GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Tight ends coach Derek Lewis was the final piece of the puzzle as first-year Florida football coach Will Muschamp assembled his inaugural Gators coaching staff.
Muschamp’s staff features a pair of holdovers from Urban Meyer’s tenure (D.J. Durkin and Brian White), a former UF player (Aubrey Hill), a trio of veterans with NFL and college experience (Charlie Weis, Frank Verducci and Dan Quinn), a former NFL All-Pro (Bryant Young), and Travaris Robinson, an All-SEC defensive back at Auburn who played briefly in the NFL.
But when they gather to tell stories around the office, Lewis probably has some of the best. His path into coaching includes an unusual stop none of the others can claim: New Orleans city bus driver.
“When you drive a city bus in New Orleans, you get spit on, shot at, cussed at and talked about,’’ said Lewis, born and raised in the Big Easy. “You get told you’re driving too slow, you’re driving too fast, you’re careless. ‘Bus driver, you missed my stop,’ and on and on and on.’’
Lewis never planned to follow in his father’s footsteps – Derek Lewis Sr. spent 30 years working at the bus station – life just sort of took him on an unexpected detour. Like a lot of young players, Lewis figured he would carve out a successful NFL career after a stellar four-year career at Texas and two years in the St. Louis Rams organization.
The Rams were loaded with offensive talent during Lewis’ stint in the organization, winning the Super Bowl in 1999 during Lewis’ rookie season on the practice squad. Lewis expected his time to come. It never did, and soon Lewis found himself back home in New Orleans seeking his next contract.
The days without a team added up to months, and the months added up to a year, and Lewis finally had to face the harsh realization that his playing career was over.
“I thought I was going to play forever,’’ Lewis said. “I kind of figured at the end of day I would decide when I would hang them up, nothing else.’’
When his fate became clear, Lewis needed time to adjust and come to grips that his future wasn’t going to go the way he envisioned all those years playing football – first at Louisiana powerhouse St. Augustine High in New Orleans, then at Texas and finally with the Rams.
“I was all down in the dumps depressed I was out of ball,’’ Lewis said. “I didn’t know which way to go. I didn’t know what I would do and how I would do it.’’
Around that time was when his father, a former prep basketball star at St. Augustine, put his son on the clock. Derek Sr. had faced hardships too, such as becoming a father when it was time for college. He played for a while at a junior college in Washington when other offers didn’t pan out, but eventually Derek Sr. returned home to take care of his son.
Years later, with his son’s playing career over, Derek Sr. once against provided a helping hand.
“My dad simply came over to my house and busted my chops and said, ‘Hey, I raised a man, not a football player. So if a man doesn’t work he doesn’t eat.’ He dragged me down by tooth and nail to where he worked,’’ Lewis said. “I got a job driving a bus.’’
Lewis worked as a bus driver for a couple of years, finally accepting reality and developing a plan. He called Longhorns coach Mack Brown, who took over at Texas during Lewis’ senior season in 1998.
Lewis asked if Brown could help him start a coaching career. Brown said he would see what he could do, calling back to offer a position in the Longhorns’ weight room. Lewis accepted the offer, gladly turning over the bus keys for a chance to return to his alma mater.
“I was an intern in the weight room and kind of fell back in love with football and understood that I had a little bit more to give than originally thought back to the game,’’ Lewis said. “I fell into it. I really did. I took to it like a fish to water.’’
Lewis later worked as a graduate-assistant for two seasons at Texas, and then was hired as tight ends coach and special teams assistant at Minnesota, where he spent the past four seasons on Tim Brewster’s staff.
When Brewster was dismissed after the season, Lewis once again called Brown to see what his plans were at Texas and to see if Brown knew of any openings. He later visited the Texas campus for more talks with Brown. While there, he bumped into Muschamp – he had yet to be named Florida’s head coach – and the two chatted.
Muschamp told Lewis to stay in touch and a few weeks later, Lewis called to congratulate him for getting the Florida job. At the time, Muschamp didn’t have an opening that fit Lewis, but that changed when Stan Drayton left for Ohio State and he moved White from tight ends coach to running backs.
He called Lewis and the two ironed out a deal on the eve of National Signing Day. The next day, as he introduced the Gators’ 2011 recruiting class, Muschamp announced one final member in the 34-year-old Lewis.
“He finished his career as a All-Conference tight end and went out to win a Super Bowl ring with the Rams,’’ Muschamp said. “He is one of the top young coaches in our profession and we are excited to have him on our staff.”
Since adding Lewis to his staff, Muschamp likes to tell a story of his own.
“Gator fans should remember Derek Lewis,’’ he said.
When the Gators won their first national title in 1996, Lewis played a key role from far away. Florida needed help to move up the rankings to face Florida State for the national title in the Sugar Bowl, and Lewis delivered in a big way.
Facing a fourth down in the Big 12 Championship Game against Nebraska, Longhorns quarterback James Brown dropped back to pass. He threw a short pass to Lewis – a sophomore at the time – and Lewis raced 61 yards to set up a Priest Holmes touchdown run, lifting Texas to an upset win over Nebraska and helping boost the Gators into a rematch with the Seminoles.
Lewis laughs now at the way everything has turned out. Not just at the way his catch helped the Gators, but the fact he had an offer to be on that Florida team.
A two-sport star at St. Augustine – Lewis was the sixth man on the Purple Knights’ team that won the USA Today prep national title in 1995 – former Gators coach Steve Spurrier made a late recruiting pitch to Lewis.
Spurrier called Lewis right before National Signing Day.
“I’ve got a scholarship. I understand you play tight end. Can you play anything else,’’ Spurrier asked.
“Coach, I really haven’t, but I’m pretty sure if you teach me some stuff, I can take off,’’ Lewis replied.
Spurrier offered Lewis a scholarship, but Lewis said he would need to visit the campus before making a final decision. Spurrier was hoping for a quick catch, and when Lewis hesitated, Spurrier wished him the best but said he had to move on.
“It was quick and I was off the phone,’’ Lewis said. “I went to Texas and then ended up helping them out in ’96.’’
Lewis has another story to tell now. Sixteen years later on National Signing Day, Lewis signed with the Gators.
“That’s how it goes,’’ he said. “It’s been different for me.’’
DEREK LEWIS Q&A
Q: Your path into coaching is obviously unique, so who has had the greatest impact on your career up this point?
A: I would have to say Mack Brown because he allowed me to do it. If he wouldn’t have allowed me the GA [spot], then I probably wouldn’t have gotten into coaching to be honest with you.
Q: What is your view of Florida’s program?
A: Unbelievable talent, unbelievable recruiting base. The SEC. The opportunity, every time you line up, of the possibility you can win a ballgame. Some other places, the cards have to go right, everything has to go right, the kids have to do it right. Here, you’ve got kids that can overcome coaching a little bit with their athletic ability. It’s an opportunity that if you do things correctly, if you do what you’re supposed to, you can hang more numbers out there in that hallway [in Florida’s football offices].
Q: What has changed in your outlook as a coach since you first started?
A: The terminology may change but the position stays the same. I’ve been playing tight end and coaching it for close to 20-some years. My first high school position was tight end and it never changed. I’ve learned a lot from various coordinators. Coach Weis has already taught me a boat load. The holistic part of the game comes into play, how everyone ties into together. For the most part, I’ve learned how the rest of the pieces work together, so that way I can better teach my guys on what they need to do and how they need to do it.
Q: What makes an ideal tight end in your view?
A: A guy who is willing to give up tags. I get overly concerned with guys who only want to be a pass-catching tight end or only want to be a run-blocking tight end. We gave you a title from the beginning: tight end. It’s encompassing. You’ve got to combine the beauty and grace of a wideout with the meanness and nastiness and toughness of an offensive lineman. You try to become Beauty and the Beast. So the first thing I would say is the mentality. You have to be willing to put everything out there. You’ve got to be willing to do all those things at a high level and not box yourself in.
Q: What is your greatest day as an athlete?
A: People probably won’t think of this at all, but the day I dropped 50 points in a basketball game my junior year coming off the bench as a sixth man at St. Augustine as a shooting guard.
Q: You obviously know New Orleans, so where do you tell someone to go for a good meal?
A: They need to make sure they go to Lil’ Dizzy’s. That’s a hole-in-the-wall little restaurant right around the corner from my grandmother’s house. Excellent food. I’ve taken multiple head coaches there. A great place to me the infrastructure of New Orleans. You might have the police chief in there and the mayor will come in.
Q: What’s a perfect vacation?
A: Somewhere with my wife alone preferably.
Q: Your favorite movie?
A: Right now, I’m kind of like a “300” buff. I’ve been dissecting “300” the last three or four months.
Q: Your favorite music?
Q: How much has your time at Texas and in the NFL helped you as a coach?
A: A ton. Little things that I can give the guys that a guy who hasn’t played the position just wouldn’t know, like tips on all kinds of little fundamentals and techniques, schemes, progression stuff, from taking notes to working a defense.
Q: Your reaction when the Saints finally won a Super Bowl?
A: I couldn’t believe it. That was on my bucket list. If I had to bet anything on my bucket list, I thought that would be safe.