Rod Reed was hurt, upset and humbled all at once. He was also fortunate.In 2003, his first year as defensive coordinator at Tennessee State, the Tigers led the Ohio Valley Conference in total defense for the first time. The next year, James Reese, the man who hired Reed to TSU, resigned as head coach.
In walked James Webster, and one of his first moves was to bring in his own defensive coordinator. Reed, in his late 30s at the time, was demoted to linebackers coach.
“It was tough,” Reed said. “But you got to humble yourself. That was a very humbling experience because I was a hotshot at the time. You’re thinking your stuff don’t stink, and then the new guy comes in and he wants to bring his own people in. My hat goes off to him to keeping me on staff. I guess he saw something in me that I could be an asset to the program.”
Reed proved him right. In 2008, he earned back the defensive coordinator job and led the Tigers to the top of total defense in the OVC. A year later, Webster was fired after TSU’s third losing season in five years.
This time Reed was promoted.
For his first head coaching job at any level, Reed was handed the keys to his alma mater. The former All-American linebacker was rewarded with his dream job.
In his third year at the helm, the Tigers are putting together a dream season. Heading into last weekend, TSU was ranked 20th and off to a 6-0 start for the first time since 2001. The Tigers are on track for an OVC crown and a spot in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, both of which last happened in 1999.
“Every great head coach was a first-time head coach,” athletics director Teresa Phillips said. “He has a passion. He’s a very smart guy, and he has high work ethics. It’s working out. He’s still relatively young as a head coach, so he’s still learning.”
A daunting figure, equipped with a stern voice and wide smile, the 46-year-old Reed is trying to turn around a program he heard about often when he was young.
His father, Robert, was an All-American guard at TSU from 1962-64. Robert played under the legendary John Merritt before a short stint with the Washington Redskins.
Reed grew up in Marshall, Texas, a town of 23,000 just 20 miles from Louisiana and 50 miles from Arkansas. Like the rest of Texas, Marshall was football crazy. With his dad as his little league coach, he won two city championships before he helped Marshall High to the playoffs and a game at Texas Stadium.
“On Friday nights, you could probably rob a bank and get away with it,” Reed said.
When it came to picking a college, Reed was heavily influenced.
The Reeds often ventured to TSU and Hale Stadium to watch the likes of Richard Dent, Joe “747” Adams and Mike Jones. The Tigers’ defensive coordinator at the time, Craig Gilliam, played with Robert Reed.
“I never was able to get on and go [visit] anywhere, because every time I got ready to go somewhere Coach Gilliam would call and say ‘Hey, I thought you were coming to Tennessee State?’ ” Reed said.
“My dad was selling me down the river a little bit. He was a big influence, but just knowing the tradition and watching those guys ... it was great tradition. Once I came on a visit here, it was lights out. It was over with.”
From 1985 to 1988, Reed put together one of the best careers in TSU history. He made a school-record 197 tackles in 1987 and finished with 406, also a record. He lost just two games at The Hole, and in 1986 the Tigers won their first Division I-AA playoff game.
When his college career was over, Reed expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and play in the NFL. But those opportunities were few and far between, and a handful of tryouts with Canadian teams never panned out.
After working at a car dealership for a year, Reed found himself itching to coach.
He jumped into a bevy of different opportunities, which included a prep stop in Florida and four years at Bethune-Cookman in Florida, one of the top schools among the historically black colleges and universities.
But he also witnessed the rebuilding of a program and the construction of another. He spent one year at Prairie View A&M in Texas, a program fresh off the death penalty. Later in his career, his last stop before returning to TSU, he helped his former high school coach start a Division III program, East Texas Baptist, back in Marshall.
“Being in that Christian environment really turned my coaching strategies around,” Reed said. “I was one of those hard-nose, curse-them-out type guys. You go to a school where there is no cursing but there is still very competitive coaching there. It really opened my eyes to how you treat people and how people ought to be treated.”
Along with building hard-nosed defenses, Reed is known as an impressive recruiter. He’s credited for recruiting three former Tigers who made it to the NFL, including current Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
His ability to lure top talent has sparked TSU. During his first season in 2010, he chose to redshirt a majority of his freshmen instead of risking a year of eligibility during a winless OVC campaign.
So far the move has paid off. He played more than 20 true or redshirt freshmen last year as the Tigers overcame a slow first half of the season to win five games.
This year, he is using a mix of Division I transfers and youth. Twelve of his starters are freshmen or sophomores.
On defense, six sophomores anchor a unit that is without a senior starter. That hasn’t been a hindrance. The Tigers are back on top, leading the conference in total defense.
Reed plans to see that they stay there.
“This is the job I want,” Reed said. “There is no better feeling than what you have right now, even though the job is only three-quarters of the way done. We’re nowhere near as good as we can be. This program, I think, is going to be on the steady incline. We’re on a high right now.”