McGee, Walker find greener pastures
Still, he felt tapped out. He could keep clawing and scraping, trying to bring the Aggies to respectability and, eventually, bowl eligibility. Then, Walker looked at reality. All the boulders in his way would never be cleared.
He had no future there.
So Walker made a surprising decision.
He left his job as a head coach in January 2013 to become an assistant with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
One year later, Garrick McGee made the same choice. He also walked away from his first head-coaching job, leaving UAB after two seasons to become offensive coordinator at Louisville.
FBS head coaches rarely resign to become assistants, and it had now happened in consecutive years. Knowing full well they may never be head coaches again, Walker and McGee left.
The question, then, is why?
Neither coach fell into the opportunity to run his own program. McGee and Walker spent years as successful coordinators and recruiters, waiting for their first shot.
When UCLA fired Karl Dorrell in 2007, Walker interviewed for the job. Rick Neuheisel was hired instead. Walker, the Bruins' defensive coordinator at the time, stayed on staff. But he was getting antsy to run his own program.
Following the 2008 season, Walker interviewed at San Diego State and Utah State. Neither offered him the job. New Mexico State called. Walker met with athletic director McKinley Boston and alum Danny Villanueva informally in Los Angeles. Boston wanted a defensive-minded coach who could recruit and instill old-school values into the program.
Walker fit all three characteristics perfectly. Boston invited him to tour the campus and facilities in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Before Walker boarded his flight, his wife, Zan, told him, "Come back the head coach!"
Walker already had his mind made up before he even looked around or asked any big-picture questions about finances, staffing, academic support or how football spending compared to conference schools. He knew about the long history of losing, but Walker figured, "I'm going to do more with less."
Walker missed all the signs telling him to sit tight. So did McGee, who concedes he would approach the interview differently if he ever gets another chance to be a head coach.
"I just know there was an opportunity, I went after it and got it," McGee says now. "If at some point in my life this all happened again, the interview process would be a little different. I would ask a lot more specific questions. You have to.
"Tyrone Willingham said to me once, 'A lot of people in this world, they turn the pages in the book so fast, they miss all the clues. You just want to get to what happens in the end.' What we need to do is walk slow and think hard so when the red flags appear or when the opportunities appear that may not look like an opportunity, that you have the wisdom to really see it."
It took Walker only a few hours to see what awaited in Las Cruces.
Walker never had to worry about asking for financial support at UCLA, or in the NFL for that matter. New Mexico State was entirely different. The Aggies have one of the smallest budgets on the FBS level. When Walker arrived, they had one strength coach and not much in the way of resources or money to spend on assistants.
He begged Boston for more. But Boston had no more to give.
"That was a very aggressive thing in Coach's mind," Boston says now. "He felt like we needed an approach similar to the BCS schools, where the priority was football and your commitment to football should be the primary goal, and so we had those conversations a lot. While I was committed to football, I also had a commitment to broad-base excellence and I wanted all our programs to be good. I was committed to Title IX and had to balance resources as opposed to investing in football at all costs. We obviously disagreed on that philosophical approach, but I tried to give Coach those things he needed to be successful."
Despite the challenges, Walker found some success in 2011. The Aggies finished 4-9, with the first win in school history over a Big Ten team (Minnesota), the first win in school history over Fresno State and a third straight win over bitter rival New Mexico.
Boston gave Walker a contract extension, believing the program was headed in the right direction. But all the progress was undone in spectacularly uncompetitive fashion in 2012. The Aggies lost by double digits in every game but one. Boston points to the departure of offensive coordinator Doug Martin, who left for Boston College, as the tipping point.
With Martin gone, the Aggies had to hire their fourth offensive coordinator in as many years.
"It was detrimental," Boston said. "I think everybody could feel it. We could not quite get back the offensive focus and success [we had] before Doug had left. I thought that was the turning point of Coach's career."
Walker could have kept going this way. But he felt he was at a career crossroads. He had the coveted head-coaching job only a few ever get. Yet he was seriously considering doing something else.
If he stayed, his record would get uglier, digging himself an even bigger hole. If he left, he could try and remake himself. Walker considered all the scenarios. When the Jaguars called, and he met with coach Gus Bradley and general manager Dave Caldwell, Walker felt the timing was right to leave.
"Most coaches in our situation, they're not going to hand the keys back," Walker said. "They're going to fight to the end. If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. It was a decision I felt I had to make before it was made for me."
When Walker broke the news to Boston, there were no hard feelings.
McGee encountered his own challenges. The budget at UAB was not nearly the same as the budget at Arkansas. Fan support was low. But perhaps more than anything, McGee says his intense, demanding philosophical approach was not the right fit.
"I just got to a point where I said, 'This philosophy is probably not what's best for this program,'" McGee said. "Every program is different. What I was bringing to the table, I'm not sure once I got there, that's what that program needed."
UAB athletic director Brian Mackin declined an interview request on why this approach did not work.
Despite what McGee saw as differences, he was not looking to leave the Blazers. He was set to continue on, hoping his philosophy would eventually take.
Until Bobby Petrino went to Louisville.
Even though McGee was a head coach, Petrino still had the hubris to call McGee and offer him the offensive coordinator job.
"I wanted him," Petrino said. "Certainly his experience with us together helped him get the head job but I thought, 'Hey, let's give it a chance and see where he's at. All he can say is no.'"
McGee jumped at the opportunity, turning his back on what could be the only head-coaching job he will ever get.
"Everybody wants to have a dream of being a head coach, but is being the offensive coordinator at the University of Louisville for 20 years -- is it all bad?" McGee said. "Just to go be a head coach somewhere? There are not many programs like this in the country that are on this level. There's a few. I was at Arkansas and we were winning and we were in the Top 5 in the country, we were graduating kids, producing pros, winning games. Is that all bad? Of course everybody wants to be the leader of a program but I've done it now, so I have a different testimony."
The likelihood that either will get another head-coaching shot remains slim. Walker and McGee will forever have losing records stamped next to their names. Only one black head coach -- Willingham -- has ever been rehired at the FBS level after being fired.
Both know the odds ahead, but neither has regrets. Walker has been invaluable in his short time with the Jaguars, and even served as interim coach last season when Bradley lost his father and spent time away from the team. He also has taken great pride in mentoring other coaches about the interview process, counseling them on questions to ask and what to expect.
McGee has an office overlooking Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, part of an athletic department that has the highest budget in the ACC among public schools. He works for the coach who has mentored him for over three decades, going back to his freshman season at Arizona State.
Their decisions appear completely coincidental, at least today. But what if Walker and McGee become trailblazers for a different set of reasons? Given the growing disparity in revenues and budgets across college football, schools with fewer resources will continue to lag behind not only the bigger schools but even schools in their respective conferences.
Perhaps more coaches will opt to walk away from losing programs, choosing to put decisions about their own futures in their own hands, the way Walker and McGee did. Yes, they did the unorthodox. But in the end, both still get to contribute to coaching in a meaningful way.
You don't need to be a head coach to do that.
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