By RJ Young
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — When Pittsburgh Maulers trainer Kirby Wilson makes a fist with his left hand, he makes an impression.
Burn scars from a fire 10 years ago at his Pittsburgh home cover his hand and nearly half of his body. In the middle of that fist, a ring worthy of a Super Bowl champion shone as sunlight streamed through downtown Birmingham on Wednesday morning.
Minutes before the start of day two of the United States Football League draft, Wilson and general manager Chris Watts double-checked who their first pick would be.
“If Jeffery Thomas is here, we want to take him? said Wilson.
“Yes, we do,” Watts said.
“Alright. That’ll make Kyle [Lauletta] happy. Kyle loved him very much.”
Lauletta was the duo’s first selection for the franchise, and the quarterback was bullish on the former wide receiver for the New England Patriots and Miami Hurricanes. Wilson and Watts spent much of Day 1 chatting with Lauletta at their draft table, asking what the QB thought of the current picks and what kind of players he wanted to play with.
The Maulers made their first pick, QB Kyle Lauletta, part of the draft process. Here he speaks at the Pittsburgh draft table with general manager Chris Watts.
USFL President Brian Woods reminded coaches and their staff of the rules and protocol for Rounds 13-35 as each of the eight teams began filling out what would become the core of their football teams when the season opens April 16 at Protective Stadium.
On the 15th floor of the Regions Harbert Plaza building in downtown Balch and Bingham LLP, Watts leaned over the conference room table and spoke into the office phone connecting the team to the meeting room at the end lane, which acted as the USFL draft powerhouse.
Dressed in a black suit and an open blue buttonhole at the collar, Watts was ready to make his choice.
“Pittsburgh Maulers select number 5090, Jeffrey Thomas, Miami.”
As Watts announced the choice, Wilson, wearing his white Maulers hat, purple plaid shirt and khaki pants, leaned back in his chair and removed his phone from the table.
“I’m going to text Kyle,” Wilson said.
Wilson intended to make his quarterback as much a valued voice in the draft process as his coaching staff.
“I want him to feel important and to be a part of it,” Wilson told FOX Sports.
Moments later, Wilson received a text from Lauletta with an enthusiastic thank you for choosing Thomas.
Unlike Day 1, which took place at the protection stadium in a large hall, each team was separated on Wednesday and enjoyed the privacy to not only talk through the players, but also have a perspective reading.
Along with the selection official, Watts called Thomas. One of the first questions Watts asked players was about their health and weight.
After congratulating Thomas and writing down his shirt number, he passed his phone to Wilson, who then asked Thomas to do his best and let the coaching staff make him a better player.
“You’re part of that now,” Wilson said. “We’re in the same boat now.”
It’s been his philosophy since he became head coach.
Wilson leads his team as he has seen it work best: by delegating authority and empowering his staff and players to speak up, to be heard, by giving them agency.
“It must be our football team, our selection,” he said. “I learn from everyone on my team, but I also test them,” Wilson said. “I’m in their pockets, making sure we get their best ideas. , their best players. I want the good stuff.”
Of the USFL’s eight head coaches, Wilson is the only one who has never been a head coach at any level.
That’s why he’s here at the USFL, just six months after his “retirement” after 37 years as an assistant coach at the college and professional level, including 25 seasons as an NFL running backs coach.
“I woke up one day and told my kids that I’d decided I didn’t want to go to work anymore,” Wilson said, “and they said, ‘Fine! Do not go. “”
He chuckled thinking about it because he had been offered the only kind of job he knew would get him out of retirement.
“You never know what you can do until you get the chance,” he said.
After 37 years as an assistant at the college and professional levels, Kirby Wilson gets his first shot at being a head coach. The opportunity lured him out of a very brief retirement.
And Wilson seized it – while committing to developing other coaches and staff to prepare them for their own chance to lead a franchise one day too. That’s why he hired men not only he trusted, but also men he thought were worth raising.
Its three coordinators, John Tomlinson (offensive), Ray Horton (defensive) and Marc Hull (special teams) are black. The coordinators stayed in communication with Wilson throughout the day, going through picks from catcher to kicker, while ultimately giving Watts authority when putting together the roster.
Between Wilson and Watts, there are four Super Bowl rings.
Wilson is the only USFL head coach to win a Super Bowl as an NFL coach — let alone two. Michigan Panthers coach Jeff Fisher won a Super Bowl as a defensive back for the Chicago Bears in 1985.
Watts, a graduate of Langston University, an HBCU just outside Stillwater, Oklahoma, won two as a zone scout for the New York Giants in 2007 and 2011. Wilson has two rings as a assistant for the Tampa Bay Bucs in 2002 and the Steelers. In 2008.
Wilson wears the Super Bowl ring he won in Pittsburgh almost every day on his left hand.
“It’s just jewelry,” Wilson said. “That’s what you do with jewelry. You wear it.”
Indeed, Wilson took off his ring and gave it to me.
Watts feels the same way about her “jewelry.” When he’s out and people see the ring on his finger, he’s more than willing to give them a moment to appreciate it.
“Why not make someone’s day?” Watts asked.
“Besides,” Wilson said, “we’re trying to win this championship this year.”
Building a team capable of winning a championship is the first step to achieving this.
Shortly after the Maulers selected former San Jose State wide receiver Bailey Gaither, New Jersey Generals coach Mike Riley walked into the Pittsburgh draft room to tease Wilson.
“You stole my guy, Bailey Gaither,” Riley told Wilson. “Don’t run quarters against him.”
Wilson knew what Riley was referring to. Gaither made his living eating midfield safeties against quarters coverage, and Wilson appreciated not only the compliment, but who it came from.
Riley is the first coach Wilson played professional football for. When Wilson was playing defensive back for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Riley was his coach.
Gaither was delighted when he learned he had been selected by the Maulers. At SJSU, he was one of the best players in school history, ranking second in receiving touchdowns (18) and fourth in receiving yards (2,227) in school history.
“I didn’t know how soon it was going to happen, or even if it was going to happen,” Gaither said. “I’m just delighted to be playing professional football again.”
“That’s the fun part,” Wilson said. “Making someone happy with that phone call. I’ve been part of a bunch of drafts, and it never gets old. I’m a draft addict.”
Wilson, who worked for Steelers coach Mike Tomlin for seven seasons, also earned a reputation as one of the best running backs coaches of all time.
He coached three running backs who are among the top six rushers in NFL history: Emmitt Smith (#1 at 18,355 yards), Adrian Peterson (#5 at 14,918) and Curtis Martin (# 6-14101).
Wilson also coached former Iowa State running back and Heisman runner-up Troy Davis in each of his 2,000-yard rushing seasons.
“I learned so much from players like them,” Wilson said. “The guys who, early in my career, said, ‘Get on my back, Kirb.’ I learned from these guys and coaches around me what it takes and how to achieve it.”
He also turned rookies into Pro Bowl players. Wilson was the running backs coach for the Las Vegas Raiders when they selected Josh Jacobs in the first round.
When it came time to select running backs in the 27th round, Wilson and Watts decided to go with another Vegas running back he had coached in former Wisconsin Badger Garrett Groshek.
“He’s one of those guys who when he gets off the bus,” Wilson said, “you say, ‘I want him.'”
Groshek was Wilson’s first free agent signing with the Raiders.
“He did game after game after game,” he said. “You can’t ignore a guy who makes plays if you want to win, and we came to win.”
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The #1 Rated Show Starring RJ Young.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Youngand subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube. It’s not on a StepMill.
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