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November 14, 2011

A Coach's Journey

By: Jimmy Robertson

Trivia question: Name the former Virginia Tech alum who has coached under guys such as Foge Fazio, Bruce Arians, Bill Snyder, David Cutcliffe and Charlie Weis at various stops in a coaching career spanning more than three decades.

The answer would surprise you.

John Latina, a former Tech offensive lineman in the late 1970s, always wanted to get into coaching, even during his playing days. More than 30 years later, he harbors no plans of stopping or retiring any time soon.

Photo courtesy of Notre Dame athletics

“No, I want to coach,” he said. “I’ve been coaching all my life, and I love dealing with young people. I love helping them grow and watching their maturation into adults. I think it’s incredible. I hope to keep doing it for a long time.”

Latina currently coaches at Akron University, working as the offensive coordinator and tight ends coach under Rob Ianello. It marks his eighth stop in a profession that actually started while at Tech as a graduate assistant under former coach Bill Dooley.

Latina first came to Tech in 1975, having been recruited out of New Castle, Pa., by former coach Jimmy Sharpe. He joined former high school teammates Nick Rapone and Rick Razzano in Blacksburg, and coincidentally, the coach at his high school, Chuck Cuba, played at Tech in the mid-1950s.

Latina played as a true freshman and played under Sharpe for three years before Sharpe was let go in 1977 following a 3-7-1 season and a four-year mark of 21-22-1. Then Tech president William Lavery hired Bill Dooley as the football coach and athletics director.

“What made it tough was that I wasn’t redshirted,” Latina said. “So my senior year, a new staff comes in, and it’s hard on all the rising seniors. You have to prove yourself all over again.

“I was fortunate in that I played for two different head coaches, though at the time, I didn’t think it was great. I also played for three different line coaches. So I was able to learn and take the best of those three and mold it into a philosophy of my own.”

The Hokies struggled in 1978, Latina’s senior season, going 4-7. But afterward, Dooley invited Latina to stick around as a volunteer assistant coach while he finished up work on his therapeutic recreation degree. Then, after that season, Dooley kept Latina around two more seasons as a graduate assistant.

“I think he’s [Dooley] one of the great coaches of all time, and I have so much respect for him,” Latina said. “He was always so professional. He was always focused on the task at hand, and he took a business-like approach to everything. A lot of people thought his philosophies were outdated, but he always won.”

Latina’s first full-time coaching gig came in 1982 at Pittsburgh under Fazio. He only spent one season there, though, before heading to Temple to join Arians, a former Tech quarterback. Arians served as the head coach at Temple from 1983-88.

Following Arians’ dismissal in 1988, Latina wound up at Kansas State, working for Snyder, who took over the worst program in the country that same year, as the offensive line coach.

Latina left after five seasons there, spent five seasons at Clemson under Tommy West and six seasons under Cutcliffe at Ole Miss, helping coach an offense piloted by one Eli Manning, the current quarterback of the New York Giants.

The moving around originally was tough on his wife, Michele, and their two sons, John and Michael. But they grew accustomed to it and accepted it as part of their dad’s profession.

“There was good and bad to it,” Latina said. “Looking back, I think it’s helped the kids. If they have to move around with their jobs, then they know how to handle it. It doesn’t bother them, and we all still have friends in those places. We keep in touch, so we took a negative and made it into a positive. In the long run, I think it was beneficial.”

In 2004, following Cutcliffe’s dismissal after a 44-29 record in six seasons, Latina found himself looking for work when he received a call from a well-known figure. Weis, the New England Patriots offensive coordinator, had taken the Notre Dame head coaching job and was putting together a staff. During his research, he came across Latina’s name and Latina’s success at putting offensive linemen in the NFL. The two did not know each other, but that phone call led to a job offer, which Latina accepted.

“During the phone call, I told him, ‘Yes,’” Latina said. “There was no interview because he was busy with the Patriots during their playoff run. That’s the way it was with most of his staff. I think during our first staff meeting, that was when he met half of his staff.”

Latina went on to spend four seasons at Notre Dame, sending four linemen to the NFL. His job turned out to be a difficult one, with fan expectations running out of control and the offense struggling at times. He received his fair share of criticism, and following the 2008 season, he resigned his position. Notre Dame fired Weis a year later.

“I thoroughly loved it at Notre Dame,” Latina said. “Obviously, there are some things you have to overcome. But I loved dealing with intelligent, goal-oriented young men. You didn’t have some of the distractions that you do at other places. I loved that place.”

After a year off, Latina landed at Akron under Ianello. The two had worked together at Notre Dame and are in year two of rebuilding the Zips’ program.

Latina said he’d love to model Akron’s program after his alma mater. He still keeps up with the Hokies and came to Blacksburg with Ole Miss’ staff in 2002 – his first visit to the campus in 20 years – to meet with Tech’s staff about certain schemes and strategies.

“This has been a good move for us,” Latina said. “My wife and I are only two hours from where we grew up, and I’m getting to see some family again. It’s been great. We’ve really enjoyed it.

“But who knows? Maybe some day I’ll come down there and work at Virginia Tech again. That would be a dream come true.”