- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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The ascent of Major Applewhite's college football coaching career has been rocketlike in speed, if not direction. At 28, only six seasons removed from setting nearly every career passing record in the Texas record book, Applewhite has ascended to the position of offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Alabama.
If that sounds quick, think about this: It's been only three years since Applewhite served at his alma mater as a graduate assistant, which ranks just above pizza delivery guy on the Division I-A coaching ladder.
Applewhite had the good fortune to be a graduate assistant with the same staff that coached him. Thinking back to that time, he recalled a piece of advice his quarterbacks coach, Texas' Greg Davis, gave him about the business.
"Coach Davis said, 'You and Julie [Applewhite's wife] are going to have to do some moving,'" Applewhite said. "'And if you do well, you're really going to have to do some moving.'"
Little did Davis know. The path Applewhite took to Tuscaloosa hasn't resembled a rocket blasting off as much as a balloon with the air escaping. Applewhite is on his fourth job in four seasons. He has gone from being a GA at Texas to quarterbacks coach at Syracuse to offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Rice to his current position in Tuscaloosa.
"Julie is probably looking forward to the point in the profession where you stay for two years," Applewhite said with a laugh. " I didn't think when I left Syracuse it would be after one year. And then when I went to Rice, I didn't think it would be after one year. When opportunities come, you need to take them. There is nothing guaranteed."
As talented as Applewhite is, he got his first job the same way many assistants get one: "who you know." After the 2004 season, when Texas co-defensive coordinator Greg Robinson took the Syracuse job, he brought Applewhite with him as his quarterbacks coach.
Upstate New York's infamous weather didn't scare him off. Neither did the Orange's 1-10 record, nor the attempt to fit players recruited for an option offense into the passing game Applewhite brought with him from Austin. In fact, Applewhite figures losing in one season nearly the same number as he lost in his college playing career (13) tested his desire for the coaching business.
His desire passed.
"Even as we went 1-10," Applewhite said, "I thought, if this is as tough as it can get, I still enjoyed it. I enjoy being around players and seeing them work."
In this case, Applewhite's career decision had less to do with the vagaries of football and more in common with other 20-somethings starting out their careers. It's just that the Baton Rouge native, married to a San Antonio native, missed home. When he had the chance to return to Texas by becoming the offensive coordinator at Rice, Applewhite leaped.
"All the people in Syracuse were very good to me," Applewhite said. "It was very, very far from home. It wasn't necessary that we live in Austin. It was having proximity to family events. It was tough to get down there to experience those things. In a lot of people's eyes, going from Syracuse to Rice made no sense, even though it was as an offensive coordinator. In a lot of people's minds, it never gets past that. It never gets in-depth. 'He left a tradition-rich BCS school for a place that hasn't been to a bowl game in 45 years.' There's a human side, and you try to take care of that, as well."
Under new coach Todd Graham, and with Applewhite in charge of the offense, the Owls rebounded from a 1-5 start to win their last six games and earn an invitation to the New Orleans Bowl. Wide receiver Jarett Dillard emerged as an ESPN.com All-American, making 91 catches.
Three weeks after the bowl, and the day before Graham left to become the head coach at Tulsa, Applewhite bolted Rice to work for Nick Saban at Alabama. Applewhite's discussion with Saban began before Tulsa contacted Graham. Applewhite said he and Graham never discussed his moving to Tulsa.
There is a sense of satisfaction for Applewhite in going to Tuscaloosa. His parents named him for former Crimson Tide All-American running back Major Ogilvie, and Applewhite grew up an Alabama fan. However, a decade ago, coach Mike DuBose decided not to offer Applewhite a scholarship.
So he has arrived, with one rule: Larry Applewhite, who remains a Crimson Tide fan, may not ask his son any questions about work.
The logical question that presents itself to a 28-year-old offensive coordinator is how long before he becomes a head coach. For all his moving, Applewhite said he hasn't had a career plan. He has reacted to opportunities as they have presented themselves.
"Goals and all that kind of stuff, that's something I don't give much credence to," Applewhite said. "I want to be somewhere where I can win. I want to be at a school that has a tradition of winning and a chance to win. I want to be around good people, interesting people that I enjoy being around every day. And I want to be around people I can learn from."
He might even decide to stay with them for more than one season. Here's one clue: He and Julie, having rented in Syracuse and Houston, just bought their first home. And here's another: As Applewhite put it, "I told one of my coaching buddies the other day, 'I'm tired of installing an offense. I want to go into a spring and tweak.'"
Maybe next spring. Maybe.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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