A couple of weeks before Morgan State would hire Tyrone Wheatley to helm the football program, athletic director Edward Scott and Wheatley engaged in a two-hour phone conversation. The topics during the first hour, according to Scott, bounced around from life to philosophy to children to family.
“And then he started talking football, and he was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m talking football.’ I said, ‘No, Coach, you’re a football coach. I want you to talk football,’” Scott recalled. “So we had a really good conversation.”
The next day, Wheatley visited the university’s campus and convinced the search committee that he was the right candidate to become the school’s 22nd head coach. On Tuesday morning, the 47-year-old former NFL running back was flanked by Scott and president David Wilson during his introductory news conference inside the Tina & Tyler Student Center where he vowed to reverse the team’s recent struggles but not at the expense of preparing his players for life beyond football.
“We’re going to win some football games. We’re going to win some championships,” he said. “But while doing so, I want mothers and fathers to look at Morgan State University and not say that they have a great football program, but that they have a great program as developers of men.”
Wheatley’s hiring ended a lengthy national search, which began Nov. 19, two days after the team had wrapped up a 4-7 overall record and a 3-4 mark in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference under interim head coach Ernest T. Jones.
Scott acknowledged the glacial-like nature of the process to find a permanent head coach, but insisted that he and Wilson had agreed on one aspect of the search.
“It was less about how fast we got it done and more about making sure that we got the right fit for Morgan State University,” he said. “So that’s why we took the time we did to assess the program literally from A to Z, from our assistant coaches to our resources as far as nutrition and strength and conditioning. We wanted to make sure that when we were starting fresh, the coach that came in had everything at his disposal to be successful.”
To that end, work to replace the turf and track inside Hughes Stadium is scheduled to begin this spring. And Scott pointed out that for the first time in seven years, the university will enter fall of 2019 without any financial or postseason penalties from the NCAA.
But Wheatley, who signed a four-year contract, will be the Bears’ fifth head coach in seven seasons. Over that same span, the football team has enjoyed only one winning season, in 2014.
Wheatley said the work it will take to restore Morgan State’s relevancy in the sport will keep him at the university for a long time.
“It’s not a quick fix,” he said. “So I think that right there lends itself into trying to just buy people into the understanding that this is not a short-term deal. The stability has to be there.”
Wilson said he is confident that Wheatley, his wife, Kimberly, and their five children will want to remain with the school.
“We really feel very strongly that Coach Wheatley and his family are going to fall in love with Morgan State University because the stars are lining in that direction, and you will see winning on the gridiron, but you will also see winning within the Morgan family,” he said. “And that we think will sustain this program for a long time.”
Wheatley emphasized that his background in football will help him connect with the players. He had starred at the University of Michigan and was the 17th overall pick in the 1995 NFL draft by the New York Giants. He played four years for New York and then five more for the Oakland Raiders.
After retiring from the NFL, Wheatley began coaching, starting at his alma mater, Dearborn Heights Robichaud High School in Michigan, in 2007. Since then, he has been the running backs coach at the NCAA level at Ohio Northern (2008), Eastern Michigan (2009), Syracuse (2010-12) and Michigan (2015-16) and in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills (2013-14) and the Jacksonville Jaguars (2017-18). Wheatley was one of four assistant coaches fired by Jacksonville on Dec. 31.
“All the guys are the same,” he said. “The only difference now is, the numbers increase — meaning I’m going from a room of 10 [running backs] to 80 to 100 young men. There’s no difference. I was in the spot. I understand who they are, I understand what they’re going through. But now I have a staff that will be like-minded and understanding that really at the end of the day, the pro athlete, the high school athlete and the college athlete are all the same guy.”
Senior linebacker Ian McBorrough and redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Colby Warrior were among several players who attended Wheatley’s introduction. McBorrough, an Essex resident and Eastern Tech graduate, said he does not think Wheatley will need to make many wholesale changes to the team.
“Last year, we had a lot of close losses, and we were one play away or two plays away,” he said. “So in the offseason, all we have to do is focus in more, tighten up the screws, and I think we’ll be good.”
Wheatley offered few details on his designs for the team, quipping at one point, “Without getting into too many Xs and Os, we’re going to hit harder, run faster, catch a lot more balls, and put the ball into the end zone more than the other team.”
But he said his duty to the players is clear.
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“At the end of the day, they deserve the best, and I do believe that I am the best man for this job,” he said.