Exclusive Interview With New A&T Head Coach Sam WashingtonBy Semaj Marsh
Published: February 7, 2018
Bluedeathvalley.com: First of all, congratulations on being named the new head football coach at North Carolina A&T and thanks for taking time to speak with us today. If you could attempt to flash forward to this upcoming fall, how do you think it will feel when you lead the team out the tunnel for the first time – not as A&T’s defensive coordinator – but as the new head coach?
Coach Washington: “You know, I haven’t really given that much thought yet. I’ve just being going from day to day here. But looking forward, I’m sure it is going to be exciting and behind me there is going to be a pretty good football team. So whenever you can be in front of a good team, that’s something to behold.”
I know you and Coach Broadway are close friends and he has been somewhat of a mentor to you over the years. But honestly, what are the challenges of taking over for a legendary coach like him, especially coming off such an unprecedented season?
Coach Washington: “Oh without a doubt, there’s going to be high expectations. People here in Greensboro and all across North Carolina and the United States, everyone expects A&T to win now. So those are very big shoes to fill. Without a doubt, the expectations are high.”
How did you and Coach Broadway first cross paths?
Coach Washington: “Well it’s funny you ask that. Back a long time ago – I’m not going to say when; I don’t what to reveal our ages [laughing] – but I was working at North Carolina Central and he was working at Duke, and we would cross paths at different seminars and different functions there in the city and football tournaments and stuff like that. We started communicating and became friends. We started going out to lunch and next thing you know a friendship developed. Years later, I was actually at Mississippi Valley when he came to Grambling and I gave him a phone call and the next thing you know, I was on his staff.”
So what was that dynamic like as far as the working relationship between you two? Was there a feeling-out process or were you guys totally in sync from day one?
Coach Washington: “Well I think the friendship rekindled when we got back together and then, you know, for him it’s simple – he’s a simple guy. All you have to do is work hard and you can live a long time with him (laughs). If you have a great work ethic and produce, everything else normally falls into place when it comes to Coach Broadway.”
We know Coach Broadway has a defensive background himself, so was he the type of head coach who delegates or was he more hands-on? Did he give you full reign of the defense when you served as his coordinator?
Coach Washington: “Absolutely. He didn’t bother me at all. Not one time. Now there were some occasions when I would get hung up on something and I would come ask for suggestions, especially when it came to D-line play. Which movements to use versus this protection or what would be best versus that protection. Little stuff like that he was very, very helpful with and you could go to him any time and he would tell you what he thought.”
But as far as the actual in-game play calling, that was all on you? He never stepped in and called a special blitz or anything?
Coach Washington: “Oh no, he never got involved with any of that.”
Now that you are in charge of both sides of the ball and not just the defense, can we expect A&T to have the same type of offensive system moving forward? Or will there be some new wrinkles that you have been wanting to add?
Coach Washington: “No, not off the top. I think right now we are going to stay where we are, but the big emphasis on offense is going to remain the same: protect the football. Just don’t put us in a bad situation. And don’t be afraid to punt. I think if we continue to do those things, we’ll be fine.”
Is the entire coaching staff from last year pretty much staying in place or do you expect to add anyone new?
Coach Washington: “Well, we’ve been fortunate to keep everyone thus far. However, I’ve been getting a lot of phone calls. So I’m just keeping my fingers crossed and hoping that we’re able to retain everyone.”
Looking back to the period right after the Celebration Bowl victory when reports began to surface that Coach Broadway was taking a few weeks to contemplate his future, how legitimate was that? Everyone here in Aggieland was on pins and needles wondering if he was coming back or not, or if he was just negotiating for a larger contract. But now that it’s all said and done, was his mind already made up months earlier that he was going to retire?
Coach Washington: “Well you know a lot more than I know [laughing]. I don’t know. I don’t really know anything one way or the other with that. He made up his mind when he did and he shared it with us when he did, and that was that.”
How did it feel to first learn that you had been chosen to be his successor? That had to be a tremendous honor knowing that Coach Broadway wanted to pass the keys directly to you.
Coach Washington: “Absolutely. And I will be forever grateful. It’s not like I’m getting the keys to a Volkswagen, I will say that. I think he gave me the keys to a Maserati or something that doesn’t use regular gasoline. And I’m forever grateful for it.”
Earlier you mentioned that Broadway expects his coaches to produce results and since you arrived here in 2011, A&T’s defense has been near the top of the conference in most statistical categories. With that much documented success, I’m sure you’ve had your fair share of opportunities to take other jobs over the years. What kept you from leaving Greensboro?
Coach Washington: “A number of things. My family is here, for one. My son, my grandkids – my wife loves it here. So that had a great deal to do with it. Plus we have a good football team. That has a great deal to do with it also. We have a great university. That has a great deal to do with it. So the situation was always like … why leave?”
Another thing that appears evident is how much you guys transformed the entire culture around this program. Can you speak a little about how you built a foundation that we really don’t see that often in HBCU football?
Coach Washington: “That was the big ticket when we got here – developing that culture. And turning that into a champion mentality, on and off the field. Teaching young men to do right. Period. Regardless of what it was. Just learning and taking the high road, and doing things right and giving your best effort. We preach and coach effort. If you are reliable only sometimes then you’re simply not reliable. So a great deal of our success is based on that.”
If you had to pinpoint one thing, what was the biggest challenge you encountered when you first arrived in Greensboro?
Coach Washington: “I would say the lack of scholarships along with the academic challenges that we faced. We had kids that did not go to class … and then did not do well in the classroom when they went to class. So that was a struggle. Just convincing them how important it is to be successful on and off the field. You can’t be successful in one area and not in the other. They go hand in hand. You know, right is right and wrong is wrong. And just getting all that gray area out of it was the big challenge.”
Aside from the winning records and all the conference and HBCU national championships, one of the most impressive aspects of A&T football in recent years has been the player development. This program is now producing NFL-caliber athletes at a clip that we’ve haven’t seeen in quite some time. Names like Tarik Cohen, Tony McCrae and most recently, Brandon Parker. Can you talk about what that process has been like since you’ve arrived here?
Coach Washington: “Well that’s something that we pride ourselves on, year in and year out, and that’s our player development. If you ask many of the guys we recruit how many offers they had prior to A&T, most of time they will tell you that this was their only offer. So as a coach that makes you feel really proud and really good to know that you are taking a piece of clay and molding it into something special. But understand this: you have to recognize what talents that person may have. And some of the things that we really look for are speed and agility. Can he change direction? And again, you’ll hear this often: does he play hard? We’re looking for young men that play with a lot of effort and go all the way through the whistle.”
One of the things that’s popular in sports now is analytics. In baseball this is sometimes referred to as sabermetrics but basically it’s all just the process of identifying undervalued assets. Now I don’t want you to give up any classifieds information here, but is there a secret sauce that you guys currently have for identifying undervalued talent , that other programs out here might not have?
Coach Washington: “Well, I’m not going to tell you it’s a secret, but if you spend the time – that’s what it takes. Watching film over and over and over. And then going back to his junior or sophomore year and seeing what he does well and what he does not so well. If you spend the time you’ll get the answers that you’re looking for.”
What has this year’s recruiting process been like for you as a first-time head coach, and also coming off another well-publicized victory in the Celebration Bowl?
Coach Washington: “I think the Celebration Bowl impact is the more dominant factor. People like being around winners. And when you’re doing things the right way – which we have done- that enables you to dip into pools of talent that otherwise you wouldn’t be able to. So we’ve been able to search in some different rivers and different lakes that we hadn’t had the opportunity to reach in past years. Now this year another thing that was brand new was the early signing period. That was a learning experience for us, but I thought we did well. We got six guys is here in December that already have started school. I think that is going to be huge because that gives them the opportunity to go through spring ball and summer workouts. So when the fall rolls around, they are really not freshmen. So I’m anxious to see how that process works in our favor. As far as this year’s class, a lot of the work had been done last year during the summer and throughout the season. We had an idea who we were targeting actually going back as far as last May. We were able to get a few of those guys in here and we got the commitments that we really wanted. But still they’ve got to come in here now and make it work.”
During that period when Broadway was contemplating retirement, did you ever sense any concerns from recruits or their parents about a perceived instability with the program? Did it become more difficult to hold on to any of the recruits during those weeks following the Celebration Bowl?
Coach Washington: “No, not at all. And I thought he did a very good job of keeping that under wraps for a very long time. I mean, a lot of people didn’t know. A lot of players didn’t know. And then I would tip my hat to the administration for plugging in a head coach immediately, so that there was not a void during recruiting.”
Speaking of the administration, how has it been to work with such a well-respected Director of Athletics like you have in Earl Hilton?
Coach Washington: “It’s been a pleasure. And I’ll tell you what – it makes life easier and makes coming to work fun. Because you know you have that support system behind you. Whether it’s morale or financial. If it’s something that we really need, he’s going to see to us getting it. And that’s huge in this business.”
As far as your relationships with your athletes go, you’ve often been referred to as a player’s coach. Is that accurate and, if so, how would you personally describe your relationship with the young men on your team?
Coach Washington: “Oh, I’m a fool with it. [laughing] No, listen, I have fun. I thoroughly enjoy it, you know what I mean? And when I’m on the sideline, in my mind I’m still out there playing. So they probably think I’m halfway crazy. But they can see the energy and the willingness and the effort that I put in, and I think that’s what earns the respect and the loyalty from them.”
When it was announced that you would take over as head coach last month, I think there was a question about what would happen to the defensive coordinator positon. Are you going to continue to hold that title or will that responsibility be delegated to someone else?
Coach Washington: “That is yet to be determined. Let me say that. (laughs). My heart is saying one thing and my head is saying another. So what we’ll do is we’ll see how things go this spring. Spring ball will be very important in many ways. I know I’m going to have to relinquish it sooner or later, but it’s just a matter of when and how it’s going to be done. But I’ve been doing this a very long time and I’m kind of stubborn. I’m going to want it done a certain way, so we’ll see how it unfolds.”
Do you think that might be somewhat of a personal challenge for you early on, as far as becoming more of a C.E.O and having to now delegate some things?
Coach Washington: “I don’t think so, but we’ll see. Off the top of my head, I definitely would not think so. As a defensive coordinator, I (appreciated) and was open to different suggestions and ideas and I loved to see other coaches thinking about things. And when they came up with some stuff, I’d let them input it (in the game plan) so that they could get that experience. I think we have some bright young men working with us. It’s just a matter of who’s going to do what. That’s what has not been determined. Can they do the job? I truly believe they can. It’s just who and when, and in what situation. Just off the top of my head, I’ll go this far and say I think Coach (Courtney) Coard would do well with the run defense and Coach (Thomas) Howard would do well with the pass defense. Now, how well they work together is what’s still yet to be seen.”
Would you consider giving them both co-defensive coordinator titles?
Coach Washington: “I definitely would. I think that would be the best solution, you know, right now.”
And lastly, one of the discussions we recently had on Bluedeathvalley.com is that we are currently living in the golden era of A&T football … but where do we go from here? So before we let you go, let me pose that question to you. After a period of unprecedented success, including a 12-0 championship season, where does the A&T football program go from here?
Coach Washington: “I would like to see it go to the national level; not playing solely in the Celebration Bowl. I’d like to go for the big stick, the big trophy and become FCS national champions. That’s where we are headed.”
Oh, really? And you feel confident that with the moves you guys are planning to make, this program will be able to compete on that national level?
Coach Washington: “Absolutely. That’s the goal and that’s where we’re headed.”