Get to Know the Staff: Ryan Walters
In a series of stories over the next few weeks, we're going in-depth with Missouri's assistant coaches to give Tiger fans a better idea of who the coaches are and what led them to this point.
Ryan Walters is entering his fifth season on the Missouri coaching staff. He came to Mizzou from Memphis and started as the safeties coach. He took over as the defensive coordinator prior to the 2018 season. When Barry Odom was fired, Eli Drinkwitz retained Walters in that role.
Walters' parents were 16 years old when he was born. By the time his father played football at the University of Colorado, Ryan was a toddler and grew up around football.
I know David Gibbs (Mizzou cornerbacks coach) and Eric Bienemy (Chiefs offensive coordinator) played at Colorado the same time as your dad. So as a four-year-old kid, were you just hanging around a college football team already?
RW: "“Yeah, I was around all the time. Our apartment, we lived in student housing right on campus and our balcony faced the practice field which was right across the sidewalk. I would go out there. Even when my dad was in law school we were in student housing. There was a chunk of time in elementary school where we were right across the street. So we’d go and I’d watch practice and there’s always guys that were on the staff that were around when my dad was playing. Whether it was (Gary) Barnett who was my dad’s quarterback coach or when (Rick) Neuheisel got the job, there were still guys on (Bill) McCartney’s staff that knew my dad. So yeah I just kind of always grew up around it, was around, especially Colorado football.”
Do you remember choosing wanting to play ball and starting to love it or was it just, this is what my dad does so you naturally kind of did it too?
RW: “It’s funny because my wife now always wonders why aren’t you taking the boys outside and playing ball all day or whatever? My dad never pushed it on me but I just always wanted to do it. So me and my brother growing up had totally different interests. It was just different. My dad would feed that because I was interested in it. I feel like that’s the same way I’m going to raise my kids. I’m not going to force it on them, but if they ask I’ll obviously give them my opinion and tutelage. I was always interested in it, always wanted to play and then when playing was done, to stay around it, I got into coaching.”
How did you guys end up in LA?
RW: “My parents are from there. I was born when they were in high school then kind of stayed out there until my parents got settled in Colorado. Then my dad graduated law school and we moved back to California briefly and then he got a job with a company out in Aurora, Colorado so that’s why we ended up back in Colorado.”
You were a pretty good player during your time in Boulder. Did you have thoughts of playing football after college?
RW: “I had a bunch of injuries in college. I was in mini camp with the Saints. When I got cut there, it was almost like a weight had been lifted. I was hurting pretty bad. Then Greg Brown, he’s the one that suggested I get into coaching. When I was a player I was just one of those guys, I was always kind of hanging around the coaches, watching tape and trying to be involved with the game plan when I could. I don’t know if it was because I grew up playing quarterback and just kind of understood the offensive side of the ball, but for whatever reason the X’s and O’s just kind of made sense, kind of came naturally. So that was a good career move, good career advice from coach Brown. When I got into coaching it came kind of easy and I enjoyed the chess game that’s involved and that’s kind of how I got to Arizona as a graduate assistant was Greg Brown getting the co-DC job out there.”
So you’re a GA the year after you graduated. What’s it like being 23 and coaching guys that are 21 or 22?
RW: “If I look back on the start of my career, the best thing I did was leave Colorado and that’s the reason why. I think if I’d have stayed at Colorado then the lines would have been blurred a little bit in terms of coaching players that I played with. They might have saw me as a player. But moving locations and getting a completely different group of guys, I approached work like I was a coach. I wasn’t a player anymore. That’s just the way I carried myself and the way I interacted with the team there was a clear distinction there. There wasn’t necessarily an age gap, but there was definitely a knowledge gap. I knew more than they did and I was able to articulate what we were trying to get done defensively. When you have an expertise, I think you garner respect, gain respect. That was what helped me was one, getting away from Colorado and two, approaching it like I was a coach and not a player.”
Everybody who’s a coach will look back on their first couple years and have stories about living on a few hundred dollars a month and getting by. At this point are you still single or what’s your situation?
RW: “I was married. I was a newlywed and we packed up and moved to Arizona. Back then we could only have two GA’s and one QC. Offense had a GA and defense had a GA and special teams had a QC. I was doing everything. I was having to come and do a lot of work and doing a lot of work working for a pretty particular defensive head coach. Mike Stoops is a defensive guy through and through and can be pretty animated at times when stuff ain’t the way he wants it done. That was also really good for my career. Forced me to learn a lot and really starting from the front to the back. I felt like I knew the back end pretty good, but understanding the D-Line and how that works with the backers and then how that works with the back end.”
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So you're a GA and move to OU and you’re a GA there, so about four years before you get that full time job?
RW: “No, I got my first full time job in a year. I GA’ed for a year at Arizona, Brownie left to go back to Colorado and then Mike hired me full time to coach the secondary. At the time I was like the youngest full time coach in the country. I was like 24.”
I know anybody that’s in coaching says it takes a break. You were around a lot of successful coaches early on. Was that your break, just getting to know all of those people?
RW: “I definitely think it’s timing and opportunity and then when that opportunity comes you’ve got to be ready. I think that’s what was beneficial for me. Like I said, walking into Arizona, I approached it like I was a coach, didn’t approach it like I was a GA, didn’t approach it like I was a player. So when the time came and Brownie left, I was able to coach the secondary for the bowl game and that was kind of my interview. And then Mike felt comfortable hiring me because he didn’t see 24, he saw this guy is a good coach. Then obviously Mike got fired halfway through the season my first year and that’s when I went to Oklahoma with him, as a GA in title, but really I was coaching corners. Then that following season, I was only at Oklahoma for the spring and fall and then I got hired at North Texas as a corners coach.”
Greg Brown may hold the world record for living in the most different places of anyone I’ve ever met. You’ve gone Arizona, Oklahoma to Texas to Memphis to Missouri. Especially now with kids is that the hard part of this business or just necessary?
RW: “It’s difficult from a family standpoint obviously. It’s hard to be comfortable and grow roots because it’s a volatile market. Something could change at the drop of a hat and sometimes it’s out of your control too. That’s sort of the hard part about it, but if you know that going into it it’s an awesome profession. Obviously you get paid to do football and be around football. The things that I enjoy, being in a leadership role, the camaraderie, the team atmosphere, the high pressure, high stakes situations, it’s a goal oriented business. Those are all things that I thrive in and that I need to feed my appetite in the work force. So if you can understand that growing roots is challenging and that moving locations is probable, you’ve got a partner that is comfortable and okay with that as well then it can be a very fun and gratifying profession and that’s what it is for me for sure.”
Have you ever thought about what you would have done if you didn’t get into coaching?
RW: “No, not really. My mentor, a guy named Estes Banks at Colorado, he played there and was a successful businessman. We used to have lunch sometimes when I was in college and we would talk about what to do after ball. He would ask me those things. ‘What do you like about ball? Take the game away, what do you like about it?’ I gave him the same answers, I kind of rattled off the same characteristics I rattled off to you. He was like ‘You can get into stock trading, commodity training, you can join the military or you can go be a coach.’ I mean, I’m not great with numbers and I didn’t feel like joining the military so I got into coaching.”
Is the ultimate goal to be a head coach?
RW: “Absolutely it is. I have always shot for the stars any time I’m setting goals. I want to be the best coach in the country one day. I've set goals from the time I got hired as a GA and I've hit those marks earlier than I was expected to hit them and I'm trying to continue to reach those marks. I’ve been blessed to be around people and around leaders and leadership that also allow you to grow and create and spread your wings. I’ve been blessed to be around people that have fed that. Lucky to coach a group of guys that I enjoy being around every day and are like family to me.”
All the guys you’ve been around, is there one or two guys that you look at and draw from or do you take something from everybody?
RW: “You take the good and bad from everybody. I think a lot of times you can save yourself a lot of headaches if you learn from other people’s mistakes. Coach Mac’s ability to sort of galvanize a group. Those teams that he coached at Colorado, you talk about a tight knit group of guys. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen team chemistry like that. From a background, a personal background, his background looked a whole lot different than the guys he was coaching. And sometimes his personal beliefs were a whole lot different than the guys he was coaching. But he was able to get a group of guys to believe in each other and in turn believe in him to go accomplish something. At a place like Colorado, you know what I mean? To me that was special about him as a leader. There was things about Barnett that I really took to heart. He was very meticulous, very organized, always had a plan. He was very logical. He treated players like they were adults and talked to us like we were adults. I always appreciated that about him as a coach. Mike was super passionate about the game and really knew the X’s and O’s in and out. He was sharp that way. Every day he was the same. I think just that consistency, whether people liked that fact or disliked that fact, Mike was going to be Mike and he was going to be Mike every day. That unwavering standard is something that I definitely learned from. Bob, I learned a lot from Bob Stoops. His ability to control the narrative in the media was remarkable, especially in a market like Oklahoma. He always knew what the media was trying to get at and would beat them to the punch. Just had a really good grasp on the pulse of the team, the pulse of the community and he always knew that he was the head football coach of the Oklahoma Sooners and that responsibility and the weight that that carried. Dan McCarney, he’s one of the best public speakers I’ve ever been around. He was always super engaging, always personal in interacting in the community and with the media and with the team. Very passionate speaker, the way he went about that are some things I took. Then Justin Fuente probably reminded me of myself the most. Just the interaction with the staff, interaction with the players, he's a football guy through and through. He's demanding, fair, there’s no secret or wonder why he's having the success he's having at Virginia Tech in spite of some of the things that have happened there. It’s not surprising to me at all that he got that thing turned around.”
What’s this period like as a coach?
RW: “It’s weird man. You find out what is essential. You look at the football calendar and if everything is normal you’re doing spring football right now and recruiting. The things you can do are recruit, that’s something that we do every day anyway, but the communication’s ramped up and you’ve got to be creative, putting out graphics with our recruiting department and getting as many guys evaluated as possible and as thorough as possible without being able to see them in the spring time is crucial and pivotal right now. Checking in on our players, making sure that everybody’s taken care of, everybody's safe, guys that are effected by being able to work or not work, how does that affect their families and what can we do to help? And then three is taking care of your own family right now. This is not only different for us in our every day day to day as a coach, but wife is now playing teacher and day care worker and mom so it’s different for families and our kids. I'm sure they’re tired of waking up and looking at me and my wife all day. Having FaceTime play dates with some of their friends and staying on top of school activities. It's just different. You try to see it and take the good in everything. In this profession you’re away from home a lot especially this time of year. To be able to be home and teach your four year old how to ride a bike, those are special moments that I wouldn't be able to do if we weren't under this stay at home order now. Or being able to cook breakfast for the family on a weekday is something that I've never been able to do. Just being present and being here, being a leader in my own household, I think is more important than anything else right now.”
Last thing, you spent a lot of time around the Big Eight, around the Big 12. Familiar with this program. What about this job is what you expected or what has surprised you?
RW: “There’s been surprises both good and bad really. I knew about it from strictly an X’s and O’s standpoint. I didn’t know a lot about Columbia. I think it’s been a pleasant surprise. Just from an outsider’s perspective, you think Columbia, you think small town and old. But you get here, I’m like there’s 126 thousand people, I moved into a house, it was a brand new house, fairly modern community. Those things have been really good, just the community and it’s similar to Boulder. I have some familiarity there. Didn’t know that the nearest airport or the most functional airport was going to be an hour and a half to two and a half hours away. But Columbia’s been great and that’s the reason we’ve been here as long as we have and my family really likes it here. My wife likes it here. When those guys are happy it makes life good.”