By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He was smiling when he sat down with several reporters at Scott Stadium the other day, but that’s dog-bites-man stuff. It would be newsworthy if Anthony Poindexter were dour and gloomy.
As one of his friends once observed: “Every day’s a good day for Dex.”
On any list of the most beloved football players in University of Virginia history, Poindexter belongs in the lead group. Fans admired not only the havoc he wreaked on the field — Poindexter was a two-time All-American at safety and the ACC defensive player of the year in 1998 — but the spirit with which he played and the manner in which he carried himself.
When injuries ended his playing career prematurely — costing him, in all likelihood, millions of dollars — Poindexter never publicly complained, never indulged in self-pity. He was blessed, he said, to have played in the NFL at all, however briefly.
The Lynchburg native returned to his alma mater before the 2003 season, when Al Groh hired him as a graduate assistant, and joined the Virginia coaching staff full time the next year. After five seasons as the Cavaliers’ running backs coach, Poindexter moved even closer to his roots this year.
He’s back where he played for George Welsh at UVa — in the secondary — and his smile, if possible, shines even brighter these days.
“Honestly, it feels good, man,” Poindexter said at media day. “I loved coaching the running backs, but I needed a new challenge.”
Poindexter, 33, always figured he’d end up in coaching. But he expected to begin at the high school level.
“I didn’t realize that I’d get an opportunity this fast to be in college football,” Poindexter said. “But Coach showed some faith in me and brought me back, and I owe him for where I’m at at this stage of my career. He started my coaching career for me, and I’ve learned a lot from him.”
That Poindexter would one day coach the defensive backs at UVa seemed inevitable, and many outside the program wondered why he didn’t get the post earlier. That’s simple, according to Poindexter. If Groh had offered him the job a couple of years ago, Poindexter said, he would have told his boss, “I’m not ready for it.”
“Just because you can play DB in college doesn’t mean you can coach,” Poindexter said. “It’s been a process over my coaching career. I’ve been progressing. I hadn’t really coached before I got back here. I had never coached anything. Coach just mentored me and taught me how to do it, and I just keep learning from him.”
Groh, in fact, went looking for a secondary coach after the 2005 season. He didn’t seriously consider Poindexter before hiring Steve Bernstein, a Vietnam veteran who’d been coaching defensive backs since the early ’70s.
Poindexter’s inexperience was a factor in Groh’s decision to look elsewhere. But more important, Groh said Sunday, was the fact that Dex “was doing a very good job in coaching and handling the skills and the personalities that were playing [running back]. So that might have been subtraction from the operation as much as it would have been addition.”
By the time Bernstein retired after last season, however, Poindexter considered himself ready to oversee the secondary. Groh agreed.
“I’ve just kind of put my career in Coach’s hands and let him guide me through,” Poindexter said.
On paper, at least, UVa has its most talented collection of defensive backs in more than a decade. Chris Cook and Ras-I Dowling may be the top set of starting cornerbacks in the ACC, and sophomores Rodney McLeod and Corey Mosley are promising safeties. Reserves include sophomore corners Chase Minnifield and Dom Joseph, junior corner Mike Parker and senior safety Brandon Woods.
“We’re fortunate,” Poindexter said. “We got some good DBs around here right now, as long as I don’t mess ’em up. They’re good players, they’re good kids, they play hard. We put that together with all 11 guys on defense, I think we got a chance to be pretty good on defense.”
The Cavaliers also have Bob Trott, whose office is close to Poindexter’s in the McCue Center. Trott is UVa’s new linebackers coach, but he’s worked with defensive backs on the New England Patriots and at Air Force, Arkansas, Clemson, Duke, Baylor and Louisiana-Monroe.
“Everything,” Poindexter answered when asked what he’s learned from Trott, 55.
“Him and Coach Groh, they mentor me,” Poindexter said, and “I tried to get some mentorship from Coach [Bob] Pruett and Coach Bernstein. I ain’t one of those guys that think I know it all. I played it, but I ain’t coached it. So with a resource like Coach Trott in the office, I’m in his office more than anything, asking him, ‘What do you think about this, how should I do this, or how should I explain this to them?’ He’s been great for me.”
With the running backs, Poindexter became known for his animated coaching style. He yelled, he gestured, he swore, he laughed, he fussed. Even so, Poindexter said, he had to rein himself in at times. Not anymore.
“Offense, it’s just a different mentality,” Poindexter said. “I always had a defensive mentality, and I tried to bring it to the offensive side of the ball, but sometimes it’s just hard for those kids. On defense, man, you always gotta be the aggressor, in my opinion. I think you gotta be that way on offense, but defensive kids think that way, so I think my personality fits it more.”
In UVa’s new wide receivers coach, Latrell Scott, Poindexter has found a kindred spirit. They’ve been friends for years, and their coaching styles are similar.
“I think Anthony’s personality and my personality is good for both of our groups,” Scott said. “Dex and I are very competitive people. My thought process going in was, hey, I feel like Dex has one of the best secondaries in the country. And I felt like if we could raise our level of play to what our guys in the secondary do, then we’ll have a chance.”
The receivers and defensive backs battle throughout practice, and “I think Dex and I kind of feed off each other, because no one wants their group to be the group that isn’t holding up their end of the deal,” Scott said.
“It’s fun for the kids, too. We’ve got a very, very competitive relationship with our secondary, but we respect our secondary, because of who they are. I tell these guys all the time, if we can make plays against our secondary, then we can make plays against almost anybody.”
Poindexter said he still talks regularly to Welsh, who retired after the 2000 season.
“I can always bounce questions off George,” Poindexter said. “But most of the time we talk, we just talk about the old days and years past.”
Cook, a senior, is from Lynchburg, so he grew up hearing about the legendary Anthony Poindexter. But the number of current Cavaliers who actually saw Poindexter play football is small.
“These boys were born in the ’90s, man,” Poindexter said, laughing.
He tries to avoid talking about how things were back in the day, “but sometimes they want to hear a story,” Poindexter said. “I fabricate a lot of times.”
He’s not fibbing if he claims to have been part of the most memorable play in the program’s history. As a freshman in 1995, on the game’s final play at a sold-out Scott Stadium, Poindexter teamed with Adrian Burnim to stop Florida State tailback Warrick Dunn inches from the goal line. That made UVa the first ACC team to beat the Seminoles since they’d joined the league.
“Everybody talks about that play, I can’t remember half the night,” Poindexter said. “I took so many hits, I can’t remember the play. I gotta see it on TV to remember the situation.
“But [UVa’s defensive backs] were over at the house the other night, and they wanted to see the game, they wanted to see some tape of it, because most of these kids have never seen me play, but they’ve heard. And they go, ‘Coach, did you really play?’ I said, ‘Here, you all be the judge,’ and I put a tape on for them.”
He spent three seasons in the NFL, two with the Ravens and one with the Browns, before retiring. Would he like to coach at that level?
“Right now, I love just being here,” Poindexter said. “I really do. How many coaches get to play at a school, have success at a school, are able to come back and start your career at a school and still be at a school? This is where my roots are at. I can’t picture myself being in another shirt and doing what I do right now.”
Moreover, Poindexter said, he loves mentoring and molding young men.
“As much as we coach them in football, we coach them in life, too,” he said. “There are just a lot of day-to-day situations and personal situations that you help them through, that you’ve seen over the years and you went through in college, that you can help them with.
“That’s the joy I get, too. I know we gotta win games, and our job is based on winning games, but at the end of the day, if we’ve done something special for these kids and helped them in life, I think we’ve won.”
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