There is a buzz of excitement in the halls of Ridgeland High School this morning. Students sporting blue, silver and white spirit shirts high five football players strolling the halls in their game jerseys. Dance team members excitedly practice last minute counts in hallway corners while cheerleaders shake shiny pom poms at anyone who passes. Office secretaries and athletic personnel smile while handling last minute school ticket sales. The scene is one commonly found in high schools across the state on “game day” but in Titan country, it’s a new and refreshing scene. One largely attributed to the charismatic energy of new head football coach David White.
The story of White’s arrival in Mississippi is nothing less than intriguing. This past spring, the 50-year-old Nevada native walked away from his position as assistant coach at the University of Nevada to return to high school football – in of all places Mississippi. White’s decision is at the very least, interesting. It is a relatively common occurrence for high school head coaches to make the jump to positions on a college football staff. What is not common is coaches moving down from the college ranks to high school positions.
“A lot of people think (college football) is the end of the road. If you get to college, you’ve made it. But I’m different. My heart said I wanted to come back (to high school),” White said.
White’s first few weeks in the state were almost disheartening. He landed in Madison on March 20 alone. His wife Brooke, son Breckston and twin girls Rumor and Sutton had remained in Las Vegas until the new coach could secure a home for them. He spent the first few weeks staying with school administrators, living in hotel rooms and even sleeping in a camper near the Reservoir. He secured a home in April, but the rest of the family would still not relocate until June leaving White in the space alone and with little furniture. He worked nearly seven days a week only returning to Nevada to visit them for Easter. The Mississippi scenery was beautiful and Madison County residents offered him their best southern hospitality including introducing him to his newest favorite snack, the Honey Bun. Still, he questioned if he’d made the right choice.
“I thought, ‘What the heck am I doing?’ I’ve got my family there,” White said. “Life was perfect. There were a lot of struggles to get (settled) like we are today.”
The interesting start to his time in Mississippi is reflective of his rollercoaster career. The high school quarterback’s interesting relationship with football began in college. He signed with Nevada-Las Vegas to play behind center in 1992, however was unable to solidify his spot at the position. He moved to tight end to start his junior year and found success eventually earning All Conference honors during his senior year.
After college and a brief stint as a stand up comedian, he played quarterback in the European Federation of American Football in France and Switzerland from 1997-1999. However, the wear and tear on his body began to take a toll and he began considering other ways to stay near the game he loved. White had always known he wanted to coach. He had a passion for building football programs and helping athletes. Shortly after his return from his second season with the EFAF, he accepted his first head coaching position at Socorro High in New Mexico and spent two seasons there before accepting the head job at Lake Havasu High in Arizona. One year later, White was given the opportunity to return to Nevada as the head coach of Bishop Gorman High School. Much like the program he now leads, the Gaels were struggling. White brought his “public school mentality” to the private Catholic school and in short order turned them in a winning program. He led the team to a 30-12 record in his four seasons as head coach and produced three consecutive conference championships. His efforts laid the foundation for the school’s first state championship win in 2007, one season after he left the program for the college ranks.
Success at the high school level catapulted him into the next level. He was hired as a graduate assistant at the University of Oklahoma and spent three seasons with the Sooners coaching offensive linemen and tight ends. In 2010, after not receiving a full time offer from the school, he found himself no longer on the college sideline. Friends from Bishop Gorman convinced him to join the UFC staff where he served as the executive manager for commercial Pay Per View. Still, football was in his blood. He remained near the sport through his role with the U.S. Army Bowl, but there is nothing like experiencing the thrill of whistles, the smell of sweat and the clamor of pads on a daily basis. So when the opportunity presented itself, White returned to the college ranks accepting a position at the University of Nevada. He spent the last two seasons as the Wolfpack’s running backs coach and recruiting coordinator before taking over the fledgeling Ridgeland program this year.
If Ridgeland’s start to the season is any indication, White is right where he is supposed to be. The team, who has not had a winning season since finishing 7-5 in 2013, has now won their first two games including a convincing road win against 6A opponent Ocean Springs. The Titans did not allow a score in the first half and held out through a late push by the Greyhounds to pull off the 24-21 upset. The undefeated start has rallied new support for the team. Fans are again filling the stands and the student section has grown life. City and school officials are showing their support including making the four hour trip to support the Titans on the coast. The mayor has even been spotted offering a handshake to White on the 40-yard line during pregame warmups.
“I think people are feeling the excitement. I talk fast,” White said. “I’ve got a lot of energy. People want to be a part of the change in our sports programs and in our schools.”
Ridgeland is also not his first taste of Mississippi football. His first glimpse into the state’s enormous talent pool occured during his time as recruiting coach for the Sooners and director of player development for the U.S. Army Bowl.
“I used to recruit this area when I was at the University of Oklahoma and with the Army Bowl and Adidas,” White said. “In fact, I selected Cam Akers to our freshman game when he was a ninth grader at Clinton. He came up to a camp in Ohio out of nowhere and I liked what I saw.”
White says that he quickly learned that this state, in the heart of SEC country, was ripe with talent. He became familiar with several Mississippi football players and built relationships and sometimes friendships with local coaches. In fact, it was one of those coaches who would have a hand in bringing him to Ridgeland.
“I got a call from a coach whose son used to play at Ole Miss who told me about the job and that he’d heard that I wanted to get back into high school if it was the right fit,” White said.
The job which included responsibilities as the athletic director was appealing. It meant not only a return to the high school arena but also being closer to his wife’s family in Oklahoma. It would also mean more time spent at home with his family. He mulled over the idea with his wife, researched the program and the area and decided to apply.
“I realized that Ridgeland was a unique place. They are one of the top school districts in the state. They aren’t 10-0 and they aren’t 0-10. They are right there in the middle and when I asked people around the state could we win there and be successful all the answers came back (yes).”
Once hired, White assembled a staff of assistants from across the state picking up coaches from notable programs such as Petal, Terry, and Louisville. He met with local community leaders, organizations and businesses to garner support. Most of all, White knew it started with the players. He set out to instill pride in Titan football.
“The culture and the mindset had to change. What the field house looked like and how the kids carried themselves was very sombering.”
In April, White handed each player a shirt with one simple word – CULTURE. They wore the reminder across their chest each day until camp in July. With the help of district, he was able to give the field house a much needed facelift including new furniture, carpet, paint and most notably, indoor turf.
“Football is easy. There are only so many ways you can run a zone play or a sweep, cover one or cover two. That’s easy to me. The hard part is how to get your (players) to do it everyday, to make them accountable and to get them to compete. I focus on that.”
The players are loving the new focus. Players say they can feel the difference and note that the fans and parents have let them know they feel it also.
“Everybody is saying they see the difference in how we are playing and how much calmer we are even on the sideline, said Ridgeland senior captain Acoyea Rushing. “They see that we are a new team. I can’t even tell you how many people have come up to me and said they see the difference from last year.”
Rushing has played on the varsity team since his freshman year. After several seasons of losses and disappointments, the defensive tackle now sees his team bonding and believing like never before.
“In the past years, we’d have some guys on board and some not,” Rushing said. “Guys had different agendas. This year, everyone is on the same page. We’ve come together as a team. Coach White brought a different mindset. He saw our talent and potential. He told us the hard work it would take, but we knew his leadership and his background so everybody jumped on board.”
Junior quarterback Zy McDonald attributes much of that to his coach’s expectations for the team.
“Coach White treats everyone the same. There is no favoritism,” McDonald said. “He wants everyone to compete at a high level. But he also expects us to be role models in the school. Everyone is looking at us. They expect us to be good (examples) for the little kids growing up and for everyone watching us.”
Both McDonald and Rushing believe that the new and improved Titan football program will make waves this year. Their fearless leader is leading the charge.
“You’ve got to pay for discipline or pay for regret. I’d rather pay for discipline than pay for regret,” White said. “I’ve told the kids, there are going to be teams that are flat out better than us. That’s just life. But how we play the game and how we go out and compete from the first quarter to the fourth quarter is all I care about and all they should, too.”