We were looking in the wrong place for USC's new running backs coach.
Although we can say that Clay Helton did try to tip us off with a mere three words Wednesday morning.
And while Clay cautioned us right after the early team run that nothing was finalized yet, and there was processing to go through, and he never did say the name of the man who is headed USC's way to coach running backs, Clay said simply this.
"He's a teacher."
We were actually trying to get Clay to tell us how he'd come up with someone from our neck of the woods, a former Ohio high schooler, Miami (Ohio) football player and coach, Bengals player and Indiana coach. Someone outside the usual path that gets you to USC.
But Clay wasn't talking geography or McCullough's resume or Clay's own Rolodex, not any of that. He was getting to the heart of it. Only we didn't realize it until we saw a lengthy and excellent profile from IUHoosiers.com with the link posted on the Peristyle. It wasn't so much about Deland McCullough, the college football coach, but the man.
Where the search went turned out to be a place much closer to my own heart -- and my home -- than I could have ever imagined. It was all about the seven years Deland spent as a teacher, coach, counselor, weight program director, athletic director, marketer, curriculum developer and ultimately, principal, at a startup charter high school in Cincinnati, Harmony Community School, not far from my own downtown St. Xavier High.
Only not in as nice a place, that is, when they found a place for the school outside of the library basement where it started. They stayed pretty much right there on the mean streets where many of the kids were in poverty, as described in the story: "His Guys, From Harmony to Indiana, McCullough Has Always Been a Mentor."
In reading his bio, I'd skipped over the important stuff -- his Harmony Community School days -- looking for the football stuff. There had been no location, no description, no explanation of what exactly was going on there in his bio. And why would a recent NFL player be working there anyway?
As it turns out, after his NFL and CFL days, McCullough took a job managing a group home in Cincinnati and then heard from a former teammate, we're told, that there was a new charter school in town where he might be able to teach. And coach. And help them start football. And find a place to play. And counsel. And just help everywhere he could, resulting in more than 100 scholarships for his pupils in the seven years Deland worked there.
We'll quote the story's author, Sam Beishuizen, and cite his reporting all the way through here. The story he tells is remarkable.
It also explains why in getting the 44-year-old McCullough, why USC is getting a "young college coach" making a big career move in college. He played professionally until he was 28. And then there were the seven years at Harmony.
Here's Beishuizen's description of a Harmony student body that came from "socioeconomically-challenged backgrounds, many of McCullough's students lived near the poverty line, surrounded by drugs and crime. Some showed up to school wearing the same clothes every day."
"The one thing I've always prided myself in is being able to get the most out of people," McCullough told IU Hoosiers.com of a game plan that he's used as a teacher and a coach who's put two successful Indiana running backs in the NFL the last three years with another on the way.
"I can get you at another level if you'll let me," he's quoted as saying."I'm going to work you, and it might not always be fun, but we'll get there together."
Having grown up in the tough Ohio steel town of Youngstown, McCullough knew where the Harmony kids were coming from. And where he'd come from. And brought those stories together.
And when he had to, in one of the highlights of his Harmony career according to one of his former players in the story, he did more than preach it and teach it. He lived it "when a stadium-wide fight broke out in the middle of a football game with rival Dayton Jefferson, McCullough calmly broke up fights between parents, coaches and kids and ushered his players safely back onto the bus. While everyone in the stadium was losing their heads, McCullough kept his. He needed to set an example for his players.'He never backed down,' his former player said. 'That wasn't what we did. He set the example right there. That wasn't us. That wasn't his Harmony'."
When the Harmony School's charter run ended after seven years, he was offered another charter school job but one with no sports teams. McCullough turned it down and headed back to Oxford, Ohio., to join the Miami staff. And when his head coach there, Kevin Wilson, now the offensive coordinator at Ohio State and one of the top offensive minds in the country, went to Indiana, McCullough followed him there.
And that Harmony success followed the Hoosiers running game as they set 19 school records under McCullough as he sent off Tevin Coleman (Atlanta Falcons) and rookie star Jordan Howard (Chicago Bears) to become immediate impact players in the NFL with Devine Redding an early entry NFL guy this year.
McCullough's college coaching clearly follows the path his high school teaching and counseling set for him, the IUHoosiers.com story tells us. Deland starts every practice huddling with his running backs saying these three words: "Today, I will . . ." And asks each player, one by one, to fill in the blanks as they describe exactly what they will do to improve themselves that day -- from better "ball security" to running with more "velocity" to whatever each needs to do that day to get better.
"Coach McCullough really gives us freedom to be what we want to be," Redding was quoted as saying. "As a group, we sort of decide who we are. I don't think many coaches would do that."
"A motivator," McCullough describes himself in concluding the story as to who he is and how he does what he does, "not an Xs and O's coach."
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