- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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The goal was simply to be the best defensive backs coach he could be.
Just two years after Everett Withers starting working on it, the staff at Austin Peay was fired and he was suddenly working with wide receivers.
Two decades later, Withers had set a new bar.
Despite a winning season after finally getting to lead his own program, North Carolina elected not to turn the interim status Withers was working with into something more permanent.
But whether it was at the beginning of his career or only six months ago, regardless of positive results or an ugly season or two, Withers will gladly take experience any way it comes. And as he prepares for his first season with Ohio State as a co-defensive coordinator in charge of safeties, he has packed his resume since those early days at Austin Peay.
"Well, that guy [in 1988] was running around like a chicken with his head cut off, to be honest with you," Withers said. "That guy was a graduate assistant who took a job for the first time in July of that first year, the defensive coordinator resigns and the head coach comes in and says, 'You're the defensive coordinator.' That guy was 24 years old, and he had to learn some leadership skills in a hurry, he had to deal with guys on staff that wanted to be the coordinator that were a lot older.
"That guy had to grow up real fast."
Withers hasn't stopped trying to grow in the profession since, taking the good and the bad from his handful of stops in college football and a couple in the NFL and building his reputation along the way.
Even after that hiccup early in his path, Withers still went on to become one of the most respected defensive backs coaches in the country, putting together secondaries that were known for an ability to generate turnovers and overall units that ranked among the stingiest in the nation as a coordinator. But perhaps without that bit of adversity, he might not have developed in quite the same way -- and that sort of life lesson is as much a part of his coaching philosophy as teaching players to stop the zone-read.
"We all say that football is probably the closest thing to real-life situations," Withers said. "The ups and downs and adversity, those things you go through in football are just like everyday life. When you learn how to deal with those situations on the football field, you're better prepared for real life.
"I think the value with experience is just dealing with different people and different situations, that's probably the biggest thing. What you try to do as a coach is try to put the good things and the bad things, the things you like and the things you don't like, evaluate them and see how you would run a program. As many experiences as you have, the better you are."
The latest one for Withers might not have worked out exactly as he hoped at North Carolina, where he won seven games as the interim coach while dealing with the turmoil that comes with an NCAA investigation before the Tar Heels hired from the outside. That situation is certainly familiar to the other co-defensive coordinator on the Ohio State staff, with Luke Fickell having just gone through the same thing a year ago after Jim Tressel was forced out.
Neither has appeared to hold any grudges after his stint ended, nor have they really talked much about that shared bit of history publicly. But at least for Withers, the chance to get a taste of leading a program is something he certainly appreciates it for the different perspective it provided him.
And the opportunity to do it again remains at the top of his list -- preferably right after helping Ohio State scratch off its most important goal.
"This was the best opportunity for me going into this year," Withers said. "That's why I feel like I'm here. But I do want some day to have that opportunity to be able to lead a program and be the guy.
"That's something that I'm truly, truly working to do -- as I try to help Ohio State win a national championship."
So far, that's one of the few experiences Withers is missing.
Title: Co-defensive coordinator and assistant head coach, safeties coach
High school: Charlotte (N.C.) Senior
College: Appalachian State, 1985
Years coaching: 24
Family: Wife, Kara; daughter, Tia; son, Pierce
Coaching resume: Austin Peay (defensive coordinator, 1988-89; special teams and wide receivers, 1990); Tulane (outside linebackers, 1991); Southern Mississippi (defensive backs, 1992-93); New Orleans Saints (defensive quality control, 1994); Louisville (defensive coordinator, 1995-97); Texas (defensive backs, 1998-2000); Tennessee Titans (defensive backs, 2001-06); Minnesota (defensive coordinator, 2007); North Carolina (defensive coordinator and secondary coach, 2008-10; interim head coach, 2011)
Head coach Urban Meyer, on Withers: "Everett is extremely well respected across the country. I've known about him for a number of years and followed his progress as a college and NFL assistant coach. He will be a great fit for this staff."