Former NFL RB Tyrone Wheatley jump-started his playing career under Jon Gruden; he could do the same for his coaching career
Herman Edwards played 10 seasons in the National Football League and, as the alert scoop-and-score man after Joe Pisarcik's infamous fumble, secured a spot in league history with the Miracle at the Meadowlands in 1978.
Edwards aspired to coaching when his playing days ended after the 1986 season, and he landed a position quickly, joining the San Jose State staff as defensive back coach in 1987. That very same year, the NFL began a program that would eventually shepherd Edwards to much bigger things.
His story is a source of encouragement for three men who will be working with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when training camp starts next week: Shawn Gregory, Tracy Rocker and Tyrone Wheatley.
The NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship Program began in 1987 as an effort to provide opportunities and training to minority coaching aspirants such as Edwards. Now about to start its 20th year, the Fellowship Program annually produces training camp positions around the league for dozens of additional minority candidates.
The Fellowship Program is still going strong at the end of its second decade because it works, a fact Edwards knows well and Gregory, Rocker and Wheatley may soon find out. The latter three are the Minority Fellowship coaches who will be working with the Buccaneers this summer. Wheatley and Rocker, like Edwards, are former NFL players, while Gregory is in his second run through the program after spending last summer with the San Diego Chargers.
Edwards used a similar opportunity to begin his rise all the way to the pinnacle of his profession. Now in his first year as the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs after five seasons at the helm of the New York Jets, Edwards credits the program for "jump-starting" his NFL career.
Edwards took part in the Fellowship Program with the Chiefs in the summer of 1989, leading to a position as a talent scout and an assistant to then-Defensive Backs Coach Tony Dungy in Kansas City. Edwards assumed Dungy's position in 1992 when the latter became the defensive coordinator in Minnesota, then moved back to the scouting department in 1995.
Lovie Smith, who is heading into his third season as head coach of the Chicago Bears, got his opportunity in the Minority Coaching Fellowship Program in 1988 with the Arizona Cardinals, just as he was beginning a four-year stint as the linebackers coach at Arizona State. Subsequent moves took him to Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio State.
Then, in 1996, both Edwards and Smith joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' staff under Dungy, in his first year as the Bucs' head coach. At this point, the quality of their training became obvious; led by a resurgent defense, the Buccaneers quickly developed into one of the league's elite teams. After five years in Tampa, both Edwards and Smith would get their own opportunities to run a team (after a stop for Smith as the St. Louis Rams' defensive coordinator).
The Buccaneers' history of success with the Minority Coaching Fellowship Program goes beyond the upward mobility of Smith and Edwards. It even touches the current coaching staff in a rather significant way. Three of the Bucs' 2006 coaches are graduates of the program: Assistant Head Coach/Running Backs Art Valero, Tight Ends Coach Ron Middleton and new Defensive Line Coach Jethro Franklin.
Middleton, in fact, represents the program's success for both the coach and the team, as he performed his camp internship with the Buccaneers in 2003. When Running Backs Coach Kirby Wilson departed the Buccaneers after the '03 season and the team moved Valero from the tight ends over to the running backs, the Bucs called on Middleton to coach the position he had previously played in the NFL.
Last year, Middleton's tight ends became an enormous part of the offense, as the team went to a large percentage of two-TE sets. Rookie Alex Smith had an outstanding debut season, catching 41 passes to rank second among all NFL rookies in 2005, regardless of position.
Valero, in his second year with the backs, had a rookie performer of some note under his tutelage, too. Cadillac Williams was named the NFL's Rookie of the Year after rushing for 1,178 yards, including an NFL-record 434 yards in his first three games.
Valero served three minority fellowships before joining the Buccaneers in 2002, Jon Gruden's first season as the head coach in Tampa. A veteran of two decades of coaching on the collegiate level, Valero got a taste of the NFL with the Chiefs in 1994, the Buffalo Bills in 1996 and the Jets in 1998. This past offseason, as he entered into his fifth season with the Buccaneers, Valero was promoted to his current position, adding the title of assistant head coach.
Franklin is in his first season with the Bucs after spending a season with the powerhouse USC Trojans, but his full-time NFL career began in 2000 when he was named the Green Bay Packers' defensive line coach. Franklin, who spent five seasons in that post, had completed two previous fellowships, with Buffalo in 1994 and the Cleveland Browns in 1995.
The Minority Fellowship Coaching Program provides opportunities to minority candidates of varying backgrounds, but it has proven particularly useful for former NFL players who wish to move into the world of coaching. Last year, for instance, the Bucs had the training camp help of former NFL standouts Richie Anderson and Eric Green, as well as a Dartmouth coach named James Jones. Other well-known former players who went through the program last year included D'Marco Farr, Cortez Kennedy, Cris Dishman, Dana Stubblefield, Tracy Simien, Lewis Tillman, Lloyd Burruss and E.J. Junior.
Pepper Jones and Kevin Ross, two long-time NFL standouts as players, are among the current established coaches who used the program as a way to get a foot in the door. So did Marvin Lewis, who didn't play beyond college but got his first NFL job with the Pittsburgh after fellowships with San Francisco in 1988 and Kansas City (again) in 1991.
Participants in the program are integrated fully into the team's coaching staff during the intense three weeks of training camp. They perform duties that mirror those of full-time NFL assistant coaches and are responsible for specific assignments essential to the team's preparations. That includes planning and directing workouts, formulating scrimmage and preseason game strategies, breaking down videotape and evaluating players. Nearly 1,100 coaches have worked in the training camps of NFL teams since the program's inception in 1987.
That's the task at hand for Gregory, Rocker and Wheatley.
Gregory will soon begin his third season on the football staff at Samford, where he coached receivers in 2004 before switching to quarterbacks last year. He has previously held coaching positions at Mississippi Valley State, Tuskegee and Morris Brown. His first fellowship program with the Chargers afforded Gregory the chance to work alongside Hall of Famer James Lofton.
Rocker, who played in the NFL in 1989-90 with the Washington Redskins, is currently the defensive line coach at the University of Arkansas. He joined the Razorbacks' staff in 2003 after one season at Cincinnati and five at Troy State. He has also previously enjoyed a fellowship, with the Indianapolis Colts in 2001.
Rocker is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 2004 thanks to a stellar career at Auburn. In his senior season, Rocker won both the Outland Trophy, given to the nation's top interior lineman, and the Lombardi Trophy, given to the nation's top lineman. He was drafted by Washington in the third round in 1989.
Wheatley, like Edwards, built a 10-year career in the NFL, playing running back for the New York Giants (1995-98) and the Oakland Raiders (1999-04). He was a member of the Raiders team that qualified for Super Bowl XXXVII but lost the big game to Tampa Bay, 48-21 in January of 2003.
Wheatley played in 124 games with 45 starts and rushed for 4,962 yards and 40 touchdowns. He also caught 125 passes for 900 yards and seven touchdowns. His best season was 2000, when he rushed for 1,046 yards and nine touchdowns in his second year in Oakland. Wheatley's first three seasons with the Raiders were played under Gruden, who was Oakland's head coach from 1998-01.
At the University of Michigan, Wheatley finished his career with 4,186 rushing yards and 54 overall touchdowns. He is the all-time rushing touchdown leader in Wolverine history with 47. Wheatley was only the third player in Michigan history to rush for more than 3,500 yards and gain more than 4,000 all-purpose yards. The Giants made him their first-round draft pick (17th overall) in 1995.
Of course, NFL coaching positions are coveted jobs, so there is no guarantee that any of these three fellowship participants will eventually gain – or even want – a full-time gig in the pros. There is a good chance, however, that someone from among the field of 80 or so participants across the league this year will use the program as a springboard to a lasting NFL career.
It sure did for Edwards.