Three years ago, Steven Sylvester was a management trainee with Enterprise Rent-a-Car, a former Georgia Tech football captain putting his degree to work.
As of last week, Sylvester was the new running backs coach at Jacksonville University, recruiting and preparing for the offseason in his first full-time coaching job after nearly three years as a graduate assistant with the Yellow Jackets.
“It’s kind of hard to believe,” Sylvester said Wednesday.
The job is a reward for a successful apprenticeship with Tech and the first step up the coaching ladder for Sylvester, who played linebacker for the Jackets 2008-2011 and captained the team as a senior. Jacksonville is in the Pioneer League, a non-scholarship FCS league. His sights are high.
“I’m going to try to ride this wave as long as I can, this college coaching wave, and eventually try to get to the head coaching level,” he said. “I’ve had so much fun over the past three years doing what I love.”
Butler, Davidson, Dayton and Stetson are among other schools in the league. Notably, Jim Harbaugh jumped from Pioneer member San Diego straight to his head coaching job at Stanford.
Rather remarkably, or, perhaps not remarkably at all, Sylvester comes to the Florida school (not to be mistaken with FCS power Jacksonville State in Alabama) following the school getting hit with a one-year postseason ban and other penalties. The sanctions followed a financial-aid scandal that found that 23 of 24 starters on the 2013 team were recipients of a leadership scholarship, while about 6 percent of the rest of the student body had received that grant. The team was coached by former Florida quarterback Kerwin Bell, who was cleared of having knowledge of the improprieties but was not retained after the 2015 season for what the school called philosophical differences over the school remaining a non-scholarship team.
Who you know
Connections opened the door for Sylvester. Jacksonville’s new coach is Ian Shields, who came to the school after two seasons at Lenoir-Rhyne. Prior to that, he was offensive coordinator at Army, where he ran – you guessed it – a version of coach Paul Johnson’s spread-option offense. Shields was an occasional visitor to Tech, often visiting Tech quarterbacks and B-backs coach and friend Bryan Cook, for whom Sylvester worked. When Sylvester found out Shields had gotten the Jacksonville job, he asked if Cook would put in a word on his behalf. Sylvester had been prepped by Tech coaches to prepare for a potentially long wait for a job, perhaps even a year, but soon after a first conversation with Shields, he got another call.
“Maybe a week later, he called me back and said, ‘Hey, if you want to come down and coach our running backs, we’d love to have you,’” Sylvester said.
Sylvester, who completed his master’s degree in building construction and facility management in December, said he’ll take a little bit from the coaches at Tech – Johnson’s authoritarian style, a manner of appealing to players and recruits that he has seen in A-backs coach Lamar Owens, defensive line coach Mike Pelton and Cook and the drive of defensive coordinator Ted Roof.
“He worked relentlessly just to make sure that he had everything right and or translated what he understands so the guys understand,” he said. “There’s going to be a little bit from everybody that I try to take.”
As a graduate assistant, he has had a taste of the job, but he is looking forward to the recruiting, running his own position meetings and being responsible for his players. As a less-resourced program, Sylvester will have to wear more hats than coaches at Tech. He said, for instance, that he has been designated the technical specialist on the staff. He isn’t terribly confident in his ability to handle malfunctioning phones or computers.
“I’ll keep my fingers crossed so I don’t have to put on that hardhat and get electrocuted,” he said.
Just getting started
Life is lifting off. Sylvester became engaged this past July to Jasmyn Santiago, a Georgia State grad who is now trying to find a job in commercial real estate in Jacksonville.
“She’s gung ho on having a beach wedding,” he said. “I’m just in this stage where I just nod and smile.”
It is a marvel to him that, after starting his work career in a job he liked but didn’t feel called to, he is now in a job that fulfills his passion. He is thankful to Johnson for giving him the opportunity to come back as a grad assistant. He thanked the Tech community – fans, faculty, staff, and administration – for allowing him the chance to start his career. Now 26, he said he first got to know the school as a 16-year-old coming for visits and has grown up in the 10 years in between.
“I’m hoping to go out and make the Tech faithful proud,” he said.