From the time new Rebel Special Teams Coordinator/Secondary Coach Chris Rippon – pronounced Rip-pon - was a six-year old following around his older brother Steve, he knew football fit him like a glove.
"I can trace my passion for football back to when I was six years old – to the Ice Bowl, Green Bay versus Dallas," said Rippon. "I became a Packers fan and we always played sandlot football. It fit my personality – everything about the game of football was me. The contact, the discipline, the intensity, 11 people working together – those were all things I enjoyed."
Rippon was a "good" athlete as a youngster, playing QB and LB/S through high school, but he realized his playing career was limited toward the end of his prep career.
"We didn't even have a practice field in the high school I went to in downtown New York City, so there was little chance of getting a football scholarship. I was small, not particularly fast and not particularly strong, but I had a great passion for the game," he explains.
About that time, fate stepped in and his life, unbeknownst to him at the time, was about to be shaped forever. Rippon had basically decided he was going to follow in the footsteps of his Father and become an educator, in his case a physical education teacher.
"I was being recruited by a fellow named George DeLeone (now the OL Coach at Ole Miss). I went to Southern Connecticut State University, where he was the head coach. My position coach was Paul Pasqualoni, who went on to be the head coach at Syracuse for 14 years. It's a small world, you could say," Chris noted. "My first year, we had 147 walk-on freshmen. Eight of us made it. I was a 160-pound defensive tackle. Coach DeLeone gave me a shot to earn a position going into my sophomore year. I ended up starting in the secondary.
"What I learned then is that I was one play away from getting replaced. I couldn't miss a play. I wasn't going to be Wally Pipp to some young Lou Gehrig."
In another twist of fate, or maybe realization, Rippon suddenly realized he could make a living doing what DeLeone and Pasqualoni were doing – coaching football.
DeLeone left after Rippon's sophomore year, but Kevin Gilbright, who went on to be the head coach for San Diego in the NFL, took over.
"My exposure to excellent coaches was really good during my college career. I graduated in 1982 and started looking for a coaching job. Paul got the head coaching job at Western Connecticut and called me right before I signed a contract to coach high school ball in New Jersey. He said he wanted me to be a graduate assistant for him," Rippon recalls. "$120 a month, two meals a day five days a week, I lived in the office. I never doubted my decision to do that.
"I became a fulltime assistant coach and then Paul went to Syracuse. I was named the head coach and was the youngest head coach in college football that year (1987). I was 28 and I wasn't ready for the job, but I also knew you didn't pass on that type of opportunity. We didn't win many games, but it was a great experience. I became a tenured professor at the university, but the day after receiving tenure I accepted a position as the defensive coordinator at Boston University. I went there because it was a scholarship school. It was a step I had to take. I was there for three years. When my wife (Lisa) and I went to Boston U we had one child. Within three years, we had four – we had twin girls while there."
In 1992, Rippon was fired at Boston University during a staff change. He got his first taste of what has become all too common in his chosen profession – termination.
"I had four kids and no money, but I knew whatever I had to do to stay in college football, I was going to do it," he explained.
Old connections came to the "rescue." Pasqualoni was now the head coach for the Orangemen. One of Pasqualoni's assistant coaches at Syracuse left and Paul called Rippon.
"The year before I got there, Syracuse was ranked fourth in the nation and beat Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl. My first year, we had to beat Rutgers on Thanksgiving Day in front of three people at the Meadowlands to go 6-5. The next year we went 7-4 and didn't get a bowl invitation," he stated. "The next year, though, we got things going again. Marvin Harrison was a senior and Donovan McNabb was a freshman. We also had other great players and started cranking out some wins – that was a fun time," Chris said.
During the next few years, he coached linebackers, then defensive ends, where he worked with Ed Orgeron, now his "boss."
"Ed was the defensive tackles coach and I coached d-ends," he said. "We were side by side and coordinated the special teams," he said. "I enjoyed his passion then and will enjoy it now. We had a great run, going to four bowl games, including two BCS bowls. George DeLeone was also on the staff."
In 1999, Pasqualoni promoted Rippon to defensive coordinator, but he learned something valuable during that time.
"We did what was best for the team at all times. The title was never an issue and there were no egos. We were coming off a run of three years in a row with three First-Team All-Americans in four years on special teams in the return game. We had great special teams because we had great players," he explained. "We really looked forward to going head-to-head with Virginia Tech every year because they had that persona of great special teams. For two years, Frank Beamer said ‘Syracuse out special teamed us.' Those kinds of accomplishments are special for teams. In 1997 against Pitt, we blocked a punt for a touchdown, returned a punt for a touchdown, returned a kickoff for a touchdown and no Pitt kickoff return got beyond the 15-yard line. The whole special teams unit was named Big East Player of the Week.
"But Paul wanted me to be the DC. So that's what I became. In 2002, we were 10-2 and ranked in the Top 15 in all defensive statistical categories. Dwight Freeney was our pass rusher and we beat Auburn that year."
In 2004, Pasqualoni shifted gears again, asking Rippon to take over special teams again.
"We had eight punts blocked and no kickoff returns for TDs. The excitement wasn't there. Steve Dunlap was on staff and had been the DC at West Virginia for 18 years. He took over the defense and I went back to special teams and coached the safeties," Rippon noted. "We had a good, solid year in 2004 from a special teams standpoint. We had the All-Big East punter, the number seven kickoff returner in the nation, we blocked five punts and started to lay the groundwork again.
"What I am most proud of during my 12 years at Syracuse is that one of my players made All-Big East every year, whether it was a kicker, linebacker, defensive end, safety or return guy, I coached an All-Big East guy every year. That's gratifying. It came down to two things – we had great kids and players and I had a passion to develop them, to teach them the game of football and they were receptive to that instruction. That's the combination for success in football."
Now, Rippon has landed in the Deep South at a football-crazed school in a football-crazed conference.
"All anyone has ever told me about Ole Miss was how friendly the people are in Oxford and it's true. I'm so impressed with the loyalty displayed here. It's almost like being in a fraternity. Once you are in, you are family," he explained. "That is very rewarding. Our children are 15, 14 and 12, but their foundation is solid and we are all excited about it. Culturally, Oxford will be different, but it's an exciting difference. My kids are all football people so they understand the excitement of the SEC and everything at Ole Miss. They understand the passion and the compassion of Ole Miss fans. We couldn't be happier with the opportunity we have been given. I am very grateful to be here."
Now, the task at hand is to coordinate the Rebel special teams and direct the secondary. On special teams, we'll let Chris explain what Rebel fans can expect.
"It starts with being fundamentally sound. Nothing changes the complexion of a game than a blocked punt or a kickoff return for a touchdown. Punt protection and kickoff coverage will be our highest priorities," he began. "Punt block and kickoff return will also be main focal points. We don't call it punt return – we call it punt block. If an opposing team has to be concerned about the pressure you put on their punter, it will open up things for the punt returner.
"We will make sure the best players on the team are playing on special teams. If it's a jump ball between a first-team guy and a second-team guy, you probably go with the second teamer, but we'll have our best out there. I believe in that and Ed believes in that. The purest play in football is kickoff coverage – you run down the field and hit somebody. I'll be looking for guys who love that. We'll be looking for guys with a tremendous passion for the game and a passion to make a play.
"We're not going to have 17 different punt formation alignments, 20 different kickoff return formations. You are going to see kids who love to play the game, a few wrinkles and a philosophy to let them play and use their abilities. We will be excitable and ready to roll.
"We'll be looking for extreme effort on PAT/FG block. It's a character indicator. It shouldn't be a deal where kids lean into the OL and let them kick. In the PAT/FG game, it's the whole group. Everyone has to do their jobs. The kicker usually gets the blame when things go wrong, but it's usually not him. The snap could be off, the hold could be off – everyone will be accountable. We expect to be perfect when the offense gets to the 25 yard line or inside there. I realize last year's kicker (Jonathan Nichols) was a Groza Award winner and will be hard to replace, but we have to replace him just like you had to replace Eli Manning. That's college football and we will deal with it."
Rippon's philosophy about kickers and punters is that they are, first and foremost, football players and will be treated as such.
"If they aren't kicking, they will be running scout team. They are football players and will be part of the team in the truest sense," he added.
Rippon will be responsible for the secondary play and will be assisted by newly-hired DB Coach Tony Hughes.
"Thus far, I am very impressed with the secondary players, from what I have seen in agility workouts. We have three returning starters back there and that's a good base for us to build on," Rippon continued. "Athletically, I think we are fine. Can we cover? Are we confident? Can we make a play" Those guys have to be a little more confident than other players – they are the last line of defense. The reality is that the other team will score sometimes. Can you bounce back from that? That takes confidence. There's as much mental battle going on out there as it is physical. In today's offenses, people complete passes – how do you respond to that? Do you bow up or wilt?
"Our philosophy will be to free them up mentally. When Saturday rolls around, they will know all their keys, all their coverages, all their assignments – now just go play. I think the guys are going to enjoy the way we practice and prepare. Our goal is that they have no surprises on Saturday. Kids don't make plays for two reasons – they don't have the confidence to or they don't have the ability. We have to give them the confidence to make plays."
Both Hughes and Rippon will have the ability to coach all secondary positions, but how they will break those down in practice has not been decided yet.
"We haven't pinpointed that yet. We will play that by feel as spring practice rolls along," he ended. "I just know that Ed, (LB Coach) Shawn (Slocum), (DL Coach) Joe (Cullen), Tony and I will be on the same page and will get it figured out."
Rippon glad to be at Ole Miss
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