With 10 fingers, one ring and zero years of eligibility, former Western quarterback Jason Michael had to find a different way to get national title rings on his other nine fingers.
He’s still on the football field, but he’s put down his helmet and shoulder pads for a collared shirt and clipboard.
After leading the Hilltopper football team to a national championship in 2002, he has forgone his days as a Hilltopper to become a graduate assistant at the University of Tennessee.
He’s in his first year coaching safeties and special teams at Tennessee.
“I left one hill and went to another one, and it’s just as big,” he said.
But the hill he climbs to get to his graduate class compares little to the height of the atmosphere that comes with coaching at one of the most prestigious football programs in the country.
For the second year, on saturdays during the season Michael finds himself looking at an ocean of bright orange filling the 104,079 seats at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.
“It’s great to see football at its best,” he said. “Football is what it is all about here. Playing in the SEC there is never a game easy. Everyone is shooting for us, it is the best football in the country and to see a sea of orange is a great experience.”
Michael got his opportunity a lot like everyone else – through networking. One of his friends he met at Western knew Tennessee head football coach Phillip Fulmer. A meeting was arranged out of office the summer before his senior year, helping to form their relationship.
Another meeting was set up shortly thereafter. But the second meeting was in Fulmer’s office. The interview was a success, but Michael didn’t pack his bags yet. Although things looked good, Fulmer told Michael that he didn’t know if a position would be available right away.
But Michael had just one more thing to add to the anxiety of an unstable future: the NCAA playoffs.
Even with all the uncertainty hanging on Michael’s mind, he still managed to win three playoff games and take his team to the national title game.
After Michael led his team to a game winning drive late in the game against their third round playoff opponent, Georgia Southern, he received a phone call from Knoxville.
And on the other end of the phone was Fulmer.
As if the thrill of a comeback victory wasn’t enough, Fulmer’s call was to congratulate him on a job well done and to let him know that there was an opening for him after he graduated with a degree in civil engineering.
“I just thought it would be an absolute no lose situation for us,” Fulmer said.
With that, Michael was put to work in the weight room to help the Volunteers beef up.
But Fulmer didn’t just hire Michael because of an interview and a good on-the-field performance. He had a little help.
“I had some friends in Dan Davis, who owns Rafferty’s in Bowling Green and some others who knew him very well,” Fulmer said. “So I had a good background check on him. Jason actually had to bite the bullet and work in the weight room for a year before he was able to move up into a graduate assistant position.”
Ironically after throwing for more than 1,600 yards his senior year at Western, he is now helping the defense shutdown other quarterbacks. But Michael doesn’t mind. It’s a chance to fulfill a dream that has been in his heart since birth: to be a football coach.
“I grew up on the sidelines,” Michael said. “It’s what I have always done. I’ve always had only one love, it’s always been in my mind that’s what I want to do.”
And it looks like he might have a future in football after all. Maybe in big orange country.
“We’re glad to have him with us,” Fulmer said. “He’s done a wonderful job thus far. I expect he’s going to be a very fine football coach.”
Reach Wes Watt at [email protected]