Shawn Clark wanted to celebrate.
In his stand-in performance as Appalachian State’s offensive play caller, he authored a blowout in the New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 15. There was a double pass for a touchdown. There was a reverse that resulted in another. Forty-five points and another trophy later, Clark deserved a little glory. But once the jubilation died down, Clark had to figure out the next phase of his life.
He and the remaining members of the Mountaineers staff were stuck in the worst spot of a coaching transition. Scott Satterfield left to become head coach of Louisville after six seasons, and he took a pair of his old App State assistant coaches with him almost immediately. The rest were tasked with finding job security wherever they could.
In most fields, success breeds stability. In coaching, however, it can still mean absolutely nothing. And when a head coach like Satterfield takes a new job, logic says he would take some, if not all, of his assistants with him.
But for those in the gray area — not sure if they’re going with the head coach to the new job, not sure if they’ll be retained by the new coach of their current job — it creates a tension that career coaches are forced to adapt to. And it’s worse for a person like Clark, serving as the offensive line coach and run game coordinator at his alma mater, who was happy in Boone and wanted to stick around.
“That was an emotional time because you know that possibly you coached your last game at a place that you just won 11 football games,” Clark said in his office, a few months before the start of 2019 spring practices. “You’re 11-2, and you don’t even know if you have a job or not.”
For a little more than two weeks, the coach lived through a time period that demonstrates the brutality of the profession.
Ultimately, the App State-to-Louisville move would work out for everyone — all of Satterfield’s Mountaineer assistants are currently employed. But for a brief moment, the coaches and their families were forced to wait to see if their lives would change drastically or not at all.
Adjusting to uncertainty
App State won the Sun Belt Conference championship game on Dec. 1. A week later, Satterfield and two assistants were already in Louisville. The Mountaineers took a staff of eight assistant coaches to the New Orleans Bowl, filling the gaps with graduate assistants.
Based off similar situations, it was likely few would be retained by the next coach at Appalachian. The Journal looked at 20 coaching transitions, including Satterfield’s, since 2010 that fit the same description — a head coach who was part of a 10-win season at the Group-of-Five level and was hired at a Power-Five school for the following season.
The departing coaches’ staff members were assigned to three different categories: assistants who joined the coach at the P5 school, assistants who were retained by the new coach at the G5 school and assistants who had to find a new job elsewhere.
The averages for those three groups broke almost clearly: five assistants go with the head coach to the P5 job, two are retained by the new coach of the G5 school and two have to find new jobs completely. Five in that last set never returned to college coaching.
The numbers reflect the old standard of nine assistants. Division-I head coaches were allowed to hire a 10th on-field assistant in 2018.
It’s a reality that everyone who gets in the business understands, especially Greg Gasparato, App State’s safeties coach.
Gasparato is the son of former longtime college assistant Nick Gasparato. His father worked at Pittsburgh, Virginia, South Carolina, Temple and Penn State during his 30-plus year coaching career. Because of that, Gasparato said, the family never lived in a house for longer than five years.
He was never surprised by the volatility of the profession, and he tried to make sure his wife wasn’t either. Before leaving Wofford to join App State in 2018, he brought that conversation up again as he took his family into the FBS level.
Magnifying that was the fact he was now working with one of the top Group-of-Five coaches at the time. While at App State, Satterfield and the Mountaineers won 51 games during six seasons — including nine wins or more in Satterfield’s last four seasons, three Sun Belt Conference championships and three bowl victories. Gasparato knew his family would likely face change in the near future.
“Maybe not the first year, second year, but the rest of our lives, we’ll be on a one-year contract no matter what you sign, no matter what people tell you,” Gasparato remembered saying to his wife.
The worst part of the profession might be the fact that those assistants readily accept that fate. On the afternoon of Dec. 3, when the news of Satterfield’s impending hire at Louisville started breaking, Clark was on a recruiting visit. He knew things would be shaky from there on.
He started getting texts of congratulations like his spot with the Cardinals had already been secured, too. Clark knew there was no such assurance. As a grad assistant at Louisville, he sat in the locker room as John L. Smith, then Louisville’s head coach, announced he was leaving at halftime during the 2002 GMAC Bowl for Michigan State. Clark was also part of the Purdue staff that was fired after the 2012 season.
So when he found out about Satterfield’s new gig, he readied for another difficult conversation with his family.
“My kids are at the age now — my 9-year-old and 6-year-old — they understand what’s happening,” Clark said. “... Now they’re asking questions, ‘Do we have to move? Do we have to miss our friends?’
“That’s the hard part. For coaches, it’s easier. We just pick up and move. But the hardest part is on our wife and our kids. They have to stay behind and not know what the future is, what the future holds for those guys.”
Keeping their jobs
Here’s how bowl week shook out for guys like Clark and Gasparato: the days leading up to the New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 15, the focus stayed on Appalachian, its players and its last opponent of the season, Middle Tennessee State.
But since agents are a luxury most assistant coaches can’t bet on or potentially afford, the evening and the night — really the times when team activities had ended — were spent on the phone staying updated on job leads.
Each day seemed to result in news. First, former defensive line coach Mark Ivey was named interim head coach on Dec. 4. A legit contender for the job, the likelihood of stability increased at App State for assistants who wanted to stick around. Then on Dec. 12, before App State practiced in the Mercedes Benz Superdome, Ivey and the team found out the interim tag would not be removed.
The next day, App State hired Eli Drinkwitz. Mountaineers assistants had a staff meeting with the new coach sometime afterward in New Orleans. Satterfield, meanwhile, stayed in contact with a few assistants as well, but largely, he held off so his former coworkers could focus on current work.
Appalachian won the New Orleans Bowl, a 45-13 victory that sent the Mountaineers celebrating past the midnight hour. Shortly after the game, Clark said he got a text message from Drinkwitz saying he’d like to speak.
App State traveled back to Boone, arriving early Sunday morning. Two days later, Drinkwitz met with assistants who wanted to stay. Those early conversations can be tense, according to multiple Power-Five coaches the Journal interviewed for this project.
Jeff Brohm, currently the head coach at Purdue, didn’t retain any of the former staff members when he arrived to take over the Boilermakers. His policy was to be frank and honest when he met with the holdovers.
Dave Clawson, the head coach at Wake Forest, has been on both sides of those chats at this point in his career. Now in his fourth head coaching stop, Clawson points to John Hunter, his running backs coach, as an example of how important retainees can become.
When Clawson was hired as head coach of Bowling Green (staying there from 2009 to 2013) he held onto Hunter for two main reasons. Hunter was a Bowling Green grad who could teach Clawson about the school’s tradition. He also recruited Detroit, which was a key metropolis for the Falcons. Clawson enjoyed the relationship so much that he brought Hunter to Wake Forest, one of four assistants he brought from Bowling Green to Winston-Salem.
“I’m still working with John Hunter, and that’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life,” Clawson said.
Institutional knowledge became part of the reason why Clark was ultimately retained at App State. He was the first assistant coach hiring made by Drinkwitz. Clark earned a promotion to assistant head coach in a move announced four days after the Mountaineers’ bowl win.
As a former assistant, Drinkwitz went through one of the transitions the Journal researched. He was at Arkansas State in 2012 with Gus Malzahn, who was hired by Auburn after that season. Drinkwitz was retained by Malzahn's replacement, Bryan Harsin. Harsin would take Drinkwitz with him to Boise State the following season, where the latter would go on to be the offensive coordinator.
Drinkwitz thought about his progression as a coach while building this Mountaineers staff.
"I was fortunate to be retained on a staff with a head coach I didn't know and that was something that launched my career," Drinkwitz said. "And I wanted to make sure I gave somebody that same opportunity or at least the opportunity to interview for a position. So that's what was important for me and this staff, I just decided on this job, I was going to have no preconceived ideas."
The facts that Clark played at App State, had been part of both its past and current winning traditions, and that his program visions aligned with Drinkwitz helped to keep him around. Some gutsy playcalling and a dominant offensive showing against MTSU didn’t hurt either.
Ultimately, all of Satterfield’s App State staff would be cared for. Six ended up in Louisville with him — Ivey, Frank Ponce, Bryan Brown, Stu Holt, Dale Jones and Nic Cardwell (off-field role). Four were retained by Drinkwitz: Clark, Gasparato, outside linebackers coach D.J. Smith (also an App State alumnus) and Justin Watts, who moved from wide receivers to tight ends while holding onto recruiting coordinator responsibilities.
Gasparato was the last holdover hiring announced. He found out just after Christmas, becoming Drinkwitz’s sixth hire. When he talked about it afterward, Gasparato framed it as a learning experience.
With his father’s career to lean on, Gasparato thought he would be ready. Now on the other side of this transition, he knows he couldn’t have been prepared for the uncertainty of it all. The month of December brought stress to Gasparato and all the other members of the program whose jobs seemed at risk. But Gasparato said he couldn’t shake an overwhelming feeling that it’d work out for him and his family, one way or another.
“I wasn’t concerned because I truly believe that what was going to happen would happen, and we would figure it out,” Gasparato said. “And like I said, I’m just fortunate that the pieces fell in place where I could remain here, and I’m excited as heck to get started.”