Pierre Ingram started coaching football before he finished elementary school.
Playing football in the backyard of his Texas home with his friends, Ingram was always the one to organize and facilitate — picking teams and telling all of his friends where to properly line up for the next play. All that was missing was a formal title.
“I always wanted to be an organizer,” he says. “Growing up, you don’t see that and understand what that is, but you’re kind of paving your way for a career choice.”
So when his college football career was hampered by injuries, a transition into coaching seemed like an obvious way to stay connected to the game he loved. Despite his tendencies, he had never previously considered such a move, but struggling through the final years of his playing career had given him a new perspective.
“I knew there were guys like me that had potential but needed the right guidance and needed the right mentor, or needed the right words to be said to help them out,” Ingram says.
He was hired in 2007 to coach the wide receivers at Cortland State, a Division III program in upstate New York. It wasn’t the most glamorous jobs, but it proved a good jumping off point for a young aspiring coach to break into the field and start to make a name for himself.
And just five years later, he found himself coaching the running backs in the nation’s most prolific offense at Louisiana Tech — one that put up more than 50 points a game. Working under offensive gurus Sonny Dykes and Tony Franklin was nothing short of an ideal situation for a young coach still honing his craft.
But that situation looked like it would come to an abrupt end when it was announced that Dykes would be leaving Louisiana Tech to become the next head coach for the Cal football team. Ingram — a self-described historian of coaches in college football — knew all too well that the Bears didn’t need a running backs coach.
“I knew Ron Gould was here, and he was a guy I had always admired,” he says. “He had done such a great job, so I was like, ‘Good job for Ron Gould. He’s getting a great coach.’ ”
Then he got a phone call from Dykes.
He was now charged with the task of replacing a man who had overseen nine of the school’s 11 best rushing seasons in history during a 16-year tenure that made him nothing less than a campus legend. But Ingram wasn’t at all fazed by the gravity of his situation.
“In my profession, if you see it as that, you’re in this for the wrong reasons,” he says. “Individual achievements are nothing for me. The total result of what my guys do and if they can win games is what I’m here for.”
Yet even if he doesn’t like to acknowledge it, Ingram knows he has big shoes to fill. And more so than any other new coach, he’ll likely be judged with an even shrewder eye by diehards with visions of Marshawn Lynch stiff arms and J.J. Arrington jukes etched into the backs of their brains.
But with a nearly brand-new backfield composed of backs also looking to introduce themselves to the Cal fan base at his disposal, he knows it’s high time to put his mark on the program.
“That’s more the pressure part of it, because now this is a reflection of what we’re doing,” Ingram says. “All I want in my philosophy is to mentor guys to where when they reach an opportunity and have difficulty, that they have the tools that they need to be successful.”
While he continues to shore up the 2013 running game, which is averaging an uninspiring 3.02 yards per carry, he’s also looking for an opportunity to get on the recruiting trail and start to bring in more backs who fit his system.
And at 29 years old, he’ll likely be filling another legacy hole — this one left by Tosh Lupoi in 2011 — as the team’s young, charismatic recruiter, seen as a link between the players and the rest of the coaching staff.
But he still knows he’s a coach, not a friend.
“There has to be a barrier between player and coach,” he says. “You want to have that same respect, but at the same time, you want them to feel comfortable around you. Liaison — I like that word, because there’s still respect for me as a coach, but I think coach Dykes realized that there’s going to be times when I can get a little more out of the guys.”
He’ll look to flex his recruiting muscles and show off the skills he honed in his start recruiting for a Division III program that was unable to offer any of the usual amenities that sell a high school kid on a college.
“You had to be real with those families, and the parents, and the little sisters, and the grandmothers,” Ingram says. “The kid wanted to know what was going to happen for him during the four years he was in college, and then after.”
Now he gets to do the same, but with toys such as a brand new stadium and an 18,700-square-foot training facility — amenities who couldn’t even dream of having while at Cortland St. And even if Berkeley has next to nothing in common with the previous programs he had to sell, that doesn’t mean his selling points will be any different.
“If I have a kid that’s looking into this university, I’ll go into the smallest detail to see if it’s the fit for him — and also in a trustworthy way to where his parents can’t call my bluff, because there is no bluff,” Ingram says. “I want them to understand that when they’re signing with Cal, they’re getting the truth.”
Still, he’s not worried about his reputation as a recruiter, just as he isn’t worried about becoming the next Ron Gould. That’s not what he’s here to do.
All he’s worried about is being the best running back coach he can be right now.
“I want my legacy to be that coach Ingram created men of character that were great football players,” he says. “These are my guys.”