From cannabis to Chick-fil-A, former CFB coaches find new careers

Eric Johnson, right, with Culver's CEO Craig Culver, went from recruiting coordinator at Iowa to opening three franchises in the Nashville area. Courtesy of Eric Johnson

In late October, the Tacoma Dome will host the Lemonhaze Cannabis Convention, billed as "the first true Washington state recreational cannabis convention for all the right people."

About 5,000 industry professionals are expected, including most of the state's licensed marijuana producers and retailers. Like other conventions, there will be panels, workshops, seminars and networking opportunities. But Brian Yauger, Lemonhaze.com's president and co-founder, had a specific convention in mind when brainstorming the event -- a gathering that doesn't exactly attract the cannabis crowd.

"The concept is 100 percent based on my experience going to the AFCA convention," said Yauger, referring to the American Football Coaches Association convention, held each January. "When I was a young buck coming out of college and went to my first AFCA, I was like, 'Oh, my god, this is amazing.' At AFCA, you can walk right by the head coaches of Florida, Texas A&M and USC. At our convention, you can walk right by the CEOs of the three biggest cannabis companies in the country."

The convention is a nod to Yauger's former life as a college football coach. He worked at Oklahoma State, Columbia and several lower-division schools before calling a career audible. He never thought his path would lead to cannabis, first with a data analytics company and now with Lemonhaze, which does marketing and events. Perhaps even more surprising: The skills he honed as a football coach translated to his new career.

"Just by nature of being a coach," Yauger said, "you have a little bit of that alpha male mentality of, 'I can win at anything I do.'"

Yauger is among a group of former coaches finding wins away from football. These men weren't fired, and some left stable, successful programs. They had little to no work experience outside of coaching, but they adjusted by applying the same methods in their new fields.

From fast food to big oil, cannabis to the cloth, former coaches have found success and happiness away from football.

The Fast Food Guys: Eric Johnson and Tony Levine

In January 2015, Eric Johnson received a call at the Culver's restaurant he had just opened. A college football coach was on the line. He didn't give his name but provided some background information and said he was thinking about a new career.

The previous spring, Johnson made national headlines by leaving Iowa, where he had been part of the coaching staff for 15 years, to open a Culver's. He went from recruiting coordinator at the University of Iowa on a Friday to trainee at ButterBurger University the following Monday. That November, Johnson opened the Culver's in Hendersonville, a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee.

Three years after the initial call, Johnson received a text message from the coach, who had left college football to start a Chick-fil-A franchise. On May 17, Tony Levine, the former Houston head coach who spent last season as a Purdue assistant, opened his Chick-fil-A in Missouri City, Texas.

Both Johnson and Levine loved coaching but loved their families more, and the demands of college football had taken a toll. Johnson can be around for his 2-year-old son, Robert, in ways he couldn't for twin daughters Jamieson and Sydney, born in June 2004, on the last day of an Iowa football camp.

"We planned having our daughters then so I could actually be home with them on their birthday," he said. "That's how life is in football. ... I lost a little bit of the passion because I wanted to be with my family more than friends and co-workers."

Johnson had coached ever since graduating from Vanderbilt, but he always had an interest in business. He consulted one of his parents' neighbors, who owned Pizza Huts and Taco Bells, and thought that the Culver's environment best reflected a Midwestern experience he said he felt similar to his experience with coach Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa program.

After 16 weeks of training in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, Johnson went to Tennessee. His wife and daughters joined him right after the opening. By December 2016, he had opened three Culver's franchises in the Nashville area.

Just like in coaching, his day begins at 5 a.m. He spends several hours on administrative work before breakfast with his family. Then, it's shuttling between restaurants. If there's a problem, he tackles it, even if it's working the grill for 12 hours straight.

Most of his job is managing and leading. Johnson wants young employees to become managers, managers to become general managers, and general managers to become partners.

"You have to constantly coach," he said. "My philosophy is the same thing we had at Iowa: making sure that our players -- or in this case our team members -- go out better than they come in, whether it's life skill, a skill in the business world or how they treat people."

Johnson still gets his competitive fix. He and two silent partners own three of the seven Culver's in Tennessee.

"It's up to us to kind of blaze the trail," he said. "Those restaurants have Craig Culver's name on them, and right below is owner and operator Eric Johnson. That means something."

Levine spent 14 months away from coaching after Houston fired him in December 2014. After coaching for five college teams and one in the NFL, he thought about whether he could find a way to still impact others while spending more time with his wife and four young children. And, ideally, not leave Houston.

He ultimately returned to football, joining Jeff Brohm at Western Kentucky and then Purdue. Despite a successful 2017 season as Purdue's special teams coach and co-offensive coordinator, Levine announced his resignation in January, saying it was "the right time" to step away.

Chick-fil-A has long been a Levine family favorite, but Tony had no experience running a restaurant. What he could offer was leadership, recruiting and development, which helped him get through Chick-fil-A's selective process. The chain receives more than 40,000 franchise inquiries annually, but only 100 to 115 restaurants open each year. Chick-fil-A approved Levine to open a franchise five minutes from the subdivision where he has lived since 2008.

He spent two months assessing 700 job candidates, putting them through a four-step application process. He eventually hired a 110-person team -- about the size of an FBS roster.

"They're from age 15 to 65 and from every type of background, culture, race, religion," he said. "It reminded me of sitting in homes again when I was coaching. It's similar, the evaluation of team members and putting them in the right position. Who's more up for the fast pace, won't get rattled when there's cars wrapped around a restaurant, can handle the stress and intensity of the drive-through?"

The opening was a weeklong affair, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a dinner for Levine's former Houston players and assistants. Levine didn't want the restaurant staff to start without "a live simulation scrimmage," so they held a free lunch and a free dinner.

This spring, he coached flag football for his older sons and won a league championship. He attended his daughter's dance recitals. He helped his wife, Erin, who in December was diagnosed with breast cancer but now is "on the road to recovery," Tony said.

This fall, Levine will coach his youngest son's flag football team. He'll also try to catch as many college games as he can. Weekends are different now. It doesn't hurt that Chick-fil-A's are closed on Sundays.

"Yesterday, my cell phone did not ring one time," he said. "If you've been coaching at the college level, you're normally not able to say that, if ever."

The Oilman: Todd Bradford

Todd Bradford started recruiting the Dallas area in 1995 as an Eastern Michigan assistant. It's still fertile ground for him, but for different reasons.

In March, Bradford announced he would leave Kansas, where he had coached safeties, for a job in the oil industry. He's now a vice president for Elite Infrastructure, a construction company based in Plano, Texas, that builds, among other things, saltwater disposal wells in oilfields.

This is Bradford's second stint in oil. After the 2011 season, he left his post as Maryland defensive coordinator and went home to Utah to help care for his mother, who had cancer. He returned with no job, but his former neighbor had an oil services company and asked if he wanted in.

"It's just like coaching," Bradford recalled the neighbor telling him. "I've got a lot of young guys, high testosterone, that I need you to manage, and I've got a lot of older, highly educated guys who run these oil companies who are like administrators, boosters, head coaches. I need someone to interface between those two groups."

Bradford split time between Utah and Williston, North Dakota, where the oil boom was peaking. In Williston, work never stopped and accommodations were scarce. Bradford learned about "hot-cotting," in which workers slept in shifts, so the bed always remained warm for the next weary soul. Bradford spent nights on an air mattress in a crammed company-owned house, grateful not to have to brush his teeth in a Costco bathroom and sleep in a truck, like many of the oilmen there.

"The oil field, it's like Las Vegas: no clocks," he said. "Christmas Day is the same as June 15."

A career coach, Bradford didn't know much about the oil business. But he knew people: how to lead them and motivate them. He supervised the company's managers, which felt like coaching, and interacted with clients, which reminded him of recruiting.

Bradford enjoyed the work but missed coaching. Shortly after his mom died in January 2016, Bradford joined the Kansas staff under David Beaty, a former Dallas-area high school coach whom he had known for years.

He loved his time at Kansas and wasn't looking to leave. But after last season, a colleague he met in North Dakota presented an opportunity that, "in the end, I just couldn't pass up," he said. There have been adjustments -- a more erratic schedule drives him nuts -- but the job still gets the juices flowing.

"You sign a big deal, it's pretty exciting," he said. "Not as many people are watching, I guess, as when you beat Texas. But you still are competitive. That's why coaches are good in the business world. They've developed that mentality to do what it takes to win."

The Pastor: Rocky Seto

Growing up in the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles, Rocky Seto wasn't religious.

"My parents are immigrants from Japan," he said. "My dad [Akira] is a gardener. Our religion was, 'Be a good guy, work hard, make your family proud.' We didn't have Christianity or Buddhism or anything like that."

Football became the closest thing. Seto played in high school and junior college before walking on at USC and earning a scholarship in 1998. It was that year when a teammate introduced Seto to Christianity. He began studying the Bible. "It started taking over my life," Seto said.

While his faith grew, his coaching career took off. He started off as a volunteer assistant at USC in 1999. Four years later, coach Pete Carroll named Seto a full-time defensive assistant, a role he held through 2009, his first and only year as USC's defensive coordinator. When Carroll left for the Seattle Seahawks, Seto joined him, rising to assistant head coach for the defense in 2015.

But as far back as 2010, Seto felt a pull toward the church. After the 2015 season, Carroll encouraged the staff to have "an offseason of personal growth," so Seto began taking seminary classes online at Liberty University, a Baptist institution. The following August, Seto's pastor in California, Cory Ishida, called and asked if Seto would train to become a pastor and eventually replace him at Evergreen Baptist Church of San Gabriel Valley.

Seto spent the 2016 season mulling the offer. He had to convince his wife, Sharla, a former USC soccer player. Rocky made good money, and he, Sharla and their four kids lived comfortably. On New Year's Eve, as the Seahawks prepared to play the 49ers, Sharla texted Rocky: We should do this. Two weeks later, Seattle lost to Atlanta in the NFC playoffs, and Seto announced he was resigning to become a pastor.

"One of the players asked me, 'Did you leave because we lost to the Falcons?'" Seto said, laughing. "I'm like, 'No.' This is like a burning compulsion that you have in your heart."

His wife was on board, but Seto braced himself to tell his dad, a football nut who loved having a son coaching in Rose Bowls and Super Bowls. "It kind of validates his life's work," Rocky said. "I thought he was going to try to talk me out of it." But over dinner in L.A.'s Little Tokyo, Akira gave his blessing.

There have been lifestyle adjustments. A pastor's salary doesn't match what Seto made with the Seahawks.

"Financially, we have to be way more strategic," he said. "People have expressed their concerns like, 'Man, is this irresponsible as a dad, as a husband? How can you do this?' The response that came to my mind right away was, if I trust Christ to take care of my eternity, can I trust him for my bills? Can I trust him for college for my kids? Of course I can."

Seto preaches three times a month at the church. Last summer, Carroll took the Seahawks coaches to a sermon when they were in town for a preseason game. Seto leads staff meetings. He took an educational trip to Israel.

But most of his time is spent reading scripture.

"As much time as I used to spend studying film and watching cut-ups, I'm in the books that long now," he said. "A lot of those things that I do aren't very foreign to what I used to do in coaching. At the end of the day, it's still leading people. In terms of leadership development, communication, exhortation, correction, all that stuff is very similar."

Coach Cannabis: Brian Yauger

As a young coach, Yauger had his life all mapped out.

"I thought I would coach and then just die," he said. "One day they'd say, 'OK, he's dead. Next guy.'"

Yauger loved the game. But when Columbia fired its coaching staff after the 2002 season, he struggled to find sustainable employment. He coached for a Swedish club team and then at Division III Sewanee and Wilmington. Making barely $30,000 per year, Yauger couldn't pay his bills.

He went home to Austin, Texas, where he spent several years working in sales before starting a roofing company. Then, he went to Seattle to work for a fund looking to invest in cannabis. Although the fund fell through when lawyers deemed the investments too risky, Yauger took his severance and started the cannabis data analytics company.

He knew little about the industry and wasn't a user -- "I made fun of guys who smoked weed all my life," he said -- but the idea of entering unfamiliar territory was familiar.

"The mentality in coaching, of jumping from job to job, state to state, conference to conference, without really knowing a tremendous amount about where you're going is kind of the same feeling you get as an entrepreneur," he said. "I don't know this like the back of my hand, but I know enough to be dangerous. Let's go give it a shot and see what happens."

He canvassed the cannabis companies in Washington, setting up meetings. Cannabis had just been legalized, so he tried to connect with as many industry insiders as possible.

"It was like doing 100 home visits," he said, "literally just driving around and talking to all these companies. I've walked into multiple meetings with a confidence that probably I shouldn't have had because I didn't know enough. And the work ethic you get in coaching, showing up at 6 a.m. and not leaving until 11 p.m. or midnight, that's the greatest training if you're doing anything else."

Yauger quickly built his network. He liked the cannabis folks. Like him, many weren't cannabis users but entrepreneurs, unafraid of taking risks in a brand-new industry. They liked his data but liked his marketing and events more, so he started Lemonhaze.

That Yauger's career path would lead to cannabis amazes his coaching buddies. He has since sampled the product but would rather grab a beer any night of the week. Yauger thinks the NFL and college football eventually will loosen policies around players using cannabis, but for now, rules are rules.

"Still to this day," Yauger said, "I see some kid from a college program or the NFL getting hit with a four-week suspension for smoking pot, and I'm like, 'What an idiot. Oh, wait a minute. I'm in that industry.' That never goes away, the old coaching part of it."

The link to football never goes away for Yauger and the other ex-coaches. But they've found fulfillment elsewhere. Other coaches have noticed, inquiring about new jobs, just as Levine did with Johnson in 2015.

"Some of them are at a crossroads," Bradford said. "They're wondering, how is it? What's different than coaching? What's the same? Could they be successful? Would they be successful?"

The consensus from those who have stepped into new fields is a resounding yes.

"The skills that you learn in coaching make guys highly valuable in the business world," Bradford said, "from how you work, time management, attention to detail, the ability to recruit and to deal with all different kinds of people. And then everything you do in coaching is outcome-based. You either won or you lost at the end of the day. That's the way it is in business. It just doesn't happen as fast."