COLUMBIA — From their seats in the coaches’ booth, John McClure and Kirk Botkin watched the high school football game unfolding down on the field, early in the 2010 season.
McClure was the running backs coach at Texas High, and his longtime friend Botkin was the new defensive coordinator, having landed there in Texarkana, Texas, after working as an assistant at the University of Arkansas.
“This a little bit different than being on the sideline against LSU or Alabama?” McClure asked Botkin.
“It’s still football,” Botkin replied.
When Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino fired Botkin after the 2009 season, he had a chance to work at Cornell and Tulane. But his wife Rebecca’s father was laid up with heart and diabetes problems in an intensive care unit in Little Rock, Ark. While talking with McClure, Botkin found out Texas High had an opening, and the school was just 145 miles from Little Rock — a perfect fit.
Botkin spent two seasons there and is now one of four new assistants who debuted at South Carolina this spring. Of the new coaches, Botkin, 41, took perhaps the most winding path to Columbia — from playing in the NFL to coaching at (and getting fired from) his alma mater to recharging himself by returning to a high school setting, where he first fell in love with football.
“I think coaching is coaching,” he said. “I don’t care what level it is.”
Botkin grew up in Baytown, Texas, east of Houston. His father, Danny, coached some high school and mostly junior high football there for 35 years. Botkin and his brother, Keith, rode the bus to games with the team, picked up balls and towels on the sideline and celebrated after wins by letting the players throw them and their dad into the locker room showers with their clothes on — a memory that still makes Botkin laugh.
Botkin never played for his dad. Instead, his high school coach was Jim Stroud, whose toughness established him as an East Texas legend of sorts.
Stroud ran off assistant coaches. He never let players take their helmets off, in games or practices; you had to pour a small cup of water through the facemask. Lose eye contact with Stroud when he talked to you and “he’d swat you right there and take you out and run you,” Botkin said. Stroud refused to let players take bathroom breaks during practice, so they had to urinate in their pants, Botkin said.
“He was the hardest son of a (gun) I ever played for,” Botkin said. “I played four years in the NFL. It was nothing. High school is the hardest (stuff) I ever went through. But he taught me mental toughness that helped me.”
Danny was no pushover, either. In the summers, he made Botkin and his brother earn money by mowing lawns and painting houses in the 100-degree heat.
That work ethic pushed Botkin to become an All-Southeastern Conference tight end at Arkansas, and battle through knee injuries during a four-year NFL career, from 1994-97. He always knew he wanted to coach, though Danny tried to discourage it. Too much time for too little money, he’d say. But Botkin decided to give it a shot at his old high school in Baytown, in 1999.
From there, he worked at three smaller colleges, then landed on Petrino’s first staff at Arkansas in 2008. Petrino, who was fired earlier this week for ethical misdeeds involving a mistress, has a reputation of being difficult to work for. Botkin declined to discuss specifics of his time at Arkansas, but said he wasn’t entirely disappointed about getting fired.
Botkin adapted well at Texas High, which he recruited while at Arkansas. He was already friends with McClure and offensive coordinator Kyle Preston.
He regularly told McClure how refreshing the experience felt, and how, at Arkansas, his three kids were asleep most nights when he arrived home. Now, he could walk over to see his son’s middle school football practice after the varsity wrapped up. He could go on overnight deer hunting trips with Preston and his family. He wasn’t actively seeking a college job.
Then his phone rang. It was Lorenzo Ward, USC’s newly promoted defensive coordinator. He wanted to know if Botkin would consider taking USC’s linebackers coaching job.
Botkin knew Ward from Arkansas. Ward spent just 2008 there, but when he and Botkin arrived, they were randomly paired as roommates in a two-bedroom apartment while they looked for houses for their families. Botkin didn’t know Ward before that, but after living together for four months and working long hours, they became good friends, and their wives did, too.
Between Botkin’s trust in Ward as his boss, the chance to coach in the SEC again and Botkin’s father-in-law improving, taking this next turn was an easy choice.
“That’s really what I was looking for — to have a chance to win, but also work with good people,” Botkin said.