Mike Peterson: Mentor, Gator Great and the Hometown Hero

May 23, 2022 | 0 comments

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In the 1990s, Mike Peterson was simply known as ‘Mike Pete.’ He was a member of Florida’s defense for multiple years including the Gators’ first-ever National Championship win and two of their four consecutive conference titles. Now, he is back in Gainesville as ‘Coach Peterson.’ 

The former first-team All-American and 13-year NFL veteran returned home in January as the outside linebackers coach and alumni liaison on Billy Napier’s inaugural coaching staff. He just finished his first spring practice in the role. 

During a spring press availability, he mentioned Antwaun Powell-Ryland Jr.'s disbelief at seeing his coach on a wall showcasing the most-decorated linebackers in school history. These Gator players will eventually learn more about Peterson, but Inside the Gators caught up with several people who already know him quite well. 

The Coach

Being a coach wasn’t necessarily a dream of his. But as his time in the NFL progressed as a middle linebacker, he sort of fell into the role after some time.

Peterson’s no stranger to coaching outside linebackers at the SEC level. He spent several years coaching the position for Will Muschamp and Shane Beamer from 2016 to 2021 at South Carolina before joining the Gators. He was also an undergraduate assistant and a strength and conditioning coach under Muschamp in Gainesville from 2013 to 2015.

Former Gamecock Bryson Allen-Williams was one of the players on the roster Coach P had to win over when he came to Columbia. Now a graduate assistant for North Carolina, Allen-Williams said Peterson won him over with his genuine nature. He knew how to connect with people and that trait in itself can hold people accountable to do the right things.

“I feel like when Coach P came in, he kind of had a genuine relationship with everybody, and he kind of wanted to understand who you are as a person,” Allen-Williams said. “And then I feel like once you understand who people are, you can maximize their potential as players.”

Allen-Williams had his best years as a Gamecock in 2016 and 2018. The Ellenwood, Georgia native totaled 75 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble in 13 games in 2016. In 2018 he posted 10 TFLs and 41 tackles in just nine games. 

Peterson helped improve his pass rush because of their similar body types and bettered his vision as an outside linebacker. Peterson would tell him “see a little, see a lot. See a lot, see nothing at all.”

One of Allen-Williams’s teammates, current Minnesota Vikings defensive end D.J. Wonnum echoed that relating with players is one of Peterson's biggest strengths. Wonnum developed into a fourth-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft after spending 2016 through 2019 at South Carolina. He earned second-team All-SEC in his final year with 4.5 sacks, 9.5 TFLs, and an interception.

The Stone Mountain, Georgia native said the former middle linebacker taught him how to drop into coverage, something he never had to do before he got to college. He didn’t know much about playing in a two-point stance or guarding wheel, hook and curl routes. Peterson taught him how to do that. 

“He taught me how to be a linebacker in a defensive lineman’s body,” Wonnum said. 

And everything Peterson said or preached came with validity because he spent over a decade of his life living it in the trenches of the National Football League. 

The Big Brother

But his tutelage didn’t stop at the gridiron. Both former Gamecocks spoke more about his role as a mentor off the field than on it. The lessons he imparted on them stick to this day. 

For Wonnum, he instructed him to treat every person the same. “Treat the janitor like the mayor,” Peterson told him. He described his personal growth under Peterson as going from a little boy to a young, adult man. 

Wonnum whenever he needed something, Peterson was always there too. That kind of genuine nature and availability can go a long way in building trust with players on and off the field. 

“He treats everybody like a big brother, man,” he said.  “You come over to his house and play with his sons Mike [Jr.] and Gavin…and his wife, man. He just treats everybody like family. It's a very welcoming atmosphere.”

Allen-Williams agreed with that too. He’s on the coaching side now, starting as a graduate assistant at Georgia State and now working in that same role under former Gator Gene Chizik at North Carolina. 

The Gator Great was someone he could lean on when he missed a combined 14 of a possible 26 games during the 2017 and 2018 seasons due to injury. He considers Peterson a life mentor. 

And the advice he gave his former player when Allen-Williams began his coaching journey was to work hard and keep his head down, always be himself and bring energy, personality, and leadership to his role. 

Now, he can take what he learned from Peterson and utilize those lessons with whatever crop of players Allen-Williams gets. The biggest thing he learned from him in terms of coaching was getting to know players. Coaches can’t build a relationship if 100 percent of their interactions center around football. 

The Teammate

And before helping the next generation of football talent, he was part of it. A member of the famed 1994 class or “Nine Quad” as they called themselves according to former Gator linebacker James Bates

“Everybody in Nine Quad just had such good energy,” Bates said. “I love my ‘92 brothers. But there's a special place in my heart for anybody that's Nine Quad.”

Peterson came in with the likes of Fred Taylor, Reidel Anthony, Ike Hilliard, Ed Chester, Johnny Rutledge, Willie Cohens, and Jacquez Green

"Our class was always very close, we lived together off-campus,” Green said. “It was me, him, and Teako [Brown]. Fred Taylor, Nafis [Karim], and Terry Jackson were our neighbors. We all spent a lot of Friday nights our redshirt year watching [his brother] Adrian [Peterson] and at his mom's house."

Green mentioned how Peterson had to work harder because he came in as a former high school quarterback and safety. That’s something Brenton Cox Jr. said Peterson preached in his short time back in Gainesville: going hard every play. Because that’s how you make plays on a consistent basis. 

Bates is a fan-favorite linebacker himself, he earned first-team All-SEC honors his senior year as the starting middle linebacker for the national champion Gators in 1996. Bates admitted he didn’t know much about Florida before he became a Gator. So, his frame of reference starts at the Steve Spurrier era. 

Thus, he reserves high regard for Mike Pete. 

“I would go so far as to say he's my favorite linebacker that’s come through Florida because he's a good friend, he is such a great, positive person,” he said. “And when you look at what he did on the field — I was proud of the fact that I made a lot of tackles — but not only did he make a lot of tackles but he made game-changing plays.”

Mike Peterson called Alachua County home for all of his formative years. He said in that press availability when the Gators called it was hard for him to say no despite the relationships he made in Columbia. 

“I know how much he and his family love South Carolina, but Florida is home,” Allen-Williams said. “So, for him to have an opportunity to go back home to Gainesville, I know that's going to be huge. I couldn’t wish for a better situation for him. And I know what he's gonna do with that position.”

And Bates is sure it means the world to Peterson. With all the coaches Bates has met through his television career, many don’t get to stay or work near the hometowns or alma maters that have a special place in their hearts. Peterson gets to do both. 

Bates likens it to the feeling he gets teaching his play-by-play class at UF. It gives him so much pride in being just a small part of what’s making the school better and he knows Peterson feels the same way. 

“Mike was hard-nosed like most of those Santa Fe kids…he was always a good leader,” his former roommate Green said. “They are usually the guys that can eventually lead young men."

Tags: Sport

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