Eric Rogers pointed to where he sat in Dennis Bene’s office 18 years ago in search of an opportunity to coach after the former CDO standout returned to Tucson from playing arena football following his time at Connecticut.
“I came in and sat right there,” Rogers said pointing to the middle of the office as if he has replayed that moment a few times in his mind.
Rogers was 27 at the time. A few months before visiting Bene, he started a sports charter school called All Sport Academy in Tucson after coming back home from playing fullback and linebacker for the Tupelo (Miss.) Fire Ants of the now-defunct National Indoor Football League.
“I talked to Shawn Wasson who was the head coach at Catalina at the time, and we discussed coaching at that school,” Rogers said. “I talked to Coach (Vern) Friedli at Amphi, I talked to Coach (Pat) Nugent at CDO …
“It was two to three weeks before the start of the season. They were like, ‘I don’t have any spots available right now.'”
Rogers was known among Southern Arizona coaches for his career as a linebacker and tight end at CDO, of where he graduated in 1993 and subsequently played at New Mexico State and then UConn in 1997 and 1998.
Before he played a game at linebacker for the Huskies after his transfer, Rogers made an immediate impression on UConn coach Skip Holtz during fall drills.
“Hard playing. Motivated. Well- built. Hustle. Attitude. Discipline. Loves the game. Flies around. Loves contact. Hits hard. He’s got all the talent with all the intangibles. I can’t tell you what a great addition he is to the football team,” Holtz told the Hartford Courant.
As a senior captain with the Huskies in 1998, Rogers led them to a 10-3 record and spot in the Division I-AA playoffs. His aspirations for a career in the NFL or CFL derailed because of a nagging ankle injury that prevented him from pro camps. For two years, he joined his father’s company, VisionQuest, Inc., at Vorhees, N.J., which targeted at-risk youth. He worked as a camp director and counselor.
He returned to playing in 2000 at Huntsville (Ala.) with the Tennessee Valley Vipers of the Arena2 Football League and then with Tupelo before coming back to Tucson in search of a coaching job.
His former coach at CDO, Phil Gruensfelder, was at the outset of his athletic director career at Salpointe. Gruensfelder arranged a meeting for Rogers with Bene.
“I told Coach Bene I really wanted to coach, and he said, ‘Would you consider the lower levels (with the freshman or junior varsity teams)?'” Rogers said. “I said, ‘With all due respect Coach, I want to coach on Friday night.’ He liked that response.
“He said, ‘Alright, I’ll find a spot for you.’ After the third day of practice, he said, ‘You take over the linebackers from here on out.'”
The birth of his coaching career coincided with his business interests.
Since 2003 to now, Rogers has worked and hustled his way to become a president and chief operating officer of a company that raised more than $18 million in cash to purchase defaulted real estate properties, managing director of a vertical online advertising network for the travel and tourism industry, owner of Money Mailer of Tucson and now vice president of business development with a facility services management company called System4 of Tucson.
“A reason why I couldn’t get those coaching jobs at a public school was I couldn’t be on campus,” Rogers said. “I’ve always had a regular day job that kept me in an office.”
Rogers coached at Salpointe from 2002 to 2007 and took a break to concentrate on his personal work. He returned to coaching in 2010 as the freshman coach at Tucson High School. Bene welcomed him back to his staff in 2011 and he stayed through 2015. He served as the freshman and junior varsity head coach before leaving to coach linebackers at Pima College in 2016 and 2017 under coach Jim Monaco.
He returned for his third stint at Salpointe in 2018. Near the start of last season, Bene announced he was resigning as Salpointe’s head coach. Many of Bene’s assistants applied for the position.
Todd Schulte, an educator and coach at Salpointe since 1998, was hired last December to take over the program. A month later, Schulte stepped down citing a change of heart because he wanted to focus more on his responsibilities as a math teacher. Schulte has remained with the program as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
“Todd was hopeful that he could back off some of his teaching and do football, and was trying to figure out how to balance all that,” Rogers said of Schulte, who also is a single dad with a young daughter.
That is what led to Rogers’ first job as a head football coach. His journey started about the time he met with Bene in late fall 2002 until Salpointe offered him the job in January. A program that won 184 games under Bene in 19 years, with a state title in 2013, was now his to lead.
Rogers was faced with the daunting task of taking over an operation that not only lost Bene and practically all of his coaching staff but also was forced to deal with the graduation of high-profile players Bijan Robinson and Lathan Ransom and Salpointe’s top 10 tacklers from last season’s team that went 10-1 and lost in the semifinals of the Open Division playoffs at Chandler.
Of the tremendous losses of personnel, Rogers said, “I never really got too wrapped up in it. It’s not something that I spend a lot of time thinking about. I know we’ve got kids who want to be coached. They come from all over town. They drive 45 minutes to an hour to get here because we have a special place here.”
Eleven months after his hire and only about two months since the season started late because of COVID-19, Rogers and his mostly new staff have coached junior quarterback standout Treyson Bourguet, gritty senior running back David Cordero and the Lancers again to the semifinals of the Open Division — the highest level of state playoffs in Arizona with the top schools in 4A to 6A pooled together.
Salpointe, 7-0 after Scottsdale Saguaro forfeited last week’s quarterfinal game because of COVID-19 positive cases, plays at Chandler Hamilton (7-1) on Saturday at 7 p.m. The Huskies, who include former Sabino tight end Michael Masunas, are ranked No. 28 nationally by MaxPreps.
It could be stated that Salpointe’s season is already a success, no matter what happens in its game with Hamilton, because the Lancers have far surpassed expectations of most who coach in Tucson and follow the sport.
Rogers, of course, is not taking that approach. The message to his players this week is to not listen to the “outside noise” that makes it seem the Lancers are “fortunate” to be this far in the playoffs.
“Honestly, the success of this season I don’t think we’re going to know for several more years,” he said. “I say that because it’s going to be about how these kids give back to their community and how they take on their next step in life when they go to college, become fathers, become husbands.
“That’s when I think the real success gets defined.”
Grooming the players to reach that level of success is Rogers and his coaching staff.
Two of the coaches who serve as ideal role models — defensive backs coach Kris Neal and special teams coach Derek Hall — are former Division I college football players who have recently had to deal with serious personal situations.
Neal played defensive back at Salpointe and went on to a career at Alabama-Birmingham and the CFL. His father Mark Neal, a former Arizona receiver standout from 1970-73, was part of the Salpointe program for the previous 15 years as a coach and mentor before he passed away from a heart attack June 30.
“Before he passed, it was a big decision of mine to coach because I once told him I would never coach high school football again,” said Kris, who coached with his dad on the junior varsity team at Salpointe for a few years starting in 2005. “When Coach Rogers called me about the job, he encouraged me to coach because it was good to give back to the kids.”
Kris started his personal training business and he became devoted to his position as a dropout prevention specialist with the Tucson Unified School District before Rogers summoned him to try to coach after about a 10-year hiatus.
“When I told my dad I was going to return to coaching, he was excited,” Kris said. “He told me I definitely should go back.
“He gave me the blessing. That pushed me over the edge to say, ‘You know what? I will go back to high school coaching.'”
The Lancers are benefiting from that decision.
In only seven games, Salpointe has produced 11 interceptions, including three by junior Antonio Martinez and two by senior Julian Robles. Eight different players have at least one interception.
The Lancers’ leading tackler is junior defensive back Davian Carrasco, who is all of 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds. He has 41 tackles including three for loss.
“Salpointe has always had the tradition of trying to be at your best,” Kris reasoned for the success of his position players. “I have thanked my parents for putting me in an environment like Salpointe and I’ve told them that many times over.
“It’s always been about being your best. Winning is not always important. Winning is expected when you prep so hard.”
Hall was a special teams player who was a walk-on who earned a scholarship at Arizona from 1996 to 1999 who often won the “Ball Hawk” award from Dick Tomey and his staff for his spirited play in practice.
He became a graduate assistant at Eastern Michigan and Arizona before helping the defensive coaches at Delaware State. At age 25, he was elevated to defensive coordinator at Delaware State under Al Lavan and helped turn around the NCAA Division I-AA program that went 1-10 before Lavan’s arrival in 2003 to 10-1 in 2007.
“It was a total rebuild and we went out there and turned it around,” Hall said. “After about five years there, that’s when my kidneys started to fail. I had all kinds of problems … a cyst, I had kidney cancer. I had to go to the sidelines for a while.”
A theater arts major at Arizona, he was part of the Directors Guild of America and served as a second assistant director on such films as 12 Years A Slave and Pitch Perfect 2.
Hall had been out of coaching since 2010 with six years of that time spent on dialysis. Not able to have his coaching career and movie directing career grow because of his health issues, Hall came under Tomey’s wing. At the behest of Tomey, Hall lives with former Arizona assistant and Salpointe grad Rich Ellerson and his wife.
“When Coach Tomey was alive, he was a huge supporter and he would be there for me,” Hall said. “Before Coach Tomey passed, he put Coach Ellerson and his family in charge of me. He knew I was going to get a transplant in the coming months.”
Ellerson aided Hall by taking him to his dialysis treatments and doctor appointments. Hall’s kidney transplant took place about 18 months ago.
“I’m feeling much better and I talked to Coach Rogers about my health going into this,” Hall said. “He needed a special teams guy, and that’s my background, primarily, as well as defense. I’m passionate about the game and we just linked up. We talked about it. He’s given me an opportunity to come back and try to help his team win football games.
“He and I talked about this experience for me being a good bar to look at to see if I can maintain my energy and everything I’ve tried to bring to the kicking game. I’m just very blessed and fortunate to be out here.”
Hall had one of the more booming voices at Salpointe’s practice Friday as the Lancers went through their walk-through exercises. His energy is back if that is an indicator.
The vivacity remains with Salpointe’s program as it did with Bene and with Pat Welchert before him. Rogers has played a significant role with his coaching and his ability to put together a credible staff.
The holdovers from Bene’s staff include strength and conditioning coach Carla Garrett, an Arizona legend who competed in the distance-throwing events in the Olympics, running backs coach Zach Neveleff and kicking coach Pierre Arnaud.
Todd Schulte – Offensive Coordinator / Quarterbacks
Pat Ryden – Defensive Coordinator
Rick Berkbigler – Linebackers
Chris Lundin – Offensive Line
Shawn Wasson – Defensive Line
Zach Neveleff – Running Backs
Kris Neal – Defensive Backs
Rob Fister – Wide receivers / Offensive Assistant
Jeff Pierce – Safeties
Nolan Swett – Wide Receivers
Carla Garrett – Strength Coach
Ty Endean – Offensive Line Assistant
Derek Hall – Special Teams
Pierre Arnaud – Kickers
Del Arvayo – Operations
Rogers sat at the desk occupied by Bene for 19 years in the quaint office which is no bigger than a large storage unit adjacent to Salpointe’s weight room.
His view from there was the same as Bene’s in 2002 when a young Rogers entered and sat before him with the hope of beginning his life as a coach.
“I’m very fortunate for all the people around me, my family, my coaches, my players, the people where I work … everyone,” Rogers said. “They’re just very respectful. They know that I’m a grinder. They know I’m going to keep working. I’m not going to give in. I’m not going to give up and I’ll just keep grinding through it.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with what these players have done. I think they’ve absolutely overachieved in so many ways. They wanted their chance to compete and play and show people what they were made of. And they were willing to put the work in, because it’s not easy. They bought into me and our coaches. They bought into our process and how hard you have to work everyday.”
FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER!
ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.