LARAMIE — Being a journeyman hasn’t really bothered Willie Mack Garza.
Wyoming’s newest assistant has spent the better part of the last decade bouncing from job to job, all of which are far away from the spotlight of major college football.
There was a two-year stint as defensive coordinator at a Mississippi junior college followed by one-year pit stops as an assistant at Football Championship Subdivision programs Prairie View A&M and Lamar. Then two years at Dixie State, a Division II school, before being hired as an assistant at fellow Division II member Texas A&M-Commerce in January.
Garza barely finished a cup of coffee with the Lions before joining Wyoming’s staff in May. It marks the first time coaching at the Football Bowl Subdivision level since 2010 for Garza, who will coach Wyoming’s safeties.
But one thing being in — and out of — the game has reaffirmed for Garza over the years is that he just wants to coach regardless of where that might be.
“The pay may be better, the prestige or whatever at these other schools,” Garza told the Star-Tribune in his first media interview since being hired at Wyoming. “The bottom line is when me and a player or a recruit are in this classroom, it doesn’t even matter if you’re Division I, Division II, Division III or whatever. I just love coaching the game of football.”
Garza also owns the fact that his recent job-hopping is largely a result of his decisions and his alone. He would be lying if he said he hasn’t been motivated to get back to the FBS level primarily because it’s the closest step to coaching in the NFL, something the 23-year coaching veteran said he still has aspirations of doing.
Nine years ago, Garza seemed as if he might be on the fast track to the highest level of his profession.
Garza, who played his college ball at Texas, was part of Lane Kiffin’s first coaching staff at Southern Cal in 2010. He had followed Kiffin from Tennessee, where Garza was the Volunteers’ secondary coach for one season before Kiffin took the USC job.
But just two days before USC’s season opener against Minnesota in 2011, Garza abruptly resigned his position for what he cited at the time as personal issues in a statement released through the school.
“I made a mistake,” Garza said.
It turned out Garza was tied to an NCAA investigation into Texas-based scout Willie Lyles’ relationship with several high-profile college football programs. Garza had a relationship with Lyles, who told investigators that Garza wired him $1,500 as reimbursement for travel expenses Lyles had paid for a blue-chip running back recruit and his mother to fly to Tennessee’s campus for an unofficial visit in the summer of 2009, according to a Yahoo Sports report.
The recruiting violation ultimately led to the NCAA slapping Garza with a two-year show-cause penalty — arguably the harshest punishment that can be levied against coaches. Any school wishing to hire a coach during the duration of his or her penalty must appear before the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions and “show cause” as to why it shouldn’t be penalized for hiring the coach and how it’s going to monitor the coach in the future.
But the penalty essentially blackballs coaches from getting another job at an NCAA-member school since most don’t want to run the risk of receiving even harsher penalties should the coach break NCAA rules again. Garza didn’t get back into coaching until Pearl River (Mississippi) Community College hired him in 2013, and his first coaching job back at an NCAA school didn’t come until he was hired as Prairie View A&M’s linebackers coach and special teams coordinator in 2015.
As for the penalty, Garza said he had to take responsibility for his actions.
“Whatever the NCAA decided the penalty was, I knew that I made a mistake. So whatever they gave me, I dealt with it and that was it,” he said. “I didn’t ever look at as it was too stringent or not enough of a penalty or anything like that. I just said, ‘OK.’
“That’s the way I was raised and taught, and that’s what I believe. You make a mistake, whatever it is in life, there’s going to be consequences for it. Don’t complain about the consequences that occur. Deal with the consequences, have a positive attitude, move forward and try to do the best you can do moving forward.”
Wyoming is the only FBS program that’s offered Garza a job since his penalty expired. Garza said the penalty is “without a doubt” the reason it’s taken this long, though he added he was optimistic he would eventually get another shot at the FBS level.
And Garza said he had a hunch it might come at Wyoming as long as Craig Bohl was the coach.
Like many of Bohl’s assistants, Garza first worked under Bohl at North Dakota State. He was the Bison’s secondary coach before also serving as Bohl’s defensive coordinator from 2006-08.
Bohl and Garza have kept in contact over the years, so it didn’t exactly surprise Garza when he got a call from Bohl while sitting in traffic on his way back to Texas A&M-Commerce’s campus from a recruiting trip last month.
What Garza didn’t know was Bohl was calling to offer him the final vacancy on his staff. It came open when linebackers coach Jay Niemann left for Iowa after less than three months on the job, and Garza was happy to fill it.
“That’s really abnormal for a position to be open after spring football,” Garza said. “I was shocked.”
Garza said he and Bohl didn’t talk about his past much while discussing the job. Bohl and athletic director Tom Burman addressed it in a press release when Wyoming officially announced Garza’s hire on May 21, noting the school’s compliance office worked with the NCAA to get a full understanding of the circumstances surrounding Garza’s penalty.
Bohl said in a statement that Garza has acknowledged his transgression and will be expected to follow “high ethical standards” like the rest of Wyoming’s coaches. He added he’s ready to start fresh with yet another assistant he’s familiar with.
“Willie Mack and I have enjoyed a long relationship through the years,” Bohl said. “He is a seasoned coach who had a lot to do with our defensive success at North Dakota State, and he is very experienced in coaching within our system.”
The resources Garza has to work with at Wyoming are still taking some getting used to after coaching down a level or two the past six seasons. Off a table in a meeting room inside the High Altitude Performance Center, he picks up laminated folders full of scouting reports that have already been prepared for Missouri, Wyoming’s opening opponent. He also notes the entire hallway it takes to house the offices of the employees that work in the football program’s recruiting office.
“All the information you gain access to, that’s probably caught me off guard more than anything because you don’t have those type of budgets at Division II or the FCS,” Garza said. “And you definitely don’t have the personnel to do that.”
But what Garza is looking forward to more than anything is being back in his element. He hasn’t yet had the chance to get the Cowboys’ safeties on the field for any instruction, but Garza said he’s met with them and been transparent about what they can expect from their new coach.
“I’m teacher-oriented,” Garza said. “I believe in starting from the fundamentals and building off of that. I always tell my guys that I’m a fundamentalist to the bone. I believe in coaching the fundamentals of the game — tackling properly, getting off blocks properly and giving 100 percent effort.”
Garza said he’s just fortunate he’s getting to do it all again at a program that decided to bring him back to college football’s highest level.
“My relationship with Coach Bohl I think played a major factor in it,” Garza said. “He believes in me and I believe in him. I can’t say no more other than it’s a blessing.”