By Dustin Dopirak —
One Fourth of July when Charlton Warren was still on his staff at Air Force, Troy Calhoun invited all of his coaches and their families over to his house for a cookout. He had a basketball court in his backyard, so he set up a 2-on-2 tournament among the members of the staff.
“That didn’t go over very well,” Calhoun said. “Because the coaches didn’t get along very well during that tournament.”
And one of the guys that was the most aggressive and the most competitive and took it just a touch too seriously was Warren, then Calhoun’s defensive backs coach and now the newly-hired defensive coordinator at Indiana. That was pretty much in character.
“Highly, highly competitive guy,” Calhoun said. “I don’t care if you’re playing pick-up basketball or whatever, but he’s got a ton of verve and drive to him. But a good guy. Just one of those guys who could channel that immense competitive spirit to your team.”
Ultimately, that’s why Indiana coach Tom Allen was so easily convinced to bring Warren in to be his right-hand man on the defense without having worked with him before. Allen wasn’t concerned about schematic philosophy, because whoever he was going to hire was going to run his 4-2-5 system and he was going to have to be OK with that. He was looking more for a cultural fit, someone just as driven as Allen and the rest of his staff.
In Warren, Allen found all of that and more.
“I’m super competitive, man,” the 44-year-old Warren said Wednesday in his introductory press conference. “Don’t play me in checkers. I want to win.”
Warren also brings an extensive military background, which makes him a flesh-and-blood example of philosophies Allen has tried to teach for years.
Allen has no military background, but he devours books on leadership and self-help and is particularly fascinated by those that focus on the mentality required for military service. There’s one called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth that he’s always considered particularly insightful and inspiring. A focal point of the book is the difference between the people who make it and stick it out in military institutions and the people who don’t.
“The very beginning of the book talked about the whole funneling process of West Point and how they go through this large pool all the way down to a narrow group of guys and girls that end of making it in the academy from the pool that are recruited,” Allen said. “The grit piece is all taken from that. That’s the one variable that is the best indicator that someone is going to have success in that world. I’ve always liked that and thought there was a great correlation to what we’re trying to get here and trying to develop great mental and physical toughness in our guys.”
Warren grew up in Conley, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, and was already in the Air Force ROTC program when he was in high school. He had scholarship offers from Division I schools in the Southeast, but instead went to Colorado Springs to play at the Air Force Academy where he played defensive back for three seasons and earned a degree in human factors engineering. He spent 10 years in the Air Force after graduation, rising to the rank of major and working in avionics, which meant he redesigned fighter jets and cargo planes at the Warner Robbins Air Force base in Georgia. After that he went to the Eglin Air Force base in Florida, where he worked with drone technology. It was the early stages of the War on Terror after 9/11 so that meant, as he put it once at a press conference at Florida, he got to “do a lot of cool things with blowing things up and getting after bad guys.”
Warren returned to Colorado Springs in 2005 as an instructor and joined the Air Force coaching staff as a graduate assistant. When his 10 years of service were up in 2007, he was promoted by the newly-hired Calhoun to be defensive backs coach and he eventually became defensive coordinator.
“He’s a winner,” Calhoun said. “As a human being, as a football coach. And he was the same way when he went to school here at the Academy. He was a leader of leaders.”
Allen got that sense even as he was interviewing him. His interest in Warren was sparked by Gene Chizik, a coaching friend of Allen’s who won a national championship as the head coach at Auburn in 2010 and was the defensive coordinator at North Carolina in 2015-16 when Warren worked there as a defensive backs coach.
“Gene went through a very extensive hiring process to put together the staff he put together at North Carolina,” Allen said. “He really had some strong thoughts about Charlton that really resonated with me, so that led me to look deeper.”
When he brought him in, he wasn’t the least bit disappointed.
“You talk about the real life experience he’s had,” Allen said. “He’s been overseas. He’s been in battles. He’s fought. He’s led. … One of his strengths was commanding the room. Our projection was he could command the room and capture the players on that side of the room and lead the men on that side of the room. That’s such a huge part of this.”
Allen was also impressed by the part of Warren’s resumé that didn’t include military service. Since leaving Air Force, he’s been a defensive backs coach at Nebraska, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida and most recently Georgia for the past two seasons. Allen has seen his team defeated in bowl games each of the last two seasons by SEC teams in Tennessee and Ole Miss, so he thinks having someone else who has coached in that league could help.
“He brings, as I call it, SEC eyes,” Allen said. “What you’re looking for in recruiting. Things that you do schematically. Obviously, it’s a great league with a bunch of great coaches. He’s from that group of really, really good of defensive coaches.”
But he also knows how to connect to players in exactly the way Allen wants his coaches to connect. He’s lived a different life than they have and he wanted different things from his college experience than they did, but he knows the only way to connect with players is to be real with them.
“Parents and kids care about real relationships,” Warren said. “They don’t care about you trying to sell them on anything. My job is not to sell a kid or a parent or a family on anything. It’s presenting them with an opportunity to get a great education, be developed as a man, and as a football player and prepare you for what’s next in life. … Kids and parents, they can weed out if you’re not genuine. To me, it’s about being who I am.”
And Charlton Warren is genuine. Genuinely competitive. Genuinely intelligent. And someone who genuinely fits what Tom Allen wants people in his program to be.
“The most important part is his honesty,” Calhoun said. “You won’t meet a more real human being.”
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