It is 1 a.m., and Matt Wiegand is still stuck in the trailers by Witter Rugby Field. His office measures roughly 12 square feet of shared space, stuffed with two desks and bracketed by a pair of X-and-O-covered whiteboards.
In about an hour, he’ll be free to drive the four miles home north to Kensington, see his wife and sneak in about four hours of shut-eye. Or he could pull out a mattress, blankets and pillows, and flop down inches from the floor.
Often, he chooses the latter.
Wiegand is one of the Cal football team’s two graduate assistants. The job does not pay well: Like players, GAs receive a full scholarship, along with a stipend for off-campus living expenses. This covers about 60 percent of Wiegand’s rent.
He says that it takes roughly four to six years of this de facto coach training to land that first full-time, full-salary job in Division I football. Wiegand, 28 years old, is on his fifth year. The Bears’ defensive GA Ryan McKinley, three years younger, is on his third.
Time chases them. Weeks are front-loaded and, as a general rule, require that GAs stay a day ahead of everyone else, poring over film, the first workers in the assembly line. On Mondays, Wiegand and McKinley prepare first- and second-down game plans to give to players the next morning; third- and fourth-down plans come the next day, and red-zone and goal-line plans the day after that. One night of work can produce as many as 70 play-diagrammed practice cards.
“Sometimes you’re in the office all day, you get lost,” Wiegand says. “You think you’re being efficient and all of a sudden, you look at the clock and, ‘Holy shit.’”
Graduate assistants are also scout team coaches, trying to ease true freshmen into more intricate schemes and techniques. In the equipment trailer, there are two blue signs that read, “RECALL OFFENSE: SCORE” and “RECALL DEFENSE: GET THE BALL BACK.” Complex ideas can require simple maxims.
They also get stuck with just about anything and everything other coaches don’t want to do. Need someone to take roll? Right here, boss.
“None of it’s glamorous,” McKinley says. “Yet, the opportunity’s glamorous because not everybody gets this chance … I know all this shit could be taken away and I could be back coaching JC ball wishing I had another chance.”
So they push through the 19-hour days, still with the benefit of youth. Helped by coffee machines and strategic naps, their sweat is swallowed in a sea of dreams.
“You get home with just enough time to brush your teeth and fall asleep,” McKinley says. “Wake up and do it all again the next day.”
Cal head coach Jeff Tedford once called graduate assistants the “lifeline” of the team; if so, the line is stretched by both effort and luck. The well-beaten path is paved by unpaid gigs at camps, convention rounds and word of mouth. In a tight-knit community where you are owed nothing, you pay your dues and hope someone notices.
Ten months ago, McKinley was in San Antonio for an AFCA coaching convention, an event that included big names like Nick Saban. That’s where he met Taggart McCurdy, then Cal’s defensive graduate assistant, and the two spent some down time sharing chicken wings at the House of Blues.
A few weeks later, he heard about the Bears’ GA opening, and asked his former coach at Fresno State, Pat Hill, to call Tedford and put in a good word. Who finished the process? McCurdy, now a defensive administrative assistant and McKinley’s roommate.
“That’s all it comes down to in coaching. ‘Who do you know, and do they like you?’” McKinley says. “You don’t have to have some impressive resume. It’s, ‘Are you somebody’s boy, and do they like you?’”
Success stories exist, some more remarkable than others. Cal defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi, who played for the Bears from 2000-2005, was hired as a GA upon graduation. He became the program’s youngest full-time coach ever in 2008; since then, he has quickly turned himself into one of the country’s top recruiters.
TCU head coach Gary Patterson, a small-town Kansas kid who worked as a UC Davis GA in 1986, lived off crackers and peanut butter while substitute teaching and selling muffins to convenience stores. In January, after bouncing through 10 teams over 18 years, Patterson led the Horned Frogs to a Rose Bowl victory and a subsequent No. 2 national ranking.
Countless more falter — and even those who stick around the profession struggle to stay at the top. Take Kevin Daft, the former Cal wide receivers coach who was fired in December. Daft had worked his way up as graduate assistant, spending seven total years as a Bears staffer. He now coaches receivers for the Omaha Nighthawks in the four-team United Football League. In the most recent championship game, the Virginia Destroyers defeated the Las Vegas Locomotives, 17-3. Head coach Marty Schottenheimer, a perennial also-ran when he headed the San Diego Chargers, finally earned a ring.
When Wiegand began his coaching pursuit, he formed a network of roughly 20 friends and acquaintances who chased the same dreams. Only three are left — himself included. At some point, most cannot survive the grind.
“You always keep the end result in mind when you think about, ‘Am I too tired to do this?’ or ‘Do I really have to put this much effort into it?’” McKinley says. “Ultimately, one phone call can make or break everything.”
“Our same job, in the NFL, pays $80,000,” Wiegand says. “It’s crazy.”
The sheer utility of the football trailers promotes overnight stays. Collectively, they function as a virtual bunker, complete with a kitchen and showers. To maintain relationships outside of the bubble requires dedicated planning.
On Oct. 3, Wiegand celebrated his two-year anniversary. He and his wife, Brandy, originally met when he was an assistant at Occidental in Los Angeles. They hit it off immediately, and when he took a job as a volunteer assistant at Utah, she packed her bags and followed. The wedding was scheduled during the Utes’ bye week — exactly one year after their first date.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do that without her,” Wiegand says. “I think even if I were single at the time, I wouldn’t have been able to do it … Even here, she’s the breadwinner. She likes to tease me about that.”
Things are a little easier for McKinley, who began dating his girlfriend, Danna, nine weeks ago. Defensive duties are such that he can get home by 9 p.m. on a good night. Thursdays are usually reserved for dates. Sundays aren’t bad either.
“She’s totally fallen in love with what college football is,” McKinley says. “Sending me articles about Jim Harbaugh … ‘This whole leadership thing is cool. You’re a leader of men.’”
But their loved ones have goals of their own. Brandy, a non-profit fundraiser with almost a decade of experience, may eventually pursue her own Master’s. One day, Wiegand might be the one who puts his career on hold.
“I’m getting to that point, not now, but I’m getting into that transition period in my career where, I need to start making something of it,” Wiegand says.
It is 11 a.m., and he and McKinley stand in Tolman Hall, chatting during a five-minute break from Education 257, “Theoretical Foundations for the Cultural Study of Sport in Education.”
For two hours, the discussion had veered from the Penn State scandal, to the dynamic between high school “jocks” and “burnouts,” to whether or not college athletes should go pro early.
In the hallway, McKinley starts talking about something more immediate. The Big Game is five days away, and few expect a Cal victory. Stanford has quarterback Andrew Luck, who by many accounts is the next coming of Peyton Manning. The Cardinal are also burning inside after their first loss of the season dashed BCS title hopes; they would love nothing more than to step on the Bears’ throats in sweet catharsis.
But they do not have receiver Chris Owusu. The team’s lone deep threat is still recovering from a concussion, and his absence shrinks the field more than most think. Nor do they have tight end Zach Ertz, out with a bum knee. Stanford loves three-tight-end sets, and he had been one of Luck’s favorite targets, especially on third-down drag routes.
That still leaves Coby Fleener, who plays the position better than anyone in the Pac-12, and Levine Toilolo, a 6-foot-8 wall of granite. Sometimes, you take what you can get.
“Shut them down, and I think we’ve got a chance,” McKinley says.
A chance. That’s all he asks.