By Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
We have a tendency in athletics to anoint someone as a hero, because they make an incredible play to win a game, or they deliver a performance against incredible odds.
Though such moments live on through the magic of video, the feeling is fleeting. It fades over time.
When I associate the word “hero” with somebody, it has to be consistent and it has to endure.
Heroes, to me, are our soldiers protecting the freedoms we enjoy as a nation, or firemen who rush into danger with little self-regard. It’s anyone who putting themselves in harm’s way to save lives.
Also, a hero can be someone who stands tall and strong in the face of personal tragedy.
Those people are all around us. You can learn a lot from them about the way they handle their business.
This football season since I’ve been around Ole Miss co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Dan Werner, someone who has been a college assistant for almost three decades at eight schools, I always wondered why he was a picture of calm.
First-year Rebels’ head coach Hugh Freeze readily admits that Dan’s stoic demeanor provides balance, especially on gameday, to Hugh’s emotions-on-his-sleeves approach.
“I wear Dan out on Saturdays about our quarterbacks,” Hugh says with a laugh. “Probably 20 times a game, I’m screaming over the headset to him in the (press box) booth, `Dan, are you kidding me? Tell me what he’s (Ole Miss’ quarterback) is thinking!’ And Dan hasn’t even had a chance to talk to him yet. He just says, `Yes sir, I’ll find out.’ ”
After the Rebels’ biggest wins and lowest losses in this 5-6 season heading into Saturday’s game against Mississippi State, I have yet to see Werner raise his voice in a postgame interview or on a practice field.
Ole Miss starting quarterback Bo Wallace says Dan, 53, is the same way in the heat of a fall Saturday battle.
“Sometimes, I’ll get an earful from Coach Freeze coming off the field, because he usually wears his emotions on his sleeves,” Bo says. “But when I get to the phone, and Coach Werner is that calm voice that helps me figure out what happened. He’ll say, `What did you see? I’ll tell him. We’ll talk. Then he says, `Okay, go out and play.’ ”
Why is Dan so calm?
“When you lose a football game, you are crushed,” Dan says, “and then I’ll think, `Wait, you’ve been through a lot worse than that.’ ”
The source of Dan’s perspective is tragic and heartbreaking and heroic, all wrapped in a bundle of human frailty and emotion.
In February 2009, with Dan one month on the job as coordinator at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, his 37-year old wife Kim died from an enlarged heart.
Dan previously coached at Ole Miss in 2006-2007 before being fired with the rest of Ed Orgeron’s staff at the end of the ’07 season. Even after he started at Northwestern after sitting out the ’08 season, his family had yet to move.
In ’08 when he stayed at home with Kim and their two kids, daughter Maya and autistic son Ian, and learned a side of life that college coaches usually don’t see, because they are consumed by their jobs.
“I learned how to take the kids to school, where the doctor’s office was, all the things you need to know as a parent,” Dan says. “I cooked, I did laundry. I knew what happened around the house.”
Dan had an increased appreciation for his wife, who ran the household all those years while he did what he does – look at countless hours of game film, make numerous recruiting calls and rarely letting the job stay at the office.
Sometimes, Dan wonders if his ’08 season away from football that put him in touch with real life was God’s way of training him to handle the loss of his wife.
“When everything happened the way it did, I just did what I had to do,” Dan says.
Dan had always dreamed of becoming a college head coach, even on a FCS (Division 1-AA) level.
He certainly had the experience. A Michigan native, he was part of three national championship staffs at Miami. He had coached quarterbacks who had been Heisman Trophy candidates. He had an impeccable reputation, a good man who was a great teacher of the game.
But when Dan unexpectedly became a single parent, he knew his lifelong goal changed in the blink of that phone call that told him his wife died.
“My job was to become a great Dad for my kids,” Dan says.
He immediately resigned at Northwestern, moved back to Oxford and pondered how he could find a job that would allow him to coach and be both father and mother for his kids.
He thought about privately tutoring high school and college quarterbacks, something he’d done in the past as a side business, but he knew that wouldn’t pay all the bills.
Finally, David Saunders, one of Dan’s Ole Miss coaching staff buddies from the Orgeron days, told Dan about an opening for a high school head coach at a private school in Batesville, Miss. just 20 minutes from Oxford.
It wasn’t long before Dan found himself in the office of John Howell, head schoolmaster at North Delta, a kindergarten through 12th grade school with 390 students.
Howell was staring at a pile of resumes and wanted an experienced coach. But he thought it was ridiculous when Dan handed him a resume that included references such as national championship winning coaches Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson, as well as SEC title winning coach Tommy Tuberville.
So Howell wanted to know why Dan, someone who had been in college football’s brightest spotlight, wanted to coach at a small Mississippi high school?
It was about Dan being the best parent he could for his children.
When Dan was hired at North Delta for the start of the ’09 school year, he hadn’t coached at the high school level in more than a decade.
“I loved it,” Dan says of coaching at North Delta where his teams went 27-7 in three seasons and won three district titles. “When you told the players something, they were just glued to you. They wanted to learn.
“And about 45 of the 50 employees at the school are women, and I was able to ask them questions about raising a daughter. They helped me become a better parent. I learned a lot from them.
“If it wasn’t for Hugh hiring me at Ole Miss, I would have been happy to coach North Delta the rest of my career.”
This time a year ago, Ole Miss had already decided that Houston Nutt would not return as head coach. Dan and daughter Maya had briefly discussed the possibility whether he would have a chance to get back into college coaching depending on whom Ole Miss hired.
“I already had several offers to go other places,” Dan says. “My daughter didn’t want to move and I didn’t want to move. So when I asked her what if somebody got the job at Ole Miss that I knew, what if I wanted to apply for a job then. She said, `No’ and we didn’t discuss it again.”
At least, not until last December 5th when Ole Miss hired Hugh Freeze as head coach. Then, Maya Werner changed her mind, because she remembered him from coaching with her father on Orgeron’s staff, how he was a true family man who balanced coaching and his wife and three daughters.
Hugh Freeze suddenly had the Maya stamp of approval.
There was no doubt that Dan was high on Hugh’s list of possible coaching staff candidates. Even after they parted ways after Orgeron’s firing – Hugh became head coach at Lambuth University, a now-defunct NAIA school in Jackson, Tenn. – Hugh and Dan remained good friends as did their families.
“Not many friends came to see me coach at Lambuth, but Dan would come a couple times a year to see us play,” Hugh says.
Hugh was one of first persons that Dan texted after his wife died.
“I remember sitting in a staff meeting at Lambuth when I got that text,” Hugh remembers. “I might have been one of the first people on the phone with him.
“Life is tough enough by itself, but when something like that happens, you need somebody to help you walk through it. That probably drew us even closer.”
But because of that relationship, as much as Hugh wanted to hire Dan at Ole Miss, there was a hesitation.
“When Hugh called me the first time, I thought he was going to offer me the job,” Dan says. “But he didn’t, because we both had the same concerns.
“As a coach, you’re gone from home a lot, because of a recruiting. Even when you’re in town not recruiting, you’re at the office a lot. And most head coaches don’t care about having kids run around the office.”
Hugh remembers the first conversation with Dan about joining the staff as being brutally honest.
“That was tough,” Hugh says. “I could tell I hurt him, but I didn’t tell him it was over. I was struggling with the fact I knew he’d be great for our quarterbacks, because that position had really struggled here in the past.
“But I also knew how important recruiting is, how much time it takes. I wanted to be fair to Dan and his family.”
Putting Dan temporarily on the backburner, Hugh filled out his staff, with younger coaches he felt were dynamic, aggressive recruiters. That gave Hugh peace of mind that he could give Dan reduced recruiting duties that would keep him home or close to home most of the time.
So with Hugh’s very last staff hire, he called Dan and made the offer as Dan wheeled into the North Delta parking lot one morning last January.
“I accepted, we worked out the details and then I walked in the school and told my headmaster,” Dan recalls. “He wanted to know how long it would be before I left, because usually teachers leave at the end of the year. I said I needed 20 minutes to pack my office. He started laughing. It ended really well over there.”
It would have been expected for the other coaches on the Rebels’ staff with families to privately question some of the concessions Hugh made in hiring Dan. But many of them previously knew of Dan’s situation and of his reputation as an outstanding coach.
The staff members who didn’t know quickly came to admire Dan’s balance of coaching quarterbacks and raising kids.
“The most important job you can have is to be a parent,” Ole Miss offensive line coach Matt Luke said, “and to see how Dan handles everything daily is an inspiration to all of us. Anytime I go home and maybe pout about anything, I just remind myself Dan does all of it by himself. It’s a blessing to be around him. He knows he has the support of this (Ole Miss) football family.”
Rebels’ wide receiver coach Grant Heard echoes Luke’s sentiments.
“Dan is a role model for all of us,” Heard says. “If something happens with his kids, he’ll drop everything immediately to go to them.”
Or the kids come to Dan, because in the family atmosphere created by Hugh, it’s not unusual to see the wives and children of the coaching staff drop by near the end of practice for a post-practice visit and team meal.
Players, such as Bo Wallace, soak in the feeling of family. He says he loves it when Maya and Ian Werner come bounding in a quarterbacks meeting to see their dad.
“When they come in a meeting, he’ll stop to visit with them,” Bo says. “The way he treats Maya and Ian is an example of the type of father I want to be one day.”
In late October, the Football Writers Association of America announced that Dan is a nominee for its annual seventh annual courage award. Ole Miss coaches and players think Dan should already be declared the winner.
He believes he’s done nothing special, compared to the people around him who helped him overcome to the loss of his beautiful Kim, who he met in 1993 when he was an assistant at Louisiana Tech.
“A lot of head coaches are this business to just win games and everybody else is on their own,” Dan says, “so I’m thankful that I work for a coach that understands my family situation, and who has created an extended family atmosphere.
“I’ll also never forget how the people at North Delta took me in like I was one of their family.
“And Maya (a 13-year old eighth grader) has been unbelievable, showing maturity and patience helping me with Ian (who’s 8). I couldn’t have done all this without her. She’s really helped me through it.”
“I want to be a great parent and I still have a long way to go. But in the last four years, there’s no doubt the Good Lord is keeping me an eye on me.”