Learning experience for UF assistant


Florida tight ends coach Derek Lewis talks to junior Jordan Reed during a game earlier this season. (Photo by The Associated Press)

Published: Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 12:22 a.m.

NEW ORLEANS — Being an emotional guy who is very passionate about football, Florida tight ends coach Derek Lewis has been called on several times by Will Muschamp to deliver pregame speeches to the Gators this season.

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Florida tight ends coach Derek Lewis talks to junior Jordan Reed during a game earlier this season. (Photo by The Associated Press)

Lewis got so fired up addressing the team before the LSU game this season that he punched his hand right through a white eraser board used to diagram plays. He cut his wrist and damaged tendons in his hand.

“I was right there in my locker looking at him and saying, ‘This man is crazy,'” senior outside linebacker Lerentee McCray said Friday after UF's practice in the Superdome. “He said, ‘We drew first blood.'

“He's a real intense coach.”

And he always has a strong message for the players.

He has one for the Sugar Bowl, and he's probably going to hit the players with it over and over this week.

“Finish your degree. Definitely finish your degree,” Lewis said. “It's tough out there. It's a hard life. If you want it to be a deal where you can be successful, finish your degree. Have a good plan and work your plan.”

Lewis speaks from experience.

He was born and raised in a tough area of New Orleans, and he ended up back there when his brief NFL career with the St. Louis Rams came to an abrupt end after he blew out his knee in 2000.

Having come up short of earning his degree while he was playing at the University of Texas, Lewis did not have many promising job prospects back home.

“My dad came and got me and said, ‘A man doesn't work, he doesn't eat. You need to get a job. You didn't get your degree. It's your fault. You had an opportunity and didn't take advantage of it,'” Lewis said.

Back in New Orleans, Lewis ended up taking a job as a city bus driver. It was quite a harrowing experience, he said, one that included being held up at gunpoint one night. He said another time, two of his passengers overdosed on drugs.

“There were some trying times out there, man,” he said. “The economy was rough, and guys were trying to make it. Just a tough deal.

“You deal with it (when you're getting robbed at gunpoint). You give them what you've got, you keep your head down and you keep going. When they have a gun in your face, you don't think very much, you just do what they tell you to do.”

As bad as things got at times, Lewis said he never dreaded going to work.

“My dad always told me, ‘Whether you're a garbage man or driving a bus or a football player or an educator, enjoy your work,'” Lewis said. “I always did enjoy working, except when the guy held me up. That was scary.”

After enduring on the job for two years, Lewis decided it was time to make a change, time to go back to school and get his college degree.

“I called up (Texas coach) Mack Brown and said, ‘Coach, can I come back to school and get my degree?'” he said. “I ended up coming back to school and got my degree and got into coaching. Great deal.”

Lewis served as a graduate assistant at Texas for two years (2005-06), then was hired by North Texas State to coach the tight ends.

A year later, Minnesota hired him as tight ends coach. He stayed with the Gophers for two years, then got a call from Muschamp after Muschamp was hired at Florida following the 2010 season.

“(A couple of years earlier, when Muschamp was the defensive coordinator at Texas), we talked about football, family and faith,” Lewis said. “Will said, ‘If I find anything or get anything, I'll give you a call.' Sure enough, he did.

“I'm enjoying it. When I got back into coaching, it was like a fish to water. It really was. I was born here, made my life here. This is what I want to do. I'm enjoying the crap out of it.”

Muschamp said Lewis' story is a good lesson for everyone, especially his players.

“It's a great example of a guy that's been through a tough time, has pushed through it, and is committed to being a football coach from a standpoint of working and understanding the importance of affecting young people's lives,” Muschamp said. “I know that's what he enjoys.

“It shows how easily things can be taken away from you. He tried to live without football and decided he needed to be a coach.”

He's also been somewhat of a Santa Claus for his many family members living in New Orleans. He said he spent $3,500 on Sugar Bowl tickets.

“Merry Christmas,” he said.

Lewis said it's OK that his wallet has taken a hit. He's just happy to be back in his hometown, back among family and friends, returning as a successful assistant college coach.

And with his return comes another message from this passionate coach.

“New Orleans is really what you make it,” he said. “If you want trouble, you can find it. If you don't, stay away from it.

“I wasn't a sheltered kid. My mom and dad allowed me to go out and enjoy the company of my siblings and my neighborhood friends. When the streetlights came on, they told me to get my butt inside.”

Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or andreur@gvillesun.com. Also check out Andreu's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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