NEW ORLEANS — Florida tight ends coach Derek Lewis is famous among the players and staff for his fiery pregame speeches and his message to players about the importance of an education.
"From one to 10, he's probably a nine (in intensity)," junior center Jonotthan Harrison said. "But it's all love. That's just his style of coaching. It's not negative or anything like that, but he does have his outbursts and a lot of energy. He's a full-energy coach, and we love him."
And he loves them back, which is why he takes every opportunity to teach his players life lessons.
Lewis is a native of New Orleans who knows what it's like to struggle — and persevere. Being back in his hometown for the Sugar Bowl gave him a unique opportunity to show his Gator players much of what he has told them in the past and further reiterate one of his most important messages.
"Finish your degree. Definitely finish your degree," Lewis said this week as the Gators prepared for Wednesday night's Sugar Bowl against Louisville. "It's tough out there. It's a hard life. If you want it to be a deal where you can be successful, finish your degree. Have a good plan and work your plan."
Lewis knows of what he speaks.
After growing up in a tough area in New Orleans, he found himself back in his old stomping ground after his NFL career with the Rams ended prematurely due to a knee injury in 2000.
He played college football at Texas but did not earn his degree. It was time to face life in the real world.
"My dad came and got me and said, 'A man doesn't work, he doesn't eat,' " Lewis said. "You need to get a job. You didn't get your degree. It's your fault. You had an opportunity and didn't take advantage of it."
Lewis eventually landed a job as a city bus driver. He remembers being held at gunpoint once and another time having two of his passengers overdose on drugs.
"There were some trying times out there," Lewis said.
"The economy was rough, and guys were trying to make it. Just a tough deal."
Two years into the job, Lewis realized he needed to get his college degree.
He returned to Texas, and after earning his degree, Lewis — who remains well-known among longtime Gator and Longhorn fans for his 61-yard reception on fourth and inches that sealed the 1996 Big 12 title game upset of Nebraska for Texas and sent the Gators to the national championship game in the Sugar Bowl — got into coaching.
He was a graduate assistant at Texas in 2005-06 then became the tight ends coach at North Texas. One year later, he went to Minnesota in the same capacity. It was there that Florida coach Will Muschamp came calling after he was hired at Florida in 2010.
Lewis' life is an example that's beneficial for all, especially Florida players, Muschamp said.
"It's a great example of a guy that's been through a tough time, has pushed through it and is committed to being a football coach from a standpoint of working and understanding the importance of affecting young people's lives," Muschamp said.
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]