It has often been noted that Penn State assistant Brent Pry is the son of a coach.
His dad’s best professional advice? Prepare to be fired.
Pry has been, and has landed on his feet. Now the question is whether he can make a giant leap up the food chain.
After the move earlier this year of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop to Tennessee, Pry now assumes that title— without the “co-” in front of it, as had been the case previously — as well as associate head coach under James Franklin. There is a new co-coordinator (former Illinois assistant Tim Banks), but the 46-year-old Pry has succeeded Shoop as the primary defensive play-caller, as the guy with the final say on game plans and strategic decisions.
“I think it’s always what he’s wanted,” his dad, Jim, said by telephone Tuesday. “He’s been a coordinator, a successful coordinator, a few places, and I know he likes calling the shots and being in charge of things. He wants the responsibility. That’s probably the biggest thing.”
Jim Pry, approaching his fifth season as the offensive coordinator at Bethune-Cookman, is a coaching lifer, having begun his career in 1973. His son has been at it since he became a student assistant in 1992, when a broken foot deprived him of his senior season at the University of Buffalo.
(He had played safety there, though he was not known for his speed — a fact noted by Jim Haslett, the defensive coordinator early in Pry’s college career. “I think the word he used was ‘toast,’ ” Pry said with a laugh Wednesday, before appearing at a banquet near Lancaster.)
Pry inherits a defense that slipped from second in the nation in 2014 to 14th in 2015, in no small part because middle linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White, the unit’s anchor, was lost for the season after blowing out his left knee in the opener against Temple.
Wartman-White did not play in last month’s Blue-White Game, but Pry said he will be “ready to go” when preseason drills begin in August. He is not certain, however, as to whether Wartman-White or Jason Cabinda will man the middle. Cabinda shifted from the weak side to Wartman-White’s old spot in Week Two last year, and finished as the team’s leading tackler, with 100.
“We’ll see what shakes out, position-wise,” Pry said. “Both those guys have played Will (i.e., the weak side), they’ve both played Mike. They’re very unselfish.”
Brandon Bell returns on the strong side, after making 65 stops despite “playing with two bad wheels” and “a shoulder that kept popping out,” according to Pry.
“I’m not sure you could find a better three anywhere in the league, and maybe the country,” Pry said of his ’backers.
He has high hopes for the newcomers up front, one of whom — redshirt freshman tackle Kevin Givens — emerged as the talk of spring practice. Givens, who has added some 37 pounds (to 267) since arriving on campus, finished the Blue-White Game with two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss.
Pry does not believe complacency will be an issue for Givens, despite his auspicious showing.
“Kevin got plenty of constructive criticism from Coach (Sean) Spencer and especially myself the entire spring,” he said. “That’s one of the interesting things about the games, particularly the spring game: Stats tell one story, and the film tells another.”
Which is not to say he doesn’t have high hopes for Givens, as well as others (Parker Cothren, Antoine White, et al.) at tackle, after Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson moved on; it’s just to say that he doesn’t believe the stat sheet is the be-all, end-all.
Pry does have high hopes for the rest of the defense, especially the secondary. And he believes he is well-prepared for his role as the top defensive assistant at this point in his career.
He recalled Wednesday that he wasn’t sure he wanted to get into coaching after college, despite growing up around the game and his stint as a student assistant. Then a young Bulls assistant named Jeff Monken invited him to lunch.
“You’re born to be a coach,” Monken told him. “It’s in you. It’s really, really easy for you, and you’ll be really good at it.”
Once Pry settled on his career path, his dad chimed in with his timeless advice: “You have to commit yourself to this. I don’t want you to get in and maybe you get fired, and then you become something else. If you’re going to be a football coach, you’ve got to hang in there with the ups and the downs and fight yourself to where you want to be.”
“And,” Jim said Tuesday, “he’s pretty much done that.”
Jim knows whereof he speaks, having been fired as the offensive coordinator at Duke in 2003, only to land a few years later on a Rose Bowl team at Illinois. (He was also fired by the Illini, in ‘09, and after spending the following year at Dartmouth wound up at Bethune-Cookman.)
As for the younger Pry, he started his career as a full-time coach in 1993 as a defensive assistant at East Stroudsburg, where Jim was the offensive coordinator and Franklin the quarterback. The younger Pry’s first stint as a defensive coordinator came in 2002, at Louisiana-Lafayette.
And there, he recalled, he tried to run every defense known to man.
“Learned rather quickly that it’s not what you know as a coach,” he said, “it’s what those players know and what they can execute on Saturday.”
He was nonetheless fired in 2006, and after three years at Memphis signed on as the DC under Monken at Georgia Southern. In ‘11 Pry hitched his wagon to Franklin’s star, at Vanderbilt, and he has been on his staff ever since.
Pry said he and Shoop enjoyed “a great working relationship,” that he didn’t mind being “the sounding board.” But now he will have an opportunity to put his own stamp on the defense.
“It’s about the approach, probably,” Pry said. “Bob’s certainly a very smart football coach, very much scheme, X-and-O-oriented. We’ll spend a little more time on fundamentals and mentality.”
On rolling with the punches, as much as anything else. Certainly he knows all about that.