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Gene Frenette: Ex-Bolles player Silverfield waits on dream coaching job

The Florida Times-Union logo The Florida Times-Union 12/13/2019 By Gene Frenette, The Florida Times-Union
a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Gene Frenette © Florida Times-Union/The Florida Times-Union/TNS Gene Frenette

Ryan Silverfield is in the midst of the most nerve-racking 48 hours of his football coaching career. The Jacksonville native has no choice but to accept one of two polar opposite outcomes: landing what he views as a dream job or getting his heart crushed by his own employer.

As interim head coach at Memphis, a position he landed after Mike Norvell was named head coach at Florida State, the only guarantee for Silverfield is he will have the opportunity to coach the Tigers in the Cotton Bowl on December 28 against Penn State.

But he must also ride an emotional roller-coaster of waiting and wondering. After being interviewed Thursday for the Memphis job by athletic director Laird Veatch and a search committee, the former Bolles School nose guard will learn sometime this weekend if he gets a promotion to become the Tigers' permanent coach. If the job is given to departed Missouri coach Barry Odom or someone else, Silverfield will still coach in the Cotton Bowl and then likely leave Memphis to join Norvell as FSU's offensive line coach for the 2020 season.

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It's an awkward, gut-wrenching position for Silverfield, but he knows this is what he signed up for when he chose the unusual path of starting his coaching career as a Bolles senior after suffering a career-ending neck injury.

"A lot is happening at one time," Silverfield said in a phone interview late Wednesday night after an in-home recruiting visit. "It's crazy, but I wouldn't have it any other way."

This is potentially a career-defining moment for the 39-year-old Silverfield. Either he gets his first college head coaching job at one of the fastest-rising, non-Power 5 programs, or Silverfield reunites with one of his best friends to take on the challenge of restoring FSU's national brand program to its former glory as an ACC powerhouse.

Both are attractive options, but Silverfield is completely dialed in to getting Memphis' players ready for the bowl game against Penn State, no matter what the administration decides about its next coach.

"Initially, I think it would break my heart [if not named the permanent head coach], but this is not about me," Silverfield said. "It's about preparing these young men for the Cotton Bowl. I don't want this to be about me.

"I want to make sure the players are served the right way. Whatever the decision is, I made a commitment to give them everything I have. And if I get the job, I think people would support us and keep this train rolling the right way."

A 20-year grind

At 10 different coaching stops in more than a dozen positions, often among the lowest-paid people on the staff, Silverfield has never stopped pushing to learn every nuance to get better as a teacher and motivator.

Football isn't just a game to him. Coaching isn't just recruiting or drawing up Xs and Ox. It's a passion he can't imagine being without.

"When you decide to coach at a young age, the demands of this profession means you give up a normal life," Silverfield said. "I made that decision a long time ago. People say your job shouldn't be who you are, but this is my life.

"Bolles won a lot of games with untalented players who knew how to work hard. I was one of those guys."

Silverfield's playing career ended when Bolles upset Pahokee and quarterback Anquan Boldin 29-15 in the 1998 Class 3A state title game, but X-rays showed the damage to his neck wouldn't allow him to continue suiting up.

So while nearly every one of his defensive teammates accepted Division I scholarship offers, Silverfield asked Bolles legendary coach Corky Rogers if he could serve as a volunteer coach in 1999 to stay close to the game.

"Ryan was a great technician for the [nose guard] position," said Rogers. "We were playing a lot of two-gap then, which meant you had to control the center and be responsible for either side of the center.

"He's always been focused on what he was doing. In that kind of situation, you get hurt and can't play, it's easy to hang up football and go to work doing something else. It didn't matter where he coached, he was going to coach."

Silverfield earned an economics degree from Division III Hampden-Sydney in Virginia, but his real major was football. While attending college, Silverfield had the rare distinction of being on his school's coaching staff all four years, rising to become the defensive line coach in his second season.

Once he was given his own position group to mold as he saw fit, the coaching bug had a hold on Silverfield for good.

"Really, at the age of 20 when I had my own [meeting] room and own players [at Hampden-Sydney], that's what did it for me. I was coaching guys older than me, but I wanted to treat them with care and compassion like I was their teacher."

During the offseason, Silverfield was sometimes on the road recruiting for three weeks, while still going to school.

"I would have to drop tests to my professors in an email, that's how I got [a degree] done," Silverfield said.

One year, his living quarters at Hampden-Sydney was a cot in the basement of a gym. He lived underneath the basketball floor in the old weight room. Silverfield moved into faculty-type housing for his senior year, but he put up with the flimsy accommodations because he wanted the coaching experience.

"Basically, his determination has gotten him where he is," said Rogers. "Every job he had, he did a good job and sometimes got kicked in the face. He either wasn't good enough or somebody else [hired] was better. But I respected him because he kept going.

"I'm so proud of what he's done and the persistence he showed."

Job-hopping everywhere

After college, Silverfield did a little bit of everything at every football level. At 23, he was the youngest high school varsity coach in the country in 2004 at Memorial Day School in Savannah. There were brief college stops at Jacksonville University (quarterbacks coach, 2005), UCF (graduate assistant, 2006-07), Toledo (offensive consultant, 2014) and Arizona State (senior offensive analyst, 2015 half-season), all the while impressing bosses and colleagues with his ferocious work ethic.

"He was a wide-eyed coach, full of energy and willing to do anything to learn the profession," said former JU head coach Steve Gilbert.

Silverfield caught maybe his biggest break when he left UCF, where he tutored NCAA rushing champion Kevin Smith, and landed a quality control job with the Minnesota Vikings. They kept him another five years, under two different head coaches, including the last three as an assistant offensive line coach when his unit paved the way in 2012 for NFL MVP Adrian Peterson to rush for 2,097 yards.

His time with the Vikings established Silverfield as an offensive line specialist. In 2015, midway through the season, Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell brought him aboard after he fired his offensive line coach and assistant O-line coach.

The next year, when Norvell got the Memphis job, he made Silverfield one of his first hires. The two had worked together for only a half-season at Arizona State, a testament to how much an impression Silverfield made in a short time.

During his four years under Norvell, there were several overtures – including from Alabama head coach Nick Saban last January – by SEC schools to try and lure SIlverfield away from Memphis. He refused them all to stay with Norvell.

"I can't tell you how wonderful Coach Norvell has been to me," said Silverfield. "When you go through the grind of this profession, you appreciate when people are loyal to you at a place that you care for. It's not just this school and the players, it's also my love for the city of Memphis."

Memphis or Tallahassee?

Silverfield's daily planner for the next week has never been quite so full. There are practices to plan, recruits to meet, and handling so many other things that come up when going from an O-line coach to interim head coach.

But until Memphis makes a coaching decision, Silverfield must also deal with his limbo status and people constantly wanting to know his thoughts on a possible outcome.

Since Norvell was hired by FSU, and gave a passionate speech at his introductory press conference about the direction he intends to take the Seminoles' program, Silverfield made an equally heartfelt speech when he was announced as the interim head coach. He has a significant support system, especially among the players, because he's one of only two Memphis assistants (strength coach Josh Storms is the other) that have been on staff for the entire Norvell era.

Silverfield has been married (no kids) for nine years to Marianna, a nurse now studying to become a doctor. Ryan says they're a good match because her career is also loaded with time restrictions.

His days are now filled with constant appointments and trying to sell the administration on giving him a promotion. Silverfield hopes the connections he's made at the school and in the Memphis community will count for something when the administration decides whether to remove the interim tag.

"I'm really happy here," said Silverfield. "That's why I stayed loyal to the program. The only way I could be any more emotionally connected to this place is if I was from Memphis. I shout Duval loud and proud, but I consider myself a Memphian.

"We have a Memphis versus everybody approach to things, having that chip on our shoulder. People look down upon us and we've tried to put the city in a positive light. I relate it to my career. I'm a little nobody from Jacksonville that had to grind my way [up the coaching ladder]."

Rogers, who has closely followed his former player's career since he left Bolles, hopes to see his loyalty rewarded.

"To me, the only thing going against [Silverfield] is name recognition," said Rogers. "People don't realize how much he's accomplished to get where he is."

In many respects, Silverfield can't lose. He either gets his first head-coaching job at a place he loves or the chance to help Norvell elevate FSU back to national prominence.

Either way, it sure beats sleeping in the dungeon of an old basketball gym.

gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540

gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540

RELATED 5/8 Read more from Gene Frenette

gfrenette@jacksonville.com

(904) 359-4540

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