The Wayne State University football team began practicing for the 2023 season on a cloudy, breezy August day at Tom Adams Field.
Some of the players looked more “green” than “gold.” But head coach Tyrone Wheatley says that’s normal for day one.
“Freshmen look like freshmen, some of our upperclassmen look really well,” he says. “They had a spring (camp) under their belt, and they’ve retained a lot, which is good.”
WSU hired Wheatley in January after parting ways with Paul Winters, who coached the team for 19 years. Winters led the Warriors to the 2011 NCAA Division II national championship game. They were 1-9 last season and 2-9 in 2021.
Despite that, Wheatley likes the team he inherited.
“Coach Winters did a really good job of recruiting,” he says. “When I took the job, there were a lot of guys coming off of injuries. They’re a very young team.”
That youth gives Wheatley a chance to build a winning culture. But he says the players must learn how to develop that environment.
“I’m just a shepherd,” he says. “All great teams are player-driven and player-led. You put it in their hands, and they’ll take off and run with it.”
“I’m just a shepherd. All great teams are player-driven, player-led.” — Wayne State football coach Tyrone Wheatley
He’s been in their shoes
Wheatley himself was a standout running back at the University of Michigan. He rushed for more than 4,000 yards and scored 47 touchdowns from 1991-94 and won the Most Valuable Player award in the 1993 Rose Bowl. He played 10 seasons in the National Football League, after which he coached running backs for several NFL and NCAA teams.
This is Wheatley’s second head coaching job. His first was at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md. During his tenure, the Bears went 5-19 from 2019 to 2021.
Wheatley says the biggest lesson he learned from that experience was to slow down.
“Every day was a sprint, and the folks around me were like, ‘Wait a minute, let’s slow this thing down, we can’t keep up,’” he recalls. “Now I’m letting those around me take autonomy of their space, their jobs, their tasks, and I adjust to them.”
Change is all around him
Wheatley is adjusting to his new surroundings but also to the changing college football landscape. As a player, he led Michigan to victory against the University of Washington in the Rose Bowl. The Huskies played in what was then the Pacific 10 Conference. Starting next year, UW will join the Wolverines in the Big Ten.
Wheatley says he can only think of one reason why a Pacific Northwest team would align itself with the Midwest.
“It’s money,” he says. “Does it make the Big Ten better? I don’t think so.”
Whether it’s conference realignment or NIL deals — which let players earn money from the use of their names, images and likenesses — money is at the heart of major changes to the college football landscape. Wheatley says it’s not as big a concern at the Division II level, but he doesn’t blame student-athletes for seeking compensation for their play. And he says while adults should the standard for the sport, it should not be a double standard.
“They’re doing the exact same thing as the adults are doing,” he says. “When we do it, it’s okay, but when they want to do it, shame on them.”
Success starts with the players
As he navigates these roiling waters, Wheatley has set a simple course for 2023.
“My goal for this season is having the guys master their domain,” he says. “Become masters of their position, masters of school, and if we can do that, then the scheme falls into place.”
The Warriors kick off the season Sept. 2 against Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania.