Trent Dilfer understands the skepticism.
The former Bucs quarterback is a first-time college coach at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). The next play either of his coordinators calls at the Division I-A level will be the first. His roster has only a handful of returning starters and faces tougher competition as the Blazers jump from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference.
Put any other coach in that situation, Dilfer said, and he’d have questions, too.
“I’ll wait and see,” Dilfer told the Tampa Bay Times recently. “I believe in these kids. I believe in these coaches. I believe my 42-year football life has given me maybe wisdom more than knowledge, and wisdom is something I think our country lacks in general. Maybe a fresh dose of it in football will be good.”
If nothing else, it will be interesting. Maybe even innovative — if it works out.
Part Tony Dungy, part Sam Wyche, part Mike Holmgren
Dilfer didn’t need a college job. He didn’t need the money after a 14-year NFL career that included a Pro Bowl with Tampa Bay and a Super Bowl 35 triumph with the Ravens at Raymond James Stadium, plus nine years with ESPN. He didn’t need something to do; he was content coaching high school ball at Nashville’s Lipscomb Academy.
“Don’t need to climb the totem pole,” Dilfer said. “Football’s already given me more than my wildest dreams.”
But his wife, Cassandra, noticed he was bored and needed a new challenge. Taking over a college program that was disbanded less than a decade ago certainly qualified.
When the Blazers hired him in November, they got an outspoken former first-round pick who is the product of a fascinating football life.
Dilfer loves to share stories about his first Bucs coach, Sam Wyche, and tries to paint a picture to players the same way Wyche did. He aims to be a nurturer — a process-driven teacher in a drama-free environment — like his second coach in Tampa Bay, Tony Dungy. His spirituality and refusal to take himself too seriously were picked up from his all-time favorite coach, former Bucs assistant Clyde Christensen. His intensity comes from Mike Holmgren, his schematics from Norv Turner.
He tutored the nation’s top prep quarterbacks through two premier talent showcases, Elite 11 and The Opening. He also spent four years working with a different set of teenagers as the head coach at Lipscomb, a Christian college prep school.
“I’ve been surprised how similar the challenges are, (what) I faced at Lipscomb that I’m facing here — whether they be economic, whether they be political, whether they be family, whether they be team building,” Dilfer said. “It’s eerily similar.”
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Dilfer has also found ways to draw similarities from his past into recruiting. His three daughters all played Division I volleyball, so he went through the process as a father. Combine that perspective with what he knows from his time at Lipscomb and Elite 11, and Dilfer has a philosophy he believes in.
“We didn’t sell them anything,” Dilfer said. “We were honest with them and told them the challenges that lay ahead. We didn’t sugarcoat anything. I think it was refreshing for parents to be told the truth and not sold something.”
His first class ranked No. 92 nationally — third among first-year, mid-major coaches, behind only USF and Florida Atlantic.
Why Trent Dilfer isn’t Deion Sanders
The closest comparison to Dilfer starting with the Blazers is Florida State/NFL legend Deion Sanders taking over Colorado. But that’s not quite right.
Sanders had lower-level college coaching experience at Jackson State and hired an experienced staff to help him navigate the jump. Offensive coordinator Sean Lewis was Kent State’s head coach for five years, and three assistants were on FSU’s 2013 national championship staff.
Dilfer’s organization is different by design. Of his 10 assistants, seven have never held full-time, on-field Division I-A roles. Offensive coordinator Alex Mortensen was an analyst at Alabama. Defensive coordinator Sione Ta’ufo’ou worked for Dilfer at Lipscomb in the same role.
“I didn’t want too many voices of the way it used to be done …” Dilfer said. “A lot of these guys complaining about the good ol’ days — I didn’t want that.”
Instead, he wanted workers with one of his core values: figure-it-outness. High school coaches who confronted new problems daily without much help; Dilfer’s on-field staff has three. Lifers who made it work anywhere; that’s senior analyst Danny Mitchell, a European League of Football champion. Grinders who weren’t the most talented but maximized what they had.
That’s former Gators quarterback Austin Appleby.
“All the Elite 11, coaches will tell you,” Dilfer said, “he was my favorite all these years.”
Dilfer loved how Appleby was wired as a recruit and respected how he climbed through the coaching ranks, from Division III Mount Union to Central Michigan analyst (under former Florida coach Jim McElwain) to Football Championship Subdivision position coach at Missouri State. Dilfer made Appleby his receivers coach.
Will it all work? Not even Dilfer knows, and he doesn’t mind admitting it.
“I’m transparent to a fault,” Dilfer said. “I think I’m called controversial at times, and I always kind of roll my eyes. No, I’m just being me.
“I’ve just learned how to be honest, and I think so many people are full of crap that you don’t really get to know the real them. I am who I am unapologetically and a work in progress.”
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