With Mississippi State’s football team starting spring practices, we’ve had a couple opportunities now to get more familiar with the new defensive coaching staff under head coach Dan Mullen and defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon. On Tuesday, reporters got to talk to new defensive line coach Brian Baker for the first time, an interview in which we expected to learn about his coaching tactics and instead learned much more about Baker’s human side, the reasons he’s in Starkville in the first place.
Plenty of people wish they could go back and re-live their glory days attending college, but Baker has been pining for the opportunity to re-live his college coaching days. In 1996, Baker left his post as the Georgia Tech defensive coordinator to make the jump to the NFL, and for 19 years, he’s coached Pro Bowlers, All-Pros and the like at football’s highest level.
As much as Baker enjoyed working with players like Demarcus Ware and Julius Peppers, Baker rarely felt he was doing the most he could for people just by teaching them Xs and Os. After talking to him Tuesday, it’s clear why he thinks coaching in college affords him the opportunity.
“Well,” he began when asked why he returned to this level, “really, just a chance to pour into the guys. I’m a man of faith and I’ve always wanted to share that part of my philosophy, my coaching experience and just give back to the players what the good Lord has given to me. I didn’t always have a chance to do that in pro ball. It doesn’t lend itself to that. I tried to do that, but some places were easier than others.
“That was another big plus when I came here. I knew, having a chance to deal with kids from 18-22 years old, that they would be more receptive to a philosophy. The philosophy, real simple, is just an attitude of gratitude. Understanding that them being here as players is a gift from the good Lord and me being here as a coach is an absolute gift from the good Lord. They should work every day to show that appreciation. Their work should be that attitude. I try to do that through the way I coach and the way I lead. It’s a great opportunity to do that.”
Once before, Baker made the attempt to get back into college football, leaving the Carolina Panthers to join Butch Davis’ staff at North Carolina. However, as drama took the program by storm and Davis was soon out as head coach, the stint barely lasted a couple months and Baker headed back to the NFL to work with the Dallas Cowboys.
While in Texas, however, Baker finally found a chance to coach how he’s always wanted to, to work with a malleable clay of a team. In 2015, Baker joined the Covenant Christian Academy of Colleyville, Texas football team as an assistant coach and a mentor.
In Baker’s words, it was high school football in Texas, but it certainly wasn’t the Texas High School Football people think about. A K-12 Christian school with around 600 students, everything about Covenant Christian was a huge change from Baker’s decades in the NFL. And he loved it. Turns out, it was exactly what he needed to be ready for his return to the college ranks. That season – which included a district championship and playoff appearance – taught him more than he expected.
“The thing I got from it is teaching,” Baker said. “I had to really be detailed in my teaching, in my expectations. Again, the good Lord is all over my career. That prepared me for this. Understanding that I have to be very, very detailed. I can’t go in with an expectation of these guys being able to do exactly what I’m used to guys doing. I have to coach to the player. That experience really helped me with that.”
So, he’s finally made it back to college. What now? It certainly pleases Baker that he takes over a defensive line with a great deal of experience and a strong veteran presence. And while it may be difficult for some new coaches to earn respect from such a group, Baker has arrived with immediate credibility after so much time in the NFL and so many stars under his tutelage.
“You get their attention right away,” Baker conceded. “Now, it’s up to me to keep it and earn it. I think, as a coach, our responsibility is to earn the right to coach. You do that by showing players you can help them win. I think being very detailed in what we’re doing. A question was asked today about why I don’t do a certain drill that these guys are used to doing. I said, because I don’t see the application to football for that particular drill. If I don’t see the application to football, I don’t do it. Just because somebody else may have done it or a bunch of people may have done it, if I don’t see the application, I don’t do it. Everything I want these guys to do needs to relate to winning on Saturdays. That’s all we talk about.”
Spring practice is only two sessions deep, and Baker’s tenure at MSU hardly a month old, but, finally, he’s where he wants to be. He couldn’t be happier.