At Florida, it's more than football, it's family

Aug 16, 2019 | 0 comments

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Former Florida wide receiver Dallas Baker stood before the Gators 2019 football team in the spring, his eyes tearing up, as he told the story of how he was more than just a “touchdown maker” to position coach Billy Gonzales.

At a time when he was at a critical crossroads in his life, Gonzales kept him from continuing down the wrong path.

Gonzales didn’t recruit Baker to Florida, and he only coached him for two years. Gonzales was an up-and-coming coach trying to work his way up the coaching ladder. He had every reason to forget all about Baker and let him go down that dark road. He didn’t do it for the publicity; until Baker mentioned it to the team, nobody had heard of this story. He did it because Baker is part of his family.

While his allegiance to the Orange and Blue never wavered, Baker said that was his first time visiting UF since Urban Meyer left after the 2010 season. Stepping back onto the practice field with some of the same coaches that helped him grow as a person caused his emotions to boil over.

“It was just one of those things just remembering, like, when he came into my life and all my times I had with my teammates,” Baker said. “All the emotions came over me. It’s how they always said, those are going to be times that you cherish for the rest of your life.”

While he benefited from Gonzales’ tutelage as a wide receiver, Baker said Gonzales means so much more to him than just a football coach. He views him as a father figure despite Gonzales only being 12 years older than him.

“I’m able to get coached hard because I love this person. I will run through a wall for this person. So, this person tells me to do this, it doesn’t matter the tone of his voice or anything. I’m going to believe that it’s going to work because it’s a trust factor. So then when it works, now that person has you to the point where everything he tells you, you just believe it.”
– Dallas Baker on why it is important to have a strong relationship between a player and a coach

“I could talk to him about anything when we were at Florida, like how to act once you become married, how to be a father, how to become a better football player,” he said. “It was just bigger than just X’s and O’s with Coach G. It was about life. He means the world to me. We talk all the time. Like, all the time, all the time.”

Baker is currently the wide receivers coach at Marshall. Now that he’s in the coaching profession, he said he’s gained a new level of appreciation for just how special his coaching staff was at Florida. Seemingly small things like coaches putting their arms around players and having them interact with their kids can make a huge difference in changing the culture of a program. Baker tries to apply what he learned from his coaches at UF to his players at Marshall.

“I’m able to get coached hard because I love this person,” he said. “I will run through a wall for this person. So, this person tells me to do this, it doesn’t matter the tone of his voice or anything. I’m going to believe that it’s going to work because it’s a trust factor. So then when it works, now that person has you to the point where everything he tells you, you just believe it.”

Baker said that when he visits the program now, his daughter, Angelina, is “treated like a princess,” and he and his fiancé, Vanessa, are “treated like kings and queens.”

“If I’m alive the next time we get a break, I’m going back to see them,” he said. “Like, that’s a great feeling to be able to go back to your university, and the person who helped you become a man is still there.”

While Baker is a bit of an extreme example of love and loyalty from an assistant coach, over the spring former Florida running back Chris Rainey shared that Dan Mullen looked at him as more than just a football player during Mullen’s first stint in Gainesville.

“Oh, he's a father figure,” plainly stated Rainey when asked what makes Mullen stand out as a coach. “Everybody already knows he can coach, I played for him. What he did this year wasn't no surprise to me. I know what he can do coaching, but people don't know about the kind of bond he has with his players. To me you need that because when you got talented players going hard for you because they know you care about them, that's another level.”

[Related: Rainey sees big changes at Florida]

There are other ways in which the Gators’ family-like culture is prevalent today.

The family atmosphere in the Gators’ program starts at the top. Dan Mullen not only allows the coaches’ wives and kids to be around the facility, but he encourages it in some ways by hosting special events for the families.

Kelli Hevesy, wife of offensive line coach John Hevesy, said their children regularly take advantage of the access by attending practice and hanging out with the team. In particular, their son, Jack, a quarterback at Buchholz High School, likes to play video games with the players.

They are all so close that earlier this spring freshman offensive lineman Chris Bleich photo shopped himself over a photo of Jack standing next to John.

Every Thursday before games, the coaches’ families are invited to watch practice and eat dinner with the team inside the stadium. Additionally, one coaches’ wife is chosen to bring candy bars for the entire team. They put the candy bars in a big bucket, and the kids pass them out to the players.

Hevesy said her go-to candies are Reese’s peanut butter cups, Starbursts and Skittles. Because of her kids’ schedules, she doesn’t get to attend family dinner anymore, but she hosts the linemen at their house from time to time after dinner. They’ll be at their house this Thursday before the Miami game.

After the second scrimmage of fall camp on Aug. 11, the players’ and coaches’ families were allowed on the field to visit with each other and take photos.

On game days, the coaches’ wives are allowed on the field to greet the team after Gator Walk, Paige Grantham, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s wife, said the families also get to be with the team in the locker room after games.

“I think that Dan and Megan do a really nice job of always including the families and wanting us all to be together whenever there’s an event or something,” Grantham said. “He wants everyone there. He doesn’t mind if the kids are coming in the office or the kids are out on the practice fields hanging out with their dad. It’s always been about family ever since we met them.”

If you’re a regular on social media, you likely saw the photos and videos of Gator players hanging out at their position coaches’ houses over the summer.

“They’re like our kids,” Kelli Hevesy said. “I think when you’re anywhere – we’ve been married for 20 years – we’ve done a lot of programs together and you have them over. You just incorporate them into your family. Whatever they need, you give. You listen.

“You’ve got to treat these kids like they’re your kids because if you don’t, you’re going to lose them quickly.”

While the pool antics receive the most attention on social media, the players do slightly different activities at each coach’s house.

Grantham said the players didn’t swim at their house this summer. Instead, they have a ping-pong table and some gaming systems that the players enjoy. More than anything, she said the players liked to just sit around, listen to music and talk with each other. After a long, exhausting day of football activities, this is their chance to relax and unwind.

She said she is able to be as involved with the players as she used to because of her kids’ busy schedules – their son, Corbin, is an excellent baseball player who just committed to play for Mississippi State. When she got to see the players more often earlier in Todd’s career, the players had some favorite topics they liked to bring up.

“They would talk about, like, their family, and they’d talk about class,” she said. “They’d want to know about our kids and the sports they were involved in. They always want to know how Coach Grantham is when he’s at home. ‘Is he as intense at home as he is on the field?’ They used to always like to make jokes about that. They’d just talk about everyday life, things that’s going on in their life.”

The Hevesy household is where the belly-flops, cannonballs and pool basketball go down. When the players aren’t practicing their Olympic diving routines, they like to play video games, darts and basketball and watch television with the couple’s three teenage children.

Of course, when you’re hosting a bunch of offensive linemen, everything always comes back to food at some point. Some of the players’ favorites include burgers from Relish, macaroni, and cheese and vanilla ice cream, Hevesy said. When they win, she makes a special dessert – she wouldn’t give away what it is – that she sends in for the entire team to eat.

“I mean, they’re offensive linemen, they like anything,” she said. “Need I say anymore?”

To put it simply, John Hevesy is a very loud, demanding and intense coach. It often seems like he, Grantham and Greg Knox are having a contest at practice to see who can yell the loudest, and Hevesy rarely loses.

You’d probably assume that Kelli and John have a good cop, bad cop type of relationship with the players. John chews them out and breaks them down at practice, and Kelli builds them back up with love and encouragement. That’s true to a degree, she said, but she knows that there are times when tough love is warranted.

“Some of them will tell me, ‘Oh, Coach Hevesy’s being mean,’” she said. “I’m like, ‘Well, what’d you do?’ John’s not – I mean, he likes it a certain way, and everybody’s held responsible for what they do.”

At defensive line coach David Turner and his wife Yvette’s house, food takes center stage. David loves to grill and smoke meat. He cooks the meat on his Big Green Egg grill, while Yvette prepares the sides. Everything is homemade.

“The players and my husband, they get together, they eat and they talk, and they just talk about life in general,” Yvette said. “It’s just an opportunity for them away from football, away from campus, to just get together and eat and socialize.

“It’s enjoyable to see the young men relaxed, and they can just talk about life and school, and I just love watching my husband mentor these young men.”

It can be a bit challenging to get to know a bunch of players on a personal basis. Some of the players are shy, and they’re all at their houses at the same time. The key is to make them feel like they’re at home and talk to them individually about things that are going on in their lives, the wives said. Usually, that gets them to open up.

“You just have to make them feel welcome and feel like ‘This is our home; we want it to be your home and feel comfortable and just relax,’” Grantham said. “You just try to start up conversations with them, whether it’s about the song that’s playing, or I usually try to start with ‘What’s your favorite meal? When you were at home, what did you like for them to fix?’ And, we kind of start off like that.”

On Thanksgiving and Easter, the coaches open their doors and host players who can’t make it back home for the holiday, Turner said.

Seeing the players regularly and knowing them personally makes for a different viewing experience during games than what fans experience.

“It can be intense,” Grantham said. “It’s almost like watching your own child because you want them to do so great, and you know how hard they’ve worked, and you want everything to go well for them that day. When they make a big play, you’re just so excited for them.”

Added Hevesy: “It’s awful. It’s hard because you know these people and you want everybody to do well, including I want my husband to do well. When it doesn’t go well, you don’t say anything. You just push your head down, tell them ‘We’ll get them next time.’ You just offer all the encouragement you can. You forget they’re still kids.”

The relationship between a coach’s wife and a player begins when the player is in high school. Grantham said a lot of parents are uneasy about sending their children off to college, particularly if it’s a college far from home.

“A lot of times, we’ll go to the recruiting dinners, and you sit there, and everyone has concerns with sending their child off to college with people you haven’t been around much,” she said. “Everyone, they’re worried, as parents. You just let them know [that] they’re in good hands, and this is a great place for your son to go to college, and it’s a safe campus, and there’s lots to do here. We’re here. Our door’s always open.”

Grantham said the most rewarding part of being a coaches’ wife is seeing wide-eyed teenagers, some of whom come from tough backgrounds, grow into mature young men with jobs and families of their own. She said looking at photos of former players with their children sometimes brings tears to her eyes.

“I can go back through some of my photos, and I see pictures of guys that my husband’s coached before and it’s like their first day of practice and it’s like Media Day,” she said. “You look at how young they looked, and you can look in their eyes and just tell, like, they were so scared. And then how they grow and mature after four years, and a lot of them are dads now, and they’re playing in the NFL. It’s fun to see pictures now of their kids. It’s a really neat process.”

Hevesy said the NFL Draft is a special day not just for the players but for her family as well.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “Absolutely amazing. One of our really good players of ours four years ago [at Mississippi State], my kids, like, loved more than anything. They were at that draft, and we try to go to as many as we can, the parties, and take the kids. We haven’t been in a while, but they just love it, like the excitement in their eyes just to see it all go down.

“It makes you proud of who your husband is, who he’s becoming.”

For many of the players, college is their first time living by themselves. Some of them may have never had a family growing up, and being a part of the UF football team is the closest thing they’ve got. The coaches and their wives serve something of a parental role for the players, and that’s not a responsibility they take lightly.

“I’ve seen kids that have come from foster care,” Grantham said. “I’ve seen kids that came with no home at all, and they came in here, they did what they were told, they work really hard, they get their degrees, they go out, they get jobs, they go into the league, they start their own families. There have been a lot of kids like that, and it’s nice to see how hard they work, and their dreams have come true.”

The bonds don’t end when players leave campus, either.

Todd Grantham receives “lots” of text messages from his former players before and after games and over the summer when they have some down time, Paige said. It’s not always about football. She said the former players know that Todd’s a big fisherman, so they’ll strike up conversations about where he’s gone fishing recently and what he’s caught.

Kelli Hevesy, known as “Mama Hev” to the former players, said she’s Facebook friends with a lot of former players, and she hears from them “all the time.”

“It’s interesting to see like how many are married now with kids,” she said. “It’s awesome. It’s awesome to watch them grow.”

Almost every head coach talks about their program being a family, but, for some of them, it’s only used as a selling point to recruits with little action to back it up. Yvette Turner and Paige Grantham both said their husbands have worked for head coaches that weren’t as receptive to having children hanging around the facility. At Florida, Mullen very much makes the program feel like a giant family.

“He knows how important it is for everyone included to feel like part of the family and to feel welcomed, to be a part of something,” Turner said. “So, it’s really important. Always has been, always will be. There’s nothing like family.”

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