By GREG KLEIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
Cooperstown Central School graduate Jacob Russell said he spent the spring of 2019 on campus at Harvard University pondering his future and realizing he did not want a traditional path.
What he really wanted to do, he admited to himself, was coach football.
“I was probably the last person in the world someone from Cooperstown thought would end up a football coach,” he said Monday, April 26.
For one thing, Russell hadn’t played football since elementary school.In high school, Russell ran cross country, wrestled and played tennis. He did crew in college and has run the Boston Marathon twice. Still, despite his athleticism, he knew he did not have a good chance to play football. He topped out in the 120 pound weight class as a wrestler during his senior year at CCS in 2015.
“Evcr since second grade, I was a football fanatic,” he said. “I guess I realized I was too small to ever be a football player. It was kind of a pie-in-the-sky thing to be a coach, but if I wanted to work in football it seemed much more realistic for me to be a football coach than a football player at my size.”
Russell said he was considering his options during spring break in 2019. He was staying on campus for break and decided he should go for it if he wanted to pursue a career in football.
“I was trying to decide if I wanted to go to law school or if I wanted to get a job in finance on Wall Street, you know, sort of the more typical Harvard paths,” he said. “I decided I didn’t really want to do either of those things. What I really wanted to do was coach football.
“I thought, ‘you know what? I am on campus for spring break. Let me cold email people.’”
Russell said he emailed about 400 college football programs. Because he was a member of the Harvard Sports Analytic Collective, he emphasized his interest in football analytics.
“Analytics in football is different than analytics in baseball,” he said. “On defense, they look at tendencies. On offense, it has a lot more to do with game planning.”
Russell’s hail Mary found a recipient. The University of Georgia Offensive Coordinator James Coley interviewed him and then hired him to be a recruiting coordinator.
“The day of my graduation, I went to Logan Airport and went down to Georgia,” Russell said. “I got in at 1 a.m., went to work at 7:30 the next morning and worked until 11 at night. It wasn’t the typical day after graduation celebration at the beach, for sure.”
Coley moved on to Texas A&M for the 2020 season, but it turned out to be a break for Russell. Todd Monken, the new offensive coordinator, also liked Russell and made him an assistant tight end coach.
“He took me under his wing a lot,” Russell said.
During the season, Russell did quality control for the tight ends, helped run the scout teams for defensive prep and continued to help the offense with analytics. In the off-season, he is recruiting, although mostly virtually, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s a grind. I think I was working 100-hour weeks during the season, from about 7 a.m. to 11 at night,” he said. “Some nights, it was more like 1 a.m., when you are breaking down film and stuff.”
Georgia went 8-2 in 2020 and beat Cincinati in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta on New Year’s Day. Russell said he is excited about the team’s prospects in 2021, too.
“It is so much fun,” he said. “I am basically still in apprentice mode. But just, to be in the room … in the meetings, around the coaches, around the players. It is a really cool experience.”
Although football is not a huge sport at Harvard, Russell said he has always admired it on a cerebral level, comparing it to chess.
Except, in football, you get to teach your players, an experience that Russell said is what he enjoys most about his new profession.
“People often ask about my interest in coaching and my go-to response is that coaching football is like playing a game of chess based on physical contingencies,” he said. “It is also very special to help develop these talented players into professionals.”
Now that he his longshot dream has succeeded, Russell said there is no going back. The long hours and low pay for beginning coaches won’t deter him, he said.
“This is definately my career now,” he said. “To have gone from analytics to coaching in the course of one year, it has been an amazing experience. I am not going to walk away from that now.
“It is more of a matter of where I end up after this season, because coaches move around,” he continued. “If we have as good a year as I think we can have, it could lead to other opportunities.”
Russell said he has not abandoned his other athletic endeavors, either. He and his fellow CCS 2015 classmate, Patrick Dewey, ran the Boston Marathon in 2019 together as an adaptive racing team.
Dewey has cerebral palsy and Russell pushes him, a form of racing they were inspired to pursue after learning about Dick Hoyt and his son, Rick, who also has cerebral palsy.
Hoyt died March 17, leaving Russell, Dewey and thousands of other marathoners and running fans in mourning.
“He has been an inspiration, not only to us, but to a lot of other people,” Russell said. “He was really an innovator.”
Russell said he and Dewey were planning to run in another marathon last May, only to have it canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. But they hope to get back into racing form next spring, he said.
“During the season you are working 100-hour weeks, but there are times of the year where you get to have some time off for a few weeks at a time,” Russell said. “You get a week off right after the season and a couple of weeks off several different times of the year. May is one of those times, so I was thinking that works perfectly with marathon schedules.
“Whether it is Boston again or some other marathon, I think Patrick and I will be running again,” he said.
Until then, Russell said he is happy to be breaking down defenses and calling tight end recruits. He said he is enjoying life in Athens, Georgia, too.
“It has been a fantastic experience,” he said. “It is a great town for someone who is 23 like I am,” he said. “There is always a band playing or something to do or something to see. It is nice to live in a place where you can go out and do things at night.”
The Bulldogs open the 2021 season in Charlotte on Sept. 4, against big rival Clemson. They will also have to get past division rival Florida and conference rival Alabama if they are to compete for their first national title since 1980.
“We will probably open the season in the top five,” Russell said. “If we can beat Clemson, maybe then we will be ranked No. 1.”
Editor’s Note: Iron String Press Editor Greg Klein recently did narration and commentary for a SUNY Purchase student film about Russell and Dewey and their campaign to run the Boston Marathon.