Will He Become the Youngest Head Coach in College Football?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this QB guru speaks the gunslingers’ language.
By Matt Foley
Before Jake Spavital was calling plays for some of college football’s most prolific offenses, West Virginia’s offensive coordinator was a lowly graduate assistant at Houston — doing his best to hold his own in a star-studded coaches room.
“That was one hell of a group to learn from,” Spavital tells OZY, reflecting on his 2009 season working under now major college football head coaches Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M), Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia) and Kliff Kingsbury (Texas Tech). “I’ve learned that if you just focus on the job you’re at, eventually you’ll get noticed.”
Turns out, the young quarterback guru was right. This year, five seasons after jumping from Holgorsen’s staff at West Virginia to Sumlin’s at Texas A&M, Spavital has been handed the keys of West Virginia’s dynamic “air raid” attack. With fellow Morgantown newcomer, quarterback Will Grier, Spavital leads an offense averaging 49 points per contest, with plans to shake up the Big 12 landscape. From there? “This business is so unpredictable,” says Spavital. “But I would love to be a head coach down the line.”
There’s a stigma to ‘player’s coach,’ but that doesn’t mean you’re soft.… Your job is to listen, understand and adjust.
Yogi Roth, Pac-12 Network analyst
A coach’s son and football lifer, Spavital, 32, has never met a quarterback he couldn’t work with. According to Pac-12 Network analyst Yogi Roth, he connects with young athletes in a way that “builds trust and instills confidence” — paramount when dealing with young stars. In his 10-year career, Spavital has coaxed the best out of future NFL draft picks like Geno Smith, Johnny Manziel, Davis Webb and Brandon Weeden. Now, Grier, another surefire star, is on a roll under Spavital’s tutelage. “I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of great passers,” he tells OZY. “Those guys made coaching easy.”
That kind of modesty, says Roth, discounts Spavital’s unique ability to connect with his players. “He’s had success with everyone from graduate transfers to young guys,” adds Roth. “He has a curious, worldly side to him. That allows him to teach at a really high level.”
Before branching off from that famous Houston coaching tree, Spavital’s football chops were a family affair. His grandfather, Jim Spavital, was a fullback for the Baltimore Colts who spent nearly 40 years as a college and professional coach. His father, Steve, coached high school football in Oklahoma for three decades. Both Jake and his brother, Zac, now Kingsbury’s recruiting coordinator at Texas Tech, starred for their dad at Tulsa’s Union High School. Eventually, Jake pulled double duty at Missouri State as the team’s quarterback and punter.
Spavital had no professional prospects coming out of college, but that coaching pedigree was in his blood. In 2008, he worked as a Tulsa offensive assistant under future Auburn national championship–winning coach Gus Malzahn; when Malzahn split, Spavital was free to join Sumlin’s crew at Houston. The rest is boys’ club history. When Holgorsen got the job as Oklahoma State’s offensive coordinator in 2010, he brought Spavital along — together, they coached Brandon Weeden into an NFL first-rounder. The following year, after being named West Virginia’s head coach, Holgorsen persuaded his young pupil to move cross-country. Two years later, Geno Smith, the future New York Jets first-round pick, had broken every Mountaineers passing record.
“I originally left [West Virginia] to go call plays,” says Spavital, “but in January, Dana called me and said ‘Listen, you’re going to have a lot of fun calling plays for this quarterback.’”
That quarterback was Grier, and after four volatile seasons calling plays at Texas A&M and Cal, Spavital needed a job. You see, he really has seen the unpredictability of college football. After enjoying breakout success coaching Manziel in 2013, his offense regressed in 2014 and 2015. Rumors swirled that the “Johnny Manziel Era” produced a program that lacked control. The team went 8-5 both seasons, but Spavital and Sumlin “mutually parted ways,” according to the school. Then, in 2016, a 5-7 season at Cal ended with Spavital’s boss, Sonny Dykes, getting sacked. “That was kind of a shock to us all,” Spavital says. “Next thing you know, I’m the interim head coach and in the mix for the head job.”
But Cal went with the more experienced, defensive-minded Justin Wilcox. Houston Nutt, the former Ole Miss coach and current CBS Sports Network analyst, believes that a well-rounded coach is most appealing to athletic directors. “The greatest coaches cover all phases of the game — not just talk, but actually teach all phases,” says Nutt. Pehaps Spavital’s reputation as an offensive-minded “player’s coach” was the reason he got passed over. But Roth doesn’t believe that will be the case much longer. “There’s a stigma to ‘player’s coach,’” he says, “but that doesn’t mean you’re soft.… Your job is to listen, understand and adjust.”
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) January 9, 2017
In Grier, Spavital is grooming an electrifying athlete desperate for a fresh start. After leading the Florida Gators to a 6-0 start in 2015, a failed steroid test saw Grier run out of Gainesville. Now, a one-year suspension behind him, Grier is back in top form. The Mountaineers have won three straight games and are tied atop the stacked Big 12 after losing the season opener to Virginia Tech. “Will is a coach’s kid,” says Spavital. “He’s grown up in a locker room and has a great ability to galvanize his teammates.” Coach and QB have something else in common: Both recently became fathers to baby girls, just a few months apart.
This Saturday, Spavital’s offense faces its toughest test yet – a road game against No. 8 Texas Christian’s stifling defense. An upset win would push the No. 23 Mountaineers back into national contention, setting the stage for a looming Nov. 25 matchup with Big 12 powerhouse Oklahoma. “I’ve been in this league my whole life. It’s always been an open league, in my opinion,” says Spavital, musing on his team’s conference title hopes. “We have the pieces in place.”