Coaching, not law, in the blood of one WVU assistant coach
MCT REGIONAL NEWS
By Mike Casazza
Charleston Daily Mail, W.Va.
April 04--MORGANTOWN -- Even when WVU's wide receivers and special teams coach Daron Roberts had a master's degree and was working to finish coursework at Harvard Law School, he would look past a career in corporate law and lock his gaze on a retirement plan.
"I was going to coach football at Mount Pleasant High School," said Roberts, the latest and final addition to West Virginia football's coaching staff.
Roberts played his prep football in that small town in northeast Texas that doesn't sell alcohol, but did have the state's first Wal-Mart. The dream was in his head and it would take a step forward from the recesses of his mind every time he returned from Harvard to visit his parents.
The flight from Boston would take him only to Dallas, and he had to drive another two hours home.
Every time, though, he'd stop along the way and visit his old defensive coordinator. And every time they'd watch the tapes from when Roberts rolled with the Tigers.
"Eventually I told myself, 'You're going to your defensive coordinator's house before you go home to see your mom and dad,'" he said. "And I love my mom and dad."
He loved football, too. He thought he left it behind when he went to Texas for his undergraduate degree and then to Harvard, but it wouldn't leave him.
"I never lost sight of the fact that the best four years of my life were spent playing high school football," he said.
In the summer of 2006, just before he began his third and final year of law school, a friend suggested they drive to Columbia, S.C., for South Carolina's football camp.
"It changed my life," he said.
Roberts went to camps at LSU and then Boston College later that summer. He was hooked.
A year later, he had his law degree and was preparing to take the bar exam in Texas, but veered sharply off course and went to the Kansas City Chiefs training camp.
Two years later, he was an assistant coach with the Detroit Lions.
Now, he's a FBS program's assistant making $200,000 annually to coach WVU wide receivers and punt and kickoff return teams.
"Had my buddy not called me to work that camp in South Carolina, I might be working at a firm in New York," Roberts said. "I'm fortunate enough he did call me and that I had a couple sick days I could use at my law firm so we could drive to Columbia. That experience set me on this path."
THAT EXPERIENCE was rooted in a little bit of fraud. Those college camps he worked are somewhat exclusive. They take coaches from all sorts of colleges and high schools, but they don't generally take aides to senators and former presidential candidates or assistants to lieutenant governors who have no coaching experience.
In fact, the registration forms anyone can find online attempt to designate who's who. Roberts found a way around that.
"I listed the school I went to in Texas. What I didn't say was the school I coached," he said. "It said 'Name' and 'Affiliation.' I kind of interpreted that loosely. I'm a Mount Pleasant alumnus. Maybe they assumed I coached there."
The secret would get out after a while and it was there where Roberts was first projected to be a little bit crazy.
"I'd get in and I wouldn't say anything," Roberts said. "I'd just work for three or four days. The guys would say after you're sitting around and talking a little bit, 'You're in law school? What? Most people are trying to get out of camps and you're trying to sneak in?'
"But working those three camps reaffirmed for me that this is what I should be doing."
HIS PLAN to abandon a formidable education to pursue a fantasy was not uniformly popular. Roberts told people he was stepping away from law and all the accomplishments and connections he'd secured in mergers and acquisitions to enter the entirely unknown world of the NFL as an unpaid volunteer.
Some reactions were predictable.
"I got a lot of insanity e-mails," he said. "My grandmother sent me one."
He also had a lot of support through it all. Roberts was a responsible and surely sane person. Those around him knew he'd thought about his decision and was serious about making it work. More people talked him into it than tried to talk him out of it.
His parents offered this advice: "The best time to go broke is when you have no money."
His law school dean ruled in his favor: "It's just like going to Harvard. If you have an opportunity to be in the NFL, you have to jump on it. Legal issues are not going anywhere. People are still going to have problems. You can always practice. You won't always have a shot to go to the NFL."
The greatest assist came before all of that. Roberts was in a sports law class in his second year of law school. In 2005 he wanted to write a paper on the relationship between legal training and coaching. His professor happened to be "infatuated" with then-Texas Tech Coach Mike Leach, who has a law degree from Pepperdine.
He also happened to be one of the few big-time coaches who never played college football.
The professor granted Roberts a one-month sabbatical and it was there where Roberts first met WVU's offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who reached out and brought Roberts to campus last week.
"He and I stayed in contact when I got into coaching," Roberts said. "I saw him at the national championship game and congratulated him on the opportunity to come here. He said he'd keep me in mind when there was an opening."
Roberts spent the first part of his coaching career working with special teams and the Mountaineers were in need of not just a receivers coach when Lonnie Galloway left for Wake Forest last month, but someone to coach the punt and kickoff return teams after Dave McMichael was not retained by Holgorsen.
"Let's be brutally honest," WVU Coach Bill Stewart said. "I've not been pleased with the punt and kickoff return teams."
Stewart also said Roberts can be a "tremendous asset" recruiting Virginia and Washington D.C., areas Galloway and former assistant Chris Beatty worked. The Mountaineers have landed a number of players from there in recent years, but only a few have stuck around long enough to help.
All that is fine with Roberts.
"You've got to remember, I was going to Detroit on the heels of a 0-16 season," he said. "I knew I couldn't wear my gear outside. We got to 2-14 and then 6-10, but I know where to hide."
ROBERTS EARNED his law degree in June 2007 then paid for and registered to take the Texas bar at the end of the following month. He also sent letters to every NFL head coach and defensive coordinator and the upper echelon of Division I schools to ask for an opportunity.
Only the Chiefs replied with an invitation to come to their training camp. It happened to overlap with the bar. Rather than show up late for camps, he passed on the bar, though he was granted an indefinite waiver to take the exam whenever he wanted.
He still hasn't.
"My mom is a little upset about this," he said.
The Chiefs were impressed and had him stay on as a volunteer assistant. A year later, he was the defensive quality control assistant.
In 2009, he moved along to the Detroit Lions with defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham as the assistant in the secondary.
He even showed his grandma a picture of him on the sideline hard at work during a game.
"She swore I was Photoshopped into it," he said.
It was a rapid ascent, but it was not so simple.
"You have to humble yourself," Roberts said. "Coaches feel very good about their knowledge base and when someone comes in who hasn't coached, man. I got absolutely beaten down by some guys."
Those same guys built him up, whether they realized it or not.
Roberts can teach receivers. He can craft schemes for return men. Eventually he'll recruit players to campus. The greatest value, though, is in how a 32-year-old who never abandoned his plan relates to teenagers and young adults.
"Kids -- and it doesn't matter where you are -- have problems," Holgorsen said. "They deal with things every day, from an academic standpoint to temptations around town to time management to getting worn out in the weight room to getting yelled at out on the practice field.
"There are a lot of issues and having a guy like that who has accomplished what he accomplished and done things on his own can be a good sounding board for the guys."
THE DREAM is to be a major college head coach, but Roberts stays up on the law and relevant issues "just in case I ever do practice, which I don't see happening."
Roberts set up an email account years back and asked his friends from Harvard to send him articles he needed to read.
"I check that e-mail once a year just to read through the articles," he said. "It's quite amazing."
The same might be said of Roberts' story. In addition to all of the above, he also founded the "4th and 1 Football Camp," a free camp for kids in Mount Pleasant, Texas, and East Lansing, Mich., that blends football instruction with test preparation and life skills.
NCAA rules prevent Roberts from having an affiliation with the camp as long as he works on a college staff, but the camp will continue without him.
He remains philanthropic in other areas and said he's mentoring a law student on the side, which makes sense considering all Roberts has been through and the decisions he faced along the way.
There's a question behind all of this, though, that needs to be asked: Would Roberts advise someone to do what he did?
If the circumstances are right, Roberts said he would.
"For me, it was easy," he said. "I had an old, beat-up Tahoe and I wasn't married at the time and I didn't have any kids at the time. I could pick up and go."
Roberts has been married for a year now. He and his wife, Hilary, are raising their 7-month-old son, Dylan. Hilary is house hunting in Morgantown. She's supposed to involve her husband when she's narrowed the choices to two or three.
Life is simpler these days.
"If someone is married and trying to do this, he'd have to have a supportive wife because you can be working for free," he said.
"I've known some guys who have worked for five or six years before their first break came. If they're passionate enough about it, I'd say do it because if it works out, it's worth it."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142.
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(c) 2011, Charleston Daily Mail, W.Va.
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