PULLMAN – The stereotype about young assistant coaches in college football is that they are ace recruiters, hired despite their lack of experience because of their ability to form connections with high school prospects.
Derek Sage proves the rule, although his biggest recruits were not football players at all. They were wives.
Sage, 38, is the new inside receivers coach at Washington State. He got his first in with Mike Leach’s coaching crew when Jim Mastro was coaching at Nevada and all the Wolf Pack coaches were at a convention.
“He’s from Reno so he looked us up at the convention,” said Mastro, who coaches running backs at WSU. “He was smart, he got in real good with our wives. By the end of the night our wives were saying we needed to hire him.”
And Sage never stopped recruiting. If coaching college football is a carousel, then Sage wanted to ride in every spot.
After his playing career as a tight end at Cal State Northridge wrapped up, Sage spent two years at Nevada, one year as a defensive graduate assistant and the second as an offensive graduate assistant. That second year he studied under head Chris Ault and Mastro, the two innovators of the Pistol offense.
That set off a journey of offensive discovery that led Sage to New Hampshire to coach for Chip Kelly, to Toledo’s top-10 passing offense and now to Washington State, where he can fulfill his longtime goal of learning under Leach.
Any athletic director worth his or her three-piece keeps lists of potential head coaches, should a vacancy need to be filled. Coaches also keep lists of coaches, since most coaches are climbers and assistants, by definition, have at least one more rung to ascend in their careers.
Sage kept a list, too. His list consisted of high-powered offenses he would like to learn and coaches he would like to study under.
“When I was a young guy I used to send my resume to everybody,” Sage said. “If it pops up on Football Scoop, I’m sending in my resume. When I was a young guy making $12,000 a year, trying to gain experience and go out and get that next job at a higher level or a better program, or whatever.”
Sage had always studied the Air Raid, and among the first things he packed whenever he switched jobs was a collection of DVDs showing Leach explaining his offense.
Mastro had been recommending Sage for a while – even when Mastro was at UCLA he was trying to bring the guy he says “reminds me of myself back in the day” aboard.
So when WSU’s inside receivers coach position came open following JaMarcus Shephard’s departure for Purdue, he made sure Sage got an interview.
“Whenever we had a WR job here I put his name in every time,” Mastro said. “Leach has always liked him and I think this time he felt it was the right fit for our staff.”
As far Sage’s coaching style, both he and Mastro describe a yeller but not a screamer, someone who will shout whether as positive or negative reinforcement, but not someone whose words are especially cutting.
For now, however, the on-field coaching is a distant, barely visible reward for finishing a hundred tasks that must be accomplished first. It’s good that Sage likes recruiting, because his life will consist of little else in the run-up to Feb. 1, which is when high school prospects sign their letters of intent.
Sage’s desk is buried under flight plans, rental car agreements and piles of info about recruits he is just starting to form relationships. Simultaneously, he has to find a place to live, figure out his health insurance and make his way through the never-ending stacks of paperwork that accompany any new job.
But it is joyful work for a coach who has wanted this job – as a matter of fact, this school – for a long time.
“I wanted to play my college ball here,” Sage said. “I got a letter from WSU when I was a senior in high school. Then I got a call saying they appreciated my interest but I was too small.”
“It feels like home to me,” he added. “And I’m living in a hotel.”
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