Mike White, who is in his 13th year as the Rams' head coach, can get win No. 100 --- and a trip to the conference title game --- today if ASU beats Fort Valley. (Reginald Christian/Albany State University)
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WHO: Fort Valley (7-2, 5-1) vs. Albany State (6-3, 5-1).
WHAT: 23rd annual Fountain City Classic, East Division title on line.
WHEN: 2 p.m. today.
RADIO: 98.1 FM.
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ALBANY --- From the moment he picked up a football, Mike White knew.
Albany State’s football coach didn’t know how it would happen or where his dreams would take him, but the kid who grew up in Augusta in the 1960s knew his destiny.
And everybody else around him knew it, too.
“My sisters would have told you a long time ago that I would be doing this,” White, 55, said Wednesday, referring to his head coaching career. “I (used to coach) my one younger brother and cousins in the yard.”
That was decades ago, back when White idolized Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas and spent hours in the backyard with his makeshift Colts jersey while envisioning himself as Baltimore tight end John Mackey.
He has gone on an incredible ride since his days as a backyard coach of his siblings in Augusta, a ride that took him all the way to the NFL.
Now he is the face of Albany State football and on the verge of his 100th win since taking over the program in 2000. White, who has a career record of
99-43, will go for that coveted 100th victory in today’s Fountain City Classic in Columbus against the Rams’ biggest rival, Fort Valley State. To raise the stakes even higher, there’s a ticket to the conference title game on the line.
After practice Wednesday, White momentarily broke away from preparing for the high-stakes game and reflected on the journey that brought him to ASU and what win No. 100 would mean.
“It would mean I have had a very good coaching staff and that I have had some very good players and had a lot of support from the administration,” White said. “That’s what it boils down to, having those things to help you get to this point, because you just can’t get here by yourself. I have been blessed.”
White has a chance to run his career record against Fort Valley State to 11-2-0 — a record even more impressive when you consider FVSU led the all-time series, 30-19-3, before White took over as head coach.
“That would be a good way to win your 100th game in your rivalry game,” ASU assistant head coach Rickey Alexander said. “To win that one would be very sweet … very sweet.”
White has lived and breathed Albany State football longer than any of his players have been alive, coming to the Good Life City from Westside High School in Augusta in 1975 as a freshman and leaving with a decorated career as a star defensive lineman.
After a four-year NFL career with the Cincinnati Bengals and Seattle Seahawks, White returned to ASU to finish his undergraduate degree and possibly pursue coaching. And he came back not necessarily because he chose Albany State, but because Albany State chose him.
“I didn’t have but one offer,” White said. “I didn’t have but one school that was interested in me, and that was Albany State.”
And the investment has paid off for a university that cherishes a football tradition — a tradition that has only gotten richer since White stepped on campus.
Alexander played alongside White in the late '70s and has been with him every step of the way since he returned from the NFL to ASU. And Alexander, White’s life-long best friend, can’t imagine the journey without him.
“It’s been a great ride,” Alexander said. “He is a player’s coach. The players really enjoy playing for him. The players can connect with him very easily. He always makes it easy for them to come and talk with him. When you have a coach that cares for you and shows it every day, you don’t mind laying it on the line for him.”
No current player has been with him longer than defensive lineman Troy Morgan, a fifth-year senior from Camilla.
“He relates to you about more than football,” Morgan said. “He talks about life and talks about becoming a man. He has taught us a lot of things about life. He is a guy you won’t forget. Throughout your entire life, you won’t forget him. You’ll tell your grandkids about him.”
Albany State, meet Mike White
From the days he was calling the shots in the backyard with his siblings and cousins, White has always been a leader, and he has always found his true calling on the football field.
When White joined the Rams in 1975, the soon-to-be star defensive lineman immediately became a vocal leader of the Hamp Smith-led team. Alexander, who played quarterback, saw firsthand how White took over the team.
“From the leadership as a college player, he always pushed us as a teammate,” Alexander said. “His determination and his attitude on the football field was always a winning attitude. Always. I knew he would make a good football coach.”
Many of those habits as a player have carried over into White’s coaching career, such as meticulously studying game film and forming relationships with those around him.
So when White decided to go back to school after being released from the Seahawks in December of 1983, he flocked back to the only place he could — a community that he now calls “family.”
“They were short one assistant on the defensive line, and I came by and talked to coach Smith and then came out and basically stood around and learned how it worked the first spring,” White said. “That fall, I jumped in.”
And he’s been immersed in ASU football ever since.
After one year as the defensive line coach, he was named the defensive coordinator and eventually held down titles of special teams coordinator, conditioning coordinator, linebackers coach and director of intramural health and physical education.
But then Smith stepped down in 1999, and White was given the head job in December of that year, following in the footsteps of Smith, who left with the best career coaching record (157-89-4) in the history of the program.
“I never felt pressure,” said White, the first alumnus to be named head coach. “I always felt kind of confident that I could do the job. Over the '80s and '90s you let your mind wander and wonder if you could do the job as well as (Smith) could. I thought I was ready, and I felt blessed to take the job.”
Rebuilding a program
The year White took over the Rams program, it was hit with a probation because too many scholarships were mistakenly awarded from 1993-99, which led the NCAA to reduce the school’s scholarships from 36 to 28. Self-imposed sanctions by the school dropped that number to 24, and a postseason ban was implemented.
The frustrations of the sanctions hit home even harder when the losses started mounting in White’s first two years. In the 13 years White has been head coach, he has had only a winning percentage lower than .636 two times — and those were his first two seasons when he struggled to a pair of 4-6 records.
“Those were very tough years,” White recalled. “You always question yourself when you step in that role and you thought you would be able to win some games. We were just a play or two, or a player or two, short. You learned a lot, and I definitely learned that the shoes of the defensive coordinator are different than those of a head coach.”
Then came the turnaround.
White directed the Rams to a 7-4 record in 2002 and hasn’t had a season worse than that since. He won four straight conference championships between 2003-06, another in 2010 and has made the Division II playoffs each year since 2004. He’s also had double-digit wins in three different seasons, including 2010 when ASU went undefeated in the regular season and was named the HBCU National Champion, leading to White being named the HSRN National Division II Football Coach of the Year.
“All of that doesn’t come around too often,” White said about the 2010 season.
Leaving his mark
White has done more for the ASU community than merely racking up one winning season after another.
He’s made a difference in his players’ lives.
“I’ve been blessed to be at the school I have played at and have been blessed to be around basically the same staff,” White said. “We all believe a certain way, the way coach Smith did things. We learned football from him, and so the consistency is there. What we try to get the guys to do in terms of life after football, how important it is to not get behind in class and do the right things, to be a role model (we got from Smith). We’ve never lost that.”
Offensive lineman Victor Moli is one of the countless players who have been impacted by White, and the sophomore talks about a time last summer when he and his roommates were down about school and their financial situation, and White lifted their spirits.
Somehow, White knew.
“He just always knows,” Moli said. “It humbles you to know that there are people like him in this world that really care about you.”
White said that being a leader and caring about his players just comes naturally.
“Life goes on after football, and a lot of things they learn here on the football field they will take with them,” White said. “One of the greatest compliments I get from my former players is the way they punish their kids. They don’t spank them, but (they) actually put them in a push-up position. We have always done (the players) the same way.
“To see the guys turn out and have families and have good jobs. Taking care of their families is really what it’s all about.”
Like many of White’s players, Morgan has grown to respect his coach.
“Countless times he has come and said things to uplift us and to keep us going through school and life,” Morgan said.
With more and more young men without male role models in today’s society, White has taken a much bigger role in many of his players’ lives.
“I think a lot of our staff and coaches have taken on that (father figure) role for a lot of kids who come here with not a lot of men in their life,” White said. “They have not seen a lot of men in a classroom, on the coaching field or maybe even at home. Being positive and helping them is really what it’s all about, showing them that you care what is happening with them academically and what is happening with them in their life.”
Thinking about the future
White admits that sticking around at Albany State for decades wasn’t exactly the plan.
“Rickey and I laugh about it all the time, about how when we were players here we were ready to move on,” White said. “But here we are. Been around since 1975.”
White said he talks with his best friend and assistant head coach almost daily about what the future could bring. Over the years, White has had plenty of opportunities to move on and has even received offers from Division I and Division II programs, though he wouldn’t identify the schools.
“I remember (one opportunity) back in 2004 — I don’t want to call the school out — I thought we had a great team coming back in '04, and I was excited about that year and what that team could do,” White said. “There was another opportunity where I thought I could (leave), but I just thought the situation had to be right for me to move, and it just hasn’t worked out. And I’m still here. Who knows? One day it might work out, or maybe I will be here for a while.”
Alexander hopes his long-time coaching partner sticks around at ASU.
“It’s been a great ride, and we have been winning,” Alexander said. “He believes in winning, and he has the attitude that you like. And you want to be around coaches who win. And him being my best friend makes it even better.”
But Alexander believes that whenever White does hang up his ASU colors, he’ll be remembered for ages.
“He will be remembered as a great coach because of his winning percentage,” Alexander said. “It’s hard to deny that. That speaks for itself. He will be remembered as one of the greatest coaches or the greatest coach to come through here.”
White cautioned Wednesday that the only thing on his mind was today’s game against Fort Valley State — not any future destinations and not even a possible 100th win.
Wherever he ends up, however, he’s certain about one thing: There will be football.
“I could see myself here for a while, but I am definitely a lifer in terms of being a coach,” White said. “I know that.”