ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Somewhere in Rome, John O’Korn started to get Pep Hamilton. He started to understand the coach, who was three months into his job at Michigan but who brought a completely different demeanor than his predecessor.
Somewhere, among the ancient ruins and the more than 100 teammates, staff members and family members, a light bulb went on for O’Korn, a redshirt senior and a quarterback for the Wolverines.
Rome cast Hamilton in a different light for O’Korn.
Until the Wolverines went overseas, O’Korn only saw one side of Hamilton, Michigan’s first-year assistant head coach and passing game coordinator.
“He came in, in spring ball, and set a tone, that he was going to be all business,” O’Korn said earlier this month. “But since then, the trip to Rome really helped us. We’ve gotten a lot closer with him, personally. But when we’re in the meeting room or we’re on the field, he’s all business. And he set that tone, from Day 1.”
Hamilton is less than eight months on the job at Michigan, joining Jim Harbaugh’s staff in January after spending last season with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns as the associate head coach/offense.
The 42-year-old enters his 21st season of working at the college or professional football level as a coach or intern.
Among some of Hamilton’s quarterback pupils: NFL players Chad Pennington, Andrew Luck, Kyle Orton and Jay Cutler. Hamilton also coached Luck at Stanford, where he was quarterbacks coach in 2011 and 2012.
Hamilton’s successful protégés gave him immediate credibility at Michigan. But another hurdle awaited: building similarly successful quarterbacks — and successful relationships — in a new program.
Football is business
Where previous Michigan passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch was engaging and gregarious, Hamilton takes a task-oriented, business approach. That’s obvious even in his interactions with reporters, where he is soft-spoken and measured in choosing his words.
In fact, if it weren’t for coaching, Hamilton would have gone into the business world. When he graduated in 1997 with a business degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C., Hamilton prepared to take a job with Bank of America.
Instead, the native of Charlotte, N.C., had another offer: stay at Howard and work as its quarterbacks coach.
He was the backup to Division I-AA All-America quarterbacks Jay Walker and Ted White, but former Howard coach Steve Wilson believed Hamilton was vital to their success.
“He coached them in the offseason and during games, Wilson told the San Francisco Chronicle in December 2011. “I talked to him all the time about game-planning. It was unbelievable, his understanding of the game at an early age.”
Relationships in coaching, however, are just as important as the business of coaching. Particularly relationships between coaches and players.
No one would come out and say it, but a perception surrounded Hamilton’s arrival: It wasn’t an easy adjustment for Michigan’s quarterbacks to go from Fisch’s outgoing personality to Hamilton’s buttoned-up demeanor.
“It just took time for all of us to gain an understanding of what is expected from each of us,” Hamilton said. “These kids are smart kids. They’re smart kids, they work hard, and being successful on and off the field is important for them, and it’s important for me to help them realize their full potential.
“That word, ‘trust,’ amongst coaches and players, it just takes time to build and gain. And I think we’ve taken some steps in the right direction, from that standpoint.”
Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight immediately saw Hamilton’s business background come through in his coaching manner.
“The personal relationship came along this offseason, but at the end of the day, at this level, you don’t really have to be best friends or anything like that,” Speight said. “You go out there, you win games, you complete passes and you move on. That’s kind of the mindset that you have to have in this profession.”
What has allowed Hamilton to develop a working relationship with players is his coaching knowledge, as well as his approach to how he coaches his players.
Michigan offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Tim Drevno likens it to parenting.
“When Pep walks in the room, it’s just a wealth of knowledge,” Drevno said. “What he demands from those guys. He understands the different scenarios and the answers to the problems of the matchups. He coaches those kids just like his own son and his daughter.
“He’s very loving, very caring and very passionate. You can judge a person’s heart 10 feet away, when a person has a good heart and if they’re a good person, and Pep’s got a golden heart. It’s unbelievable.”
Hamilton’s impact, so far
As Michigan’s passing game coordinator, Hamilton isn’t just responsible for Michigan’s quarterbacks. He has to oversee the development of a certain synergy between the quarterbacks and the wide receivers — a position group that lost starters Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson to the NFL and to graduation.
Hamilton has to groom the young receivers as much as he has to refine his quarterbacks. Even that working relationship needed some massaging.
“Now, he’s more comfortable, and he’s talking to us like we’re a part of his family,” wide receiver Eddie McDoom said. “That’s really important. We have to have a relationship in order to grow. It can’t be too far away from the team and I feel like he’s really with us. We joke around, but then we get to business and he gets on us.
“It’s family now.”
Hamilton, Speight said, has given him a different perspective on playing at quarterback. Yet instead of using business terms, Hamilton took an artistic approach.
“I don’t think he’s really into the mental tricks,” Speight said. “He always says, ‘If you see a little, you see a lot, and if you see a lot, you won’t see anything at all.’ That’s kind of been a quote that we’ve taken onto the field, all the quarterbacks. You don’t want to see the whole field at once, because everything looks like a mess. Like a bunch of splatters. Watercolor on canvas.
“But that’s the beautiful thing about being here at Michigan. You’ve got top-tier coordinators at all times. Jedd was the best of the best, and in order to replace Jedd, [Jim Harbaugh] had to go out and get someone just as good. Fortunately, he did.”
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