Somehow, Eric White found a way to circumnavigate the system.
In the football coaching industry, one must pay his dues to break into the NCAA Division I ranks. A background as a former college player is almost a prerequisite. If not, it’s good to be a legacy — aka, your father’s name is synonymous with 10-win seasons and January bowl games. Without one of those scenarios, a high school or junior college coaching career, if long and illustrious enough, could be a ticket to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Lacking all of the above? Good luck, pal.
Now 23, White last played football in 2008, in a Kansas high school eight-man all-star game. He graduated from Kansas University in December 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in sports management, two seasons of experience as a volunteer football assistant at Lawrence High and internships with the Toledo and Wisconsin football programs on his résumé.
Three months later, White landed an office in the Syracuse football department and an impressive new job title: director of recruiting.
Bernie Kish, director of facilities and a sports management lecturer for KU’s health, sport and exercise sciences department, mentored White when he was an undergrad, and considers him a wunderkind.
“I don’t think we have had anybody rise to a position of importance,” Kish said, “as quickly as Eric has.”
Lawrence football coach Dirk Wedd, who had White on his staff from 2010-11, has been in the coaching business since 1975, with stints at Pratt Community College and Wichita State in that time. He, too, marveled at White’s career path.
“That’s a freaky thing,” the LHS coach said. “To do what he did is truly amazing.”
Becoming a coach
A separated AC joint in White’s shoulder during the summer of 2008 ended his career at Fort Hays State before it began. A wide receiver and safety at Greensburg High, White also played point guard for the basketball team and competed in jumps and relay sprints on the track team. He knew he wanted to stay involved in athletics, so after he transferred to KU to major in sports management, White became a volunteer assistant coach at LHS, through KU’s coaching practicum course.
He enjoyed his class-credit-earning football duties so much as a junior, White returned for a second go-around as Lawrence’s freshman team wide receivers and defensive backs coach as a KU senior before he embarked into the real world.
That’s when White’s persistence, coupled with some good fortune, helped his career take off. He needed an internship to complete his degree and sent out program-specific résumés to every Division I football team in the country. Toledo, out of the Mid-American Conference, was the only one who gave him a shot.
“I’m very fortunate for that,” White said, “or I wouldn’t be here right now.”
Upon arriving for his internship last summer, his boss at Toledo, director of high school relations Chris Hauser, and the rest of the staff learned what Wedd and Kish already knew about White: his pleasant personality and dogged, do-anything-and-everything work ethic made him invaluable. When Wisconsin offered Hauser a job, he took White with him to complete his internship that fall. Then they both followed Bret Bielema to Arkansas this past December. White had his first college football job at 22, working quality control. And by March, he was on the move again, to Syracuse.
“It was out of control,” White said of his unlikely whirlwind of job advancements.
New York became the fifth state he lived in during a nine-month span, and White eagerly bounced from one stop to the next because each new opportunity was a step up the football ladder. He hopes to stick much longer at Syracuse, where his responsibilities on Scott Shafer’s staff include building relationships with recruits, making Orange coaches aware of “the right kids we want to bring in” and looking into what potential targets need to do to qualify academically.
When he first got into the business, White thought he wanted to coach on the field — and Wedd said he has the mind for it — but now that he is at Syracuse and has seen the recruiting side of things, he thinks it might be his calling.
During his very first football job, at Lawrence High, White’s duties were considerably simpler. He coached on the freshman team and broke down game video for the varsity. Though he couldn’t have been lower in the coaching hierarchy, White said Wedd and defensive coordinator Adam Green took him in and made him feel like an important part of the staff. The experience not only taught him about working with a range of personalities (young and old), but also got White’s career off the ground.
“If I didn’t (work for LHS two seasons), it would’ve been hard for me to get to Toledo, where I did my internship,” White said. “I mean, I didn’t play in college. All I was was a high school athlete from a really small town. It’s hard to get into this business if you don’t have a background playing or coaching. It was my way of getting my foot in the door.”
White didn’t know it at the time, but interacting with Lions players proved to be perfect experience for what he does now at Syracuse. After all, “kids are kids,” he said. The young volunteer assistant learned what triggers the interest of high school players, and how to keep them engaged.
Though White attempted and failed to land an internship with the KU football program after working at LHS, he had no interest in spending his first few years at Kansas in a student manager role for the Jayhawks.
“I wanted to do something more hands-on,” White said. “I assumed I’d have to start out as a team manager or something like that at KU, and I didn’t really want to be picking up towels in the locker room and doing that kind of stuff. I wanted to actually do something I thought could apply, and that’s why I went the Lawrence High route.”
It’s not White’s ability to put in long hours and do the best possible job he can, that makes him unique, Kish said. It’s that he does so without the sole focus of moving on to somewhere more renowned. White truly wants what is best for the group he is working with in the moment, and Kish said White’s small-town background cultivated that quality.
Back in Greensburg, where White grew up working on his father David’s farm, friends and family are proud and excited each time he shares the news of another promotion. But they’re not surprised, because they have seen White grind away and realize what he is about.
“They know the hours I put into it,” he said.
White’s relentless dedication, Kish added, might be the secret to his remarkable ascension in the world of college football.
“It’s all about persistence,” Kish said, “and chasing a dream and working hard and impressing the right people. And catching a few breaks.”