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January 9, 2009

Suggs embarks on a different type of professional career

By: Jimmy Robertson

Photo courtesy of The Plain Dealer

It’s advice parents often give their children once they graduate from college and start searching for a job – you have to start at the bottom and work your way toward the top.

Certainly, Lee Suggs can attest to that. This past fall, he began his pursuit of a coaching career at the bottom – and savored every minute of it.

Suggs, a former outstanding tailback at Tech, spent this past autumn toiling as the running backs coach at tiny Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, just 40 minutes west of Cleveland. Oberlin is a Division III school that doesn’t offer scholarships for athletics, features only three full-time football coaches – Suggs wasn’t one of them – and plays in front of a few hundred fans. That’s about 66,000 less than the number who used to watch Suggs gallop across goal lines at Lane Stadium only a short six years ago.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Suggs said of his new coaching gig. “I’m enjoying it. Obviously, I’m coming at it [football] from a different perspective now. I’m trying to get guys to play the way I want them to play, and sometimes, I wish I could just go out there and do it myself.

“When you know a player can do it and he doesn’t, then that’s frustrating. But it’s also very fulfilling when everything does click and he gets over that hump and has some success.”

Suggs, now 28, certainly knows about success. While at Tech, he rushed for 2,767 career yards. In 2000, he set a single-season record for rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns with 27 and 28, respectively, on his way to being named the co-Big East offensive player of the year. He finished his career with 53 rushing touchdowns and 56 total touchdowns – school records that still stand.

Injuries marred his pro career. He went in the fourth round to the Cleveland Browns in the 2003 NFL Draft, but spent the better part of three seasons hurt. The Browns tried to trade him to the New York Jets in 2006, but that trade fell through when Suggs failed a physical because of an ailing knee and he went back to the Browns, who subsequently released him. The Dolphins picked him up in September of 2006, but they released him a little over a month later.

Suggs tried out for other teams, but ended up coming back to Blacksburg to finish up course work for his degree. He got his degree in residential property management in the spring of 2007.

“I decided to move back here,” Suggs said, referring to Olmsted Township, Ohio, where he had built a home while he played for the Browns and which is roughly 20 minutes from the rural Oberlin campus. “I had a house here that I had been trying to sell for two years. But I found work here and decided to stay.”

Suggs got a job working for New York Life Insurance Company, selling insurance and annuities. But as he put it, “That was not my thing.”

While working for New York Life, he got a call from a friend named Manzie Williams, who used to be an intern with the Browns and was working as an assistant trainer at Oberlin. Williams told Suggs about an opening on the staff, and Suggs immediately expressed interest. He interviewed with Oberlin coach Jeff Ramsey and ultimately got the job.

“I knew that I wanted to be around football in some way,” Suggs said. “I always have, and if you can’t play, then this [coaching] is the next best thing.

“Of course, I’d like to be playing. You ask any ex-player and he’ll tell you that. But coaching is a way to keep involved in football and I enjoy it.”

Suggs took the job thinking that he would get the pleasure of coaching one of the best backs ever to play at Oberlin and one of the best in the Division III ranks in R.V. Carroll – the 2007 North Coast Athletic Conference offensive player of the year. But Carroll, a senior, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in the team’s fourth game this past season. Largely as a result, Oberlin finished the year with a record of 2-8.

But that didn’t put a damper on Suggs’ coaching debut.

“I think the biggest difference [between playing at Tech and coaching at Oberlin] is just the caliber of athletes,” he said. “Oberlin has high academic standards and a lot of the players come here for that, and not for football. They put a lot of attention on their schoolwork, which is what they need to do because that’s going to get them where they want to go in life.

“There are other differences, obviously. The amount of money spent is a lot less here and there’s a lot less time at practice. And numbers, we only have about 45 players on the team. But we’ve got a new president here and we’re working on things. Things are looking up.”

Suggs’ hiring created quite a stir among those at the small school. Ramsey knew it would and instructed Suggs to hold a question-and-answer session during one of training camp’s first team meetings to “get it out there.”

“A lot of the players have told me that they’ve Googled me,” he said, with a chuckle. “And some have said they’ve seen me play in some of the Tech games that have been shown on ESPN Classic.

“I’ve talked about my career some with the players. But you know me, I’m not the type who likes to talk about myself.”

Suggs also works another job. Since he only worked part time for Oberlin, he decided to take a job at Oberlin High School. There, he runs in the in-school suspension room and substitute teaches when needed. Once he got off work from there this past fall, he headed over to the college for the team’s 4:40 p.m. daily practice.

“You know, I really have a lot of fun doing that,” Suggs said of the job at the high school. “We’re trying to work it out so I could be the strength and conditioning coordinator during the winter months and I hope that works out.

“But I’m trying to be a role model at that school. It’s a predominantly black school and I’m trying to get those kids to hit the books and do something instead of being a gang member or something like that. I want them to do something positive with their life. It’s a lot of fun.”

Suggs has learned that coaching and being a role model is the same at every level. Like every other coach, he wants to coach at the Division I level. It’s the ultimate goal.

Yet he’s also learned one other thing – when you’re doing what you love, starting at the bottom isn’t so bad after all.