Dan Werner couldn’t have had a childhood that better prepared him to be a college football coach.
A college football player? That’s a different story.
Werner played high school football for his dad George’s team at Dowagiac High School in Dowagiac, Mich., across Lake Michigan from Chicago. George Werner ran the Houston veer offense, and his son played wide receiver. That meant Dan Werner’s high school football career consisted mostly of blocking, not the type of thing that makes an impressive recruiting highlights tape.
“I wasn’t fast enough to play wide receiver or big enough to play tight end” in college, Werner said.
So Werner’s playing career ended after high school, making him a rarity, a successful collegiate coach who never played the game at the collegiate level.
“Maybe early in my career it was a factor, but I don’t know that for a fact,” Werner said. “Nobody ever questioned me about it. Once I started proving myself, it definitely wasn’t a factor anymore.”
Werner, who has made stops at Alabama, Ole Miss and Miami among many other places, is set to begin his first season as South Carolina’s quarterbacks coach this fall. Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp said Werner’s lack of a collegiate playing career made no difference in the hiring process.
“It’s not a prerequisite for the job,” Muschamp said. “Dan’s track record speaks for itself.”
Washington State coach Mike Leach, Duke coach David Cutcliffe, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis and former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze are among the notable recent coaches who never played college football, but it’s a small fraternity.
“I’m sure there are more, but I think it’s less than most people believe,” said Vince Thompson, media relations director for the American Football Coaches Association.
After high school, Werner attended Dowagiac Junior College for one year and then transferred to Western Michigan.
“I could have walked on, but I decided I didn’t want to go be a blocking dummy. Looking back on it, I wish I had,” he said. “If I had it to do over again, I would have gone and walked on at Western Michigan and seen what happened.”
But at the time, it looked like the Werner family might be getting out of the football business entirely. George Werner had recently left coaching to join his father’s business in St. Louis, and Dan Werner was planning to major in business at Western Michigan.
“I realized that while people in my class were reading the Wall Street Journal, I was reading the sports page, so it wasn’t a good fit,” Werner said.
About the time he was wondering about his future, his dad came back to high school coaching.
“That pretty much sealed the deal,” Werner said.
Dan Werner decided then and there he wanted to be a football coach, and he wanted to start immediately. While still in college, he took a job as the offensive coordinator of the eighth grade team at a local junior high school. The next year, he was promoted to offensive coordinator of the freshman team.
“I got paid $300 for the whole season,” he said. “I thought I’d hit the lottery. I got paid to coach football. At the time I knew I wanted to coach and I saw that I could get jobs that actually paid money and everything, and I could get started in the profession I wanted. I had buddies that did play (college football) and they learned their position but they didn’t learn why they were learning certain plays.”
Meanwhile, Werner was taking a crash course in football, just like he did as a kid when George Werner set up the school projector in the family living room to watch game film.
“I just loved sitting and listening to him,” Werner said.
Werner’s first collegiate job came at Cornell, where the offensive coordinator was a friend of his father.
“He said, 'Your dad is one of the best football coaches from high school to the NFL that I have ever been around,' ” Werner said. “I thought he was just maybe being nice or something, but as I’ve gone through and been with other guys, I realized he was right.”
Werner’s childhood and his experience starting in the high school ranks gave him an appreciation for coaches and schemes at all levels. He credits his father, George, former Western Michigan offensive coordinator Bob Wyman and former Portage Central High School head coach Bob Knight with teaching him the most about the game in his developmental years. Those influences are also the reason, he said, that he's always looked to high schools for ideas to incorporate in his own offense, a system he and Freeze, another coach who got his start in high school football, stitched together years ago at Ole Miss.
“I got to learn from my dad, coach Knight and coach Wyman before I had turned 21 years old,” Werner said. “There were a lot of guys who played who didn’t know close to as much as I did before I graduated college.”
SOUTH CAROLINA 2018 FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
Sept. 1 Coastal Carolina, noon (SEC Network)
Sept. 8 Georgia*, 3:30 pm (CBS)
Sept. 15 Marshall, 7:30 pm (ESPNU)
Sept. 22 at Vanderbilt*
Sept. 29 at Kentucky*
Oct. 6 Missouri*
Oct. 13 Texas A&M*
Oct. 27 Tennessee*
Nov. 3 at Ole Miss*
Nov. 10 at Florida*
Nov. 17 Chattanooga
Nov. 24 at Clemson