Ex-fighter pilot Craig Candeto back at Tech, working toward the top

Craig Candeto’s workspace is a windowless room in the Georgia Tech football offices, big enough for a desk, a couple chairs and not much more. His office once was the cockpit of a Super Hornet combat jet, a fighter plane capable of nearly twice the speed of sound.

Where once Candeto’s literal arsenal included a 20-millimeter rotary cannon and air-to-surface missiles, he now fires off e-mails to square away details of the Yellow Jackets’ travel plans. Earlier this year, he found himself in Ireland on a site visit for the Yellow Jackets’ trip to Dublin, negotiating the uncertainty and possible tension of the request for Lucky Charms for the team’s breakfast.

“Culturally, I didn’t know how it fits over there,” he said. ‘They’re, like, What are those?”

It is another step on what he hopes will be a journey toward his dream job as a Division I head coach. It would be an unlikely path. After graduating from the Naval Academy – where he was coach Paul Johnson’s quarterback in his first two seasons – Candeto became a fighter pilot, then was discharged because of a medical condition, served as a graduate assistant for Johnson at Tech, went to the Citadel as a position coach, became a head coach at a Division III school in Columbus, Ohio, then returned to Tech for his position as assistant director for football operations.

“Everybody’s got their own path, but I think what I’ve learned more as I’ve matured and gotten older is learn and observe,” Candeto said. “Learn from people. You don’t always have all the answers.”

Candeto re-joined the staff early this year after three seasons at Capital University. In his first head-coaching job, he was 9-21. After the third season, he and wife Maribeth decided to move on. The experience of running his own team and calling plays was valuable, but Candeto realized that his heart was in Division I. Geography was also a factor – Candeto is from Florida and Maribeth is from Alabama.

“I learned a ton,” Candeto said of his time at Capital. “It wasn’t the wrong move for me at all. It’s just the right move for me to come back at this point.”

Johnson made calls for jobs on Candeto’s behalf before bringing up the possibility of the operations job. The chance to be back with his old coach was a draw. He is one of three staff members who previously called plays for Johnson, the others being A-backs coach Lamar Owens and graduate assistant Tevin Washington.

“I respect that he’s a winner and that he’s fair,” Candeto said of Johnson. “He’s really fair. As a player, you don’t come back and work for someone unless you respect them.”

Candeto’s responsibilities include handling Tech’s travel and hotel accommodations and also helping ensure that players are attending classes. Candeto also handles small projects for Johnson, such as a preseason presentation to the team reviewing statistical performance and assessing objectives from last year.

“He doesn’t require a lot of direction,” Johnson said. “If you ask him to do something, he gets it done.”

Candeto, 34, is at the point of his life when he might have been leaving the Navy on his own. However, he developed a thyroid condition early in his flight career that grounded him, as he was taking medication that the Navy didn’t permit for pilots. He was discharged in 2009 after rising to the rank of lieutenant.

He has a license to fly twin-engine and single-engine planes, but he has not flown since.

He now finds himself in a post at or near the bottom of the Division I coaching pyramid. His job, in fact, doesn’t permit him to do any on-field coaching.

“That’s been the hard thing, is not being able to lead position meetings or being involved on the football side,” he said.

He craves the opportunity to influence and be an example to players. He relished the thank you he received from a former player at Capital who had gotten a job as a police officer in part due to Candeto’s reference. It’s not a role he can play to a great extent making travel plans, but he abides by the Bible passage on his Twitter page, from the book of Colossians: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.”

Time will tell if and when the next turn in the journey will arrive. Until then, he’s in a position to learn a new set of skills, network and observe.

Said Candeto, “I’m where I’m supposed to be.”

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