April 7, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Pep Hamilton is a quick study.
The University of Michigan football team's new assistant head coach and passing game coordinator went from being the backup quarterback at Howard University in 1996 to being hired as the full-time quarterback coach at his alma mater the very next season, and taking on the offensive coordinator role two seasons later.
After five seasons as a coach for Steve Wilson at Howard, Hamilton had NFL internships with three teams before landing a position as offensive quality control coach for New York Jets coach Herm Edwards, who promoted him to quarterbacks coach in 2004.
Alfonza "Pep" Hamilton was an NFL assistant coach before turning 30 -- no easy accomplishment. He went onto coach quarterbacks for the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears, where current Illinois coach Lovie Smith influenced him.
However, if it weren't for another former Fighting Illini head coach, Ron Turner, he might never have hooked up at Stanford in 2010 with current Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. Turner joined the Cardinal coaching staff as offensive coordinator for the 2010 season, but left after about one month to become the Indianapolis Colts receivers coach.
Turner put in a good word for Hamilton, who had worked under him on the Bears coaching staff when Turner was the offensive coordinator.
"I was fortunate enough to receive a call from Coach Harbaugh after Ron Turner decided to leave Stanford," Hamilton said after Thursday afternoon's (April 6) practice. "Coach Turner had just gone to Stanford and installed that passing system, and I was the next person in line who had expertise in that system, having been his quarterbacks coach.
"So, I was hired to continue the installation of that passing system at Stanford, and the rest is history."
Hamilton came aboard as the wide receivers coach and was named the offensive coordinator in 2011 when Andrew Luck had his second consecutive All-America season before becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Stanford went 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl in 2010, the only season Hamilton spent on Harbaugh's staff before joining him again in Ann Arbor in January.
And yet Hamilton said Harbaugh and Wilson, a former NFL player who coached him at Howard in Washington, D.C., have had the greatest influence on his coaching career, while noting that current Stanford coach David Shaw also helped mold him.
"Jim's consistent desire to compete and win really influenced me in everything," said Hamilton, 42. "He competes in everything on the field and every facet of life, and his passion to win permeates the staff and ultimately permeates amongst his players. That's why he's had the results and success that he's had at all levels of football."
Hamilton left Stanford to become a successful offensive coordinator with the Indianapolis Colts, reuniting with Luck, who led the NFL with 40 touchdown passes in an offense that set franchise records with 4,894 passing yards and 6,506 yards total offense in 2014.
Harbaugh called Hamilton again after Jedd Fisch left the Michigan coaching staff, and Hamilton left his position as associate head coach on offense with the Cleveland Browns to reunite.
"This opportunity at Michigan was a rare opportunity," said Hamilton. "It's one of the most storied programs in the history of college football, and you couple that with Coach Harbaugh being here and the transition the program has made in his tenure (with two 10-win seasons), and you look at the talent already on campus, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to be a part of a winner."
Michigan's spring game is Saturday (April 15), and Hamilton likes what he's seen of these Wolverines.
"The players in this locker room don't know what they don't know," said Hamilton. "We have so many young players. But, the leaders in that locker room -- the Mason Coles, the Rashan Garys, the Wilton Speights ... I could go on and on -- Henry Poggi. There are a ton of guys who know what it smelled like to be that close to being able to achieve our ultimate team goals.
"It was unfortunate the way their season ended last year, but I think that the way the guys are working in practice is the beginning of this journey we are going to take to try and win a national championship here at Michigan."
Speight, the returning quarterback who threw for 2,538 yards and 18 touchdowns while earning third team All-Big Ten honors, provides Hamilton a strong player with leadership qualities to build his passing attack around.
"My approach with Wilton has been to lay out the things that championship quarterbacks do," said Hamilton. "We look at how they prepare and how they lead their teammates, and ultimately how they play the game. Wilton's a smart enough guy to embrace the challenge of being very critical of himself when he watches film and being a self-evaluator. Then, ultimately, putting in the time and paying the price to work on the things that he needs to work on to be a championship quarterback."
Hamilton worked with Brian Griese, the quarterback of Michigan's 1997 national champions, as the quarterback coach of the Bears.
"Griese is one of the smartest quarterbacks I've ever had the opportunity to work with," said Hamilton. "He did a great job of previewing opponents prior to games, and presenting questions, suggestions and ideas for plays to our coaches at Chicago while he was the starting quarterback.
"And, of course, he has a very successful job on TV (at ESPN) and so it's been very fun to watch him continue to grow and develop not only as a player but to make the transition to something that was quite natural for him."
It was another Wolverine quarterback, Tom Brady, who ended the run of Hamilton's 2014 Colts in the AFC Championship game.
"It was a season that was bittersweet for us because we felt like we had enough talent to win it all," said Hamilton. "But we came up against that thorn in our sides, the New England Patriots, and we didn't play our best ball against Tom Brady, of course.
"But our players bought into what I and our other coaches asked, and we had some success."
What does Hamilton believe he brings to his players?
"I challenge myself to make the game as practical as I possibly can for the players that I coach," said Hamilton. "I want them to have a comprehensive understanding of what it is that we're asking them to do and to ultimately help them realize their full potential as players.
"That's my duty and my charge, and I hope that our players here have a chance to taste a lot of success."
Hamilton is impressed with the level of talent at Michigan. I asked him if he'd ever been around an incoming freshman receiver like Donovan Peoples-Jones, who has received rave reviews since arriving on campus in January from Detroit Cass Tech.
"I can't say that I have," said Hamilton. "He has the best combination of size, speed, athleticism and determination of any 18-year-old in the country right now in college football. So, we'll see how he continues to develop.
"We have some really good receivers in this class who aren't on campus yet, and Tarik Black (from Cheshire Academy in Connecticut) has done a great job this spring as well. And there are three more kids coming in this summer."
Hamilton got a taste of competing against top talent at Howard, where he backed up accomplished quarterbacks such as future NFL quarterback Jay Walker, who has gone onto a successful career in politics and as an ESPNU analyst.
"I was fortunate enough to have a college head coach who played 10 years in the National Football League," said Hamilton. "Steve Wilson played three years at receiver for Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys and followed Coach Dan Reeves to the Denver Broncos and switched to the defensive side of the ball and played seven years at defensive back and in two Super Bowls.
"At the top of that list of my most influential coaches is Coach Steve Wilson. He's retired now and living in Durham, North Carolina, and we talk every day or at least every other day."
Wilson was his springboard as a coach, and Harbaugh also has been significant in launching his career. Hamilton brings plenty of personality, smarts and energy to teams, and that enthusiasm originated the nickname he now goes by.
"I was an over-excited kid," he said. "I was just a little bit hyper, and so they called me Pep."
He smiled while explaining that. Pep brings pep on a constant basis.
• Pep Hamilton Joins Football Staff (01/12/2017)