This is a continuing series from interviews with new staff members Brian Johnson, Keith Heyward, Tre Watson and Geep Chryst. Today continues with a look at how the group of four got into coaching.
New Staff Series: Gratitude a Theme | Chryst on Analytics | Watson’s Persistence Paid Off | Heyward’s OLB Switch and Lamar Jackson Story | Brian Johnson’s 50 Hours of Driving to Berkeley
There isn’t one catalyst that gets coaches down their chosen career path. Sometimes it’s a continuation of a long playing career. Sometimes it comes from a career ending, a decision to stay around football, and growing to love the job. Sometimes it’s a family tradition. For Cal’s new staff members, it’s mainly the latter two, as all four took different paths into the profession.
Cal’s new strength coach spent some time on practice squads in the NFL, last with the Baltimore Ravens in 2009. After a back surgery, the former LSU offensive lineman found himself back near where he grew up in Tallahassee, looking to stay around the game of football.
“When I finished playing with the Ravens, I decided to get into coaching,” Johnson recalled, “I was coming off a back surgery, I was in Tallahassee, I was with my parents as I rehabbed in central Florida. I went up to see my parents in Tallahassee and I was still very indecisive as to what was next. I knew my playing career was done, because I wasn’t the same after that back surgery.
“Jimbo Fisher had just been hired as the head coach at Florida State University, he was my offensive coordinator in college. I was going up there because I didn’t want to sit at home, I wanted to be around football, I was in my hometown and I grew up going to Florida State games, my dad was a Florida State grad, so I was going up to the stadium, just kicking it with (Fisher), meeting the staff and players. The next thing I know, he asks me if I was sure about the decision of being done playing. I said yes, and he asked me if I wanted to start my coaching career, I said I did. He asked me what I wanted to do, I told him I wouldn’t mind being in the weight room.
“Did I know that I wanted to be a strength coach at that moment? I knew I wanted to be in the weight room because of what the weight room was for me as a player, but I wasn’t all the way sure that my long-term goal was to be a strength and conditioning coach. I knew I wanted to be around football, I didn’t know if I wanted to be a football coach, but the weight room seemed so right, it was one of the few places that had a spot open, so that’s what I chose to do.
“Two years later, I was offered a job at the University of Akron, that was the moment where I told myself strength and conditioning is what it is, it came naturally, it made waking up at 4, 4:30 in the morning easy.”
Johnson elaborated on what the weight room meant for him at LSU, and how he wanted to set a similar example for those he coaches now.
“A lot of people look at the weight room as the place where you get stronger, bigger, and faster, but it was a lot more than that for me,” Johnson explained. “Coming from high school, going into college, and being one of the best athletes in my area, especially at my position and going through the recruiting process, there were still a lot of things I needed to learn about being a college athlete, the work ethic, the time management, accountability, holding myself to a higher standard. I didn’t have my parents holding my hand and taking me through stuff, and my parents raised me to be a hard worker, but there’s still another aspect to being a student athlete that you don’t get until you’re in this environment. I didn’t necessarily have that when I got to college, so becoming a student-athlete and all that embodies, that developmental period of my life happened in the weight room. It happened with the running, it happened with the lifting, but it also happened with me showing up late to a workout, the coach getting on me and having to deal with the consequences of that and understanding that that wasn’t acceptable. Dealing with not being able to get through a conditioning test, and strength coaches motivating me, encouraging me, or even at times showing some tough love to get me through those things.
“Academically, I didn’t do very well as a freshman, and most of the lessons I learned and the improvement I had in those areas came because my strength coaches were on me all the time. Once I got it, I got it, I was passing conditioning tests, and once I was passing conditioning tests, I got on the Dean’s List for a certain amount of semesters in a row. I got stronger, I got faster, I ended up getting on the field and playing more. I wanted to be like that for other guys who were like me and even guys who come in a little ahead of the curve, there’s always room for improvement.”
Cal’s new outside linebackers coach took a few years between graduating from Oregon State before transitioning into coaching, playing in the CFL (BC Lions), NFL Europe (Scottish Claymores), and the Arena Football League (LA Avengers). Heyward initially went back to Oregon State as a path to a graduate degree.
“I started as a graduate assistant at Oregon State. Initially, it was ‘oh, I’ll use this,’ like everybody else does,” Heyward said, “football was going to help me get my masters’, and I think after that first year of being a GA at Oregon State, I was trying to earn my MBA there, I switched out of the MBA program to an interdisciplinary program because I would have more time, just because I really loved coaching.”
Heyward called himself a ‘glorified teacher’ when discussing his profession, with the belief that you can develop people through the game of football. That line of thinking started during his time as a GA.
“I love teaching,” Heyward said, “I love the relationships that you’re able to build. As a GA, at the time, all you’re allowed to do is recruiting, but the relationships you develop during recruiting and how you develop young men, (I believe) football teaches the virtues of life, and I’ve always enjoyed that, I want to help people grow, on and off the field.”
Cal’s new DB coach Tre Watson’s post-college career started at Ford Sports Performance, where he worked in helping other college players train for the NFL combine and working with pros in their offseason. The decision to coach wasn’t entirely one he knew he wanted to continue with, as Heyward and another former coach of Watson’s brought him on as a GA at Oregon.
“There was never a moment, even when I agreed to do it,” Watson recalled, “I was still like ‘I don’t know about this.’ I was fortunate that those coaches that coached me saw me as a player, and thought enough of me as a player to get me to GA at Oregon. At the time, Keith Heyward was there and Donte Williams (CB coach at Oregon at the time, now at USC), they both coached me at the University of Washington and they gave me the opportunity to be a GA there.”
Watson’s in his fourth year of coaching now, second with his own position group, and he’s found that development is what he enjoys the most.
“I fell in love with watching the guys develop,” Watson said, “that I was teaching something, doing something, bringing energy, and I was seeing their progress, and I fell in love with coaching. I think that was significant for me as a person because that’s how I fell in love with football. Football wasn’t my first sport, it wasn’t the sport I was really passionate about, but I worked at it and I fell in love with it. That’s how I knew that coaching was something I wanted to do and I put my best foot forward in, there has been a lot of success and gratification out of it.”
For Cal’s new tight ends coach Geep Chryst, the decision to become a coach was an easy decision. His father George coached as an assistant for Wisconsin before taking over at D3 Wisconsin-Platteville, and that example led Chryst into coaching after playing football and baseball at Princeton.
“We were so fortunate as kids growing up,” Chryst said, “I joke with other coaches whose dads might be optometrists or plumbers, ‘how the heck did you get into coaching, I knew what I was going to do when I got into coaching, but how did you guys know that coaching was the way to go?’”
Growing up in a coaching family led to three more Chrysts entering the coaching/athletic administration ranks, with brother Paul currently serving as the head coach at Wisconsin and brother Rick having been the commissioner of the Mid-American Conference for a ten year stretch (1999-2009).
“You felt like you learned how to play the game the right way,” Chryst said of his experience growing up, “you learned without a doubt how to respect the game and you learned that if you respected the game, the game would take care of you”
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