Peterson begins coaching career at Florida

Mike Peterson's coaching career didn't begin this fall. It's his first year as an undergraduate student assistant at Florida, but his time spent as a coach actually started in 2012. For the first year in a long time, Peterson wasn't a contributor. He found himself on the sidelines with the Atlanta Falcons, working more as a mentor. That's the exact role he'll serve for the Gators this fall.

"I had a great opportunity to be there with Coach (Mike) Smith," Mike Peterson said after Florida's Tuesday morning practice. "It was a humbling experience to be able to sit on the sidelines after being a star for so many years and being that guy. To sit on the sidelines and to coach players up, Coach Smith gave me a great opportunity.

"He gave me a great opportunity because a lot of times in meetings he would let me run the meeting, so I would actually have to get up there and explain the defense, explain the coverage. I'm comfortable in that role."

The desire to be a coach started as a kid. His father was a coach and worked with Peterson as he grew up and eventually played just north of Gainesville at Santa Fe High School. He continued his career at his dream college, finishing his career as an All-SEC and All-American selection following the 1998 season.

Peterson went to the NFL, playing with the Indianapolis Colts for the first four seasons. That's where he met quarterback Peyton Manning, watching and learning how the former Tennessee Volunteers quarterback went about working. But there were also the playful jabs between the two about their encounters on the field in college.

"I'm 4-0 against Peyton Manning in college," Peterson said with a laugh. "I remind him of that every time I see him."

Peterson's desire to coach was also grown by spending time around Colts head coach Tony Dungy. He was always accessible to talk about life on and off the football field, and that stuck out to Peterson as a trait he wanted to carry with him into his own career.

After a six-year stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Peterson played for the Atlanta Falcons during the final four years. That's when the urge to coach grew stronger by the day. Peterson realized his time on the field was coming to a close, but he didn't want to leave the game.

"The whole time, I wanted to get back in coaching," Peterson said. "I think the hardest part was letting go of playing and being able to take that next step and set yourself up for your next career.

Before the coaching career could begin, Peterson wanted to check something else off his list.

He wanted to finish his degree at Florida.

Peterson was pushed by his wife, kids, parents and grandparents to go back to school and finish the degree. Then, if the coaching angle didn't work out, Peterson still had his Florida degree to fall back on. However, in the process of setting up his final two classes this fall to finish his degree, things changed.

Peterson's counselor, Tim Ike, suggested that he talk to Will Muschamp about helping out with the football team. The thought of going back to school and starting his coaching career at the same time had never crossed his mind.

"I went and spoke to Coach Muschamp about it, and he was very receptive of it," Peterson said. "Just knowing him over a couple years and coming back and speaking with the team, I knew it would be a place I could definitely fit in. The rest is history.

"I didn't assume he would be so accepting of me. He has been in my corner. I'm just thrilled to work with him. I get a chance to see how he goes about his day-to-day, how very detailed he is. Great coach. I get a chance to see that, not as being a player, but as being a coach."

It's the kind of access that Peterson never expected. He gets to spend time with Muschamp and the Florida coaching staff, men with many of years in the coaching profession at the highest level of college football. Not bad for a man trying to get involved in the industry.

Muschamp has always been open to former players coming back to the program, but when one of the best linebackers in school history was interested in helping the program, the completely open response from the head coach took Peterson by surprise.

"I've got to give a lot of thanks to Coach Muschamp, Mr. Foley, the academic department -- all for accepting me and letting me comeback," Peterson said. "If I could've put it on paper or dreamed about it, this definitely would've been the place I want to get my coaching career started.

"I played here. I grew up here. I was able to come back and play close here in my professional career, so I think the kids are accepting of me and listen to me of what I have to say a little more because I've sat in those same seats they sitting in right now."

While Peterson was surprised about the openness Muschamp had about him working with the team, it was really a no brainer for the Florida head coach. Muschamp always has multiple former Florida players come speak to the team during the offseason and welcomes them back with open arms. The addition of Peterson happened for multiple reasons.

It wasn't only his play at Florida and in the NFL that earned the spot for him. Peterson was a heady player that knew the defense and spent plenty of time learning off the field.

"I think it's always valuable when you have any person that played at Florida," Will Muschamp said. "(Peterson) did it at a high level, 14 years in the National Football League. You talk to anybody who coached Mike, we all talk about that he was a coach on the field and he obviously was a really good player. He was a guy that had a cerebral approach to the game and understanding why we did things, not just how to do it, but why."

His role on the staff isn't as clear at this point. The Gators have two graduate assistants -- Chris Leak with the offense and Duke Lemmens with the defense -- but Peterson will work and serve as a mentor for the younger linebackers on the Florida roster. The Gators have four freshman linebackers on campus this year, with three of them expected to play after Matt Rolin re-tore his ACL last week.

Peterson will serve as an extra pair of eyes at the linebacker position, which also gives defensive coordinator some freedom to check out other positions during practice.

"He has been great for our players," Muschamp said. "You look at the young linebackers we have in Alex (Anzalone), D-Mac and Jarrad Davis, who's playing really well. He's been really valuable for those guys, especially with D.J. being a coordinator and being able to walk around a little bit more and see a little bit more of the practice, and having Mike being able to be hands on with those guys is invaluable. He's doing a fabulous job. He's got a huge future in this profession."

Peterson brings instant credibility to the younger players. He came in, admittedly, as a freshman that thought he had it all figured out and could thrive because of his athleticism. It didn't happen like he expected, and extra time in the film and weight room forced him to figure it out faster.

That's the message for the young linebackers in Gainesville this fall.

"A lot of things they may take for granted," Peterson said. "I try to teach my guys how to go about your business every day. All the knowledge that I can have or I've learned over the years, just try to pass that along to the younger guys.

"Get in your playbook. Get in your playbook, learn what to do. And just every chance you get, take advantage of it. I try to tell the guys it's different in high school ball. High school ball you can pick the plays you want to go hard. In college ball, you just go hard, go hard, go hard because you never know when that play is going to come."

Spending time with Tony Dungy's coaching personality might've made Peterson laid back in those four years, but he was quick to lose that personality. He's more like the Florida head coach once he gets on the field, loud and easy to hear if a player makes a mistake. That's the coaching he grew up with, and it's what he'll take to the practice field in Gainesville.

"Oh, I'm more Muschamp," Peterson said with a laugh. "I'm a linebacker, so you're going to get mean. Now in the meetings, I sit back and I coach guys up. But once it's time to get out on the field, I'm a fiery guy. That tough love? I believe in that. I'm going to coach you up, Once I put my name on it and my stamp on it, I tell the guys, you're not representing yourself now, you're representing me. So I'm going to try to pull out the best in you."

That's why starting his coaching career under Muschamp is a perfect fit. Peterson sees a lot of his personality and style in the way that Muschamp carries himself. After spending time around respected NFL coaches like Dungy and Smith, Peterson was quick to point out that Muschamp carries himself like one of those coaches.

"He's right up there with them, that was one of the things that attracted me to coming back here and helping out with the team, after meeting coach," Peterson said. "You never know what you're going to get from a head coach. You hear this, you hear that. But then you get a chance to sit down and talk with him, speak the same language as we say -- football language. And then I didn't have any doubt, I said 'Yeah, I can definitely work with a guy like that.'"

There's just one hurdle left from keeping Peterson working with the Florida linebackers for the rest of the season. One phone call could change it all. He hasn't received any serious interest from NFL teams throughout the offseason, but all it takes is one training camp injury for that to change.

That's the reason Peterson still hasn't officially retired from the NFL.

"I just want to make sure when that door is closed, it's all the way closed," Peterson said.

Interest from an NFL team would make it a difficult decision. Peterson is in a perfect position to begin the coaching career he wants when his playing career is over. Throwing that away for one more year in the NFL would be difficult, but the desire to play is still there.

As the college football season gets closer and his classes are closer to starting, the likelihood that he would join an NFL team diminishes by the day.

"If they give me a call a week from now -- I'm a loyal guy, a committed guy, and right now, I've got a commitment to the team here," Peterson said. "The longer this process goes on, it's going to be harder for me to go back. I think within the next couple weeks or so, I will definitely make an (official retirement) announcement. I just want to make sure that door is closed all the way before I jump into something else."

Peterson is right where he wants to be this fall. His playing career over, he's working daily with an experienced coaching staff and has the opportunity to build a career in the coaching industry.

And there's no better place to start it than right at home.

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