Willie Mack Garza hasn't been on the sidelines when Eric Berry intercepts a pass. He hasn't felt the breathless electricity that takes over Neyland Stadium when Tennessee's All-America safety ruins a quarterback's plan by grabbing the football and twisting and turning upfield.
Garza, Tennessee's new secondary coach, hasn't felt it yet, but he knows he will. And that's the good stuff.
"Watching a guy intercept a pass on gameday or seeing him make a big hit or seeing him do exactly what you wanted him to do. Then all of a sudden he's excited, you're excited and you're chest-bumping and hugging," Garza says. "That's the ultimate feeling right there."
But it's not the only feeling, as far as Garza is concerned.
A legendary athlete from Refugio, Texas, who went on to star in the defensive backfield at the University of Texas, Garza knows plenty about the game of football. He shares the sun-up-to-sun-down passion of his new colleagues, too.
But he also has a soft spot for his players - or anyone, really - who need an ear to listen or some words of advice.
"If there was anything you needed off the field or on the field, he'd be there for you," says Nick Schommer, who played free safety for Garza at North Dakota State and was selected in the seventh round of this year's NFL draft by the Tennessee Titans. "He always asked about your family, how they're doing. I'd say he's a player's coach. He relates to his players really well and has their back anytime they need anything."
It's that spirit that helped Garza turn a career-ending injury into a job that fused his two passions - football and helping others - into a coaching career. And it's a giving spirit, rooted in faith, that helped him overcome a major mistake that cost him his job at Texas Christian University.
Path to coaching
Like many coaches, Willie Mack Garza got his start in coaching as a graduate assistant. But he never thought it would turn into a career.
In 1993, Garza still had his eyes on the NFL. He had the talent to play professionally. What he didn't have was good luck.
In the final game of his senior season at Texas against rival Texas A&M, Garza broke his leg and tore a tendon in his ankle. That, combined with a lingering knee injury, was enough to keep him from the NFL draft in 1993. But Garza attacked his rehab head-on and took a day-job working with juvenile delinquents at a detention center in Austin. He also worked for the Longhorns' athletic department where he interacted with boosters in the hopes of helping former athletes land jobs after college.
By 1994, though, Garza knew his hopes of playing in the NFL were all but gone. His position coach at Texas suggested he take a job as a graduate assistant, which would allow him to get a master's degree in social work.
Coming from what he calls a "very, very, very humble background" in his hometown of Refugio, Garza saw first-hand the impact people could have on someone else's life. For Garza, one of those was a coach. Another was a long-time family friend. Another was his grandmother. Those helping hands that led Garza to choose social work as his major at Texas.
"They really showed me the philosophy, 'It takes a village to raise a family' and stuff like that," Garza said. "That was truly the case in my hometown. There was always people surrounding me and helping me. There was no way that I could not give back. Social work, to me, was a way to really help and give back to other people whether it's the elderly, youth. It didn't matter. Social work was an avenue for me to help other people be successful in life and give back."
Hoping a master's degree would result in a little better salary - a relative term when it comes to social work - Garza accepted the GA position and joined the Texas staff.
That first year was a whirlwind. Not only was Garza helping coach the Longhorns' defensive backs, he was taking a full load of graduate courses, which included internships and volunteer work for various community organizations.
For one of his courses, Garza had to assemble a group and help mentor its members by setting goals and working toward them. Short on time, Garza used his cornerbacks for his group. And that's when Garza realized he didn't have to be a social worker to help people.
"They had goals and objectives, and we talked about how on a daily basis to move forward toward your goals and objectives," Garza said. "I started seeing through that group that, man, a lot of social work, a lot of what I learned in social work, I can really apply to football."
It was the best of both worlds for Garza. He could still help people the way he had been helped growing up. He could be part of the village, and part of the team, too.
"I grew up in a strong Baptist, Christian background. I think that's a part of being a believer in Jesus Christ is giving back," Garza said. "All of that right there really steered me towards social work - which is also coaching football."
Turns out, Garza was pretty good at both.
A mistake, a break
After three seasons as a graduate assistant at Texas, Garza landed his first full-time job at Western Michigan in 1997. He stayed there four seasons before landing at TCU, where he coached cornerbacks for two-plus seasons.
Two-plus - and not three or four or five - because he was charged with a DUI in the fall of 2003. The Horned Frogs suspended him mid-season, and what had been a promising career hit a major low point.
Out of a job, Garza volunteered at Lancaster High School in Dallas, where he knew a few coaches, for a few months. After a year at Division II Tarleton State, he arrived in Fargo, N.D.
Going from Conference USA to Division I-AA North Dakota State wasn't exactly a path to the big-time, but it was a path, nonetheless.
"I think God works in mysterious ways," Garza said. "I think at TCU, maybe my growth there had stopped. Maybe I had become complacent to a certain extent, and God found a way to help me move on. Things happened in my life at that time that forced me to move on and forced me to appreciate the way I'm supposed to act in life.
"I think God saw at TCU I wasn't continuing to grow. I'm not saying that my mistakes were God's fault, but He corrects you. He takes things from you, and I think He led me to North Dakota State."
Turns out North Dakota State was a great place for Garza to be.
It was there he worked for coach Craig Bohl, a former defensive coordinator and player at Nebraska, who introduced him to the Tampa 2 defense made famous by another former Cornhusker - UT defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
Garza spent three years as defensive coordinator for Bohl and another season coaching defensive backs. During his tenure, the Bisons posted 10-1 seasons in 2006 and 2007.
More importantly, Garza says, he grew as a coach and as a person.
"When I say God works in mysterious ways, I think God takes things out of your hands but He covers you with grace to help you receive even more later on down the road," Garza says. "I think this a perfect example of God taking what I saw as a good thing (at TCU) out of my hands, but then by His grace, He showed me a better thing which was North Dakota State, even though some people wouldn't think that. But in my life at that time, North Dakota State was a better thing."
He also worked with some really good coaches.
On the defensive staff at NDSU, Garza coached alongside assistants Todd Wash and Casey Bradley, both of whom wound up coaching for Kiffin in Tampa Bay. Wash is the Bucs' defensive line coach, and the Seattle Seahawks recently named Bradley defensive coordinator.
Through his connections at North Dakota State, Garza even interviewed with Kiffin for a job coaching defensive backs after Mike Tomlin, now the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, left for the Minnesota Vikings in 2006.
That job didn't work out, but Garza soon got a second chance to work for Kiffin.
Thanks for tip, cousin
Garza hopped in a taxi cab, hoping he wasn't too late.
In Nashville for the American Football Coaches Association convention in January, Garza got a tip from his cousin that Monte Kiffin was still searching for a defensive backs coach at Tennessee.
James Lott, who coaches at Mesa Junior College in Arizona, knew because he interviewed earlier that morning.
"In most situations guys after they didn't get the job, they'd have been all upset and mad. They'd have been thinking more about themselves," Garza said. "But family is family. He knew that I knew Monte."
So Garza called a taxi and made his way to the airport Marriott, where Kiffin had already checked out and was about to return to Knoxville.
At first, he couldn't find Kiffin or Bruce Warwick, UT's former director of football operations who was on hand to help with the process. A woman at the front desk told Garza she didn't have any guests by either name at the hotel, and Garza was about to leave.
"I'm like, 'More than likely, I probably missed him,' " Garza said. "I thought I'm at the wrong damn hotel."
Eventually, though, Garza found Kiffin and Warwick, re-introduced himself and told them he had heard they were interviewing secondary coaches.
Kiffin, who remembered Garza from his interview with Tampa Bay, checked back into his room and, along with UT assistant head coach Ed Orgeron, put Garza through the paces at the dry-erase board like they had several other coaches that week.
Kiffin was impressed with Garza's knowledge of the Cover 2 defense and Orgeron liked what he heard from Garza, too. A few days later, he was on the road recruiting for Tennessee after six years away from Division I football.
For Garza, it's hard to ignore the serendipitous turns that brought him to Tennessee.
"How unbelievable is that that my cousin, who doesn't know Monte Kiffin, interviews, mentions my name and all of a sudden here it is I'm getting another opportunity to interview for Monte Kiffin?" Garza says. "Now it works out. Now I'm at Tennessee, one of the most elite universities in all of football with some fanatical fans and unbelievable coaches on both offense and defense. Not only are they great coaches, they're great people. It's an unbelievable community that loves football like I love football."
But it hasn't been all football for Garza, even during spring practice and the spring evaluation period this month.
'Pretty much straight up'
Just a few weeks ago, one of Tennessee's defensive backs plopped down on the brown leather couch in Garza's office inside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center. The player and Garza talked for more than 45 minutes. And it had little to do with the Cover 2.
Garza smiles, perhaps at the psychiatric tones of the image. But that's Garza: part therapist, part coach. And all this from a guy who also happens to be a member of the Texas high school football hall of fame and one of the best running backs in Texas prep history.
"They live out there in the real world," Garza says of his players. "They face real-world problems. As a coach, you have to be able to sit down and talk to your players outside of football. I think right now, I'm really starting to develop more of a relationship with guys where they just come in here and sit down."
That can be an asset for any coaching staff, and his former players saw it firsthand.
"He leaves himself accessible to anyone stopping in and talking to him about anything," says Craig Dahl, a former NDSU safety who is set to enter his third NFL season. "I think the biggest thing is kids in the college atmosphere don't always have the trust level with one of their coaches that they do with a normal person if they were to go out and ask for help or ask for advice or something. For some of these kids, home is far away or maybe their parents aren't around all the time to help them out. It's huge at this age to have someone to come to talk to and help out through life or football or anything."
But those relationships aren't built overnight.
Just as Garza saw his players begin to really understand the defense during spring practice, he's starting to see players become comfortable enough with him to talk about much more than just X's and O's. Part of that comes from his ability to communicate and relate with players on and off the field. Part of it is his honesty, too.
"He's pretty much straight up with you. He never sugar-coated it from my perspective," Schommer said. "He likes to have a lot of fun in the meeting room and on the field. But when it comes down to it, he's a serious guy and a serious coach. But he likes to joke around and have a good time."
The best times are on the football field, when everything lines up just so and one of his players is in the right place at the right time to make a game-changing play.
But it's the relationships, the ability to help change a player's life whether by helping him reach the NFL or simply find a place in the world after football is over, that got Garza into the coaching business. And in many ways, it's what keeps him there now.
"It's that relationship, probably above all else, that makes coaching football such a special, special profession," Garza said. "You can touch a young man in such positive way to make a difference in his life. It's football, his social life, his spiritual life and I don't know if there's very many other professions where you can really touch a young man's life like that and make such an impact in every area."
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.