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Wednesday, Sep. 28, 2016

From the SCA to the SEC

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

READY FOR ACTION: Steve Caldwell, in his senior year at Thayer High School, 1973.
The South Central Association (SCA) has long been known in Missouri high school football circles as one of the roughest, toughest leagues around.

For decades, teams like Mountain Grove, Ava and Salem (Mo.) have been stocked to the gills with big ole' boys up front, the kind of players that don't mind driving you into the ground and then stomping on you.

But despite having fought in those SCA battles at Thayer High School for four long years, Steve Caldwell still wasn't ready for what awaited him during his freshman season in college.

"I walked on at Arkansas State in January of 1974 and I'll never forget the first scrimmage that I lined up in," he said. "I was playing linebacker and was lined up across an offensive guard named Kenny Jones, a guy who went on to play with the Buffalo Bills forever. Well, when I played in high school, when you were lined up against a bigger guy, you were quicker and you didn't take him on -- you moved around the guy. But I'll never forget this, Kenny came off the ball and hit me so quick, I didn't know what was going on. He probably knocked me 10 yards, straight back. I thought, 'holy smoke, this is a different game here.'"

But instead of throwing his shoulder pads in the trashcan and heading back to Oregon County, Mo., Caldwell picked himself up, cleared the Kenny Jones-induced cobwebs from his head and went on to become a two-year letterman for the Indians and head coach Bill Davidson.

While his career on the gridiron -- and in the classroom, where he made the dean's list -- was certainly a solid one, it was on the sidelines where Steve Caldwell has really left his mark on the game of college football.

Not only has Caldwell earned high praise for his ability to recruit players over the course of the past 25 years, he's also been able to send several of those players on to careers in the National Football League after their collegiate playing days are over.

After spending 14 years coaching on the defensive side of the football for the Tennessee Volunteers, Caldwell is entering his second year on Bobby Petrino's staff at the University of Arkansas, coaching the defensive ends.

In addition to the benefit of not having to spend several fall Saturday afternoons a year hearing "Rocky Top" fill every nook-and-cranny of Neyland Stadium, relocating to Fayetteville has also provided Caldwell with another perk.

It's much closer to his old stomping grounds in Thayer.

"It's great. It's a great opportunity for my family to have a chance to not have to drive nine hours (to Knoxville) to watch a game," he said. "Now, they can drive over (to Fayetteville) in the morning and watch the game and if they need to go back that night, they're close enough to home to do that. And at the same time, when I have a day off, I can always get in the car and drive over and spend time with my mother and father, who still live in Thayer."

But being on the coaching staff at a school that competes in the Southeastern Conference equates to working two or three full-time jobs at one time, leaving a coach with precious little time to take leisurely drives through the countryside.

"I don't get back to Thayer as much as you think, or as much as I would like," Caldwell said. "There's really not that many weekends over the course of a year that we have free. And when I do have a little bit of time, I have two grand-daughters and my son and daughter that live in the Knoxville area, so I try and get back to Tennessee to see them, also."

During his time in Knoxville, the Volunteers' defense was routinely ranked among the top schools in total defense in the SEC, with UT ending the season ranked in the league's top four an amazing 10 times over the course of Caldwell's 14 seasons in orange.

In 2008, the Vols were ranked third nationally and first in the SEC in total defense, giving up just 263.5 yards a game. And three seasons before that, Caldwell helped push the Tennessee defense to the second spot in the nation, and first in the SEC, in rushing average allowed, at 82.5 yards per game.

Caldwell also helped several UT defenders make it to the NFL, including standouts like Demetri Veal, Will Overstreet, Shaun Ellis and Parys Haralson.

That's pretty impressive stuff for a guy who originally had plans to become an electrician.

"Well, the same thing that led me to college led me into coaching. My first semester out of high school, I worked for my uncle as an electrician," Caldwell said. "And at that point, that's what I was planning on doing for a career. But I just missed the game so much and wanted to be a part of it that I decided to go to ASU and walk on. And after I started playing in college, I enjoyed it so much, but I also knew that there was no way I was going to be able to play the game after college. I just wasn't big enough or fast enough. But I wanted to continue to be a part of the game, so I decided to become a coach."

In 1978, Caldwell broke into the coaching ranks at his alma mater, Arkansas State University.

Leaving the ASU staff a couple of years later,

Caldwell made his way to Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia as an offensive line coach, helping the Rangers win the 1982 NJCAA national championship.

It wasn't long before Caldwell's road led him back to coaching linebackers in Jonesboro, where he quickly became an integral part of what would become some of the best seasons in Indian football history.

Caldwell's group of linebackers in 1985 helped ASU lead Division I-AA in total defense, with an average of only 258.8 yards allowed per game.

Under head coach Larry Lacewell's guidance, Arkansas State advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals three straight seasons from 1985-87, including a 1986 squad that finished 12-2-1 and lost in the national championship game.

The Indians' only other setbacks in that magical season was a loss to Mississippi State and a tie against Ole Miss.

Lacewell, who is the winningest coach in ASU history, joined the University of Tennessee coaching staff as defensive coordinator in 1990 and his influence on the coaching career and style of Steve Caldwell should not be underestimated.

"It was great (working with Lacewell). He's really been a mentor for me in this profession since I started," said Caldwell. "He continues to help me with what he sees from the players on the field, or if I need help getting a job -- he'll call anybody. He's always been there for any question or any help that I've needed, ever since I went to work for him."

Being around the game as long as he has, along with countless hours on the road and with just as much time as one can imagine spent pouring over video tape highlights, Caldwell has become a recruiter par excellence and a sharp evaluator of talent.

With that in mind, Caldwell knows that the game of football has changed mightily since his days in the green-and-white at THS.

"The biggest thing that I see is, that football is a year-round program now, even in high school," he said. "When I was growing up, we didn't have a weight room. And we didn't really have an off-season program. Most of the time, guys played three or four sports in high school and I guess that would have been considered an off-season program for football. But there was no spring practice, no weight-training ... nothing to do with football in the summer. Like a lot of guys, I hauled hay all summer."

Not only have the players at the high school level gotten bigger, stronger and faster since the mid-1970s, coaching methods and techniques have also grown, improved and evolved along with the changing times.

"It's just become more of an individualized sport now, with emphasis and training on all the different positions," Caldwell said. "That's what has made the programs better. They play a different level of football than the one I played in high school because of that. Back then, it was more of a basic block-and-tackle type of game. Now in high school football, you see more scheming and game-planning instead of just lining up and running the football like we used to."

Playing football at a Class 1 school meant that due to the limited number of players, you were going to have to play on both sides of the football. That much is still true today. In Caldwell's case, he lined up at linebacker and also played in the secondary on defense, while on offense, he primarily manned one of the running back spots.

And it was running the football that provided Caldwell with some of his most unforgettable memories while playing for the Bobcats.

"The biggest game I remember playing in was against Highland in my senior year (1973)," he said. "I had over 100 yards rushing and broke a tackle for a big gain right at the end of the game. They had came back to make the game close and I had a 75- or 80-yard run right at the end to seal the win. That was a big game for us."

Caldwell also had coaching stints at Pacific and the University of Nevada, where he worked with Bobby Petrino. In 1994, Caldwell served as co-defensive coordinator for the Wolf Pack, while Petrino was the offensive coordinator, helping guide the school to a 9-2 record and share of the Big West Conference title.

Rejoining Petrino at the U of A last year, Caldwell's impact has been immediate. The Razorbacks defensive front improved by leaps-and-bounds a year ago, averaging 2.85 sacks and 7.31 tackles for loss per game, stats that ranked the Hogs second in the SEC and ninth overall in both categories. Arkansas' 95 tackles for loss in 2010 was the second-highest total in school history.

The Hogs finished with a 10-3 record and earned the school's first-ever Bowl Championship Series appearance in the Sugar Bowl last season and are widely projected as a team to start this season ranked in top 15 nationally.

"I think that Coach Petrino and his staff did a nice job of recruiting prior to my getting here," Caldwell said. "A lot of the guys (on last year's team) have kind of grown up together as a team and have done a good job. I was just fortunate to get here last year and have some good players and be able to kind of mold them together with Coach (Bobby) Allen's front."

Caldwell also helped the Hogs snare what most recruiting analysts view as a top 25 class for 2011. However, only time will tell how those recruits fare once they step onto the field against the nation's best competition in the SEC.

"I think we had a good signing class and are starting to build some good depth," said Caldwell. "It'll be interesting to get on the field with these freshmen and see just where they're at in a couple of weeks. There's no off-week in the SEC. You have to load up and go play every week, because any given day somebody will beat you if you don't. There's a lot of great players on the football teams in the Southeastern Conference."

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