Mike Smith and Jerome Riase climbed the college coaching ladder together, sharing an apartment at their first two jobs and dreaming of reaching the top. Their paths, though, eventually took them not only to competing Division II schools in 2009 – Riase at Ashland (Ohio) College, Smith at Gannon University (in Erie, Pa.) – but also in the same recruiting area.
Smith (not the one who coached the Falcons) remembered one recruit in particular whom Riase reeled in.
“Jamie Meder was in love with Ashland and coach Riase,” Smith said. “He wouldn’t even take another visit to another school. That’s how far he had him. He was like, ‘Listen, I appreciate the opportunity, but I’m dead set on going to play for coach Riase.’”
Smith’s memory of Riase, Georgia Tech’s new defensive line coach, is relevant not only as it speaks to his ability to connect with people, a gift he has used to recruit, coach and elevate his career. But it’s also noteworthy because Meder, coached by Riase for his first two seasons at Ashland, became an All-American and is now entering his fifth season with the Cleveland Browns.
“Georgia Tech is getting a great coach, a great recruiter and you guys are definitely going to like him coaching your young men,” Smith said.
Riase, 37, came to Tech after four seasons at Wofford College. The institute is the seventh stop of a career going into its 14th season, including his first job at a high school in Oxford, Ohio, where Riase’s alma mater, Miami, is located. His climb began humbly. From Cleveland, Riase (pronounced “rise”) didn’t have much of a college playing career as a walk-on at Miami. He was not afforded the connections and credibility that a full-fledged playing career might have.
Nathan Clayton, a Miami teammate and close friend of Riase’s, said he and Riase spoke sometimes about teammates or others who were advancing their coaching careers faster, perhaps because of connections developed through their playing careers.
“He’d say the same thing every time,” Clayton said. “’I don’t have the name, but I’m going to get there.’”
He got his first college job at Central State, a Division II school in Ohio, then to Savannah State, then to Ashland, all in a span of three years. From there, he was hired at Butler, which plays at the FCS level. At Butler, where he coached 2012-13, Riase’s people skills and passion for personal development jumped out.
“Jerome was with us for a quick stop, but you saw right away that he was a really good football coach,” Butler coach Jeff Voris said. “He was great with the players, his ability to form relationships and motivate guys, and certainly had a knowledge that was beneficial not just to our players but the staff.”
Voris said that Riase had a knack for figuring out the different ways that his players learned and were motivated. That ability to connect came from his late mother, Deborah Bennett, according to Clayton, Riase’s former teammate. Bennett actually mentored Clayton in a marketing job at a Pittsburgh television station, and Clayton said he saw the same unrelenting drive in her that he does in her son.
“They are a lot alike,” Clayton said. “They have the same smile, they have the same charisma, they have the same, walk into a room and they’ll come out with 10 brand-new friends.”
From Butler, Riase moved on to Wofford. Longtime Terriers coach Mike Ayers, who retired after the 2017 season, got to know Riase from his periodic visits with his staff to talk shop. Riase’s thirst for football knowledge was not sated upon his hire.
“The whole shooting match – clinics, articles, meeting other staffs – you name it,” Ayers said.
The emotional intelligence – Ayers noticed that, too.
“He’s always done a great job of getting close to those guys, and he works ’em hard, but he’ll have fun with them,” Ayers said. “That’s what really inspired his kids to take it to another level. He’ll drop the hammer on ’em when he needs to, or he’ll hug ’em around the neck when he needs to as well.”
He comes to Tech with a depth of knowledge of defensive coordinator Nate Woody’s scheme – Woody coached at Wofford before going to Appalachian State, and the team kept the defense – and a hand in coaching 22 defensive linemen at Ashland, Butler and Wofford who earned all-conference honors.
Riase takes over a group of linemen in need of molding and instruction in a new scheme.
“He’s to the point, but he’s not disrespectful,” lineman Kyle Cerge-Henderson said. “He told us from the jump, ‘I’ll never disrespect you.’ He doesn’t do too much yelling and he does more of a coaching job. That could be more for the spring and that could be just how he is, but so far, I think he’s a really good guy.”
Clayton tells two stories that Riase shared with him around the time of his interview and eventual hire at Tech in January after coach Paul Johnson’s hire of Woody. (Riase and other assistant coaches are not made available to media.) First, Riase was offered the defensive coordinator job at Wofford that became vacant, coincidentally, when Terriers coordinator Shiel Wood jumped to Tech to become safeties coach. Riase had strong interest, Clayton said, but passed because he didn’t think it would be the right thing to do to take a coordinator job when there was still the possibility that he might leave for Tech.
Second, Clayton said, after Riase’s interview at Tech, enough time passed that he began to suspect that he wasn’t going to get the job. As a result, he recommended a colleague for the job and offered an endorsement of another.
“I’m, like, Dude, why would you do that?” Clayton said. “That’s the type of guy he is.”
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