JaMarcus Shephard is the football-coaching equivalent of a self-made man. The newest addition to the Cougars’ staff played his college football at Division III DePauw University in Indiana. He got his start in coaching thanks to an academic mentor who saw potential in him.
When inside receivers coach David Yost left Washington State to become the quarterbacks coach at Oregon earlier this year, Mike Leach didn’t just seek an assistant who’d worked for him before.
He called an audible instead and sought out Western Kentucky receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard, who has no tie to Leach other than the fact that “we knew some of the same people,” Leach said.
“We just called him and brought him up and interviewed him. I have a lot of respect for his career path. He worked his way up from nothing.”
The football coaching fraternity can often be an insular one in which job opportunities arise based on who you know, where you played or who you’re related to.
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From that standpoint, Shephard, 32, is the football-coaching equivalent of a self-made man. The newest addition to the Cougars’ coaching staff played his college football at Division III DePauw University in Indiana. He got his start in coaching thanks to an academic mentor who saw potential in him and offered him a chance to switch tracks midcareer.
Shephard’s first coaching job came as a volunteer assistant on Willie Taggart’s staff at Western Kentucky in 2011. He stayed with the Hilltoppers through two coaching changes, rising rapidly through the ranks to become the wide receivers and special teams coach under current head coach Jeff Brohm.
When Western Kentucky offensive coordinator Tyson Helton joined his brother Clay Helton’s USC staff in January, Shephard was offered the opportunity to become Western Kentucky’s next offensive coordinator.
It would have been a significant promotion for a young coach who, a mere six years ago, had never held a full-time college football coaching job and was instead working for the National Center for Drug-Free Sport.
But to the surprise of many at Western Kentucky, Shephard declined, choosing instead to accept the job coaching inside receivers at WSU.
To some, that might sound like passing up a big opportunity. But it’s not the first time Shephard has bet on himself and won.
Finding his calling
Coaching always intrigued Shephard, but for a long time, he resisted the pull of the profession, choosing instead to work in sports administration.
Shephard went to DePauw on a full academic scholarship and majored in kinesiology and sports medicine, graduating in 2005.
Shephard took a job at the NCAA’s Education Services Division, and later turned down a chance to become a graduate assistant coach with the DePauw football team.
“Growing up we didn’t have any money, and in college we didn’t have money either,” said Shephard, a native of Fort Wayne, Ind., “so after I got the job working with the NCAA, I couldn’t go back to being a GA and not making money at all.”
While working for the NCAA, Shephard coached receivers at his alma mater, Northrop High, and he also helped coach the track team at DePauw.
In 2007, Shephard took a new job at the National Center for Drug-Free Sport in Kansas City, Mo., and that’s how he met the man who would help jump-start his coaching career.
Fred Gibson is a former Southern Illinois quarterback who helps coordinate replays and officials as a volunteer at Western Kentucky home football games, but has made his living in academia.
Gibson is an associate professor at Western Kentucky, and the director of the recreation and sport administration graduate program.
He first crossed paths with Shephard while training to become a crew chief administering NFL drug tests. In his job with the National Center for Drug-Free Sport, Shephard ran the NFL’s drug-testing program and trained the drug-testing crew chiefs.
Gibson spent only a day with Shephard during his drug-testing training session in Hartford, Conn., but he came away impressed by the younger man’s energy, leadership ability and charisma.
“I knew that day he was special and had a whole bunch of gifts,” Gibson said.
A few years later, over lunch, Gibson asked Shephard if he had a graduate degree.
“He said it was a dream of his, and he said coaching was an itch he’d never scratched,” Gibson said. “Sort of jokingly, I said, ‘Why don’t you come to Western Kentucky and I’ll help you get your education paid for and try to get you some coaching experience?’ ”
Gibson went home to Bowling Green, Ky., crunched some numbers and reached out to Hilltoppers coach Willie Taggart to see if he could use some volunteer help.
Then, he offered Shephard “the only job I could make available to him” — a high-level graduate assistantship that paid a stipend of about $12,000 a year, plus a tuition waiver. As part of the deal, Shephard would have to teach intro-level classes in sports management while he worked toward his masters in recreation and sport administration.
The football side of it was never guaranteed.
“He put all his chips on the table and said, ‘I’m going to scratch this itch,’ ” Gibson said. “They rented out their house in Kansas City and moved here on a wing and a prayer and just about starved a couple of times.”
Picking a path
Gibson introduced him to Taggart, who agreed to let him volunteer in the weight room. Then, when the 2011 season started, assistant coach Alonzo Hampton asked him to help with the defensive backs.
After that season, Taggart was hired at South Florida and wanted Shephard to join his staff. But Shephard decided to stay at Western Kentucky under Bobby Petrino, the Hilltoppers’ new head coach.
Shephard coached the receivers as a quality-control assistant. Then in 2014, when offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm became head coach at Western Kentucky after Petrino left for Louisville, Shephard was promoted to receivers coach.
“He’s a player’s coach,” said Antwane Grant, a former Western Kentucky receiver who was recruited by Shephard and who played two seasons for the Hilltoppers after transferring from a junior college in 2014. “He’s an easy guy to get along with and he’s the life to the practice that gets everything going. He’s always an amped-up coach and he’s fun to be around.”
Led by their dynamic offense, the Hilltoppers had a record-breaking season in 2015 and finished 12-2 and ranked 24th in the final Associated Press poll.
While Shephard was pondering the opportunity to be the offensive coordinator, the Cougs called about their vacant inside receivers position.
“I didn’t even really know the job was available,” Shephard said. “I didn’t know a single coach on the staff prior to talking with Clay McGuire (WSU offensive line coach). He followed me on Twitter, I followed him back. He shot me a message and eventually I was on the phone with coach Leach.
“It was exciting but extremely humbling. I already knew from those conversations that he would be a great mentor.”
Ultimately, the chance to pick Leach’s offensive brain was too much for Shephard to resist.
“Everyone at Western Kentucky has been tremendous, but it was a good career move for me, working with coach Leach who’s so well respected. From Willie Taggart to Bobby Petrino, Jeff Brohm and now Mike Leach, those are some great guys to work under,” Shephard said. “It helps you build your knowledge base and recruit some different areas and broaden your horizons. I’ve never been afraid of learning new things.”