WSU leaves mark on NFL pro Former linebacker, head coach recalls college days ALLISON KOEHLER Staff Writer With all of the success that Wayne State alumnus Brian VanGorder has seen over his 30 years working in football, it should’ve come as no surprise when he got the call for the WSU Hall of Fame. “This is something that I’ve always wanted; something very important to me as I look at my career and legacy moving forward,” said VanGorder in his Hall of Fame speech earlier this year. Back in VanGorder’s playing days, WSU’s football program had it going on. The Tartars were flying to road games, had scholarships and a staff of full-time coaches. And they were winning. It was against the Akron Zips when VanGorder’s name was first called by legendary coach Dick Lowry. He was a true freshman. He described his time as a Tartar as “tough, competitive and rugged.” “I’ve coached in five college playoff games, four bowl games, two SEC championship games and four NFL playoff games,” VanGorder said “Yet I’ve never had a better coaching experience than what I had at Wayne State. “This is a tremendous, tremendous honor to put the VanGorder name on that wall at Wayne State,” VanGorder said proudly during his induction speech. The VanGorder brood, four boys and one girl, naturally followed in their father’s footsteps. Molloy and Mack have defense in their blood. Molloy was a defensive back at Georgia and Mack is also a DB at Auburn. Montgomery is a senior quarterback at Buford High School in Gainesville, Ga. The lone daughter, Morgan, is an alumna of Georgia, where she was a star distance runner. The youngest at 6 years old, Malone, has been playing basketball and fottball for most of his life. VanGorder attended West Bloomfield High School. While he came to WSU to “have fun and play ball,” he ended up with a stellar education in the process. For three-and-a-half years, he
and Phil Emery (general manager, Chicago Bears) were roommates. They would later reunite in Atlanta where Emery was director of scouting. “It’s been a lot of fun watching him grow in our business,” VanGorder said. “He’s very intellectual and it’s really paid off for him. To be a general manager in the NFL, it’s been a long road.” VanGorder lettered four seasons an All-GLIAC linebacker at WSU. After an honorable mention his first season, he earned first team accolades in 1979 and 1980. He joined his team in three consecutive runner-up finishes in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference under fellow Hall of Famer Lowry. In his junior year, VanGorder had a career-high three interceptions and 85 total tackles. Team captain his senior year, he had three fumble recoveries and 73 total tackles, and helped his team to a winning record under first-year head coach Stephen Fickert. He credits his experience at WSU and Lowry for teaching him how to be a leader. “Dick was an outstanding leader. He taught me so much,” he said. “I was a little flamboyant, a little loud; just approached the game with a very emotional state,” VanGorder said. “Some of the direction they gave me in respects to appreciating the game from the intellectual side was important, and it became more important to me as I went into the profession as a coach.” A record at the time of graduation, VanGorder had amassed 335 tackles, second in school history. VanGorder’s first coaching position after leaving WSU, he returned to his high school alma mater West Bloomfield to serve as assistant head coach. Still plugging away at the pros for a year-and-a-half after graduating, he was working out for the NFL when he heard a little school called Boca Raton Academy was seeking a head coach. “I just decided to move on (from playing),” he said. “When I started coaching at age 23, I understood organization, I understood repetition, and
I understood discipline. That was kind of my blueprint as I started. I had a lot of success as a head high school coach. “I had never really lost that initial blue print; it’s always been a part of what I do.” VanGorder would spend the next seven years in Florida with Boca Raton Academy, American Heritage High School and Boca Raton Community High School. He first became a collegiate coach when he joined Grand Valley State as defensive coordinator. After three years at Grand Valley, he returned to coach the very team he played for a dozen years earlier. VanGorder’s coaching experience, however, was substantially different than when he played. The program was struggling financially and forced to raise funds to keep it going. Roughly 11 scholarships were available when he was at the helm of the green and gold, yet flew to games when he was a player. Despite tough financial times, VanGorder led his Tartars to 16 wins — the most in a decade over a three-year period. He recorded consecutive winning seasons in his final two years with the organization. VanGorder also had coaching stints on the defensive side at the University of Central Florida, 1994-97; Central Michigan, 199899; and Western Illinois, 2000. After a year as Western Illinois defensive coordinator, he was hired as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach for the University of Georgia Bulldogs, two positions he obviously knew quite well. And it showed. In his first season, the Bulldogs allowed just shy of 19 points a game, had a fifthranked rushing defense and were 17th in defensive scoring. In his last two seasons with the team, they were top 10 in the nation in both scoring and total defense. During VanGorder’s four years, the Bulldogs defense really showed their teeth, winning one SEC title, two SEC East Division Championships and three bowl games. The most points allowed during that period was 30 — and
even that was only once. Additionally, VanGorder’s defense produced six players drafted in the top two rounds of the NFL including former Detroit Lions safety Sean Jones and linebacker Boss Bailey. VanGorder earned professional status for his outstanding leadership in Georgia, and rightly so. He served as linebacker coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2005, with the defense finishing sixth in total defense. However, the following year he returned to college and to Georgia, where he became head coach of Georgia Southern. It wouldn’t be long until VanGorder was lured by the NFL once again. Staying in Georgia, he joined the Atlanta Falcons staff and remained for the next five years. Hired as linebackers coach in 2007, he was promoted to defensive coordinator the following season. VanGorder implemented his style of defense immediately and the Falcons finished 11th in the league in points allowed. In the years to follow, it was the rushing attack, finishing top 10 in the league in 2009 and 2010. VanGorder’s defense shined again in what would be his final season with the organization. In 2011, the Falcons defense finished second in the NFL in the red zone, sixth against the run and 12th in total defense. In four of the five years spent with the Falcons, the organization had consecutive winning seasons — a first for the franchise. The team reached the playoffs in 2008, 2010 and 2011. The next season, in what was “an awful decision professionally,” VanGorder left the NFL to coordinate the defense at Auburn. Making an about-face, he rejoined the linebackers in February, this time back in the pros with the New York Jets, where linebackers include David Harris, one of the highest paid at his position. He would ultimately like to return to the defensive coordinator position, where he had the most success. If the Jets defense can turn itself around this year, VanGorder could just stick around.
THESOUTHEND.WAYNE.EDU I JULY 17 - JULY 24, 2013 I 10