A recent visitor to the office of UTC football coach Russ Huesman expected the same old coaching platitudes when the subject of senior quarterback B.J. Coleman came up. Instead, when asked the specific question, “What has B.J. Coleman meant to your program?” Huesman tossed off a bombshell of an answer.
“B.J. Coleman,” Huesman said, looking his inquisitor squarely in the eyes, “has done more for this program than I have. There’s no question.”
Huesman paused to let that sink in, then expounded on his point. “I don’t want to make it seem like he’s the savior,” Huesman said. “He’s had help. He’s had people around him. But the bottom line is, if we don’t have B.J. Coleman, we don’t win six and six these last two years. If I’d have just shown up without him, we’re probably still developing this thing. It wouldn’t have happened this fast.”
Seldom is a coach taking over a struggling program – UTC was 3-20 overall and 2-13 in the Southern Conference in the two seasons before Huesman arrived and had produced only two winning records in the previous 18 years – fortunate enough to arrive at the same time as a program-changing recruit. And rarer still is the combination of new coach and program-changing recruit whose contributions off the field surpass anything he’s done on it.
First-year coaches talk about changing the “culture” of a program they’ve inherited. Sometimes that process can take years, if it happens at all. With the help of B.J. Coleman, Huesman and his staff changed the culture of UTC football in a couple of months.
How was Huesman lucky enough to arrive in Chattanooga at the same moment in time as Coleman? The process was set in motion while Huesman was still defensive coordinator at Richmond. The year was 2008, and in a move that touched off a series of events that would eventually lead to his own departure, Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton fired long-time football coach Phillip Fulmer and replaced him with Lane Kiffin.
Coleman, rated a four-star prospect after a dominant career at Chattanooga’s McCallie School, had signed with Tennessee in 2007 largely because he wanted to learn from one of the best offensive minds in the business, offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe.
“That was the reason I went up there,” Coleman said. “For the opportunity to play for coach Cutcliffe. I knew the success he’d had, and his mind for the game of football. I spent a very short time with him, but that time was probably the most influential period of my whole football career.”
Unfortunately for Coleman, Cutcliffe took the head-coaching job at Duke after the 2007 season. Without its offensive guru, Tennessee crashed and burned; after finishing 10-4 in 2007, the Vols got Fulmer fired with a 5-7 effort in 2008. Fulmer’s replacement was Lane Kiffin, who had his own agenda that didn’t include Coleman, even though many of his teammates and even some Tennessee assistant coaches thought he was the best quarterback in the program.
“I knew some guys on that staff,” UTC offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield said. “People who had been going to scrimmages and who had been there kind of knew what was going on. They were scratching their heads. ‘Why is this kid not the starter?’ He had performed at a high level.”
“I know plenty of stories,” said UTC receiver Joel Bradford, who has played football with Coleman since the sixth grade. “Plenty of people, especially the fans, thought B.J. should have been the starter. Or at least have a chance to compete for the starting position. But that became even more credible when we’d hang out with guys like Eric Berry and other [Tennessee] players, and they’d say, ‘Man, this guy should be the starter.’
“B.J.’s not a stereotypical quarterback. He doesn’t think he’s all that. He ran and busted his butt in workouts. He led by example, pushed people, studied film and got the job done. And when he wasn’t the starter, it was kind of like ‘what’s going on?'”
Coleman eventually knew he would have to leave Knoxville, but that didn’t make the decision any easier.
“You’re a quarterback, and your life expectancy is not real high,” Satterfield said. “You get one shot to be the starter, and if you don’t make it, you’re done. B.J. felt like he’d given it his all to be a starter. But coach Kiffin didn’t see it that way, and he needed to go find a new life somewhere.
“Thank goodness he had a connection to us.”
That connection was home. Coleman could have gone to another Football Bowl Subdivision school, but the lure of Chattanooga, the chance to reunite with Crawford, to play in front of friends and family, to help rebuild the program, was powerful.
“It was a tough decision (to transfer),” Coleman said. “But I felt like they were plateauing me a little bit, that the things I could do were not being utilized. I enjoyed being a player at the SEC level. It was cool being part of the Tennessee program and part of the town. But if I would have stayed there, it probably would have ended up going the same way it had been going. In the end, it was inevitable that I leave.”
When Coleman announced that his destination would be Chattanooga, Huesman and his young offensive coordinator Satterfield couldn’t believe their good fortune. To this day, their reactions are similar; both are nearly speechless.
“I don’t know if you can put into words how big it was,” Huesman said.
“B.J. coming here was huge,” Satterfield said. “It’s hard to put into words how important. But I can tell you this – without B.J., we’re probably still trying to get our first winning season.”
Coleman wasn’t able to take part in spring practice in 2009, and when he showed up for fall drills, starting quarterback Jare Gault was ahead of him. But it eventually became obvious that Chattanooga was now Coleman’s team.
As a sophomore, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Coleman passed for 2,348 yards and 17 touchdowns, but more important, the Mocs finished 6-5, the program’s first winning record since 1997. Last season Coleman was even better, racking up 2,996 yards and 26 touchdowns. Again, UTC finished 6-5. After just two seasons, Coleman is within 1,886 yards of becoming the program’s all-time passing leader.
Coleman’s coaches rave about his size, his arm strength, his football IQ. What they really marvel at, though, is Coleman’s work ethic and leadership ability.
“I’m not sure all our guys realized this when B.J. got here,” Huesman said. “He had come from a situation where it was 365 days a year, seven days a week. That may be an exaggeration, but you have to have that mentality if you’re going to win championships. B.J. brought that mentality early on: ‘Here’s what we’re going to have to do in the summertime.’ ‘Here’s what we’re going to have to do in the offseason.'”
“One of B.J.’s biggest contributions to this football team was the work ethic he brought,” Satterfield said. “(During the summer), we have 65 to 70 kids out there three days a week, practicing on their own. He’s running the show offensively and they’re doing 11 on 11. We’re not allowed to be out there. B.J. calls the plays. He scripts the practices.
“I would venture to say not a lot of FCS schools have what we have during the summer. And it’s not like we have the budget for it. We’ve got kids that are staying five to a room, sleeping on couches and the floor. Before B.J. got here, we might have seen 15 kids out there. Now, after two years, our freshmen and sophomore have seen how it’s done and don’t think anything of it. That’s the way it is. You’re going to practice three days a week on your own, and there’s going to be somebody out there that’s a leader, making sure the expectations are met and a tempo is set.”
Sounds an awful lot like a culture change. Evidence of that abounds. A program that got penalized for low APR ratings before Huesman arrived turned in a cumulative 2.66 gpa last semester, an all-time high. Average attendance at UTC home games in 2008 was 5,767. The last two years, that number soared to 11,601, including a crowd of 17,414 last season, the largest since the Mocs played their first game in Finley Stadium in 1997.
“It’s been fun to see,” Coleman said. “I was born here, and I wear the C and represent the city and the university with pride. We know we’re not saviors – it’s just a game – but with the economy not exactly in the best of shape, it’s a great thing, if someone maybe can’t get to Knoxville or Tuscaloosa or Athens for a game, they’ll be able to stay home, see a game in Finley and experience a great college atmosphere.
“It’s an honor to be a part of a group that includes great coaches and teammates and to give Chattanooga a true football team.”
As far as the Mocs have come behind Huesman and his star quarterback, they’ve got that much farther to go. A winning season was attained early, followed quickly by another. The next goal is to make the FCS playoffs and advance as far as possible. Though Chattanooga suffered heavy personnel losses after last season, no one associated with the program thinks the playoffs are unattainable.
That goes double for Coleman, whose destiny has become intertwined with that of his team. The more successful Coleman becomes, the more successful his team becomes. And the more successful his team becomes, well, NFL scouts can’t be far behind. Huesman and Satterfield think this time a year from now, Coleman will be on an NFL roster.
“He’s got an arm that can play in the NFL,” Huesman said. “Can he do it? Put it this way: He’s in Chattanooga. He better have an excellent (senior) year. If he has an average year at Chattanooga, on this level, I don’t know what’s going to happen. So many doors will open for him to prove he can play in the NFL based on the type of year he has. He knows that. We’ve talked about those kinds of things.”
Most college coaches recoil at the thought of a star player focusing on the next level, because it can often be disruptive for a team. Satterfield, however, wants Coleman to think about the NFL.
“I want that to be his goal,” Satterfield said. “We talk about that all the time, and it’s not selfish of him to be thinking about the NFL. If he’s getting drafted, that means he played at an extremely high level this year, which means we won games.”
Year by year, Coleman has added pieces of his game. Last year, his mission was to utilize his legs to get him out of trouble. This season, running won’t just be an option for escape when pressure comes, it’ll be a weapon that’s in the playbook.
“We just want him to continue to trust that he can run,” Satterfield said. “For a large part of his collegiate career, he was considered a drop-back guy who couldn’t run real well. Last year, we wanted teams to have to account for him in scramble situations, where two years ago, they didn’t have to. And at the end of the season, teams weren’t just automatically turning to cover. They knew he was fully capable of being able to move to get a first down.
“This year, if he has an opening, he needs to take it and get down, slide. We don’t want him to be Tim Tebow. But on short-yardage situations, we can spread defenses out, and we’ve got a 230-pound fullback playing quarterback who can get you a yard.”
Coleman admits that the NFL has been a dream of his, “since I took my first snap at 10 years old.” But a more immediate goal is the success of his team.
“I would love to have an opportunity to play in the NFL,” Coleman said. “But right now, I have a season left here at Chattanooga. And I came here to win a championship. I want to put Chattanooga football back on the map. Right now, that’s my focus.”