ORLANDO, FLA. -- The 2006 college football season had just ended at LSU, and graduate assistant coach John Papuchis found himself mulling a difficult decision.
Would he remain in his position with the Tigers or take a full-time assistant job at a smaller school that paid more money?
He had spent three years as a grad assistant at Kansas and now three at LSU -- an uncommonly long time to have one of those low-paying, thankless jobs. His wife, Billie, worked overtime as a personal trainer in Baton Rouge, La., to make ends meet, which frustrated Papuchis.
"This isn't right," she recalled him saying some days. "I want to provide more."
When he and Billie discussed their options following the 2006 season, shortly after they married, she told him, "Just wait a little bit longer." So he
stayed at LSU. The next year, the Tigers won the national championship and defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, whom Papuchis worked under, became Nebraska's head coach after the season. Pelini hired Papuchis as defensive line coach, and like that, he and Billie no longer struggled financially.
Last month, Pelini promoted Papuchis, 33, to defensive coordinator, to replace Pelini's brother, Carl, who became Florida Atlantic's head coach.
Papuchis' first game as coordinator, Monday's Capital One Bowl against USC, will be the latest and largest step for his remarkable journey in coaching profession, outside of which he remains largely unknown.
"A lot of the questions I've been fielding the last week or so almost makes it seem as if there's some arrival on the scene," Papuchis said. "But if that's my mentality, it's going to be a short-lived career. It's just beginning."
Understand first that coaching college football without ever playing it is extremely rare. Not that Papuchis didn't try. He auditioned for the team at Virginia Tech, but was cut. So he went across town and worked two seasons as a volunteer assistant at Blacksburg High before graduating Tech in 2001 with a business management degree.
While other Tech students hit the Main Street bars on Friday nights, he sat in the bleachers at high school games, jotting notes on Blacksburg's next opponent. He also coached the junior varsity team. Because Papuchis hadn't played since high school, he didn't think like a player -- an important adjustment for young coaches, said David Crist, Blacksburg's coach since 1975.
"It takes a while to get the player out of you so that you can really just teach the game," Crist said. "It didn't take him long to do that."
Papuchis still considers Crist one of his most valuable mentors, and as Papuchis approached his college graduation, Crist advised him about pursuing a grad assistant coaching job: "If that's what you want to do, do it now. Don't wait until you've got a job. Once you start making a little money, you can't go back to not making anything."
People laugh when Papuchis tells them about how he caught on at Kansas in 2001. The story just can't be true, can it? It just so happened that the Kansas coach reviewing the resumes of grad assistants noticed Papuchis because the coach's son coached baseball at Blacksburg. That was just the break Papuchis needed. But for all his good fortune with landing at Kansas, he quickly learned the difficulties of making his way in coaching, without having played in college.
"If I had known what I know now about how challenging it really was, in hindsight, I don't know that I would have even tried," he said.
He never could have imagined, when coaching JV football at Blacksburg High in 2000, that he would become a defensive coordinator at Nebraska this season, though Pelini will make most of the Cornhuskers' defensive calls, as he always has. But Papuchis always demanded so much from himself -- an attitude Billie said comes from his family's high standards for success. Papuchis' father, John Sr., is a civilian Army employee who works at the Pentagon.
Papuchis can now provide the way he always wanted. Billie can stay home with their kids, ages 3, 2 and 3 months. They likely will never know their father's job as anything other than a prominent coach.
"It's just been a whirlwind," Billie said.