Reaching the pinnacle of success in any profession is a difficult task.
It’s certainly true for coaches seeking jobs at the collegiate level. They face a number of complications with the limited number of job opportunities at the top of the list.
The 2016 Minority Coaches Association of Georgia Football Coaches Conference hosted a panel Thursday night featuring coaches who traced a path from the lower leagues of the profession to the SEC.
Auburn linebackers coach Travis Williams, Georgia running backs coach Dell McGee and Alabama defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley all participated in the discussion.
Williams and McGee started their coaching careers in the high school ranks while Ansley’s first coaching job was at Huntingdon College, a Division III school in Alabama.
All three men accepted their current positions in the last two months.
Travis Williams is confident going into his first season as linebackers coach for Auburn.
“It isn’t tough,” Williams said. “Coaching football is coaching football. The important thing is can you control the room?”
It helps that at one time Williams was in that room as a player himself.
A pretty good one too.
The former First-Team All-SEC linebacker jumped into the coaching ranks after a brief stint with the Atlanta Falcons. His career started as a volunteer at his former high school in Columbia, South Carolina.
He rejoined his college alma-mater Auburn as a graduate assistant for two years then spent a season as the linebackers coach at Northern Iowa.
“I was in Cedar Falls and my wife was still in Atlanta, I made the decision I got to get back to my wife,” Williams said. “There ain’t no money worth losing my family. I don’t care if it’s Auburn or whatever…My family is going to come first before any of this football stuff.”
The Williams family had a newborn at the time and Facetime wasn’t good enough for the former linebacker.
It turned out to be an important decision with Williams accepted a job as the defensive coordinator at Creekside High School for Olten Downs.
“Olten Downs is a really good friend of mine just got the job and I called him up,” Williams said. “I was looking for some high school jobs in Atlanta. He gave me insights on different things, and he said man come out here and just watch these guys work out. I saw all them players and was like I got to come here.”
Creekside won the Class 5A title with an undefeated 15-0 record. The brief stint back in high school was a stepping-stone for Williams to get back into the Division 1 coaching ranks.
“Downs is a defensive-minded guy, but he ended up coaching offense and didn’t bother me on defense,” Williams said. “The best thing I did in my coaching career was coaching at Creekside.”
After two years on Auburn’s support staff, Williams was named the team’s linebackers coach in January to replace Lance Thompson.
Williams first practice as linebackers coach is next week and he sounds ready for the challenge.
McGee received plenty of congratulations from his former peers before sitting down for the panel. Many of his former colleagues were seeing McGee for the first time since he accepted the running backs position in Athens.
The Columbus native won a state title in 2007 with Carver High School. He had an 88-19 overall record including seven straight 10-win seasons at the school.
McGee jumped to the college ranks as an analyst in 2013 at his alma-mater Auburn. He spent two seasons as the running backs coach with Georgia Southern, but left the school when he didn’t get the chance to interview for the head coaching job when Willie Fritz left for Tulane.
McGee wasn’t on the unemployment line for long as Kirby Smart hired McGee to coach Georgia’s running backs in January.
“Everyone’s path is different, but you have to make that commitment,” McGee said. “It’s funny I gave myself two years as analyst at Auburn and I almost didn’t make it one.”
Attendees listened intently to their respected colleague when he offered insight into what helped him rise through the coaching ranks.
“I’ve gone on a lot of job interviews in my time,” McGee said with a smile.
McGee stressed the importance of networking — “you have got to have someone to validate your work” — and promoted the idea that experience is valuable regardless of the position or setting.
“You don’t have to have been a head coach (to get a look from colleges),” McGee said. “It’s more about who you coach with and the success you have.”
And sometimes success can require sacrifice.
“You have got to be willing to take a step backward to move forward,” McGee said.
No magic potion
Derrick Ansley’s model for success is a simple one.
“There isn’t a magic potion to it,” Ansley said. “I worked my ass off.”
During his two years as a graduate assistant at Alabama earlier in his career, Ansley didn’t understand why some of his former co-workers were consumed with looking for their next opportunity.
“I didn’t get into that,” Ansley said. “I focused on learning as much as I could.”
It was the same attitude Ansley had at Huntingdon College where he started his coaching career. He was the defensive backs coach for four years at the school and added recruiting coordinator responsibilities two years into his tenure.
Ansley credited his time at the school for “molding” him as a coach.
The former Troy defensive back actually turned Alabama down the first time the school approached him for a graduate assistant position while he was with Huntingdon in 2009.
“Kirby Smart asked me to be an off-the-field graduate assistant in 2009, but I’m a coach,” Ansley said. “I turned the job down and it cost me a championship ring.”
Ansley’s calculated risk paid off when Alabama hired him the following year as an on-the-field graduate assistant.
The Tallassee, Alabama native went on to coach at Central Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky. He returned to Alabama earlier this month when Nick Saban hired him to coach the team’s secondary.