MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - For Doug Belk, giving up a good-paying full-time job at Valdosta State to become a graduate assistant coach for Nick Saban at Alabama was an opportunity too good to pass up.
At first glance, giving up a good job in hopes of landing a great one can be a risky proposition. Belk had a pretty good thing going at Valdosta during his three years there, two as the Blazers’ secondary coach.
Two of his Valdosta players, Dominque Wheeler and Matt Pierce, signed free agent contracts with NFL teams after helping the Blazers win the 2012 Division II national championship.
But in order for Belk to break into the Division I coaching ranks, he needed some Division I connections. So, who better to hitch your wagon to than one of the most successful college football coaches in NCAA history?
A guy named Kirby Smart did something similar, and now he’s the head coach at Georgia.
“The funny thing was Kirby Smart was at Valdosta State and kind of did the same thing I did by taking a lesser role (at a big school) to propel his career,” Belk said recently.
What helped Belk at Alabama was that he wasn’t treated like a glorified gofer, but rather another valued member of the staff.
“Once I got there, and having been a position coach and then going into that role, you kind of get thrown into the fire and you hit the ground running,” Belk recalled. “So, a lot of things I learned I’m just now realizing it’s not just a way of life, it’s kind of how the game goes and the process that Coach Saban always talks about is real.”
The former Carson-Newman quarterback and wide receiver worked closely with Saban on and off the field, getting an opportunity to get an intimate peek at one of the most successful, self-driven coaches ever.
What Belk learned by being around Saban was that self-discipline, hard work and dedication can make a difference on a daily basis. Belk admitted that Saban is probably the hardest working human being with whom he has ever been associated.
“He brings it to work every day, so as a coach on his staff you kind of match his intensity as far as the preparation, what he does in practice and what he does off the field,” Belk said. “I kind of worked hand in hand with him and the corners. It was very detailed, a lot of high-paced action. No matter who we were playing, the preparation was always the same - conference, nonconference or even for the national championship. The first day of practice was like the last day of practice.”
Soon after Alabama’s national championship game loss to Clemson last January, Belk got a call from West Virginia’s Tony Gibson to talk about the open cornerbacks position he had on his staff.
Immediately after his call, Belk went in to talk to Saban about it.
“It kind of worked out in a mysterious way,” Belk said. “I knew Coach Saban would probably have good things to say about me because we worked so well together for the last three years and I’m just grateful that he was able to talk to Coach Gibson and Coach (Dana) Holgorsen.”
Once it became clear Belk was going to get the West Virginia job, Saban, a Marion County native who worked two years as Frank Cignetti’s secondary coach at WVU, told Belk a little bit about his home state.
“He told me some good stories,” Belk said. “My favorite was him telling me that I didn’t have to worry about recruiting his high school because it wasn’t there anymore.”
What West Virginia is getting in Belk is a well-rounded, soft-spoken, grounded coach who now has experienced the successful extremes of college football - working at resourceful Division II national champion, Valdosta State, and also plentiful Division I power, Alabama.
He observed first-hand two different ways to develop a championship football program.
“There is a lot of carryover in championship football and that’s what I’ve learned and will help me in my developmental process here as well,” Belk said.
What Belk has walked into at WVU is an entirely overhauled secondary room with both starting corners from last year’s team gone.
He’s got a mixture of high school, junior college and even a four-year transfer to work with this spring.
“I’m excited about the opportunity because you get a group of guys that haven’t played and are itching to try and find a way on the field and with a new coach, they get a clean slate as far as trying to prove themselves,” Belk explained. “For me, it’s a chance to try and build those guys up, instill some confidence in them and kind of bring some of the things I’ve learned from a technique and fundamental standpoint and implement it with what Coach Gibson does here.”
Then, when spring ball is finished Belk can get out on the road and help bring new players into the fold. His responsibility is fertile Georgia, perhaps the most underrated state for football talent in the country.
West Virginia hasn’t ventured into Georgia often, but some of the players the Mountaineers have pulled out of the Peach State through the years have been exceptional such as Danny Buggs, Pacman Jones and Bruce Irvin - three of the most recognizable names in school history.
Belk has strong ties in Georgia and will focus heavily on that state.
“We’re going to sell the opportunity to play Big 12 football and West Virginia’s great tradition, No. 1,” he said. “The second thing is the style we play here. If you’re a defensive back or any other position, if you come here you’ve got a great chance of being successful and to be developed as a player.
“I think that’s the one thing that parents want to know: how are you going to develop them on the field and how are you going to develop them off the field? The proof is in the pudding here with the way Coach Holgorsen has the program set up and the people around the program making it so successful here,” Belk said.
He added, “That brand of football has been really good and I think those kids will fit in well here. I think it will be good for me to establish relationships for West Virginia University there as well.”
* West Virginia wrapped up its 10th
spring practice on Tuesday and beforehand, Holgorsen met with the media. One of the questions Holgorsen was asked was about the team’s tempo with Florida transfer Will Grier
now operating the offense.
“Fast, extremely fast,” he said. “We work it every day in practice. We have an abundance of two-minute periods, four-minute periods, which is the opposite. I am forcing these guys to do that stuff every day, and I am the official on it. I am working my game management skills as well.”
“We’re happy with that position right now, but we don’t know if we’re comfortable with it yet,” Gibson said. “I think Coach Belk is doing a great job with them. We will continue to keep building it and see how many guys we can play. It would be nice to get to five or six guys for sub packages, just to give a guy a breather.”
* One of the things offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said he is trying to get a handle on are the types of routes Grier likes to throw and what he is capable of doing. Spavital is also seeking additional ways to get West Virginia’s running backs involved in the passing game.
“The thing that I would like to figure out, too, is how dynamic I can get with these running backs,” he said. “I think they’ve obviously proven what they can do in terms of the run game, but I like to put them in certain scenarios, certain positions to see if they can handle it out there on the perimeter. I’m playing around with a lot of things right now with these kids to see what they’re capable of doing.”
* Spavital said he has introduced his own terminology to the offense this spring.
“That was a big topic of conversation and Dana thought it was a way to start all over, new terminology, new signals, new everything and just start from scratch and build it back up,” Spavital said. “That’s been the fun part of we’re all trying to get on the same page and rebuild the whole thing, but with a lot of similarities.”
It was probably a good time to change some of this because Spavital said many of the old signals were similar to what they used at Oklahoma State seven years ago.
“It’s the same thing with Mike Leach, Kliff Kingsbury and what Doug Meachum does,” Spavital said. “There are a lot of familiar faces in this league so for the best interests of the entire program just to start from scratch and redo the whole thing.”
Not that anybody in the league is looking at what’s happening on the other sideline during football games.
“Never,” Spavital chuckled. “That’s not happening.”
The Mountaineers will have a closed practice on Thursday and then a closed scrimmage scheduled for Saturday.