Ex-Miami Dolphins Pro Bowler Draws On Deep Football Experience In First Head-Coach Role
Chris Chambers played for several winning coaches during the course of his collegiate pro-football career. Now he’s working to put what he learned to work in his first head-coaching job at the University of Fort Lauderdale in Florida.
His playing days were productive: Following a successful career as a wide receiver at the University of Wisconsin, where he ranks in the top 10 in several statistical categories, the Miami Dolphins selected Chambers in the second round of the 2001 NFL draft. His best season was in 2005 when he led the Dolphins in receptions and was named to the AFC Pro Bowl. He would also play for the San Diego Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs before wrapping up a 10-year pro career.
Next, he opened a training facility, The Chamber, and coached high school before earning the nod this year from the University of Fort Lauderdale as its first head football coach since the school joined the NCCAA [National Christian College Athletic Association].
Chambers is excited to be able to help students academically, athletically and spiritually at the commuter college. He hopes to implement some teachings of legendary coaching figures throughout his career, and plans to surround himself with an experienced coaching staff.
Zenger caught up with Chambers, who talks about the difficulty of being a first-year coach following COVID, explains the type of athletes he’s looking for, and much more.
Percy Crawford interviewed Chris Chambers for Zenger.
Zenger: Congratulations on being named head football coach of the University of Fort Lauderdale. How is everything going?
Chambers: It’s going well, man. I absolutely love the opportunity. I thought it goes well with everything I have done up to this point with my pro career and post-career in sports performance the last 10 years. Just being around the high school kids, the college kids and the pro prospects.
I was already immersed in that scene. Just to be able to take that and become the head coach of a university is big, and I didn’t want to take it for granted. I’ve been coaching high school the last couple of years, so I had gotten that itch to really start coaching, and then this opportunity literally just fell in my lap over a weekend.
Zenger: Obviously, the biggest difference from high school to college is recruiting. What has that process been like?
Chambers: That’s the most challenging part right now. I had to start my recruiting process in May, if you could imagine, to get ready for a 2021 season. There was a lot of interest from freshman from the previous coach, but if he’s not here, he’s not going to be trying to help them guys get here. He would be re-recruiting them to other places. That was an uphill battle in the beginning. I didn’t even count on the people that he recruited before me. I just focused on the people who saw me become the head coach and then inquired about being on our team.
I have really been digging through some past recruits that are interested and some leads I had, then transfer portal, then JUCO [Junior College], and now I’m getting with some influencers in the area; head coaches or prep school coaches sending me lists. Private coaches are sending me stuff, so I’m just gathering as much information as possible, putting it in my database and calling guys.
At first, Percy, I was getting a lead, and I was emailing that player. I was like, “You know what, these kids are not looking at emails like we look at them.” It took me a week to figure that out because I wasn’t getting any response until I started calling people. I was calling the leads, I was texting them, and then the communication picked up, and we got a bit more social as far as the marketing side.
People started seeing this as a real opportunity, so I used that to my advantage. I’m just using a combination of influencers, social media, past relationships with coaches, and now I’m hiring coaches to help me on the recruiting side as well.
Zenger: Times have changed and things are a lot different from when you were being recruited. What other adjustments have you made in your own recruiting process?
Chambers: Because we had COVID-19 last year, we all spent a lot of time on Zoom and finding different ways to communicate, different ways to evaluate people. At the same time, there are not too many of them I have seen in person. We hosted three showcases. The showcases were really to give them an orientation of the school, give them information of admissions and enrollments, talk about scholarship opportunities, and the next day was to see them in person. Get them to run around, put them through combine-type drills and evaluate them. That’s been picking up. The first time I think we had 19, the second time we had 31 and this past weekend we had almost 40. So, the word is definitely getting out, but at the same time, we’re a commuter school.
We’re going to have to rely heavily on local guys who don’t need housing. When the kids come from out of town, we still find housing opportunities for them, but that’s not something that the school takes care of. We only take care of tuition and fees when it comes to scholarships, but when it comes to housing, that’s more on the parents and kids. I’m trying to find a way to at least give them some options in the area so they feel safe, and make sure things work out.
Zenger: Tell me more about how COVID-19 impacted what you are trying to do.
Chambers: Yeah. I dealt with the whole COVID thing as far as what we needed to do last year with limited practices, limited time and stuff like that. So, it does feel like a COVID year for me, even though it’s not anymore for a lot of other programs. They had a chance to do winter, they had a chance to do spring ball, they had a chance to do summer workouts. So everybody is completely ready for the 2021 season, as opposed to last year. I’m dealing with COVID because I didn’t get a spring, I didn’t get a winter, all I got was a little bit of the summer. Not a lot of practice, not a lot of conditioning, not a lot of things you would need to build up for a football season. That’s going to be the challenging part.
The good thing is, I have been working on hiring the right coaches and people. Even though this is an urgent situation, I’ve been very slow and patient with it. I didn’t want to hire just anybody. I needed to hire experienced people who understood the situation as far as growth potential, and people who know how to develop athletes very fast. I’m closing in on some guys right now. I have a few coaches hired already.
That’s another challenge in itself, because if you don’t have relationships with certain people, you just don’t want to be hiring anybody just to be hiring them just because they have a resume. You want to have some sort of relationship and continuity, because if you don’t, it can go the other way real fast. I’ve seen that happen before on the professional level. When the upstairs and the coaching staff weren’t in sync, it trickled down to the players and it just gets ugly from there. That’s where I’m at with that.
Zenger: What made the University of Fort Lauderdale the place for you?
Chambers: I would say the name was the biggest thing. I felt like from being in the business world the last 10 years, I saw it as a great startup business opportunity. It’s something that I can grow. I can put my imprint on and potentially leave a legacy, being one of the first head coaches of the school, and hopefully taking it to NCAA Division I one day. That’s obviously not going to happen overnight, but the fact that I was an influencer in the area already, a celebrity, professional football player, all of those things will help bring out the exposure for the school, which I love doing.
I’ve always been in media, I’m good at handling that, I’ve owned my own training facility for several years, so as far as working with people, hiring people, firing people (laughing), all of those responsibilities that comes with owning a business, I have that in my back pocket already. I’m confident when it comes to some of the things I need to do as a coach, but at the same time, we are a faith-based school, and I absolutely love that. The fact that I can tell a parent that we are going to develop you academically, athletically and spiritually is big, and it resonates a lot with people.
Zenger: Is this a high-pressure job for you?
Chambers: Yes! (laughing). The school wants admissions. We know in every program, every high school and the majority of college programs, the football team is the leader of the program, unless you’re a basketball school. What that means is, we’re the ones that’s going to go out there and hopefully have money games, the money games are going to seep into the athletic department, the athletic department is going to be able to use some of them funds to support other sports and activities.
I see that as a big responsibility, and I enjoy the fact that we get to be the leaders when I come to that. That’s what we have to do, we have to build this up through the football department. We build from the nine sports that we have right now, to 14 sports, to 20 sports, and that’s when you talk about entering other conferences, or having opportunities to do special things in the future.
Zenger: What do you look for in an athlete?
Chambers: Heart is big, but I love smart football players, and I love tough football players. Those are things that you can’t really measure from talent. Obviously, if they have the talent, that’s even better, but tough football players is what I’m looking for. Guys who want to handle responsibilities. I’m going to make sure they know how to communicate. I want to make sure they are very transparent, because I’m going to do the things that I would want a coach to do. I want a coach to be straight up with me, good, bad or ugly. Just tell me what it is. That’s the coach that I want to have.
When I was at the University of Wisconsin, I would run through a wall for [then-head coach] Barry Alvarez. I have to figure out, how do I get these kids to run through a wall for me? That’s going to be the challenge. I will be able to draw from a place like Wisconsin, and the many coaches I had with the Miami Dolphins. I even had coach [Nick] Saban for a year or two. I’m taking all of these different teachings and seeing if I can develop something for myself. At the same time, I will rely on my coaching staff who may have even more experience than me on this level that can be able to help out in that area.
Zenger: I wish you the best of luck and I know you will enjoy success at the University of Fort Lauderdale. Anything before I let you go?
Chambers: I appreciate it. I think it would be good if we circle back at some point mid-season or post-season and do another one and see how things are going and talk about future plans from there.
(Edited by Matthew B. Hall and Judith Isacoff)