MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – If you’re ever in need of a little legal advice, there happens to be a guy sitting in an office over at the Milan Puskar Center quite capable of giving you some.
West Virginia University’s Daron Roberts might be the most overqualified college football coach in the country, possessing not one, but two degrees from Harvard – one being from Harvard Law.
A Harvard law degree can certainly open a lot of doors, the famed program producing three presidents (including No. 44, Harvard Law class of ’91), 10 attorneys general, 21 presidential cabinet advisors, 32 U.S. Senators, 15 Supreme Court justices and 18 governors.
The school has supplied us with diplomats (Robert Zoellick, Harvard Law class of ’81), presidential speech writers (David Frum, Harvard Law class of ’87), political consultants (David Gergen, Harvard Law class of ’67) and consumer advocates (Ralph Nader, Harvard Law class of ’59). And now, you can add college football coach to the list of distinguished Harvard law alums (Daron Roberts, Harvard Law class of ’07).
Roberts met former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach (Pepperdine Law class of ‘86) during a month-long sabbatical to study the relationship between legal training and the coaching profession – pretty standard stuff (to borrow a line from Dr. Evil, University of Belgium Evil Medical School Year Unknown) – and when Roberts finally left Lubbock, his career path changed faster than an Archibald Cox (Harvard Law class of ’37) subpoena request.
“I had a lot of insanity emails – my grandmother being one of them,” Roberts laughed. “She still doesn’t think I coach. I showed her a shot of me on the sidelines at a Lions game, and she thinks I just photo shopped it in.”
His parents were a little more understanding.
“They told me the best time to go broke was when I didn’t have any money … and I didn’t have any money,” he admitted.
Roberts probably has more things in common with Michael Chertoff (Harvard Law class of ’78) than he does Michael Tomlin (William & Mary class of ’95), but the allure of getting out in the fresh air with a bunch of 20-year-olds running around in full body armor was more appealing than sitting behind a desk preparing a legal defense for another gangster or crooked politician.
So he chose the fresh air.
“I sat down with my dean when I was considering going into coaching and she told me that a law degree does not come with an expiration date,” he explained. “Legal issues aren’t going anywhere and people are always going to have problems.”
With that settled, now came the hard part: finding a place to start. Roberts wrote letter after letter trying to get a chance – likely the most impressive prose to ever occupy a coaches’ filing cabinet – all to no avail.
“I keep a carbon copy of every letter that I send out or that I receive,” Roberts explained. “I sent out so many letters and sometimes I thought that they were just evaporating into thin air because I never heard back. Finally, someone just told me that they weren’t getting back to me because they get so many.”
It was at that point that he put his spectacular Harvard Law education to good use and decided to do something another famous law school graduate (Richard Nixon, Duke Law class of ’37) frequently did – he fudged things a little bit.
Roberts found out about a three-day coaching camp down at South Carolina from one of his buddies, went online and noticed they were accepting applications from high school coaches from different parts of the country, filled it out, asked for a couple of comp days, and headed south. He noticed that the online form he submitted for the camp did not specify where an applicant was presently coaching, probably not the first time a Harvard guy outsmarted a Gamecock.
“I listed the school that I went to back in Texas – it didn’t list where you were coaching at, so I kind of interpreted that loosely,” Roberts laughed. “Maybe they assumed I was coaching there. I got in, they didn’t say anything, and then the other guys would get together and we’d talk and they’d figure out that I was in law school.”
Those three days down in South Carolina were a revelation and Roberts was immediately addicted (Dr. Timothy Leary, Harvard psychology lecturer, 1959-63).
“Most people were trying to get out of working camp and I was trying to sneak in,” he said.
From there, he began to make the necessary associations and friendships required to break into the coaching business. His first big break came with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2007. It was there as quality control assistant and special teams/defensive volunteer coaching assistant that he produced the weekly scouting reports that contained the personnel breakdowns and formation tendencies, down/distance tendencies and play diagrams with detailed blocking schemes and route combinations the Chiefs needed to beat those other teams in the AFC West. That’s quite a mouthful, and to think we were once awed when NFL Films showed us Vince Lombardi (Fordham Law dropout, class of ’38) at the chalkboard saying in his piously thunderous voice, “And what we want is to get a seal here, and here … and run this play in ... the ... alley!” That was football’s equivalent of a 60s hippie taking a helicopter ride with the Maharishi (Allahabad University class of ’42).
Two years of relative poverty in Kansas City begat a better opportunity with the Detroit Lions in 2009. There Roberts led the practice and pregame defensive back drills, focusing on man-to-man coverage, plant-and-drive, jam re-routes and zone-drop techniques. He administered blitz and coverage walk-through sessions and supervised the opponent scout team while also evaluating the weaknesses/strengths of free agent and draft-eligible players, assisting with the in-house workouts of potential signees and administering defensive back workouts during college pro days.
“I had a great experience there,” he said.
Now, as a result of the friendship he developed with Dana Holgorsen (Iowa Wesleyan College class of ’93) during his month-long sabbatical with Leach, Roberts got the opportunity of a lifetime when a job came open on the Mountaineer football staff earlier this month.
“We would work out in the middle of the day and talk ball a little bit and we stayed in contact,” said Roberts of first meeting Holgorsen. “He helped mentor me, and I was just fortunate that I saw him at the national championship game and congratulated him on the opportunity to come here, and I guess he kept me in mind once there was an opening.”
Today, the wisdom gained from a $54,000 per-year education is finally paying off for Roberts. His college advisor told him opportunities to coach in the NFL were rare. Roberts thought the same thing when the West Virginia job came open.
“I kind of did my due diligence and called a lot of people around the league, and to a man I could tell you that people wouldn’t hesitate to say go there for a couple of reasons,” Roberts said. “One, it’s the flagship university of the state. It means I have to understand the kind of responsibility with the players and the students and administration. It's a lot of responsibility to be part of the flagship university, and that was attractive to me.
“And what I’m really excited about is engaging with the fan base, the Pitt game of course, and with LSU coming to town … it’s going to be an exciting atmosphere, so that really factored a lot into my decision of moving from the NFL to here.”
Not to mention the fact that he gets to spend most of his time outside in the open air instead of behind some stuffy desk pouring through legal briefs, just like Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts (Harvard Law class of ’79).
By the way, for those of you keeping score, West Virginia University Director of Athletics Oliver Luck also has a law degree (University of Texas Law class of ’87).
Daron Roberts, Harvard Law School, West Virginia University, Mountaineer football
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