By Jeff Greenberg
Last week the Duke Blue Devils traveled to Blacksburg to take on the Virginia Tech Hokies. They walked away with an impressive win. One of the more exciting plays was a double pass by the Blue Devils with the wide receiver throwing a touchdown pass to the running back in the formation. There was probably no bigger smile on the sidelines at that moment than Duke’s new wide receivers’ coach, Trooper Taylor.
After spending five seasons in Jonesboro, Arkansas working for Blake Anderson at Arkansas State, Taylor made the decision to join the Blue Devils’ staff this past off-season. It wasn’t an easy decision for Taylor, but the decision was his to make, which isn’t always the case in the world of coaching college football. Sometimes that decision is made for you as a coach. Either way, it means packing up and moving your family to a new town, new schools and having to make new friends. It’s part of the coaching life, a life that’s hard to imagine and difficult to understand unless you’re living that life.
Our season series, “A Coaching Change,” continues on to Durham, North Carolina where we discuss the realities of changing jobs in coaching with Trooper Taylor, and how that affects the personal and professional lives of coaches in college football.
Taylor has been coaching college football since 1992 when he started out as a graduate assistant at Baylor. He’s coached at New Mexico, Tulane, Tennessee, Oklahoma State, Arkansas State and Auburn, where he won a national championship as part of Gene Chizik’s coaching staff. Taylor has coached both sides of the ball and was an assistant head coach for both Tennessee and most recently at Arkansas State.
Here’s our conversation about how Taylor and his family have navigated the coaching profession and the inevitable job changes and moves that come with it.
Anybody that’s had a long coaching career like you has had the opportunity to coach at several schools, so you’ve gone through coaching changes. What’s it like for you as a coach and for your family to go through a coaching change or change schools? – “It’s difficult for your family first and foremost because your family is uprooted from the life they know and have to go somewhere new and completely start their lives over again. For me, my wife Evi is a counselor and a professor. We’ve been lucky in that sense because with each move that we’ve made she’s been able to find a job she wants. It doesn’t work out like that for everybody. When you look at how it affects your kids, they’re leaving good friends that they’ve gone to school with, played sports with and just built a great bond with like any other kids their age. Now they have to say goodbye to those friends and that can be hard on a kid at any age. When you arrive at your new town or your new school, it’s not always easy being the new kid on the block.”
It’s also unique in that there usually isn’t a grace period for you, the coach, where you get a few weeks to help pack up the family and move. You have to report to the new school immediately. What’s that reality like for the family? – “You’re exactly right. You get a new job and you’re expected to be there within a day or two. So that is a difficult burden on the parent left behind to do everything needed to move the whole family to the new town. Some families handle it different ways. A lot of people have their families stay behind to allow the kids a chance to finish the school year. Some people move right away. We’ve always had our kids finish their school year, but that meant us having to be separated from each other until the kids finished their school year. Even though you’re busy with your new job you still miss your family. You miss not being there for the every day things and going to the kids’ games and eating together as a family. That’s the hardest part of this profession.”
Does that make the whole moving process difficult as well? – “It does, because it leaves you with having to try and find a new house on your own or find time for your wife to come out and help find a place right away. It has changed over the years. In the past my wife Evi would come out right away for a few days and we’d find the house we wanted. It had to happen fast though. Now, as the kids got older, that process changed. Like with this move to Duke, we actually had our son, Blaise, pick the house out. He found the house and Facetimed us with the realtor and that’s how we found our current house. One thing I’ve always had in the back of my mind, when possible, was to always find a house that was better than the last one. For me, I thought that would help get the kids excited for the move and that was so important to us, that the kids be excited to make the move. But we’re also like any other family out there looking for houses. You want to find the good school districts and find areas that have good resale value. You know you could be moving at any moment from year to year, and the last thing you want to happen to you as a coach is to become a realtor having to spend a lot of time buying and selling homes. You don’t want to be in the real estate business.”
You mentioned that there are different scenarios with regards to coaching changes, meaning some are voluntary coaching moves and some are not. You’ve only experienced being part of a staff that was let go once. What was going through your mind when you drove home that day? – “Honestly, I was calm. I was in a situation where I was in the middle of a multi-year contract, so I know I didn’t have to worry about being able to provide for my family. But it was an eye-opening moment for me, personally. I stopped and thought about the situation as a possible blessing and an opportunity. That opportunity was being able to take a year and spend more time with my family. My son was entering his senior year in high school and my daughter was entering her junior year. I jumped at the opportunity and it was one of the best decisions I ever made in my career. Blaise was being recruited in football and Starr was being recruited in basketball, but I never got to see their games, especially Blaise’s football games because I was always gone recruiting. So, I was able to go to practices, go to games and just have time with my family like I never had before.”
How did your kids handle that situation? – “They take it harder than the parents because they have to go to school and hear the noise from the other kids about your dad getting fired. They have to deal with that every day. The other kids may not even be trying to be mean, but they say things that may hurt the feelings of your kids. Kids have no filters about these things. The other part that makes it hard is that your kids come to love the school you’re coaching at and become attached to the players and the people in the program. They don’t understand, especially when they’re younger, why the school doesn’t want you anymore. It’s tough for them to go through all of that. As coaches, you go into this profession understanding that your job security is based off wins and losses. You understand that as a coach. But your kids don’t always understand that aspect of your job. This profession is not easy on kids until they get older, become more resilient and understand how to process it all. We’ve always tried to educate our kids that I get paid to take the criticism, they don’t. I work for the school, they don’t. We wanted them to be prepared for that part of the job. We’ve told them that not everybody that smiles at your face is your friend. We know who we are and what we stand for as a family. You don’t have to let anybody else try to shake that fact. If you didn’t hear it from your mom or me, then don’t waste time believing it.”
When you make a move, sometimes it’s with the guys you’ve been coaching with, sometimes it’s not. What’s it like joining a new staff and being the new kid on the block? – “It’s different depending on where you go. At the end of the day, it really depends on where you’re at in your coaching career. When I was the young guy, I was moving with no kids, so the stressors were different compared to now, when I was moving with kids in college or already out of college and working. Your personal situation dictates a lot in how you handle transitions. When you go into a new situation you learn quickly who you can count on by who it is that is reaching out to you right away to try and help you with things like looking at different neighborhoods and finding great schools for your kids. That’s when you find out who is for real on the staff and who’s in it for themselves. Most of the time, it can be a representation of the head coach. If he’s personable and outgoing, most likely the rest of the staff is like that too. Fortunately, I don’t feel like I’ve ever been a part of a staff where I wasn’t made to feel welcome right away. Now, my personality can be a little different than other guys, so I may have welcomed myself on board a lot of the time. But you know what? I want them to know the real me so that they know what to expect every day. If I’m consistent in who I am, then that’s the only way they can get to know me and come to count on me as a member of the staff. You must be yourself. I like people around me to be themselves too. That doesn’t mean we’ll always run around in the same circles outside of work, but we know we can trust each other because we know what to expect from each other. That’s the best advice I can give younger coaches; be yourself every single day.”
You’ve had numerous offers from other schools during your time at Arkansas State. What was it about the Duke offer that you felt made it the right time to join Coach Cutcliffe’s staff? – “Timing is everything. I felt like this moment, with the other changes happening on the staff, was the right moment to make this move. It really was fate in a way. Blaise had been at Duke this past year as a graduate assistant. Coach Cutcliffe had tried to hire me before and I’ve always had a great respect for him from our time at Tennessee. I got to know him and no matter what, whenever I would call him about any topic, coaching, being a dad, being a better husband, he would answer that phone call 100% of the time. Not 99% of the time, but 100% of the time. When I went to the coaching convention, I ended up hanging out with the Duke guys because that’s who Blaise was with and I wanted to spend time with him. I got to know those guys well and spend some quality time with all of them, not even knowing they would have a job opening at the time. When Coach Cutcliffe called me, I felt like God was opening this specific door for us. There were other job offers on the table, but him being who he is and what he stands for, I felt like this was the right place to be in my career at this time. It was a no-brainer for me.”
How hard was that conversation to have with Blake Anderson? – “It was extremely difficult. There were some tears and there was some second-guessing a few times. But Blake was as encouraging about me going to Duke as he could be. We had a long conversation about whether I should stay or go. He told me that he was ok with it because he felt the time was right if the situation was right for me. He knew how many opportunities I had turned down to stay with him. What people don’t understand about those offers is that I never even brought them up with Blake over the years. He would get the calls from other schools to ask to speak with me about jobs, so he knew they were out there, but he knew I was there for him because he gave me exactly what I needed for my family with the job at Arkansas State. I told him point blank, “If you need me to stay or ask me to stay, I will stay.” If he said, “Troop, I need you to stay,” then I’d still be in Jonesboro. But he knew what was best for me and he gave me his blessing. He said, “You need to go,” and he hugged my neck, we shared some tears a couple different times and then we moved forward. No other way to describe it. He’s like my brother. We’re family and it’s hard to leave family, especially with what was going on personally with Wendy. That weighed on my decision as well. But he is one of the strongest men that I know. He is built for all of this. Doesn’t make any of it easy, but I know he can do it. He decided long ago to walk on God’s path and follow Him. Jonesboro was a phenomenal place for my family. I’m a country boy from Cuero, Texas. It was as close to being at home as I’ve ever felt. I loved everything about that situation. I got to coach my son. I got to see my daughter play college basketball. My wife Evi is a professor and the Chair of her department at Arkansas State. I love the people there and I love everybody in the administration at Arkansas State. Chuck Welch, our President, Kelly Damphousse, the Chancellor and Terry Mohajir, the Athletic Director, were people I got to know well and could talk with all the time on a first-name basis. They got to know me and my family, and it wasn’t just for show. They care about the people they work with at Arkansas State. It truly is a family. And those players will be a part of my family for the rest of my life. Period. I love everybody in that locker room and everybody that’s been through that locker room with us. At the end of the day, I felt like this was the path God put me on.”
Are you happy with your decision to join the Duke staff? – “I really am, and I’ll tell you why. I knew when I took the job that Coach Cutcliffe would push me to become a better coach than the day I arrived, and he’s lived up to that. It also allowed me to move back to the offensive side of the ball. Not many coaches at this level get to coach both sides of the ball, but I’ve been able to do that. Now, I also get to learn everything I’ve ever wanted to know about the quarterback position from one of the greatest quarterback minds to ever coach the position. You always want to improve yourself and be a better person and a better coach, and I’m doing that here at Duke. I feel like, if I were to ever become a head coach, that I can coach both sides of the ball plus special teams now. It’s helping me and preparing me to be a complete football coach.”
How important is your network of friends and advisors in the coaching business that you can trust when navigating a career in this profession? – “Absolutely huge. You can’t do this career without those people in your life because those are the people that sustain you in this career. This business is built on relationships. If you chase the money and nothing else in this business, you will be miserable. If it’s only about the money, the rest of your life will suffer, and you won’t get everything you can get as a person or a coach out of this profession. At the end of the day it’s about that gut feeling you have about who you’re going to surround yourself with on a daily basis. What you don’t want to do is wake up every day and hate going to your job. The people you surround yourself with play a huge role in all of that. I want the same with the players I surround myself with as well, not just colleagues. If I can be a positive influence on the people that I work with every day then I know I’ll wake up happy every day to go to work. And those relationships matter when you’re navigating your career, especially when your kids are young. When job opportunities come open you want to know as many people as possible that can tell you what that school or head coach is like because it will impact your family’s lives and there’s nothing more important than that when it’s all said and done. What’s better than knowing you have a great family at home as well as a great family at work?”