When Monte Coleman speaks, people listen -- especially when he talks about what it takes to survive in the National Football League. Coleman played 16 seasons in the League -- all with the Washington Redskins, from 1979 to 1994, appearing in four Super Bowls, winning three.
As the head coach at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff since 2007, Coleman heads a growing list of former NFL players who are coaching at historically black colleges, imparting their wisdom on players who have similar aspirations.
Using lessons learned from his former coach, NFL Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs, Coleman led Arkansas-Pine Bluff to a 10-2 record and a Southwestern Athletic Conference championship last year. "We play like we practice," said Coleman, who is second on the Redskins' all-time list of games played with 217 (longtime teammate Darrell Green is first). "That's something Joe Gibbs used to say. This is a phrase I use with my team pretty much every day. We're going to play like we practice on Saturday."
Coleman believes that his messages resonate with his players for one simple reason: He's been there. "There's hardly anything that they've done that we haven't done already," he said. "I'm not the only one with NFL experience and Super Bowl rings on the staff. We have Dennis Winston who used to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers [winning Super Bowl championships in 1979 and 1980]. That influences a lot of young men to come to UAPB and other schools in the conference."
When Florida A&M faces Mississippi Valley State in ninth installment of the MEAC/SWAC Challenge presented by Disney on Labor Day weekend, both head coaches will be NFL alums. Earl Holmes, FAMU's newly appointed coach -- he replaced legendary mentor Joe Taylor, who retired last season -- played 10 years in the NFL. An All-MEAC first team selection at Florida A&M, Holmes was a fourth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He also played for the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions. Karl Morgan is in his third season as the head coach at Mississippi Valley State, where he led the Delta Devils to an overall 5-6 record last season. Morgan played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Houston Oilers.
"When [players] hear that you've played in the NFL, it gives you some instant credibility," said Morgan, a former UCLA star who earned All-Pac-10 honors in 1982. "You still have to earn their respect, but that [NFL background] helps you out because everybody on the team thinks about going to the NFL regardless of how much talent they have."
The players aren't the only ones who benefit. Morgan believes having played at a major college helps mold his perspective, as well. "I see how things should be done," Morgan said matter-of-factly. "I really like what they've done here. We've added a weight room and we've improved the locker room. These things are important as far as the facilities. I encourage the players; if you have the talent, they'll find you whether it's Mississippi Valley or Mississippi State. I tell them all the time that Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver in football history, played right here. On the other hand, I try to give the kids a good college experience."
Morgan, like his fellow coaches who have been through the NFL trenches, understands that their collective presence helps everyone -- from the presidents who do the hiring to the parents who will ultimately decide where their kids go to school. Being one of five SWAC head coaches with NFL playing experience -- the others being Doug Williams at Grambling State, Anthony Jones at Alabama A&M and Coleman at Arkansas-Pine Bluff -- he knows the importance of this fraternity. They all played on the Washington Redskins 1988 Super Bowl championship team.
Holmes, too, understands that. "I coached against [Gary Harrell] and played against him at Howard," said Holmes of Harrell, Howard University's current coach and former star QB who played with the Giants, the World League and Canadian Football League. "I remember he played with [quarterback] Jay Walker. It says a lot about the talent level in the conference. We're bringing it back now. I think it's here."
No stranger to making waves himself, Doug Williams sees this trend as more than just coincidence. "It's an amazing thing when you think about it," said Williams, who signed a three-year contract at Grambling State last June. "It's a great story. I think it's great to coach in the SWAC. At the end of the day it's bigger than just football for us. We're giving kids an opportunity. The NFL gives you a reason to go back and make a difference."
Jones can attest to that at Alabama A&M. He has been coaching the Bulldogs for a decade now, and helped to mold Indianapolis linebacker Robert Mathis, who has been named to five Pro Bowls and played in two Super Bowls.
"He had a tremendous career here," Jones said. "Robert immediately bought into what we were doing. We won a SWAC championship with him. The main thing is that he worked to make himself a great player. He was disciplined, always came to practice on time and worked extremely hard. It's not a surprise that he went to the NFL."
Reggie Barlow, the head coach at Alabama State, played for Tom Coughlin with the Jacksonville Jaguars for five seasons. After five years in Jacksonville and a brief stop in Oakland, he played two seasons for John Gruden while he was the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was part of that Super Bowl winning team. That's where Barlow learned the most, and is now paying it forward.
"The main thing is the structure and the organization we use to run our program," said Barlow, whose Hornets conceded the 2012 MEAC/SWAC Challenge to Bethune-Cookman 38-28. "I think the meeting times, how we practice and run our plays comes from what I've learned in the NFL. Coach Coughlin was really organized, especially the way he handled his practices. Coach Gruden was a high-energy guy. He really knew the game."
Barlow points to Tarvaris Jackson, his former star QB (and current Buffalo Bill) as a shining example of why coaches do what they do.
"My first year coaching he was my quarterback," Barlow said. "He was disciplined. He had a great year throwing the football. He was a good leader. This is his seventh year in the NFL. He wants to play longer than me. I played nine years. I told him he has to play 10."