Former Packers players Jarrett Bush, Nick Barnett, Brandon Jackson enjoy ride on the coaching carousel

July 8, 2018

GREEN BAY — Mike McCarthy was kidding — sort of. As with many jokes, there was definitely an element of truth to his wisecrack.

With three of his former players — inside linebacker Nick Barnett, running back Brandon Jackson and defensive back/special teams ace Jarrett Bush — having served as coaching interns during the offseason program, the Green Bay Packers head coach delivered a not-so-subtle reminder of what the threesome would be signing up for if they continued to pursue their current career path.

“You would think that more players would take advantage of that opportunity, but some players are just not (interested). They’re smart enough not to think of getting into coaching,” McCarthy said with a smile. “Not to say that these three aren’t, but ...”

But coaching definitely requires a major time commitment — coaches are well-compensated, to be sure, but the long hours and pay-your-dues nature of moving up the coaching ladder are real — and the gig certainly isn’t for everyone.

Barnett, Jackson and Bush, however, took the opportunity to get a taste of coaching and decide whether it’s an avenue they’d like to take in their post-playing career life.

“I understand there’s a diligent workload as a coach, and I’m willing to do that,” Bush said. “With my personality, my enthusiasm, my energy — I’m definitely able to endure and have that stamina for those coaching hours.

“It’s about waking up and loving what you do. To some, it may seem like long, grueling hours, but it’s something I would love to do and have a desire to do — to coach and help those players, make sure they grow into the best they can be.”

Barnett, Jackson and Bush were among more than 100 interns participating in the Bill Walsh NFL Diversity Coaching Fellowship. Last year’s group totaled a record 144 interns, including 43 former NFL players and five female coaches. (Final 2018 statistics will be available from the league when training camp ends.)

Last year, Jackson interned along with former Packers outside linebacker Vic So’oto, with Jackson playing a vital role in teaching converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery how to block in pass protection as a running back.

Roughly 2,000 minority coaches have been through the program since its inception in 1987, when Walsh, the legendary San Francisco 49ers head coach, introduced the idea to the league when he brought a group of minority coaches to 49ers camp. Four current NFL head coaches — Cleveland’s Hue Jackson, Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Anthony Lynn — interned early in their coaching careers.

Barnett, Jackson and Bush all were on the 2010 Packers Super Bowl XLV-winning team, and McCarthy — even with just three coaches on his current staff with NFL regular-season playing experience — felt it was the least he could do to give them a taste of coaching.

“You always want to have your own back. I don’t think I’ve ever said no to one of our former players,” McCarthy said. “I think it’s important. It’s great to have those guys back involved. They all three look like they could still play. You almost want to throw them in the drill. I know Nick wants to jump in there sometimes. You’ve got to hold him back. It’s really neat to see where they are in their lives and the interests that they have and, hey, if we can help them in any way possible, it’s fun to be part of it.”

Coaching in college

The 32-year-old Jackson, who was a second-round pick out of Nebraska in 2007 and played four seasons in Green Bay, is entering his first season as wide receivers coach at Tusculum University in Greenville, Tennessee, and coached at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa, last year. There, he coached receivers and worked with special teams, recruiting and academic advising.

He started coaching in the middle school and high school ranks after his playing career ended in 2013, after he was released by the Cleveland Browns, and again helped running backs coach Ben Sirmans this spring.

Barnett, 37, was the Packers’ first-round pick in 2003 out of Oregon State and played eight years in Green Bay, with his final season coming in 2010, when he missed much of the team’s Super Bowl run because of a wrist injury. He played three more years in the league (two with Buffalo, one with Washington) before retiring following the 2013 season.

He worked alongside linebackers coach Winston Moss and defensive run-game coordinator Patrick Graham during organized team activity practices and minicamp, and is expected back when training camp begins July 26.

Bush, 34, entered the league as an undrafted free agent from Utah State but carved out a nine-year career — all with the Packers — and had a brief stint in the Canadian Football League after an NFL suspension for performance-enhancing drugs following the 2014 season.

Bush primarily made his name on special teams, but he had a critical interception in Super Bowl XLV after the secondary was depleted by injuries, including the broken collarbone by star Charles Woodson during the first half of the game.

Bush split his coaching time between the defensive backs, with secondary coach Jason Simmons and defensive pass-game coordinator Joe Whitt, and special teams, with coordinator Ron Zook. He’s also expected back for training camp.

From teammate to coach

For veteran cornerback Tramon Williams, who was teammates with all three players on that 2010 team and has returned this season, at age 35, to shore up the Packers’ troublesome secondary, it’s been interesting to have former teammates — two of whom are younger than he is — in the standard-issue coaches’ pullovers and caps instead of players’ jerseys and helmets.

“Those guys look like they can still play, man. So it’s good to see them around,” Williams said. “One thing the Packers do do is take care of their guys and keep them around. To see those guys here and the work ethic those guys had when they were here, you feel like it can’t do anything but make guys better.

“Obviously JB (was a) workman. Workman of the year. That’s a guy who can show all the young guys how to make teams and how to work because there was nobody who worked as hard as him. Nick Barnett, he was one of the better linebackers we’ve had come through here. So to have all those guys here, man, it’s huge for me. I’m glad to see them.”

Asked if he’d consider coaching when his playing days are over, Williams laughed.

“I don’t know about myself,” he said. “The hours are long. It’s huge. I would never say I’d never do it, but I don’t plan on doing it. Not right now.”

Of course, that’s what ex-Packers cornerback Al Harris once said, too. The two-time Pro Bowler used to say the only coaching he planned on doing was of his son, Al Jr.

Instead, Harris interned in 2012 with the Miami Dolphins under then-head coach Joe Philbin — a Packers assistant during Harris’ playing days who’s now back in Green Bay as offensive coordinator — and Harris is now in his sixth season on the Kansas City Chiefs’ staff, entering his third year as the team’s secondary/cornerbacks coach.

Bush said he reached out to Harris before deciding to intern to get his input.

Bush said playing with Woodson and Harris, two of the best cornerbacks in franchise history, was an invaluable learning experience. But, he said, his own path — joining the Packers on waivers after being cut by Carolina as a rookie, having to earn a roster spot year-in and year-out — gives him a different perspective that he believes will benefit him in coaching.

“You definitely have that mindset of, ‘What can I do to better myself?’ That eagerness to find work, to search out opportunities and learning,” Bush said. “It definitely pays dividends, to go that route, just because you have things stacked against you.

“As well as learning how to build relationships with the people you work with. That definitely played a huge role — learning to continue to build that rapport, and how to be dependable to your brothers. An undrafted free agent, being cut, you definitely experience hardships. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That taught me a lot of lessons along the way.”

The lessons continued during the offseason, as Bush, Barnett and Jackson learned as much about the behind-the-scenes life of a coach as they picked up about on-field coaching.

“What these guys get out of being here more than anything is the after-the-meeting conversations,” McCarthy said. “They get to go through the install and pick up the little things and be in all the meetings, but the time in lunch or the video sessions with the coaches or after the day is done, the conversations that they can have on the side, that’s the real value in these internships.”

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