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View from the 'ville
Thursday, July 29, 2010

By Al Myatt

BYU legend guided Simmons into coaching

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

East Carolina outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons majored in broadcast journalism while starting for three years as an outside linebacker at Brigham Young. His plans to use his degree after a career in the NFL were changed by legendary Cougars coach LaVell Edwards.

"I wasn't like one those guys who at the age of 12 know that they want to be a coach," Simmons said. "It was through the advice of LaVell Edwards, Brian Mitchell (ECU defensive coordinator) and several other coaches that I got involved and got my opportunity."

Simmons changed his mind about the media at BYU.

"Seeing myself on camera, I quickly realized this is not for me and this is not what I want to do," he said. "I actually enjoyed the production part of it but seeing myself in front of the camera was not something I was too excited about.

"Coach Edwards was like, 'Have you ever thought about coaching?' and I was like, 'No. not really,' At the time there weren't that many black guys at BYU and on recruiting weekends I was at the top of the list to host.

"(Coach Edwards) was like, 'You're really good at recruiting and you've been a team leader around here so why wouldn't you want to be a coach?' He was like, 'Go pursue your dreams of trying to go to the NFL. If that doesn't work, I'm going to hold a spot here for you as a graduate assistant and we'd love to have you around.' "

Edwards added an additional incentive, telling Simmons that if he worked as a graduate assistant then BYU could help him financially as he completed his last year on his master's degree.

The NFL dream didn't materialize.

"I wasn't good enough," Simmons said with a chuckle.

An injury in his junior season at BYU affected his aggressiveness. Simmons severed some nerves in his shoulder.

"There was some loss of strength there, but mentally — and I didn't want to admit it at the time — I definitely wasn't at the level I was before I got hurt," he said. "I really wasn't willing to throw my body in there and sacrifice my body like I was before."

Simmons helped BYU to four Western Athletic Conference championships and four bowl games as a defensive player but he became an offensive coach as a graduate assistant.

"I knew the defense so I was familiar with that," Simmons said. "But a lot of the guys that I played with were on that side of the ball."

Edwards knew that Simmons had a good relationship with offensive line coach Roger French, who had recruited him out of Memphis.

"Coach Edwards said he thought we could work well together," Simmons said. "He said it would give me a chance to be more diverse and understand a different way of game planning and a different concept of the game.

"I did it and I've never really gotten back on the defensive side of the ball."

It was an unusual set of circumstances that got Simmons to BYU to begin with. Coach French's daughter lived around the corner from Simmons' high school and saw a television clip of Simmons. She told her dad that he ought to recruit Simmons — and he did.

Memphis showed early interest in Simmons, who was recruited in both sports but chose football over basketball. He felt he would mature more if he went to school out of town. Tennessee also was a possibility but advisors at his high school said he should take the trip to Utah.

"I had never heard of BYU," Simmons said. "I wasn't even going to take a trip there but my high school coach convinced me that I would probably never see that part of the country and I should take a look.

"When I got down there, I fell in love with Coach Edwards, in love with the school and decided that was where I needed to be."

Edwards misunderstood

Simmons has become part of Edwards' coaching tree, a group of former BYU players and coaches which includes Super Bowl champions Brian Billick and Mike Holmgren as well as Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid and Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who guided the Utes to an unbeaten season in 2008.

Edwards was 257-101-3 as head coach of the Cougars from 1972 to 2000. He had just one losing season. His undefeated 1984 team was accorded the final No. 1 ranking in both the coaches' and Associated Press polls.

His passing offenses produced some prolific quarterbacks, including Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer and Super Bowl champions Jim McMahon and Steve Young.

Simmons said that the image the former Cougars coach may have projected was not in keeping with his actual personality.

"The guy that you used to see on Saturday on the sideline is totally different," Simmons said. "You see him on the sideline and he had the grouchy man facial expression and no headphones on so you always kind of assumed that he wasn't in tune to the game or that he was an angry guy.

"He's totally opposite of that. He was very much in tune with the game and understood and knew exactly what was going on. You get to know him on a one-on-one basis or a player-coach basis, he's very personable and actually has a great sense of humor.

"I think that was one of the big misconceptions about him. Everybody would be like, 'Is he always hornery? Is he a grouchy guy?' I'd be like, 'No, he's like your grandfather.' He's one of those guys you're going to play your heart out for because you don't want to let him down moreso than because you fear (him)."

'Ruff' comparison

Simmons, 36, has worked on the staffs of Edwards at BYU, Mike Leach at Texas Tech and, now, Ruffin McNeill at East Carolina. He said that McNeill, former Red Raiders defensive coordinator, is closer to Edwards than Leach in his coaching style.

"Ruffin can get guys to do things that I've never seen anyone else be able to do," Simmon said. "Ruffin is probably a little bit closer to Coach Edwards' style because the kids that play for him were willing to do anything to avoid letting him down.

"Coach Leach was a players' coach where anybody felt like they could approach him but he was more of a methodical technician. Ruffin is more of an emotional-type guy. You know he's in it with you. He's in the trenches with you. With Leach, you were in it together but he's controlling the joystick and he's plotting out the next move.

"With Ruff, if you're running down the field, he's right there with you. Coach Edwards and Coach McNeill draw on the emotional aspects. You feel their pain. You feel their highs and their lows. They're more on the emotional side of it.

"With Leach, he was more of a technician. He was more of a methodical-type person."

Mormon influence

BYU is a Mormon school, and Simmons was exposed to Mormon beliefs in Provo. He was huddle leader for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter while at Texas Tech.

"I'm a Christian, non-denominational," he said. "I'm not a Mormon. People always ask that question. 'Man, you're black and you went to BYU, are you Mormon?' No. My mission was going out there and playing.

"I will say this — going to BYU and not being a member of the church — probably was a decision that helped define who I am today. Everybody is raised with the foundations and beliefs of what their parents provide for them. I was fortunate enough to get a chance to step out of that and get a closer look at someone else's religious beliefs and foundation and compare it to the foundation I was raised upon.

"There are some things about the Mormon religion that I've incorporated in my life and there are some things that I didn't."

Ivy League experience

Between BYU and Texas Tech, Simmons was a running backs coach at Cornell.

The Big Red lacked the talent of Red Raiders such as Michael Crabtree, a consensus All-American who Simmons coached in 2008, but the Ivy Leaguers played with great passion.

"It's different," he said. "When you're coaching kids at an Ivy League school, talent-wise I was probably more gifted and athletic than the kids that I was coaching, but the desire and the love just for the game of football that those guys have is indescribable.

"They're going there. They're not trying to get to the NFL. They're going there as a means to get a great education and be the next CEO of a company or the next big shot on Wall Street. Football is just something that they're doing because of the love and the passion of the game.

"At that time in my career, it kind of gave me a restoring energy, a renewed foundation and appreciation for the game. When you see kids like that just playing their hearts out it kind of brings you back to the backyard days when you used to go out and play with your buddies or with your relatives in the neighborhood."

Time to focus on preseason

Simmons had some time off recently as the coaching staff took a break before convening to plan for preseason camp, which begins August 5th at ECU. Simmons spent some time in Memphis with his mother and daughter. His daughter was one year old on July 14.

Simmons' group of outside receivers includes Dayon Arrington, Javon Brumsey, Mike Price, Darryl Freeney, Andrew Bodenheimer and Joe Womack.

"I think all of them have the potential to be a surprise because we're not returning a guy at an outside spot who was a featured guy last year," Simmons said. "Freeney got some playing time at the end of the season last year but he wasn't a featured guy. Joe Womack got some catches but he wasn't a featured guy. Andrew Bodenheimer got some catches last year but he wasn't a featured guy.

"You'll get a chance to see these guys showcase their talent a little bit more this year just because of what we do on offense. They're going to have more opportunities. I think, from their standpoint, it's going to be exciting because our fans are going to get a chance to see that 'Yeah, that kid really can do some things when he gets the ball.' "

Talent comparison

Simmons' in-state recruiting responsibility is the Raleigh-Durham area.

"The high school coaches here have been very receptive," Simmons said. "In establishing relationships, they've been more than willing to help, which I appreciate greatly.

"Recruiting is kind of like dating. You get to know each other and see if there's a fit."

The talent at ECU is comparable to that of Texas Tech, according to Simmons.

"We have an extremely good amount of talent here," he said. "We have some young guys here and it's going to be very interesting how they blossom. The kids that I'm coaching now probably have more of an upside than those we had in Texas."

Simmons said that football players in Texas tend to narrow their focus earlier than athletes in this region.

"You've got more kids here in North Carolina that are more well-rounded in high school," he said. "They're participating in a variety of sports where in Texas they try to get you pigeonholed if you're going to play football into that one area — and that's all you do."

Mark Nelson's departure

It was announced Tuesday that defensive ends/special teams coach Mark Nelson would be leaving the ECU program because he had improperly observed some summer workouts.

The situation sent a message that Coach McNeill, athletic director Terry Holland and ECU's compliance staff intend to run programs that abide by the NCAA rules.

"I don't think any coach on our staff is going to try to cut corners purposely," Simmons said. "If you've ever read the NCAA manual, I mean you could sneeze on the wrong day and get in trouble.

"I don't know enough about the situation to really feel comfortable commenting on it. ... Our number one goal is to help young men. We try to live our lives as an example for those young men because we never know what they're watching and how they're watching it.

"With that being said, are we going to do things the right way? Yeah. Our intentions and goals are to do things the right way."

E-mail Al Myatt

Al Myatt Archives

09/04/2010 02:01 AM


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