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A Drive, Plenty of Paint and A Tarp

Aug. 7, 2013


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Associate head coach Steve Stripling said his most usual experience in a coaching career that dates back to 1977 came last December, as he led Cincinnati to a 48-34 win over Duke in the Belk Bowl.

"The last bowl game, we had four coaches," Stripling said of the staff that was left at Cincinnati after Butch Jones took the job at Tennessee. "That was the craziest thing I've ever been a part of as a coach.

Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said the relationships he built at his first full-time job at Tennessee State in 2000 have been some of his most meaningful.

"I worked for one of the best guys I ever worked for James Reese, he gave me my first opportunity," Thigpen said. "We're still great friends today and I learned a lot from him. The friends I made at Tennessee State are still some of my best friends today."

Running backs coach Robert Gillespie got his coaching start as a graduate assistant and later, running backs coach at South Carolina under Steve Spurrier, who coached Gillespie at Florida.

"I was with him from I was 17 years old until I was 29," Gillespie said of Spurrier. "I came to him as a little boy and left a man. I carry a lot of those things with me today."

By Brian Rice
UTSports.com

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee coaching staff brings a wealth of experience to Rocky Top, but not all of that experience gained along the way came on the football field. As graduate assistants and full time coaches at schools at different levels, the staff accumulated a lot of memories and a few battle scars along the way.

The experiences included a literal long road to the football field, a very odd mailing address and advanced degrees involving paint and the art of field maintenance.

Keep Driving

Tight ends and special teams coach Mark Elder cut his coaching teeth as a graduate assistant at the University of Akron, where he quickly discovered the basement of the famous JAR was a location for more than just position meetings for the football team.

The James A. Rhodes Arena, as "The JAR" at Akron is formally named, houses Zips basketball and the physical education department. The meeting rooms for the football staff were also P.E. classrooms, and not necessarily in that order.

"Everything was on actual VHS tape at the time and we had these carts with a projector and a VHS player that we had to take down," Elder said of the daily move from the offices to their shared meeting space. "Usually, we had to wait for the heath classes to get in and have meetings."

The daily trip to the practice fields made that walk and wait seem brief.

"You had to get on the highway to get there," Elder said of the Rubber Bowl, which was a round trip that would take 40 minutes. "If you forgot something, you were in a lot of trouble.

"Those were the glory days and I loved every minute of it and wouldn't have traded that experience for anything in the world."

Painting the Town

Defensive Coordinator John Jancek's first job came at Wayne State, a Division II school in the inner city of Detroit. As is typically the case, Jancek's responsibilities were far-reaching, including making team travel plans and teaching classes.

"We didn't have much, coaches had to wear a lot of different hats," Jancek said. "You got a lot of great experience, you just had to do a lot."

One of those hats ended up being a painter's cap.

"We had to paint the weight room at Wayne State," Jancek said. "It needed a paint job and it wasn't getting done, so we just did it."

Stenciling a Tradition

Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni also became familiar with a paint can at his first full-time coaching stop as receivers coach at Valparaiso. While his job at Tennessee comes with the additional title of recruiting coordinator, the job coaching receivers at Valpo came with the extra title of field painter. Every Friday, Azzanni would head out and line off the field for the following day's game. But he noticed the field lacked an identity, a problem he quickly moved to change.

"They had never had a logo in the end zone or at midfield," Azzanni said. "I got the booster club and got them some money and scheduled times that the receivers would come from class on Friday and help me paint the logos in the end zones. When they ran out on to that field, they felt like they were running out for the Super Bowl. That was a big deal for them. I'll never forget that.

Azzanni said he and his receivers always got the lines straight, but he couldn't take all the credit for the accomplishments.

"We had some good stencils," he said. "And Valpo is a pretty hard school to get into, so we had some pretty smart kids doing the painting."

An Unusual Address

Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian never painted a Crusaders logo in an end zone, but he is familiar with the art of the tarp pull. As an assistant coach at Sacred Heart, the football staff spent their springs doubling as the field crew for the women's softball team. They performed their duties with mixed results.

"I remember hustling to get the tarp on the field one day because a huge storm was coming," Bajakian said. "The wind is howling and I was standing on the edge of the tarp. A giant gust of wind comes up and picks up the tarp and sends me flying backwards, and the tarp comes over me, leaving me searching for daylight."

The full-time coaching job at least allowed Bajakian to have an actual place to live. That wasn't the case during his two-year tenure as a graduate assistant at Rutgers. To say he lived his job wouldn't be metaphor.

"I literally lived in the office," Bajakian said. "My driver's license had our football office address on it. It got to the point that I was more comfortable on the couch in the players' lounge than I did in a bed. I had a pillow and comforter tucked under my desk. That's nothing different than any other graduate assistant in the country, but that's part of growing up in the profession."

... And, don't forget Butch Jones doubled as the football team's offensive coordinator and men's tennis head coach at Division III Wilkes University in 1993-94.

All of these experiences have molded these coaches into to who they are today and make them thankful for everyday they get to wear the Orange & White and represent the Power T.

 

 

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