In a slightly worn black shirt with the NFL shield emblazoned on the front, Tim Lewis stepped onto the Pinecrest practice field on Monday as a light rain began to pick up. In his right hand was his notepad full of plays, encased in a plastic Ziploc bag so they wouldn’t get wet.
As Lewis, 56, stood alone at the center of a collection of players, he preached the importance of unity and not getting caught up in off-field distractions as he began to work with the Paladins’ defense. Head coach Terance Mathis just stood back and took it in from the sidelines.
“For me, it's a privilege because he's coached a long, long time,” Mathis said. “He's coached some hall of famers and some future hall of famers. His knowledge is incredible. He's a teacher. He's very demanding on (players), but he's loving at the same time. That's what you want.”
Lewis has not followed the typical path of a high school football coach. He has over 20 years of experience coaching in the NFL, including two stints as a defensive coordinator, which followed a three-year career as a player. But now he’s at Pinecrest, and his guidance as the Paladins’ defensive coordinator has been one of the reasons for the Paladins’ improvement from their winless season last year to becoming a contender for a playoff spot this season.
Mathis and Lewis first crossed paths in 2002, when Lewis was the defensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers. During Week 10 of that season, the Steelers were getting ready to play the Atlanta Falcons. Then-head coach Bill Cowher told Lewis to meet with Mathis, a former Falcons star wide receiver who had signed with the Steelers as a free agent in the offseason. As the two formulated ways to stop fleet-footed quarterback Michael Vick, a relationship began to take shape.
“He didn't even go to the offensive meetings,” Lewis said. “He sat in my defensive room the entire week. As we were playing the game, he's standing right next to me (saying), ‘Call this, they're going to do this now.’ We put together a pretty good plan.”
The two continued to stay in touch as Lewis moved on in his NFL career, serving as the New York Giants’ defensive coordinator from 2004 to 2006 before taking jobs coaching the secondary with the Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks, the Falcons and the San Francisco 49ers. But after he was let go from the 49ers in 2015, the jobs in professional football became hard to come by.
He interviewed for multiple NFL jobs and some college jobs, including at Pitt, his alma mater. None of them bit. He was perplexed and the paranoia began to set in: He called people to see if they had heard anything going around about him. As it turns out, teams were concerned about his experience recruiting in the age of texting and social media.
“From the time I was eight years old to 54, every fall I did the exact same thing, which was play or be on a team in a locker room doing football,” Lewis said. “When I was told, ‘Sorry, we have nothing for you,’ that's kind of a shock.”
While Lewis’ job search continued, he was living in Atlanta and reunited with Mathis at a couple of golf tournaments. Mathis had just accepted the head coaching job at Pinecrest and asked Lewis to be his defensive coordinator. Lewis declined at first, but as the search for a pro or college job remained fruitless, he began to give it some thought. A year later, Mathis asked him again, and he was much more receptive to the idea.
“He explained to me what the school was,” Lewis said. “We had lunch over here, (and) he brought in a couple of the players. I got a chance to meet them, (and) that was really nice. I talked to my wife about it and said, ‘Maybe the good Lord's looking for me to give back. Maybe he wants me to do something outside of getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to do this.’”
Lewis’ contributions to Pinecrest haven’t been limited to defense. Against Mount Pisgah last week, Lewis called a long touchdown play to Colby Mangan based on what he saw in their defense. Against Walker, his awareness helped the Paladins thwart their nosy opponents.
“We figured out that they were stealing our signals,” Mathis said. “Coach Lewis had one of the players get a big towel (to) cover them up. The funny thing about it is he was giving all these funny signals, doing all this crazy stuff, but it was fake signals. The second half, we ran the same defense: We didn't change anything.”
When Mathis took the Pinecrest head coaching job, he was stepping into a role he’d never been in. He’s still learning the intricacies of his job a year later, and Lewis has been a big part of that. The Paladins hope that wisdom can continue to build trust between the players and the coaching staff.
“They're flying around having fun and that's what we want,” Mathis said. “That's what I wanted from my program -- I wanted guys with some experience and I wanted guys that gave us credibility, especially defensively. I found that guy.”