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December 29, 2012
NEW ORLEANS, La. - Florida tight ends coach Derek Lewis helped the Gators win their first national championship in 1996. As a Texas tight end, he caught a 61-yard pass on fourth-and-inches as the Longhorns sealed a stunning upset of undefeated Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship Game, paving the way for Florida to earn a rematch with FSU in the Sugar Bowl and ultimately finish No. 1 in the polls.
That's not the most interesting part of his life history, though. After a two-year NFL career stopped with a knee injury in St. Louis, he ended up in New Orleans, his hometown, as a city bus driver, before returning to Texas, earning his degree and getting into coaching.
In a rare assistant coach interview with reporters, Florida tight ends coach Derek Lewis talked Friday about his excitement returning to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl and his rise from bus driver to coach of a nationally prominent program.
What is your history with New Orleans?
"I was born and raised here. My family experienced Hurricane Katrina. I'm a St. Aug (High School in New Orleans) alum. It's great to be in the Sugar Bowl. I'm excited to that I get to stay home."
Can you talk about what happened to you after the end of your NFL playing career with St. Louis?
"When I got done in St. Louis I ended up tearing up my knee, so I came home. It's the typical story. I hadn't finished my degree, and I ended up working at the bus station (as a city bus driver) in New Orleans East. My dad came and got me and said if a man doesn't work, he doesn't eat, so you need to go get a job. If you didn't get a degree, it's your fault. You had an opportunity, you didn't take advantage of it, it's your deal. So I ended up working at the bus station. After two years I called Mack Brown up and said, 'hey, coach, can I come back to school?' I ended up going back to school and finishing up my degree and got into coaching. It's a great deal."
What was the worst thing that happened to you driving that bus?
"I got held up once. A couple of guys O.D'd on the bus. It was some trying times out there. The economy was rough, and guys were trying to make it. It was a tough deal."
Did they pull a gun on you? How did you deal with it?
"You just deal with it. You give them what you got, keep your head down and you keep going. I don't remember how much money they took. When you got a gun in your face, you don't remember. You just do what they tell you to do."
Is your life lesson something you pass down to your players?
"Definitely. Finish your degree. It's tough out here. It's a hard life, and if you want it to be a deal where you can be successful, finish your degree, have a good plan and work your plan."
What time did you have to show up for work driving the bus?
"Oh man, all hours. I was on call sometimes at 3 in the morning, 4 in the morning, 6, 12 midnight. When you work at the bus station driving bus routes, you work 24 hours around there sometimes."
How much did you dread going to work?
"No, I never really dreaded it. My dad always told me, 'listen, man, whether you are a garbage man or driving a bus or you're a football player or an educator, whatever you are, enjoy your work. And I always did enjoy my work, except for when the guy held me up. That was scary."
How much are you enjoying being a coach?
"I'm enjoying it. When I got into coaching, it was like a fish to water, it really was. It was like I was born here, I made my life here and this is what I want to do. I'm enjoying the crap out of it. I'm excited to watch these guys compete and go against Louisville."
What's it like to come back to New Orleans and get police escorts wherever you go?
"You know what, New Orleans is really what you want it to be. If you want trouble you can find it. If you don't, stay away from it. I wasn't a sheltered kid. My dad allowed me to go out and enjoy the company of my siblings and neighborhood friends, but when the street lights came on, he told me to get my butt inside, and that's what I did."
How much family do you still have in New Orleans?
"Tons. Everybody is still here, everybody except my dad. He lives out in Houston."
How many people in your family will come to the game?
"Thirty-five hundred dollars in tickets, out of my pocket. Merry Christmas to those guys."
What kind of loss did you have in Hurricane Katrina? Who lost their home?
"My mother-in-law, my aunts, uncles, mom, grandma, it impacted the whole family. I was still in Austin finishing my degree. I missed the storm by a year. I was out in Austin in a one-bedroom apartment, and I had 35 people living with me."
How did you end up at Florida?
"I ended up going back to the University of Texas after Minnesota. I ended up trying to meet with Mack Brown. It took him about 15 minutes to get through a television interview, and I saw coach Muschamp and we talked for 15 minutes. We talked about football, family and faith, and he said if I find anything or get anything, I'll give you a call. Sure enough he did."
You worked up the ladder quickly, going from North Texas (as defensive ends coach in 2007) to Minnesota (as tight ends/assistant special teams coach from 2008 to 2010) and then to Florida. How fortunate do you feel to be at Florida?
"Very fortunate. You talk about the SEC, you talk about the dominance we've had in BCS games and national championship games, it's a special deal. I like to call this NFL Saturdays. It's a great place to recruit to, a great organization. I'm enjoying it."
How did you move up so quickly?
"If you do a good job where you are, people will find you. I've been blessed with good players and having good coaches around me. Word travels. If you do a good job, people will find you."