Alum's journey leads to football, WVU

WVU coach, Texas grad Roberts turned down life of law and politics for football

Updated: October 3, 2012, 1:24 AM ET
By William Wilkerson | HornsNation

AUSTIN, Texas - - The man with the Bachelor's degree in Plan II and government from The University of Texas, who just so happened to be the Texas Student Body President from 2000-01, will arrive in town this Friday on a business trip.

This same well-spoken individual with a Master's degree in public policy and a juris doctorate from Harvard, who worked for eight months on Capitol Hill in the office of Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, won't be rolling up his sleeves in the government buildings of the state capitol, though.

No, Daron Roberts, West Virginia's cornerbacks coach, has a highly anticipated game to win against his alma mater.

Daron Roberts
Courtesy of Dale SparksWest Virginia cornerbacks coach Daron Roberts is a Texas grad who took a winding road to coaching college football.

"As soon as we land Friday I will go directly to my hotel and I won't leave until we go to the stadium," said Roberts, recipient of the 2011 Outstanding Young Texas Ex Award by the Texas Alumni Association. "I told my players that this was a business trip. I won't even see my family after the game. It's a business trip. Nobody wants to beat Texas as bad as Daron Roberts."

There was a period of time when Roberts would have loved nothing more than to have endured the hustle and bustle of a political figure, and spent his time on a business trip in Austin rubbing elbows with the suits along Congress Avenue.

The son of a soil scientist and a teacher from Mount Pleasant, Texas, Roberts grew up in a household where politics were always a hot topic.

"I always had an itch for politics," he said.

He was president of his class in each year of high school and for that one year at Texas. Those experiences conjured up the perfect ground level structure for a career that he once hoped would lead to him becoming a senator or maybe the governor of Texas or beyond. They all seemed like attainable positions given his book smarts and do whatever it takes persona.

So after graduating from Texas and working those eight months on Capitol Hill, Roberts earned his master's from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2004. His childhood dreams of being a political figure were well on their way to becoming reality.

His next step toward achieving his goals was Harvard Law, where a degree would set him up for a life full of endless possibilities. Call it a young adult's version of a golden ticket to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.

During his second year of law school in 2006, Roberts was tasked with writing a final paper for his sports law class that would examine if legal training could help a football coach. Little did he know that this paper would not only alter his plans for becoming a political figure but also redirect his entire life.

The first thing he had to do to get this paper rolling was find a football coach with a law degree. So he sent three interview requests to college coaches who had one.

UCLA's Rick Neuheisel, who earned his from USC in 1990, didn't respond, and Louisiana Tech's Derek Dooley (Georgia, 1994) didn't have the time.

It all came down to Texas Tech's Mike Leach (Pepperdine, 1986).

An unanswered phone call to Leach was returned within minutes. Immediately the two struck up an intriguing conversation as one might expect to have with Leach, which lasted for roughly 90 minutes.

Leach had agreed to let Roberts have all access to the program for a week. He ended up staying 14 days.

"It speaks to the type of man that Mike Leach is," said Roberts, who made an 'A' on the paper. "I was a random student that wanted to come interview him. The fact that he was willing to let me fly to Lubbock and gave me all access to the program, there are very few, if any college football coaches that would allow someone to do that. I view him as a mentor."

The all-access pass behind the scenes to how Leach and his staff operated -- from film critique, player interaction, practice, recruit visits -- brought about a whirlwind of life-altering thoughts for Roberts.

As soon as we land Friday I will go directly to my hotel and I won't leave until we go to the stadium. I told my players that this was a business trip. I won't even see my family after the game. It's a business trip. Nobody wants to beat Texas as bad as Daron Roberts.

--Daron Roberts on coming back to his alma mater.

He really never contemplated punching "football coach" on the ballot of life until after his trip to Lubbock had concluded. The former first-team all-district strong safety at Mount Pleasant suddenly thought otherwise.

"I played high school football at Mount Pleasant and obviously loved the sport coming from East Texas," Roberts said. "[Those two weeks] changed the way that I viewed public service. I had always thought about public service through the lens of politics."

Roberts' next grand epiphany came when his childhood friend, Alfonso Longoria, invited him to help coach at South Carolina's summer camp in 2006. Despite his summer job with a Houston law firm, he decided to go for the multi-day event.

"It just reignited my passion for football," said Roberts, who coached seventh and eighth graders at the camp.

A final verdict was reached after that: he would become a football coach. But before he could entrench himself in the profession, more so than he already had, he had to inform his parents of his decision.

Contemplate that phone call for brief moment. Here was a budding politician in the making, who wouldn't have any problem making six figures right out of college, about to tell his parents that he was about to do a 180 with his life and pursue his newfound passion.

His mother, Gwen, answered the call.

"She talked with him for a while and had gotten an idea as to what he was thinking," said his father, Kirt. "After a few moments, she, with a very look of awe, handed the phone to me. He then told me."

Kirt just knew his son was teasing. He was just waiting for the moment where he could exhale.

"I'm waiting, well, the more he talked the more I realized he's serious," Kirt said.

He then paused and gathered his thoughts. His son had always been a go-getter and had always ended up doing the right thing. With that he spoke.

"I told him this: You are the captain of your ship. I've come to learn that whatever happens to you, you always land on your feet," Kirt said. "So I told him to go for it. You don't have a wife and kids to feed so if anyone starves it will just be you."

By this time Roberts was in his third year of law school, but he had his sights set on a football internship of any kind. So he wrote 164 letters to every head coach and defensive coordinator in the NFL and every head coach and defensive coordinator of the top 50 college programs.

"I really couldn't find anyone who had written a similar letter so I started from scratch," Roberts said. "I took some cover letters that I had written for law school. I knew it was a unique proposition I was making. So I basically told my story and tried to convey my passion for football."

Responses came quickly, but nothing that would help Roberts begin his career.

"I pretty much got the full gamut," Roberts said. "It was either 'Thank you but we don't have anything available.' Or, 'We are moving in a different direction.' Or I got no response. I was pretty much 0-fer until I got the call from him."

"Him" happened to be Herm Edwards, coach of the Kansas City Chiefs.

"It was an unidentified number but I picked it up and he had told me that someone had passed him the letter and asked a little bit of my background," Roberts said of the 30-minute conversation. "He was looking for two summer interns."

They'd last three weeks with no guarantee of a job after it was over.

One of those spots went to Roberts, who was scheduled to report to Chiefs camp in River Falls, Wis., on July 26. Problem was the first day of camp coincided with the final day of the Texas Bar exam. His father wouldn't let him report late for camp.

So Roberts skipped the bar exam and made it to camp on time, hell bent on proving he was all business.

"Every day I was up at 4:30 a.m. because I knew Herm was working out," Roberts said. "I would finish at 5:45 and start making coffee for defensive coaches."

During practice he would set up drills for the defensive backs and special teams coaches. It wasn't glamorous by any means, but he loved it.

"There wasn't a time when I thought 'Man, I would really like to be in a law firm now,'" he said. "I was having a blast. I found a mentor in Gunther Cunningham, who was the defensive coordinator at the time. He took me under his wing."

Before he knew it, the internship had come and gone. But Roberts wasn't going to continue down the road on foot without giving the ignition one more try.

"I went up to [Edwards] at one of our last practices and said 'Coach, I have really enjoyed my time here. I know that I want to be a football coach. This is what I want to do. I hope you will give me the opportunity to volunteer and learn here,'" Roberts said. "He initially told me that he couldn't allow me to do that. But I pretty much badgered him for the next three days and he was finally kind enough to let me stay."

His stay came under the condition that he would work in the mornings with the staff until 3:30 p.m. Then he would work for free at Bishop Miege High School in nearby Roeland Park, Kan., whose coach at the time was former Chiefs lineman and current Kansas offensive line coach Tim Grunhard. He was then to return to Arrowhead Stadium that night and continue working with the staff.

Roberts spent two years with Kansas City, the first as a volunteer and the second as the defensive quality control coach.

The crux of his profession reared its head the following year when Scott Pioli took over as the Chiefs' general manager, which opened the door to the real possibility that Edwards could be on his way out.

"Herm was let go after that so I was in limbo," Roberts said. "Then [Cunningham] got the defensive coordinator job at Detroit."

Cunningham offered him a job as the assistant secondary coach.

"The next morning I was on a plane to Detroit," he said.

He spent the next two seasons with the Lions honing his craft and began rubbing elbows with some of the better minds in the game, which included Dana Holgorsen, who had just been named offensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting at West Virginia. The two spoke in passing at the 2011 BCS title game.

"I thought he was a smart coach and liked his philosophy on offensive play," Roberts said. "I didn't think about working with him at that point because I was with Detroit. But then I got the call in March 2011."

The call came from Holgorsen, who offered Roberts the position of WVUs inside receivers coach. He loved his place in the NFL but thought he could have more of an affect on young men in college.

"I had originally gotten in to coaching so I could mentor young men," he said. "I felt like college was the better setting for that. It was going to be a unique opportunity with a unique program. Plus I was going to coach on offense, which I hadn't done."

Holgorsen took over at WVUs head coach in June 2011 and moved Roberts back to defense. He has also given Roberts a hefty dose of the Mountaineers' recruiting responsibilities and also the flexibility to teach a class in the spring called "The Speech as a Leadership Tool."

"There aren't many head coaches that would allow me to do this," he said.

And for that he's forever grateful to Holgorsen, just as he is to Leach and for all of those who don't disturb him in his Austin hotel room this weekend.

It's a business trip remember. He's got a game to win.