New Georgia Tech safeties coach Shiel Wood was a wide receiver at Wofford 2001-05, helping the Terriers to the FCS semifinals in 2003. (Danny Karnik/GTAA)
Photo: GTAA
Photo: GTAA

Before Tech, safeties coach Shiel Wood’s unusual career decision

Before the 2017 season at Wofford, Shiel Wood was promoted to defensive coordinator. He already was the staff’s recruiting coordinator, and coaches rarely handle both coordinator roles.

“I went and talked to him and told him that I’d be glad to take the recruiting coordinator (job) off his plate,” said longtime Wofford coach Mike Ayers, who retired after the 2017 season. “And he said, ‘No, Coach, I can handle it.’ He did a great job.”

Following the season, Wood was hired to coach safeties at Georgia Tech, now in in its third week of spring practice. Ayers believes Wood should execute the job with aplomb.

“The thing about him, he not only does things extremely well, but you can put a lot on his plate, and he’ll return A-plus work,” Ayers said.

Ayers isn’t the only one who can testify. Wood’s 5-year-old daughter Fay might have some thoughts on the matter, as well. As unusual as his decision was to be the Terriers’ defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator in 2017, Wood made a career decision far more unlikely four years before that. In 2013, after his sixth season serving his alma mater as an assistant coach, he chose to leave coaching to be a stay-at-home dad.

Wood’s wife, Bernadette, herself a former Wofford soccer player and track athlete, was about to begin her medical residency in Greenville, S.C. Not unlike coaching, it demands long hours, sometimes requiring 30-hour shifts. With the couple’s first child on the way, a sacrifice was deemed necessary.

“So he said, ‘OK, this is the best thing for our family,’” Bernadette told the AJC.

One spouse giving up or postponing a career for the other isn’t unusual. However, studies would back up the notion that it is typically the wife who makes the sacrifice, whether for economic, societal or other reasons. In the realm of college football coaching, a vocation that attracts the ambitious and career-driven and one in which jobs are scarce, husbands leaving for the sake of their wives’ careers likely are even more unusual. Tech great Bill Curry, around the game for decades after his playing career as a coach and TV analyst, could recall only one instance even remotely similar – former NFL star Chris Spielman, who took a year off from his playing career to care for his wife, who was battling cancer.

Curry said he has repeatedly apologized to his wife, Carolyn, for not supporting her career aspirations more when he was coaching.

“It is tunnel vision,” Curry said of coaching. “We don’t see other things or other people the way we should, and it’s a great failing. It certainly was with me.”

Fay was born in March 2013, and Bernadette graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine in May of that year and began her residency soon after. The decision for Shiel to stay at home soon proved serendipitous, as Fay developed medical issues.

“He was right there,” Bernadette Wood said. “I think things happen for a reason.”

Shiel Wood was not the play-date type, Bernadette said. He was more likely to take Fay to the park on his own. He stayed in touch with the game through his friendships on the Wofford staff. He occasionally drove to Appalachian State to talk shop with defensive coordinator Nate Woody, who once recruited Wood to play at Wofford and then coached alongside him. He also taught himself to play the guitar. (Shiel Wood was not available to comment, as per Tech’s policy not to permit assistant coaches to speak with media.)

“He was the best stay-at-home dad I think you could ever have,” Bernadette Wood said. “He was wonderful. Like anything, he goes into it 100 percent and with a passion, and I think he really enjoyed those three years that he had to stay at home with Fay. I don’t think he would trade it for the world.”

Georgia Tech safeties coach Shiel Wood (right) with wife Bernadette and daughter Fay. (Courtesy Wood family)
Photo: Contributed

After Shiel’s third season away from coaching, Bernadette’s schedule had eased to the point that he could return to coaching. After the 2015 season, Wofford had an opening – his old job coaching safeties, even. Then-defensive coordinator Nate Fuqua, who had been a teammate of Wood’s, then was a position coach in Wood’s senior season and finally coached with him, had sought Wood to gauge his interest in returning. It was not the first time during Wood’s absence that he had reached out.

“Because I knew he was the best guy for the job for multiple reasons,” Fuqua said in a text message. “He’d coached the position before, he knew and recruited some of the current players in that room, he’d know all the defensive language, (and) I could trust him to help me as a young coordinator to get the job down.”

After Fuqua went to Georgia State at the end of the 2016 season, Wood was elevated to defensive coordinator for the 2017 season. The Terriers finished 26th in FCS in total defense, won the Southern Conference and reached the FCS playoff quarterfinals. After the season, upon Woody’s hire as Tech’s defensive coordinator, Wood was asked to join him. As is also the case with new defensive line coach Jerome Riase, Wood benefits from having coached in a scheme essentially the same as Woody’s with the same terminology.

Ayers praised Wood’s intelligence and work ethic. Fuqua said that he has an ability for understanding the best ways to teach his players. Tech safety Christian Campbell said that when he first met Wood, the coach told him that “he doesn’t like to get up all in your face,” an assessment that has proved true through two weeks of spring practice.

“When he goes to correct you, it isn’t rah-rah,” Campbell said. “It’s kind of sit down and step by step explain it.”

Now 5, Fay is healthy. When her husband took the Tech job to re-join Woody, Bernadette gave up her position in internal medicine and pediatrics with the Greenville Health System. She is taking some time off to help settle the family, but has begun a job search to practice medicine in Atlanta.

She acknowledges that things have turned about as well as could be. At 35, Shiel Wood is a position coach at a power-conference school, an opportunity many in his profession never achieve. And he banked three around-the-clock years of time with his daughter, also an opportunity many in his profession never achieve.

“I think it just shows that he’s a great man, and he steps up to the plate to do what needs to be done to take care of his family,” Bernadette Wood said. “And I think putting family first and maybe not knowing the future would hold, but trying to do the right thing at the right time for the right reason, I don’t think you’re ever going to go wrong making a decision like that.”

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