TAMPA ― He is younger than the first Rocky film, and Rocky II for that matter. Nary a speck of gray is readily visible in his closely cropped hairstyle.
Jeff Scott, on the cusp of his 39th birthday, probably could pass for about 30. But in coach years, the new CEO of USF football may as well be 55.
“Jeff’s always been very, very organized and detailed,” said Barry Mizzell, who coached alongside Scott when the latter was in his early 20s. “And he always has had a vision of what he’s wanted.”
Dr. Sharon Buddin evidently noticed those attributes also. Fifteen years ago, the principal at the palatial new high school on the fringe of Columbia, S.C., had her pick from more than 100 coaches ― some with ear wax older than Scott ― to launch her football program. She chose the 23-year-old math teacher.
What followed simply doesn’t add up, at least not by conventional logic.
This is the story of the most surreal ― and possibly most fulfilling ― year of Scott’s coaching life. Before his triumphant introductory news conference at USF, before helping oversee a Clemson offense that won two national titles in three years, even before his first college coaching gig, there was Blythewood.
May as well have been Hollywood. “To be honest, like something out of a movie,” Scott said.
Fade in to a math portable on a sprawling high school campus. Scott, with a freshly-minted masters degree in education instruction technology, is teaching and serving as offensive coordinator at Columbia’s Ridge View High.
Buddin, meantime, is transitioning from Ridge View to Blythewood, being built about 8 miles to the north. Upon its opening, it will accommodate approximately 1,400 students, many from her old school. Demand for the football coaching job spikes.
This is, after all, South Carolina, which may lack the depth of talent of a Florida or Georgia, but arguably possesses more prep football passion per capita.
“She had 112 coaches that interviewed for the job,” Scott recalled. “Ten coaches had won state championships.”
Yet Buddin had been captivated by Scott’s ability to engage his math pupils. Though he could fit his coaching resume on an index card, his fledgling abilities as a strategist and psychologist belied his birth certificate.
For all practical intents, he had been grooming himself for such a chance since prepubescence.
The son of former South Carolina coach and FSU offensive coordinator Brad Scott, Jeff spent his whole childhood hanging out at his dad’s workplace whenever permissible, sneaking in on film sessions and holding his father’s headphone cord on the sideline. The Scott family’s fond of recounting how Jeff the tyke would beg his dad to go ca-rootin’ (a mispronunciation of recruiting) with Brad.
“He was 25 years old, but in coach years, he had been in more scheme meetings with Coach (Bobby) Bowden and my dad than somebody 10 years older than him,” said his younger brother John, a trauma surgeon and assistant professor at the University of Michigan. “So he’s kind of had that gift.”
Unwavered by his age, Buddin presented Scott’s name for the football coaching job to the school board, which rejected it.
“They said I was too young, especially for a new program getting started,” Scott said. “But she had a strong reputation. She waited two more weeks, went back and really stood on top of the tables.”
This time, the board relented. Before you could say prodigy, Scott had validated his boss’ faith.
In their inaugural season, playing a junior varsity schedule, the 2005 Blythewood Bengals went 10-0, excelling in the spread offense Scott had learned as a Clemson walk-on receiver from then-Tigers coordinator Rich Rodriguez.
“I know for some of the older people, (Scott’s age) was a little bit of a question, but for the players I don’t remember anything,” said Richard Mounce, the Bengals’ dual-threat quarterback.
“Jeff can dispel skepticism about his abilities pretty quickly. I mean he’s uber, super-organized, Type-A. Always has a plan, always is a couple of steps ahead of everybody else on what he wants to do. Even in strategy, just X’s and O’s, it seems to me he’s always on the front line.”
With their 2005 roster essentially intact, and faith in their young coach fortified, the Bengals entered 2006 with lofty aspirations for their initial varsity season. The talent was so robust that few ― if any ― players went both ways. Even cornerback Justin Bethel, now a New England Patriot, focused on defense.
”I think (Scott’s age) was one thing that we all liked, because it didn’t always feel like a coach,” said Bethel, a three-time Pro Bowler for special teams.
“It was like an older brother getting us ready and connecting with us, and I think it really resonated with a lot of the guys. And I think that’s kind of what helped us play how we played.”
The season dawned with a deflating 21-13 loss to Ridge View, but the Bengals answered the following Friday with a 35-13 win at Lamar, scoring touchdowns on four consecutive third-quarter drives.
The following week, at 2005 Class 4A runnerup Richland Northeast, Scott’s team staked a 15-point first-half lead and held on for a 21-19 upset.
“They had some D-I players on that team, and they were 4A and we were 3A,” said Mounce, who totaled 246 yards and passed for two touchdowns. “We were like, ‘Holy cow.’ That wasn’t expected, and after that our confidence was, we could beat anybody.”
Blythewood defeated five of the next seven opponents by double digits en route to a 9-1 regular season. In its playoff debut, Mounce set a South Carolina single-game record with nine passing touchdowns ― eight to eventual Clemson signee Marquan Jones ― in an 84-41 rout of Blue Ridge.
Three games later, in the state semifinals against traditional power Clinton, the Bengals scored first in overtime for a seven-point lead, then stopped a two-point conversion try at the goal line to escape with a 31-30 triumph. Bethel had 15 tackles and blocked a field goal.
The state title game against Timberland was held at Williams-Brice Stadium, the University of South Carolina’s home in Columbia. On a night when Mounce accounted for 423 of the Bengals’ 427 yards, three fumbles kept things close. Timberland scored with 3:03 remaining to take a 21-20 lead.
A squib on the ensuing kickoff and nice return gave the Bengals possession near midfield. Mounce then surgically drove the Bengals to field-goal range over the next 10 plays, which included a 10-yard completion on third-and-7. With time for one more play, sophomore Aaron Mayes ― who already had converted field goals of 24 and 32 yards in the contest ― came out to try a 23-yarder.
“I just remember we huddled up and Jeff was like, ‘All right, we practice this every practice all year. Just go out there and kick the field goal,’” recalled Mounce, who held for the kick. “It felt pretty normal at the moment.
“And then it was euphoria.”
Mayes’ kick gave Blythewood a 23-21 triumph. Led by their 25-year-old coach, the Bengals had become the first school in South Carolina history to win a state crown in their first season of existence, averaging 371.4 yards and scoring 69 offensive touchdowns.
Exactly 10 seasons later, Scott helped coordinate a Clemson offense that averaged more than 500 yards and edged Alabama 35-31 to win the College Football Playoff national title at Raymond James Stadium.
In October, he and Mounce were among the inductees in Blythewood’s inaugural athletics hall of fame class.
“I told people as soon as I got around him and got to be around him every day that he was gonna be a Division I coach one day,” Mizzell said. “He just had that ‘it’ factor, is what I’d reckon you’d call it.”