PROGRAMMING NOTE: Watch the 2017 Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards this Sunday night at 9pm on CSN Bay Area.
Jack Del Rio wanted to be financial consultant when he was grown up. Well, “grown up” in the 9-to-5, shirt-slacks-and-tie sense of the word.
There were a few things before that on the agenda. He wanted to be a basketball player. Or maybe a baseball player or a football player. Or, you know, all three.
He was pretty darn good each sport, arguably the best all-around prep athlete in Bay Area history. His Hayward High exploits are the stuff of legend, helping collect one championship after another.
Basketball was his first love, but the sport didn’t fit his frame after high school. Football and baseball did, and he wasn’t ready to specialize.
He was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays out of high school, but traded that opportunity to play football and baseball at USC. Smart move. Del Rio was the Trojans’ starting catcher for two years and an All-American linebacker who was drafted and played 11 NFL seasons.
A successful coaching career followed, and eventually brought him home to lead the Oakland Raiders back to prominence. Del Rio never takes this life for granted, nor the men who gave him a great start. That’s why Del Rio’s honoring three of his Hayward coaches, Charley Kendall (basketball), Jim Bisenius (baseball) and Jeff Rankin (football), at Friday’s Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards, which will be broadcast Sunday night on CSN Bay Area.
Those men were key in Del Rio’s playing days and influenced a coaching career that almost didn’t happen.
Del Rio spent his last four NFL offseasons working for Merrill Lynch in San Francisco, preparing for his next life. He became a licensed financial consultant with a book of clients, and was ready to go corporate.
Del Rio got a call from Tony Dungy before the transition was complete. His defensive coordinator in Minnesota was in town for the East-West Shrine Game – it was a Bay Area fixture for years – and wanted to meet up.
“I was working toward building a career for life after football when Coach Dungy asked me to have lunch,” Del Rio said. “His question was, ‘Hey, are you happy?’ I said Oh, yeah, sure I am.’ The real answer was, ‘No, not really.’”
Dungy thought he could fix that. He brought Del Rio to some Shrine Game practices, where the Pro Bowler made some new friends, connected with old ones and instantly felt home again.
Del Rio consulted several before taking a job as Mike Ditka’s assistant strength coach in New Orleans, and Rankin was one. Del Rio’s defensive coordinator at Hayward didn’t push too hard, but knew coaching was in his former pupil’s blood.
“That’s something I thought all the way along,” Rankin said. “I talked to him about it, and it was a decision that, if he wanted to go in that direction, you’ve got the whole world in front of you. I just knew he’d be good at it.
“He could’ve been as successful in that (corporate world) as he was in coaching. I wondered what road he would take, but I knew either one would lead him to a pot of gold somewhere.”
It certainly did. Del Rio rose quickly up the ranks, from position coach to defensive coordinator to an eight-plus season stint as Jacksonville Jaguars head coach. There was a three-year break as Denver’s defensive coordinator before taking over his hometown team. In just two years, he has brought the Raiders back to relevance with a bright future ahead.
Twenty years in coaching have brought Del Rio great perspective on what it takes to be a great coach.
“Being a coach myself, I think about how much I care about my guys and want to help them be good players and be good people,” Del Rio said. “That makes you reflect and recognize the impact my coaches had on me.”
Del Rio had some great leaders at Hayward, coaches he has kept close after all these years. While he has had some great influences from high school to the NFL, Del Rio didn’t choose to honor Dungy or Ditka or Brian Billick.
Del Rio turned a spotlight on the prep coaches who rarely get recognized, those who helped mold him and other Hayward athletes of his day.
“To be able to (honor) my high school coaches in all three sports and say, ‘I really appreciate what you did,’ is pretty cool,” Del Rio said. “I’m proud of my roots. I’m proud of being from Hayward. Those guys are here, and it’s great to include them as a part of things.”
While Del Rio’s old coaches obviously didn’t expect a call from the Coaching Corps, they weren’t surprised by the public recognition.
“It’s just Jack being Jack,” Rankin said. “It’s just part of his makeup to be conscientious about what he does. He is incredibly loyal.”
Del Rio has included them at most every turn. The three coaches honored have been out to NFL practices and games. He has supported his alma mater at charity events.
Del Rio and Rankin in particular have stayed close. Rankin has visited Del Rio at every stage of his coaching career, typically for a week of NFL practices, a game day experience and a whole lot of golf.
It’s a way to give back to coaches who impacted him as a person and a player.
“I do think it’s important at every level to impact the group you’re working with, regardless of the level of competition,” Del Rio said. “There’s no question about it that, as a CEO, you’re responsible for more than just the plays, the Xs and the Os. Creating the culture is talked about a lot, and there’s a vibe that’s part of every team. I take great pride in trying to elevate that for us here.
“That’s something that, to me, started way back then on the teams we had in high school. We had a great group of guys, we had good coaches, and we won a lot of championships together.”