Drew Mehringer went on a paintball outing with the Rutgers quarterbacks this summer. Wearing his Scarlet Knights apparel, Mehringer got asked by other paintballers whether he also played for the team.
That wasn't quite as embarrassing as what happened at a football camp earlier this year. After Mehringer ran some players through drills, an opposing head coach asked what he did for Rutgers.
"Uh, I'm the offensive coordinator," Mehringer replied.
It's hard to blame anyone for being confused. At just 28 years old, Mehringer is the youngest coordinator in the Power 5 this season, and he doesn't look all that much older than some of his players.
He's also part of a growing youth movement on coaching staffs around the country. When the 2016 season started, there were 15 coordinators under 35 in the Power 5. They're not old enough to be president of the United States, but they could be calling plays for your favorite team.
"It's definitely not a taboo anymore to be a young guy," said Walt Bell, Maryland's 32-year-old offensive coordinator. "Even when I got my first assistant coaching job at 26, that was a big deal because I was one of the youngest coaches in the country. Now it's more common."
How does someone rise so fast in the coaching ranks? Why are more head coaches comfortable giving headsets to guys with nary a gray hair? The backstories of these precocious playcallers answer those questions. It takes the right early connections, sometimes years of grunt work while waiting for a big break and then taking full advantage of an opportunity.
Connections: Coaching, like many other professions, is often more about who you know than what you know.
Mehringer suffered a career-ending knee injury during bowl practice his freshman year at Rice. Needing to do some work for the athletic department to keep his scholarship, that January he walked into the office of the freshly-hired offensive coordinator and volunteered his services.
The coordinator? Tom Herman.
That began a long and fruitful relationship. Herman would later hire Mehringer as a graduate assistant at both Iowa State and Ohio State, bring him on board as receivers coach at Houston and recommend him to new Rutgers head coach Chris Ash.
"Coach Herman has treated me like his son," Mehringer said. "He coached me hard and forced me to develop."
NC State offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz, 33, planned to go to law school after a shoulder injury kept him from playing college football at Arkansas Tech. Instead, his old high school coach hooked him up with an innovative young offensive whiz in Springdale, Arkansas: Gus Malzahn. That eventually led to a graduate assistant gig at Auburn and much more.
Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who turned 33 on Sept. 5, was a quarterback for Texas Tech who learned the Mike Leach system inside and out. Same goes for Eric Morris, who was a receiver for the Red Raiders under Leach and now, at 30, is his alma mater's offensive coordinator. Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, 33, is another Malzahn disciple, having played for him at Springdale High School.
Larry Fedora and Blake Anderson helped give Bell's career wings. Both were offensive coordinators at Middle Tennessee, where Bell played four years as a wide receiver. Fedora gave Bell his first full-time job at Southern Miss and took him to North Carolina. Anderson made Bell the offensive coordinator at Arkansas State at age 29. It was Fedora who told Maryland head coach DJ Durkin to look at Bell this winter.
"I'm still a nobody," Bell said, "but I was really a nobody before those guys took a chance on me."
Sometimes the future connections are closer than you think. Iowa State's Tom Manning played alongside Matt Campbell at Mount Union for one season before Campbell became his position coach. Manning ended up working for Campbell at Toledo and now is the Cyclones' offensive coordinator at 33.
"I knew early on that coach Campbell was a special guy," Manning said. "I tried to model myself around what he was doing. He's been a great mentor."
Grunt work: Their ages may make them look like overnight sensations, but many young coaches paid their dues in some lean early years.
Bell spent five-and-a-half years as either a graduate assistant or quality control coach before getting promoted at Southern Miss. During that time, he says, "I probably spent three of those years living in the office."
Syracuse co-offensive coordinator Sean Lewis, 30, lived in the basement of the offensive line coach's house when he got his first full-time college job, coaching tight ends at Division II Nebraska-Omaha in 2010. The running backs and receivers coaches also shared rooms in the same house.
Drinkwitz and his wife quit their jobs as Arkansas high school teachers so he could take that grad assistant job at Auburn. They sold their house and moved with their 3-month-old daughter into a 900-square foot apartment. Drinkwitz made less than $18,000 at Auburn, so his wife had to work and take care of the baby while he spent hours and hours at the football facility.
Mehringer put in three years at Rice as a student assistant/equipment manager before four more as a graduate assistant at Iowa State and Ohio State. He just got out of debt earlier this year, he said.
"I worked for free for seven years," Mehringer said. "It wasn't just, you show up and it happens, even if it feels that way on paper sometimes."
Taking advantage: Winning begets more opportunities. Mehringer was a graduate assistant on Ohio State teams that went 24-2. When former Buckeyes assistant Everett Withers took the James Madison job, he asked Mehringer to join him. Mehringer didn't even know what position he would have when he accepted. Then he found out he was offensive coordinator, at the tender age of 26.
James Madison broke several school offensive records in 2014 and made the FCS playoffs. Mehringer was then part of last year's Houston team that went 13-1 and won the Peach Bowl.
Bell, Drinkwitz and Lashlee all oversaw explosive attacks as coordinators at Arkansas State before breaking into the big leagues. Head coaches looking for coordinators are much more interested in yards and points per game than any numbers on a birth certificate.
"Younger guys will continue to get opportunities as long as the ones who get them are successful," Ash said. "I never saw a description of a good coach in a book that said he has to be a certain age."
The young coordinators might not have the wealth of experiences upon which a 25-year veteran in the industry can draw. On the flip side, they can often bring youthful energy to the table.
"I think one reason teams are angling toward younger guys is because they're single and they've got no excuse to not be working," Bell said. "I'm here every day at 4:30 or 5 in the morning. I've got nothing else in my life that's going to take precedent over me doing a good job.
"I think, at the end of the day, a lot of that plays into it. Coaches want to know they've got a guy on staff who's not going to be distracted by anything else and that this is his life."
Ash said that being able to relate to young players, especially recruits, is incredibly important.
"Like the 'Pokemon Go' thing," Ash said. "I don't know anything about it, but [Mehringer] knows everything about it. He can talk to the players and talk to recruits about that."
Syracuse's Lewis said he recently bought the new Drake album the day it came out, just as most of his players did. He has had players come over to his house and challenge him on Xbox.
"We can talk about a lot of things outside of football," Lewis said. "It helps bring down that barrier a little bit, so guys have trust and then are willing to believe what you're selling. And then I think they play that much harder for you."
Their early arrival as Power 5 coordinators obviously have many of these young coaches on the career fast track. Maryland's Bell has aspirations to be a head coach when he's still as young as his current boss, the 38-year-old Durkin.
"I've got really big goals," he said. "I'm in a rush. I always have been."
Rutgers' Mehringer is more of a live-in-the moment guy. Some of that is because he accidentally fell into coaching. Much of it stems from a serious head injury he suffered in 2008. A fall in a parking lot outside a Van Halen concert left him with a subdural hematoma. He had emergency brain surgery and was unconscious for three days afterward. He could have died or faced long-term mental health issues.
"I'm blessed to be here and just alive in general," he said. "So I don't look past today."
Luckily for him and a lot of his peers, today is as good a time as ever to be a young coach on the rise.
"I think it's a positive that no matter age, race or backgrounds, coaches are getting a spot at the table," Lewis said. "And if they doing a good job, they're getting rewarded for that."