school and college level.
In addition to Alexander, his former roommate, Bruce Hatfield, is the longtime coach at Hendersonville, Scott Meadows has won a state champion at Alcoa. Corey Chamblin went from a Tech player while Alexander was coaching there to a six-year career in the NFL to working on Alexander's first Cumberland staff as defensive backs coach in 2006 to being the head coach of the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Canadian Football League.
"He here for six months and he was hired by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers that next February," Alexander said. "You knew he was going to do well. He had a lot of things going for him."
Then there is Gallatin coach Mark Williams, Mt. Juliet defensive coordinator Trey Perry as a defensive back.
"[Perry] was a gritty player," Alexander said, who went on to name Oakland's Thomas McDaniel.
"Gosh, I'm going to leave somebody out," Alexander said. "I've got so many teammates coaching down in Georgia as high school coaches, guys coaching high school football in so many states.
"The thing you recognize in all those guys, even when you're coaching them, you can always tell those guys you think will be a coach.
"Coaching is really a fraternity and we all continue to stay in it because we love the game. And we're all doing it at different places and different levels, but it all goes back to the same thing, we just love football."
And then there is the astronaut. Mt. Juliet's Barry Wilmore was a Tech teammate of Alexander's before become a commander on one of the last space shuttle flights.
"He was team captain," Alexander recalled of Wilmore. "He wasn't the fastest guy. He wasn't the biggest guy. But he was a good football player."
It makes you wonder how Tech has struggled on the football field so much over the last three decades.
"It takes a lot more than coaching to win ballgames," said Alexander, whose Bulldogs are the winningest college team in Tennessee over the last three years. "Coaches get way too much credit when things are successful, but sometimes they get way too much blame.
"It takes a lot of people. It takes a program. It takes a lot of successful people in administration, it takes players, it takes assistant coaches, community. It takes a lot of things to get a high school or a college or an NFL, all of them start at the same place. It starts at the top and all the way down. More than a coach, it takes a lot of different pieces to the puzzle."
Perhaps Bud Adams should take note.
Sports Editor Andy Reed can be reached at 444-3952, ext. 17; or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org