Every time California defensive line coach Fred Tate struts onto the field at Memorial Stadium, he finds me. He lets out a bellow that drowns out the sound system: "WHERE'S THE SAN FRANCISCO PIMP?"
He enjoys the fedora. He has since his first day. When he asked, one day, why I didn’t have on my trademark chapeau, I said, “Coach, I was having a good hair day. You remember what those were like, don’t you?”
Tate rubs his gleaming, bare scalp, looks up, and says, “Hell no!”
“You’re the only one he likes,” smirks defensive end Todd Barr. “He just yells at us.”
He yells, alright. He’s the loudest voice on a field that includes wide receivers coach Rob Likens. He’s as quick with an attaboy as he is with criticism. Like the Bears offense, he’s about efficiency and speed. During fall camp, when one of the freshman defensive ends erred during a footwork drill, he barked: “If you don’t know how to do the drill, get to the back of the line and let one of the older guys do it. They know how it’s done."
He doesn’t suffer tentativeness or uncertainty, and, joking aside, that’s what his players adore. He doesn’t demand perfection. He demands effort and toughness.
“We’ve had a lot of defensive line coaches, since I’ve been here,” says sixth-year senior defensive tackle Austin Clark. “But, the thing I say about coach Tate is, he’s going to work you. He’s going to work you, and at the same time, he’s going to let you know when you do good, too. It’s a different kind of energy, a different kind of vibe. He expects a lot out of you, but at the same time, he really molds the group together. He brings us all together, and for the most part, everybody’s playing really well. That’s exciting when you get everybody that’s out there playing, playing really well.”
If you’re going to make a mistake, Tate says, “make it at full damn speed.” That’s been his message to his charges in his first season in Berkeley. Tate knows of what he speaks.
In his youth, he was a self-described “knucklehead,” a fact which led him to enlist in the U.S. Army after a semester at Jackson State because, he says, “I ended up not getting my grades.”
“The way I was raised, the parents were in charge,” says Tate. “It was, ‘Hey, get a job or go to the Army.’ So, I decided to go to the Army, see the world and after the military career was up, I needed an education.”
Tate was stationed at Fort Bragg, and at the end of his five-year hitch, he’d risen to the rank of Sergeant.
When he returned from his service in 1992, Tate set his strong back to work for Northwest Airlink at Pine Belt Airport in Hattiesburg, Miss. -- a small airport no longer in in existence, handling bags, checking passengers in, loading planes, flagging planes in – “You did everything,” Tate says -- and it was while working there that he bumped into one of his old junior college coaches.
“He talked me into coming to East Central Community College and play, and from there, I got a few scholarships so I ended up going back to Southern Miss and playing,” Tate says.
Tate played the 1993-94 season at East Central, and then played the next two seasons at tight end for East Central, becoming a JC Gridwire All-America selection as a 1994 sophomore and voted the Most Valuable Offensive Player of the National Junior College All-Star Game.
Then, he went to Southern Miss, then a charter member of Conference USA, and a team that won the league’s first football championship with a 4-1 league mark while finishing 8-3 overall in his final season. The Golden Eagles finished the season on a seven-game winning streak, including a victory over Georgia. After earning his bachelor’s degree in human performance in 1997, Tate got his first coaching job, coaching wide receivers at East Central.
“My first coaching job, I was coaching tight ends and receivers at East Central – where I played – which, I played tight end in junior college. I got moved to defensive end at Southern Miss,” Tate says. “That said, when I took the coaching field, it was something I wanted to do. I kind of had the opportunity to be at Southern Miss as a GA, but coach [Jeff] Bower at the time said, ‘Look, you need to go coach if you have the opportunity,’ and that’s what I did.”
When he got into coaching, Tate found an outlet for his vivacious personality, but also the discipline that he learned in the Army, two things that inexplicably proved to be a potent and effective blend.
“In terms of maybe the way I approach coaching -- the discipline that you learn being in the military, the responsibility you learn, your leadership qualities – the time I spent, I did develop leadership positions, so the way I coach is attributed to football, but the way I approach coaching, a lot of it may be attributed to the military,” says Tate.
“I would just say he’s fiery, man. It’s a different level of respect. You’ve got to earn his respect, and he gets after you,” says Clark. “That’s what I think, as older players, you want. We want somebody to lay into us, but at the same time, when you do good, he’ll let you know.”
After coaching at Jacksonville State, East Mississippi Community College, Southwest Texas State and Middle Tennessee, coaching defensive line at every stop, Tate met the man who would one day bring him to Berkeley -- Art Kaufman -- when they coached together at East Carolina.
“He and I have got the same basic philosophy,” says Kaufman. “We have traded jobs. When we first worked with each other, I was the D-line coach, and he was a linebacker coach, when we first worked together 10 years ago.”
“When you’re a young coach, you listen,” says Tate. “You don’t talk; you listen. You listen and you learn. That’s what I’ve done over the years from him, and several other coaches.”
Listening is exactly what Tate did. He and Tate immediately came to an understanding.
“I think a lot of it is, when we first started coaching, I was a D-line coach and he had been a D-lineman, and he was the linebacker coach, and I had been a linebacker coach, so we were kind of swapping jobs, and yet we were on the same staff, in the meeting room together, and basically had the same philosophies, as far as style and schematic thoughts and technique,” says Kaufman. “I think the first thing is that I trust him to get the players coached and doing the task that we want them to do, the way we do it.”
When Kaufman decided to bring Tate to Berkeley – after having coached with him at three different stops – it wasn’t just because the two spoke the same language, though that was a consideration.
“I know what he wants, up front, and he knows what I’m capable of doing, so it’s not like he’s got to worry about what’s going to go on,” says Tate. “In terms of speaking the same language, he can go in my meeting room and coach my guys, and I’m saying the same things that he wants, and he knows, and on the side and things like that. It’s important to have the unity that we have, and being able to have been together in the defense that we’ve had and knowing what we want from each other.”
It didn’t take long from when Kaufman got the job until he gave Tate a call.
“In my mind, he was my guy,” Kaufman says. “The head coach has the ultimate decision, but as far as when I went to Texas Tech, when the job opened, we had a job open the day spring practice started, but I knew that if I ever got a chance to hire him as a D-line coach, that’s what I was going to do. We did that, then we went to Cincinnati and then, after we got here, the minute we had a job open, I knew that was the guy that I wanted, because he already knew what we were going to be doing, as far as the style of play. It was something immediate for me.”
The players immediately embraced both the simplicity of Kaufman’s defense, and the freedom they had under Tate – the freedom to do what they do best, and not fit themselves into an uncomfortable mold.
“His style, he brings high energy, every day – out here on the field, in the meeting rooms – nothing’s ever boring with coach Tate,” says Brennan Scarlett. “We enjoy that. His technique is, ‘Get off the ball,’ and that’s what we all like, as D-linemen.”
He’s fiery, he drives his charges hard, but he’s also the life of the party. He’s a lifelong Southerner who is absolutely, utterly at home in the California sun. He’s a former Army Sergeant who’s had to field strip and rebuild a defensive line that brought back precious little game experience, and he’s remained endlessly positive.
“One thing about these guys is, they’re hungry to be successful, and the big thing is, I don’t have all the answers,” says Tate. “I have tons of ideas, but what I basically want them to do is just play hard and have fun, and they are really hungry to do that, and if you make it fun in a practice setting, it’ll be fun on Saturdays.
“That’s probably more the way I was coached, in terms of playing back in the mid-‘90s and in college and back into high school. You had to get it done. It wasn’t any, ‘Well, OK, we can take this play off,’ or ‘We can take this period off,’ especially the defensive line. That’s a fight every play. Every play, up front, there’s a fight between the offensive linemen and the defensive linemen. You’ve got to have that mentality. You’ve got to have some aggression, and you have to release aggression every play. Now, there’s no room for lax or lapse or anything like that. You make a mistake, hey, make a full-speed mistake. That’s what I try to get those guys to understand: Everything’s not going to be perfect. You’re going to get reached, you’re going to get knocked on your butt, but you know what? You’d better be going full damn speed.”