'This is our Michigan': Tyrone Wheatley determined to push Morgan State to the top
Baltimore – There is a commonality of thought, of goals, and the way to teach football and life skills. They were all, they like to say, raised the same way, at Michigan as young men and players in the early 1990s, and share that DNA. That experience in Ann Arbor has bonded them all these years since as they’ve pursued coaching college football after their professional playing careers.
Tyrone Wheatley, the standout from Inkster who starred at Dearborn Heights Robichaud and then became Big Ten Player of the Year in 1992 as a Michigan running back before a 10-year NFL career, has finally realized a goal and is a head coach. He took over this season at Morgan State, an HBCU – Historically Black Colleges and Universities – that has struggled to maintain stability in its coaching staff in recent years and winning on a consistent basis.
Wheatley is the fifth Morgan State coach in seven years and is under a four-year contract to coach the Football Championship Subdivision program.
Among his first hires were former Michigan players Derrick Alexander and Will Carr. Alexander is a Detroit native who attended Benedictine before heading to Michigan, where he would star at receiver. Like Wheatley, Alexander was a first-round NFL Draft selection, only a year earlier. The always engaging Carr was a two-time All-Big Ten defensive lineman in the mid-1990s. He was drafted by the Bengals in 1997.
All three were All-Americans with the Wolverines. All three speak the same language taught to them while at Michigan, and that was important for Wheatley, 47, as he built his crew.
“There are certain times where you have guys on the staff and you try to explain certain things to them -- you have to explain and talk to them and get them to understand,” Wheatley said last week in his office at Hill Fieldhouse after a morning practice. “Guys you’ve been with, all I have to say is, ‘Listen, I need you guys to help,’ and that’s all. It’s like-minded people.”
“We had the same parents,” Carr said, chiming in and referring to their time at Michigan. “It’s like one of those deals where it never left off.”
Alexander, 47, thought he was done with football once he retired after nine NFL seasons. But he couldn’t stay away. He was offensive coordinator and coaching receivers at NAIA Avila University in Kansas City when Wheatley called. Carr had worked on Brady Hoke’s staff at Michigan then spent two seasons with Jim Harbaugh, 2014 and 2015, assisting with the defensive line. Alexander is the Morgan State pass-game coordinator and works with the receivers, and Carr is associate head coach and defensive run-game coordinator.
Carr, 44, and Alexander are away from their families in Dallas and Kansas City, respectively, and share an apartment while they help Wheatley build the program.
“It’s refreshing to be around people who are where you’re from, raised how you were raised and believe in developing the same way,” Carr said. “It’s one of the things we always talk about – we’re going to make this place our big-time. This is our big-time. This is our Michigan.
“It’s kind of like the situation where Bo (Schembechler) walked into Michigan and Michigan wasn’t Michigan. This is our opportunity to leave that type of legacy on this program. It’s everything that Lloyd (Carr) and (Gary) Moeller and Bo and all those people taught us. We have a chance to implement it on a level that can grow to be as big as we want it to be, and that’s cool.”
'On the same page'
Wheatley, fifth all-time among leading rushers at Michigan, has long desired a head coaching job. He coached the Wolverines’ running backs in 2015 and 2016 and then moved into that role with the Jacksonville Jaguars the next two seasons before getting this opportunity. Wheatley often spoke to Alexander about joining him when he finally landed a head coaching job.
“He asked me if I was coming, I said, ‘Yeah, man, we’ve already talked about this. Let’s go ahead and get this done,’” Alexander said, laughing. “We are on the same page. We’ve been through the same things together, so we know what it takes to win championships.
“We won championships and that’s one thing we try to put on our kids now. We know how to win those championships, we know what it takes. Having that common thread of being winners and knowing what it takes to be a winner and being able to filter out things that’s not going to help us win, that’s the type of thing that’s good for us as a staff."
But this isn’t Michigan, and they all know the challenges of recruiting and rebuilding. The full scholarship allotment is 63, not 85 like a big Division I powerhouse. There was some attrition with the coaching change as there always is, and Carr is working with bare minimum number of defensive linemen.
The Bears are 1-8 overall, 1-5 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, but they were encouraged early in the season when they held a 14-7 lead over Army after the first quarter.
Football began at Morgan State in 1898 and produced four players now enshrined in the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame – Len Ford, Leroy Kelly, Willie Lanier and Rosey Brown. The Bears play their home games at 10,000-seat Hughes Stadium, a far cry from the more than 100,000 who watched Wheatley, Alexander and Carr at Michigan Stadium.
“The hardest thing you have to teach players who have lost for so long is how to be winners,” Carr said. “You can see our team taking on the identity of our head coach, being gritty and fighting. I think a lot of our kids don’t know how to play football, they don’t understand the game of football. What happens is, when they have success, they don’t know how to handle success. They resort back to failure because that’s what they’re accustomed to doing because they failed for so long. Once we get the kids to buy into the culture change, I think you’re going to see a lot of success."
Wheatley has always been frank, straight forward and doesn’t mince words. He said he has several “part-time” players who don’t understand the amount of time required to become good, but he also said he sees the culture changing and players holding each other accountable.
“The prime example is physicality. This is football, you’ve got to hit somebody,” Wheatley said. “They will do it once or twice and they’ll look at you like, ‘So you want me to do that the entire game?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, do it the entire game.’ To be truthful, we have guys who are just good enough. To play with guys who are just good enough, they have to work and build a skill-set that is far beyond being just good enough, and we don’t have that. We have a lot of part-time football players. They love being in college and they love everything football brings to them but when it’s time to go to practice, it’s Allen Iverson, ‘Practice?’”
But Wheatley and his assistants are teachers, and they have spent time sharing their college football experiences to give the players a blueprint. He showed the receivers highlights of Alexander and pointed out how for one player to make a big play, his 10 teammates must play their roles. They also saw Wheatley’s highlights.
“I said every run that I made, it wasn’t because I was fast and I was able to break through and I had an incredible offensive line,” Wheatley said. “Look who’s out in front (blocking)? (Receivers) Walter Smith, Derrick Alexander. And I said, ‘How do you think (Alexander) got wide open? Because of the blocks. So to them, they don’t see the foundation. They just see the house. Certain guys are starting to see it and they’re starting to hold each other accountable."
On the shoulders of others
Wheatley knew this would not be easy. He and his staff are busy searching for talent, and he remains active recruiting in Detroit, where he has close relationships with high school coaches. He has found the challenges outside the football building even greater, as he tries to build working relationships with the professors to get them to understand that he’s also teaching – it just happens to be on the football field.
“It’s more work than I thought in terms of, not in this building,” Wheatley said. “I understood where I was at, I understood who I was coaching, what I was walking into, financially, resources, all those things. I understood that. The hardest part is working with people outside of this building not in athletics that don’t understand.”
He has wanted to be a head coach for so long and said he has dealt with a “mixed bag of emotions.”
“You get the job and you say, ‘OK,’ but then you see a hill of work in front of you and now that feeling is gone,” Wheatley said. "Now it’s like OK, put your money where your mouth is. This is what you wanted for so long, now let’s go.
“It’s not that you’re trying to show the world that you can do it. It’s what you wanted, now let’s put all your lessons you’ve learned, all the values you’ve gained, now let’s put them to use and turn this thing around.”
Wheatley and staff do nearly everything within the program
“We vacuum our own room,” Carr said. “We take out our own trash.”
If a player gets in trouble, he must report for three hours beginning at 8 p.m. and he must clean, vacuum, and mop the locker rooms and showers. Wheatley said he enjoys that one-on-one time with his players that this punishment affords.
“You’ve got to do everything,” Carr said, laughing hard. “You’re taking this hat off, put this hat on.”
“It’s the journey,” Wheatley said.
It is their journey, and as Wheatley said, he watches Alexander and Carr coaching and wonders why they haven’t had the opportunity to become coordinators at top Division I programs.
Before Florida State fired Willie Taggart this week, there were 13 African-American head coaches among the 130 FBS head coaches. During Wheatley’s second season 1992 as a player at Michigan, Fred Jackson was hired to coach running backs. Wheatley had found his role model.
“J was a black coach, he was a Michigan coach but J knew how to speak, he knew how to talk,” Wheatley said of Jackson. “There’s a term we use – ‘J is of the house, but he also in the house,’ meaning he knew how to talk to you outside the Michigan deal. That was very important for me.”
Jackson never realized his dream of being a head coach. Those who played for him who are now in coaching, like Wheatley, want to fulfill that goal.
“To know his history as a black quarterback (at HBCU Jackson State), to not get to the pros to get that chance as a black quarterback, to see a guy go through all those things," Wheatley said. "Now, when I get a chance, it’s almost like you’re standing on – no, not almost, you ARE standing on his shoulders. You want to help open the door for other guys.”
Mike Locksley is the head coach at nearby Maryland and said this summer that Jackson, whose son, Josh, is the Terps’ quarterback, was a pioneer and role model for black coaches. Wheatley said there is a heavy responsibility for any black coach who becomes a head coach.
“Whenever a black man takes a job, you have thousands behind him,” Wheatley said, pounding his desk, “clutching their hands in prayer like, ‘Hey brother, please do well. Don’t screw this up because you will screw this up for all of us.’ People say, ‘You don’t want to make this a race thing.’ Well, let’s not make this a race thing. It’s 2019, how many African-American head coaches do you have? I’m not trying to make it a race thing, but it is what it is.”
'I'm a football coach'
Wheatley heard from friends in the coaching business that taking over an HBCU would label him and he might never leave these ranks.
“I don’t feel like it’s going to lock me in, but sometimes because that statement was made, ‘Don’t go down there. You’ll get stuck down there,’ well, what if I do? What are you saying? What are you saying about this football? Before the 'modern era' of football where did 90 percent of Hall of Fame African-American players come from? HBCUs.”
As Wheatley and Carr and Alexander reach for their goals, they’ve always understood the team comes before the individual. They learned that at Michigan. Their goal right now is together to build Morgan State.
“Here’s one thing Coach Wheatley said to me that made the most sense to me. He said, ‘Our kids deserve the best,’” Carr said. “Any of the three of us have proven we can go to anywhere from high school to the NFL and be just as effective as any coach that’s coaching that position, maybe even better. I’m going to go out on the limb and say better, right? But we won’t get that opportunity for whatever reason. People are like, ‘Man, you don’t want to go to HBCU, you’ll get labeled as an HBCU coach.’
“I’m a football coach.
“I can coach football anywhere,” Carr added. “I always said, never mistake talent for coaching and coaching for talent. It is not the same thing. And he said it best, our kids deserve the best. We always talk about it, this is our big-time. This is our Michigan. We are going to build a program that can go and play a Michigan one day as long as we’re here.”
Wheatley recalls coming out of Robichaud and people told him he was crazy to go to Michigan with Ricky Powers there and a room full of running backs. The same approach he used then is what he’s using now.
“Luckily I was ignorant enough to say, 'Don’t make no difference to me,'" Wheatley said. “You come in and they’re bringing somebody else in, so you’re like, ‘OK, let me step my game up.’ That’s why I say the beauty is in the work. Because you know there’s a process and if you do things the right way and you work your butt off, there’s a reward in it.
“A lot of the time times the reward may not be as large as you want it, but it could be some simple thing. I always think about, the beauty is in the work and in the details.”
That's worked for Tyrone Wheatley so far, and he plans for that to work again at Morgan State.
Tyrone Wheatley’s coaching stops
2007: Dearborn Heights Robichaud, head coach
2008: Ohio Northern, RB coach
2009: Eastern Michigan, RB coach
2010-12: Syracuse, RB coach
2013-14: Buffalo Bills, RB coach
2015-16: Michigan, RB coach
2017-18: Jacksonville Jaguars, RB coach
2019: Morgan State, head coach