Colten Gauthier was scrolling through Twitter on Monday when he saw the stunning news that Jeff Saturday had been named interim head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. He thought the tweet looked fake at first, like something from a parody account. Then he went to the Colts’ official account and saw it there, too.
“Oh shoot, that ain’t a joke,” Gauthier thought. “That’s the real thing.”
The hire, which followed Frank Reich’s firing, sent shockwaves throughout the sports world – in large part because Saturday, a retired offensive lineman, had never coached in the NFL, let alone led an NFL team.
It hit differently for Gauthier because, just three years earlier, Saturday had been his high school coach.
“I was like, ‘This dude was coaching me (a few) years ago,’ ” he told USA TODAY Sports, with a laugh. ” ‘What is going on?’ ”
Follow every game: Live NFL Scores
NEVER MISS A SNAP: Sign up for our NFL newsletter for exclusive content
In a profession where most coaches toil for years as low-level assistants before being tapped to lead an NFL team, Saturday is an anomaly. He has just one other coaching job on his résumé: A three-year stint as the head coach of Hebron Christian Academy, a small private high school about an hour-long drive from downtown Atlanta.
The 47-year-old Saturday is believed to be the first NFL head coach without any prior coaching experience in the NFL or college since Norm Van Brocklin, whom the Minnesota Vikings hired in 1961 following his retirement as a player.
OPINION:Colts hiring Jeff Saturday as interim head coach is slap in the face of Black coaches
OPINION:Jeff Saturday as Colts interim coach? Maybe idea by owner Jim Irsay isn’t too bad
The lack of experience makes Saturday something of a coaching mystery. Players in the Colts locker room will be familiar with Saturday the player, who spent 13 of his 14 seasons in Indianapolis. And they might have watched him on ESPN, where he worked most recently as an analyst. But they don’t know Saturday the coach.
Really, there’s only one group that does – the 2017-19 Hebron Christian Lions.
“He was real calculated,” said Winston Gassant, who played linebacker under Saturday in 2018 and 2019. “He wasn’t the scream, cuss-all-in-your-face (type) and everything like that, but he was still firm and strict. He knew how to get his point across to his players. He knew how to motivate us.”
Saturday first got involved as a volunteer assistant at Hebron Christian after his oldest son, Jeffrey, enrolled. The K-12 school is located in Dacula, Georgia, and has an enrollment of about 1,280 students, including roughly 480 in high school, according to athletic director Taylor Davis.
When the head coaching job came open before 2017, Davis said he interviewed several experienced high school coaches in the area before Saturday threw his metaphorical hat in the ring late in the process. He ultimately hired Peyton Manning’s former center, despite his lack of coaching experience, for some of the same reasons that Colts owner Jim Irsay offered earlier this week: Familiarity and leadership.
“Jeff knew exactly what our community and our culture needed, because he was in tune with being a part of Hebron football,” Davis said. “Jeff knows ball, but he knows people. And he’s a leader of people. He gets people to believe and buy in.”
OPINION:Who’s lying, who’s telling the truth and who even knows the truth with the Colts
There were plenty of challenges, of course. Hebron Christian played in Class A – the division reserved for the smallest Georgia high schools – and Davis said they had to deal with the sort of budgetary issues that are common at that level.
Though Saturday was able to hire an offensive coordinator and new strength coach, for example, the team’s equipment was dated. A plain yellow school bus carried players on four-hour trips south to Savannah, Georgia. And the setup used to film games was “janky,” Davis said – with coaches building an extension out of PVC pipes to give the camera a higher vantage point.
“I think he’ll probably have a healthier budget with the Colts,” Davis said.
Through it all, Davis came away impressed by the way Saturday embraced the sometimes aggravating wrinkles of high school football, rather than run from them.
Former players said they appreciated that he rarely told stories about his NFL career or cited his accomplishments, which include winning a Super Bowl and six Pro Bowl appearances.
“I feel like some coaches, they’ve been in the NFL, they think they know everything, they talk about it all the time,” said Hunter Borges, a former defensive back for the Lions. “But this wasn’t about him. It was about us.”
Hebron Christian went 21-16 in three seasons under Saturday, including an 8-5 record and a run to the state quarterfinals in 2019.
The Lions ran a pro-style offense with some air raid elements mixed in, according to Gauthier, who is now a redshirt freshman quarterback at South Carolina. And former wide receiver Donnovan Moorer said he was pleasantly surprised by how often they threw the ball, with a former offensive lineman at the helm.
“He had a good little bias towards running the ball a little bit sometimes,” said Moorer, who now plays at Texas State.
Multiple Hebron Christian players said Saturday’s ability to build and manage individual relationships is what they remember most.
For Borges, it was the one-on-one conversation that Saturday had with him at his house after Borges had expressed frustration about his lack of playing time. Gassant recalled a get-well-soon text message he received from Saturday after he had knee surgery, nearly a year after he left Hebron Christian. And for Gauthier, it was the moment Saturday sat him down in his truck and told the then-junior quarterback that he was going to resign.
“I just remember he got emotional, he got real emotional,” Gauthier said. “I tell that story just to say: He cares, man. He really does.”
Maybe this is why the Hebron Christian community is more optimistic than the average fan about how Saturday will fare in Indianapolis.
His first game will be on the road Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders.
“I get it. This was single A, small high school football,” said Davis, the athletic director. “But he didn’t leave any stone unturned to make sure that the program was going to be set up for success.
“When I think about what he’s going to do on the macro level at the Colts, it’s going to be the same process – just times 100.”
Contact Tom Schad at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.