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'Oh, man, he's ready': Wayne State welcomes home Tyrone Wheatley

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — He was more talented than pretty much everyone else, because he outworked pretty much everyone else.

But Tyrone Wheatley had another trait that stood out even more to Fred Jackson, running-backs coach for Wheatley's final — and best — three seasons at Michigan. It was his curiosity. No matter what Jackson would say, Wheatley always wanted to know why. Not in a confrontational kind of why, mind you. He simply wanted to learn.

"When I put him in a certain footwork to a certain play, he wanted to know why it had to be that way, and I would have to explain it to him," Jackson said.

New Wayne State head football coach Tyrone Wheatley speaks during his introductory news conference Thursday as his wife, Kimberly, listens at the Wayne State Fieldhouse.

"That made me feel great about him, because I knew he was into what I was doing.

"His knowledge of the game was just so above any guys I've ever coached."

Wheatley has parlayed a lifetime of football knowledge — from starring at Dearborn Heights Robichaud and Michigan, to 10 seasons in the NFL, to nine different coaching jobs across all levels of the game — into his best gig yet, as the 20th head coach at Wayne State. Wheatley was formally introduced Thursday in a pep-rally-like press conference at the Wayne State Fieldhouse before a crowd of hundreds, including dozens of players.

Wheatley, 51, comes to Wayne State from the NFL's Denver Broncos, where he was running-backs coach this past season. He's also coached with the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars, as well as at Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Syracuse. His last head-coaching job was with Morgan State, an HBCU in Baltimore and a Football Championship Subdivision program he coached from 2019-21, where he went 5-18 overall.

Now, he's back home, where he first became a star, not just in football but in track and field, too.

"It's a great, great day," said Jackson, who was among several Wheatley friends in attendance. "He always wanted to be the best, and he practiced to be the best. Everything he did was to chase greatness.

"Oh man, he's ready. He knows what it takes."

Wheatley, 51, takes over for longtime head coach Paul Winters, fired after 19 seasons in December. Winters led Wayne State to the 2011 Division II championship game, but went just 3-18 the last two seasons.

There are challenges galore for Wheatley, particularly in a Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference that is loaded, with the likes of two-time defending champion Ferris State, Grand Valley State and upstart Davenport.

From left, Kimberly Wheatley, Tyrone Wheatley and interim Director of Athletics Erika Wallace pose for a photo during the press conference introducing Tyrone Wheatley as the new head football coach at Wayne State University at the Wayne State Fieldhouse in Detroit on Feb. 2, 2023.

But Wayne State players mostly stuck with the program amid the uncertainty following Winters' firing — defensive coordinator Antwon Robinson was leading the program during the search — and were by and large thrilled to learn the name of their next coach during a Zoom last week. The seniors on the roster served as an unofficial advisory board during interim athletic director Erika Wallace's seven-week search.

Wallace said Wheatley is "exactly what we need."

"When you hear that name, it's kind of like, 'Wait, is that the same Tyrone Wheatley that you've hard about from the legends?" Drake Reid, a cornerback from Rochester, said with a laugh. "It's just exciting. You can already tell, the student body, the general community around Wayne State is already fired up. It's just huge.

"The process was hard, this winter was hard, the last couple months without having a true head coach.

"It worked out pretty well. We're excited to get back to work.

"The next step we take is gonna be a big one."

Fitting, since Wheatley, still a solidly put together 6 feet and 250 pounds, generally takes big steps, including one up to the dais Thursday afternoon as the band played and cheerleaders cheered. Wheatley was joined on stage by wife Kimberly, as three of his five children sat in the front row on the floor of the new basketball arena Wayne State shares with the Detroit Pistons' Motor City Cruise.

In the audience were dozens of friends and mentors, including Leit Jones, his old track-and-field coach from high school. Wheatley said he never, ever wanted to leave practice under Jones, "because then I had to go endure life." (Wheatley's dad was shot and killed when he was 2, and his stepfather died of a heart attack when he was 13, eventually sending his mom into a downward spiral.)

It's his family story, and the area in which he grew up, that shaped his work ethic, which remains strong today, and will more than come in handy at Wayne State. During his remarks, Wheatley mentioned Lions head coach Dan Campbell's introductory press conference, when he famously said his team would "bite a kneecap off."

"What he was talking about is the spirit of Detroit," said Wheatley, who signed a four-year contract worth more than $200,000 annually. "We're going to be physical, we're going to play like we love Detroit. This is our city.

"Let's be the doorstep of Detroit. When they step up, they understand what they're getting themselves into.

"It's time. It's time."

Time has been of the essence lately, of course.

Wheatley was hired a week ago, and had to scramble to put together — or keep together — a recruiting class heading into National Signing Day, which was the day before his introductory press conference. Wayne State announced a 20-player class for 2023, including 19 players from Michigan, and nine from Detroit or the Metro Detroit area. (He's also finalizing a coaching staff, expected to be announced next week, and likely to include some holdovers.)

It's on the recruiting trail, of course, where Wheatley figures to have a mega impact. His resume — three-time first-team all-Big Ten, a Rose Bowl MVP and offensive player of the year at Michigan — is going to get him in a lot of doors. There's instant credibility attached to his name.

Throw in the work ethic and knowledge, and, well, Jackson said Wayne State fans are in for a treat.

"Everybody knows him, they know the things that he's done, he knows the community, he's always loved Detroit. That's where he's gonna make a difference," Jackson, who is back on staff at Michigan as an offensive analyst, said of recruiting. "He's gonna get players here that probably you're going to say, 'Why didn't Michigan take this kid?' Those are the kind of guys he's gonna get. That's the difference.

"He's gonna recruit the best football players, and he's gonna get some of them.

"That's the Tyrone Wheatley effect that a lot of people don't know about."

Twitter: @tonypaul1984