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Original Issue

CUM LAUDE

AT 49, THE CHARGERS' COACH BECAME A COLLEGE GRADUATE

I ONLY HAVE three rules as a head coach. No. 1: Protect the team. No. 2: No excuses. No. 3: Be on time.

Well, for more than 20 years, I made excuses for why I couldn't go back and finish my college degree. You're not going to make the roster if you go back. You've got a kid. You're going to be a head coach. There was always something. Finally, I got fed up and just said, "I'm going to do it."

I have always wanted to finish. I was the first in my family to go to college. My mom was proud. She was expecting me to get a degree. I watched both of my children get their college degrees, and it was a little uncomfortable knowing that I hadn't finished. I felt as if I needed to be a better example.

When I got to Denver as an undrafted running back out of Texas Tech in 1993, I was six hours short of finishing my degree in exercise and sports sciences. I went to one of my Broncos coaches. He looked me in the eye and said, "Young man, if you are not here for offseason workouts, you are not going to make this team." He was coming from a good place. First-round draft picks have the leverage to go back to school and miss time, but an undrafted free agent trying out? I'd get cut. So I stayed and made the team.

After several years in the league, I figured I had enough clout to go back to school, and it was one of my peers who inspired me to finally do it. When I was an assistant coach with the Jets, our director of player development, former NFL offensive lineman Dave Szott, told me he'd completed his degree from Penn State 11 years later. I remember sitting in his office in 2014, and his wife, Andrea, looked at me and said, "Coach, you've gotta get this done. There are no excuses."

I interviewed for seven head coaching jobs between 2015 and '17. I kept thinking, I can't go back to school this year because I'm going to be a head coach. Didn't happen. Can't go this year because I am going to be a head coach. Didn't happen. Well, I couldn't keep waiting so I just went all in during the offseason the Chargers brought me on. I was able to get really aggressive with my academics thanks to the flexibility of the program at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

I had wanted to finish at Texas Tech, but since I was on the West Coast, the convenient option was UNLV. I'd work all day for the Chargers, then around 8 p.m., I'd grab a sub—turkey and ham, with mayo—and go home and start studying. My wife, Stacey, was in New York City, working as a news anchor, and my kids are grown up, so I made use of the time alone. The professors and staff at UNLV bent over backward to help me. I told them, when the season starts, I need to put a lot of this on hold. They said, Do your job, and we'll work with you on deadlines.

When people say, "I really admire you for going back and getting your degree" a part of me is like, What's so admirable about a 49-year-old getting a degree? I should have been a 22-year-old getting this degree. I told my players, on the first day of our offseason program, if you need to get your school done, get it done in the offseason. I don't want you guys to be like me, 49 and going back to school.

UNLV's graduation was on May 12, the same weekend as our rookie minicamp. I wanted to move camp up a week so I wouldn't miss anything, but owner Dean Spanos and general manager Tom Telesco suggested we leave it as it was. More important than being at minicamp, they said, is explaining to the players why you are missing those days. So that's what I told our rookies: At age 49, I was going to walk across the stage at the Thomas & Mack Center in a cap and gown, and my mom would be there to see it.