"I grew up in a housing project. I was one of 10 kids. We had 3 girls and 7 boys. I was the youngest. We used to play football in between the housing projects. The others used to play all of the time and I always wanted to play with the older guys. Finally, it got to a point where they let me play. I went out to catch a pass and laid out to catch the ball and hit my head on the corner of the house. I jumped up and was excited because I had caught a touchdown against the big guys. My brother came over and told me that my head was bleeding. We looked down and right where I had hit my head a chip had been knocked out of the brick and blood was on it. The name just stayed with me from then on. Of course, people said that was the way I played: He will hit you like a ton of bricks."
How did you wind up getting into the coaching profession?
"I wound up getting into coaching because of one of my coaches (in college). I had a minor in telecommunication and always thought that I would be a guy who was on the tv, radio or did broadcasting, that type thing. Then, I had knee surgery my sophomore year and my secondary coach (current Tennessee DC John Chavis) came to my hospital room after I had surgery and talked to me about what I would do if I couldn't play anymore. My injury wasn't life-threatening, but he did make me think. One of the things I remember him telling me is, 'it is a lot more important to me that when football is over you can go out and play with your kids and be able to run around and have fun with them.' That showed me that he cared about me as a person and not just a player. That always stuck with me. I thought if somebody can take that much interest in me as a person, then that is what I want to do with my life. From that day on, I knew I wanted to be a football coach.
Obviously, that is the type of coach you wanted to be, a coach that cares about the players future and not just their time with you as a football player.
"I think that is the most important thing. I tell guys, even during recruiting, I have to be able to look myself in the mirror. And when I look in the mirror I want to like what I see. Because of that, I'm not going to lie to kids and to tell them some untruths to get them here. Sooner or later they are going to find out. Sooner or later those players are going to have to help us recruit some other players. If I spent three months recruiting them and it has all been a lie, then after that, when recruiting comes around next season, they aren't going to trust me. They aren't going to tell those guys that everything I'm telling them is true. I try to take into recruiting a philosophy that we are going to be honest and upfront. I may tell a guy that this may not be the school for him. Don't pick this university because of me because I could be gone. This is how you decide where you want to go to school: What if football is taken away from you? If it is taken away from you, could you see yourself going to school here? If you can say that you can go to school there without football, then that is the right school for you. The key to success is for you to be happy."
You talked about the reason why you got into coaching. How did it all start for you? In other words, how and when did you get your first coaching job?
"Actually, it happened while I was still in college. Right after I finished playing, I became a student assistant. John Chavis left Alabama A&M to go to Tennessee. I became the linebacker coach in the spring to help out while the actual linebacker coach, who was in transition, got acclimated to everything."
After you had a chance to coach, was it what you expected it was going to be?
"It was probably everything I thought it was going to be and more. At that time, I wasn't having to go to all the meeting and do things like that because I was still in school myself. But, being on the field and watching guys work and help correct things they were doing was exciting, very exciting. However, even though I was coaching I wasn't sure that was what I would end up doing. Before I got out of school that summer, a good friend of mine who knew another guy ask me to consider going down to Enterprise High School. And that is where it started. I interviewed and realized it was a good deal for me. I'm sure there were better coaches out there for that job - it was a 5A or 6A job at the time, one of the better jobs in the state of Alabama. And I got the opportunity to work with some good people there."
How did the transition from high school to college happen?
"Believe it or not, while I was in college, Coach (Rockey) Felker and I had become very close friends when he was on the staff of Alabama. If my memory serves me correctly, as a student, I came over and observed and helped at one of his camps when he was the head coach (at MSU). It started to snowball from there. (Current MSU offensive coordinator) Coach (Woody) McCorvey also left Alabama A&M the year I got there so I knew him because he recruited me a little bit."
What was your first college job and how did you wind up getting it?
"My first college job was at Austin Peay State University. I got that job because of the guy that I worked for as a graduate assistant at Arkansas. I left Enterprise High School and went to Arkansas as a graduate assistant. I was working with the defensive line as a graduate assistant. I worked for a guy named Joe Pate, who is an unbelievable guy. He and Bill Johnson are the guys that really raised me as a coach. Joe was at NC State this past year. A friend of Joe's, Roy Gregory - a guy who he worked with at Chattanooga - had gotten the head coaching job at Austin Peay and was looking for a defensive line coach. Joe told him about me. I interviewed with Roy and got the job. I stayed there for about four years as the defensive line coach."
Where did you go from there?
"I left Austin Peay to go to Troy State University in Troy, Alabama. That was partly due to my knowing Coach Blakeney when he was the offensive coordinator at Auburn. Coach Blakeney had recruited me. I visited with him and coach Wayne Bolt and we talked and I took the job. I was there for almost four years. I coached the defensive line. I was named the defensive coordinator there but a week later I left to go to the University of Houston."
How long were you at Houston?
"I was there for a year and coached the defensive line. We were in a 50 front. I had the drop backer and the rush end. I had a little bit of both."
Where did you go from there?
"I went to Clemson. I coached linebackers and the rush ends. I was there a year. Then, (the coaches) got cut loose."
From there, where did you go and what did you coach?
"From Clemson, I went to Baylor. I was defensive coordinator at Baylor for three years. I also coached all of the linebackers."
Obviously, being the defensive coordinator at Baylor was a significant achievement for you. Who was the guy that hired you for that job?
That's the first you have mentioned him. What were his connections to you?
"Kevin falls into that category of the guys whose brains I picked. Kevin and John Chavis were roommates in college and were like brothers. Kevin used to come down and watch us practice when I was Alabama A&M. That is how we got to know each other and got to become really good friends. He and I also wound up recruiting similar areas in Alabama when he was with Nebraska and I was at Austin Peay."
What was it that he saw in you to hire you as his defensive coordinator?
"I think the fact that he knew how I had been brought up as far as coaching was concerned. He knew that I had been brought up through John Chavis' system. And that was kind of what he wanted to run on defense. To be very honest with you, this all came about after I got there. Mickey Matthews, who was the defensive coordinator when we first go there, left to become the head coach at James Madison. We were getting ready to go through the spring and Kevin gave me the job of defensive coordinator."
Was being a defensive coordinator a great experience for you?
"It was a great learning experience. We got to the point where we were pretty decent on defense. That, to me, was very special."
What did you learn as a defensive coordinator that you might not learn as a position coach?
"Breaking down opponents. Processing the film. Learning protections and things like that got a lot better for me. That was one thing about Kevin, he could do things in a meeting room that made you say, wow! It may take me a couple of hours to look at a video and figure out what they are doing. It may take Kevin 20 minutes."
From Baylor, you wound up at Georgia Tech. How did that come about?
"This is an amazing deal.(Georgia Tech head coach) Chan (Gailey) recruited me as a football player when he as at Troy State. He was recruiting me as a wishbone fullback. I never forget it. Chan never forgets it either. I went to A&M that year and we went 8 and 3 but (Troy State) won a national championship. He never fails to remind me of that. But, back then I was pretty hard headed. He told me that I could do this or do that as a wishbone fullback. I never saw their fullback touch a football, so I told him, if I came to Troy State, all I will need is a helmet, a neck rope and a bottle of aspirin because I'm going to have a headache after every practice.
"Anyway, as the process went on and Coach Gailey progressed and moved on, I would aways wish him congratulations on his new job. Then, he got the job at Georgia Tech and he knew I was from near that area. And it worked out for us."
And the last piece in your coaching puzzle is that you are now at Mississippi State. I see the Coach Felker and Coach McCorvey connections. Were there other connections?
"Freddie Kitchens is from my hometown. J.B. Grimes and I worked at Arkansas. I knew Guy Holliday through a lot of other people. When he was Alabama State and I was at Troy (State), we played each other. (Shane) Beamer worked for John (Chavis) at Tennessee. He was also a GA at Georgia Tech before I got there, so he would visit sometimes."
What were your connections with Coach Croom?
"I went to different NFL camps during the summer and we would visit that way. That was about it."
How did you being hired at Mississippi State happen?
"We had some conversations with Guy (Holliday). I think I also had some conversations with Coach McCorvey. A good friend of Coach Felker's called me and asked me if I was interested in coming to Mississippi State. I told him, with the right people, that would be a big, big job. And I wanted to coach in the SEC."
Did Coach Croom then give you a call about the job?
"In this business you always call the head coach, so he called Chan and told him that he would like to visit with me. Coach (Gailey) called me in and said Coach Croom called today and said he wanted to visit with me. He asked me what I thought. I told him that I would like to talk to him."
Once you interviewed with Coach Croom - a person you really didn't know a lot about prior to the visit other than what you heard - what were you impressions of him?
"My impressions of him were amazing. His personality, his demeanor, the things that he talked about wanting to accomplish, how he wanted to do it; that fit the way I wanted to do things. Make no mistake, there is not a whole lot of difference in Sylvester Croom and Chan Gailey, because I believe both of them are God-fearing men. I think they have a lot of the same philosophies. I just think that the presentation that he gave me was what I was looking for. The things that Coach Croom brought to the table were things that I was looking for. That was the only reason that I would leave Georgia Tech, because, in our mind, we were going to stay at Georgia Tech for awhile."
What were the things you were looking for?
"It as just the way he presented things. I knew it was a good fit for me.
"One of the things that he and Coach Gailey talked about was having family-oriented people on their staffs. If you have a wife and you have kids that you care about, then you are going to care about somebody else's kids."
Who have been the guys that have been most influential in your coaching career?
"Joe Pate was one. Coach Chavis was another one. Bill Johnson was another guy that I spent a lot of time with, talking about front stuff. Coach McCorvey, even though he was on offense, was another one. I told him the other day that I didn't think I had taken a job without talking to him first. He is a guy that I look up to and respect very, very much."
Since you really didn't work with him or for him, what is it about Coach McCorvey that has caused you to respect him so highly?
"I learned about the person. Through his demeanor, I saw a lot of the things that I wanted to be. That was special to me."
Switching over to your current players. Have you been able to watch any film of them? If so, what were your impressions?
"I've seen a little film. I think there is some talent there. I think we have some good athletes upfront. It is young talent and they are a little green. But, like I told them, as long as you are green you will grow. Soon to ripe, soon to rot. As soon as you think you know everything, you are headed down the toilet. You should always crave information."
What are you plans for spring practice?
"I want to talk to our kids and help them understand how important technique is. We want to be technicians upfront. Does that mean that we want to be soft and not attack? By no means, no. We want to be aggressive and we want to attack, but we want to be technicians. We want to step right, place our hands right, talk about pad level, talk about eyes. We want to get things fundamentally sound. That is our goal for the spring."
Is teaching technique your strong point, your style of coaching?
"I've never had anybody pose that question to me. Am I a technician or an aggressive coach? I think you have to be able to handle the entire gamut. I think what you do is take what your players can do, then make them the best at what they can do. I am going to see what my guys can do, then I want them to be the very best at that. If you are a good 3-technique, then I want you to be the very best 3-technique that you can be. If you are a 5-technique, then I want you to be the very best 5-technique that you can be. I won't ask for anything more than all that you have. If I get that, then we will like the results when that last tick comes off the clock."
Gene Swindoll is the owner of Gene's Page, the unofficial source for Mississippi State sports on the internet. The URL for Gene's Page is http://mississippistate.theinsiders.com. You can contact him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.