Why Houston defensive coordinator Doug Belk could be college football's next hot head-coaching candidate

Houston DC Doug Belk says building relationships with players on and off the field is what he values most about his role. University of Houston

The 2015 Alabama Crimson Tide football staff is one that people look back on and wonder how so many elite coaches could have been on a single team.

That season, Nick Saban's staff included six current Power 5 head coaches in offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin (now at Ole Miss), defensive coordinator Kirby Smart (Georgia), position coaches Mel Tucker (Michigan State), Mario Cristobal (Miami) and Billy Napier (Florida) and graduate assistant Dan Lanning (Oregon).

"Everybody messes with me about that a little bit," current Houston associate head coach and defensive coordinator Doug Belk said. "Like, 'How they leaving you off the list?'"

Belk was one of three graduate assistants on that Alabama staff. He is now one of the biggest rising stars in college football's coaching landscape. He joined Houston in 2019 as co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach after leaving West Virginia along with head coach Dana Holgorsen.

Belk was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2021, leading a unit that was sixth in the country in total defense (302.2 yards), tied for 13th in turnovers forced (23) and 19th in points allowed per game (20.4). The success that Belk, 34, has had since leaving Alabama has made him a hot commodity in coaching circles, including with Saban himself, who has attempted to bring Belk back to Tuscaloosa.

"I tried to hire him a couple times," Saban said. "I haven't been able to get to hire him. But he did a great job when he was [at Alabama] and he's having a great career and doesn't surprise me at all."

Belk believes he is one of the luckiest people in the world for having the experience of learning and growing under the coaches he worked with during his three years at Alabama.

"But, you know," he added, "I've kind of got my own thoughts and different things I like to do that are different than them."

THINGS DIDN'T GET off to the smoothest start for Belk and Holgorsen in Houston. In 2019, the Cougars suffered significant losses via the transfer portal and with many players redshirting, most notably quarterback D'Eriq King, who transferred to Miami for the 2020 season.

"I used to look at a scout team in 2019, and our scout team was better than the guys we were playing with," Belk said.

In the COVID-impacted season of 2020, Houston was hit as hard as anybody, with six of its games canceled due to the virus. The Cougars finished a combined 7-13 in 2019 and 2020.

After the 2020 season, Belk said he had offers to become the defensive backs coach at multiple SEC schools. But for the same reasons he took the Houston job in the first place, he stuck through the tough times.

"I feel like there's a lot of head coaches, and a lot of people in this business that don't invest in people," Belk said. "And I feel like that's one of my biggest passions. And I think [Holgorsen's] investment in me has been great. And not just based off of, 'OK, you've earned promotions with him,' but him actually sitting me down and saying, 'Hey, this is why I'm doing this,' or him strategically making roster adjustments and things that he does. So I've been able to kind of learn and grow with him in a different way."

Holgorsen said that he appreciates Belk's loyalty to him and to the Houston program.

"We knew when we took this, you know, it's the reason why I signed him to a three-year deal," Holgorsen said. "We knew there was gonna be a lot of work and it's gonna take a couple of years, and it did. But we're here, we're successful now because of how hard we work together doing this thing together."

While Holgorsen said he didn't believe Belk was ready to be a defensive coordinator when they made the move to Houston, Belk was the first person he wanted to bring with him to the new gig.

"The kids just gravitated toward him," Holgorsen said. "So he was the co-DC for a couple of years, and I just had a gut feeling that if I didn't make him DC, he wasn't going to be here very much longer. So I made that switch. I knew he was ready."

As it turns out, Holgorsen said, a day after making Belk the defensive coordinator, Alabama and Georgia offered Belk position jobs. "So it was good for me to do that, obviously," Holgorsen said.

Belk admits that Holgorsen's leadership style is different. "You know, sometimes unorthodox just from the outside looking in, and people see the Red Bull drinkin' and the headset slammin', and it doesn't correlate sometimes with the poise of other people," he said. "But you know, him and Coach Saban and Kirby and all those guys aren't much different. He's a fierce competitor, extremely intelligent and strategic. The way he plays chess, the way that he operates, it's fun to be around, and he's given me a lot of opportunities to grow.

"The one thing that I respect about Coach Hol the most, and it's the same kind of lesson I've got from Mel [Tucker], is that 'be who you are.' And he truly allows me to be who I am, and all the other people around him."

Belk likes to wear Lululemon or Nike sweats every day, with some Air Jordans or Air Maxes. He says he's even-keeled and not overly emotional. He instills a competitive spirit and leads by example with his work ethic and detail.

Belk's passion for people and growing relationships, combined with Holgorsen urging him to be himself and giving him greater responsibilities, has been the recipe for Houston's defensive turnaround, which has been a great complement for the offensive-minded Holgorsen.

"I tell everybody, we've got the same players [from years past], we've just got to change the way they think," Belk said.

He did that, in part by leaning into Houston and its culture.

"We rebranded the defense," he said. "We're in the middle of Houston, and we're in the Third Ward. So, you know, we say it's not for everybody. So we brought the Third Ward defense back."

The Third Ward defense, a nickname first used about 10 years ago at the school, has layers to it. The defensive backs brought back the "Jack Boys" moniker used by Houston defensive backfields of the past. After defensive lineman D'Anthony Jones, who led Houston with seven sacks, talked tons of trash at one practice, Jones dubbed the defensive line "Sack Ave."

"All that stuff just gives us a different flavor," Houston linebacker and defensive captain Donavan Mutin said. "I think the reason why we are as good as we are -- I've been here with Coach Applewhite, I've been here for a minute -- the only thing that really took us to the next level was our mindset. [Belk] gave us the mindset that we have."

But the biggest part of the culture change Belk helped bring goes back to his passion for investing in people. The players joke with him a lot about being two different people.

The first one is the coach, and the ultimate competitor.

"If you mess up, he's going to tell you exactly how you messed up. The same way we speak all the time, that's how he's going to talk to you," Mutin said. "He's not gonna get out of his body with you and call you outside your name or do anything like that. He doesn't have to. But he's going to make sure he expresses what you did right or what you did wrong, as equally as he's eager to give you praise."

"If we don't see championship effort on tape, then that's how I'm gonna challenge them and coach them," Belk said. "I think each guy should be coached fairly. But I don't think every guy should be coached the same."

Baltimore Ravens defensive back Damarion Williams, who was one of three players drafted from Belk's 2021 unit, said, "[He's good at] finding out what buttons he can push for each player, he coaches each player different. He might get on me because he knows he's gonna put some fire behind me and motivate me to go. But he might not yell at the next player because that doesn't rock their boat and make them produce."

The other side of Belk is the one that's going to "love you harder" as he puts it.

"People talk about relationships, but until you really get to know people and until you dive into what moves them, you really don't know exactly how to coach those guys," he said. "And I'm not a specialist in any of those areas, but I feel like I know people. I value those relationships with our players and how we can get the best out of them on and off the field."

The synergy between Belk and his players is apparent from talking with them. Their messages are identical, to the point where if you were reading their words, it would be hard to tell if it was the coach or his players who said them. Mutin says Belk's authenticity has been a key part not just in Belk's success, but in getting everybody on the Cougars defense to buy in both on and off the field.

"He's the same dude every day," Mutin said. "I think that's what makes him special. I've had a lot of coaches since I've been in college and a lot of them are just fake people. They put the coach hat on and then they can't take the coach hat off, and they don't know how to be a normal individual. They don't know how to meet you where you are, and have a conversation with you, no matter what the details and the subject of the conversation are. Man, Coach Belk, he's himself. And that's why he's as successful as he is."

These two sides of Belk also result in the ultimate trust on the football field. Belk being himself, being honest, consistent and fair, gives players the freedom to speak up.

"When I first came into Houston," Williams said, "I wouldn't say I was football stupid, but I didn't know too much about football and the ins and outs. Then three years just being under Belk, he helped build my confidence that I enjoy talking about ball and learning about ball and making mistakes, so I can fix it and learn how to correct my mistakes.

"He just started building our confidence in meetings where we take control."

That control extends to the field, where Belk will at times let the players change up a play call.

"I think that's why we're as good as we are," Mutin said. "We'll be on the field, and there are certain things in the defense that are in the playbook as 'This is what we're going to do. We're going to handle this as this.' But when it comes to we're in the game, he always says, 'I don't play one snap, y'all are the ones playing the snaps. I don't play a down. So if y'all don't feel confident, if y'all don't like what we're doing, then that's the issue.'

"I think that sets him apart, that that gives everybody confidence. Because we know that we have a coach that's on that kind of page with us. He understands that we're only going to be good if all the players understand what we're doing."

In the final minute of last December's Birmingham Bowl, Houston led Auburn 17-13 with the Tigers facing fourth-and-2 on its own 33-yard line. Belk asked his players what play they wanted to run with the game on the line.

"They said, 'This is what we want to do.' I said, 'Let's do it.' And we go win," Belk said. "It's them. I don't have to play those. I always say that, but I really believe that. If I can get them to be comfortable, whatever we're doing, then it's even better."

BELK WAS BORN and raised in Valdosta, Georgia. He got an early taste of high-level football as the starting quarterback at Lowndes High School beginning his sophomore year, while also playing cornerback and on the punt return team.

Georgia high school football is known as some of the best in the country, but southern Georgia -- specifically Valdosta and the surrounding areas -- is on another level, as Belk will attest.

"Nobody really from metro Atlanta wants to hit that trip down I-75," he said with a grin.

Belk led Lowndes to state championships in 2004 and 2005 (two of the school's three state titles in four years) after losing to rival Valdosta -- the school he lived across the street from -- in 2003, his sophomore season.

After playing collegiately at Division II Carson-Newman, Belk was going to play in the CFL in 2011, the year of the NFL lockout. But Valdosta State head coach David Dean and co-defensive coordinators Seth Wallace and Earl Chambers recruited Belk to join their staff, giving him his start in coaching. It wasn't something he originally saw for himself.

"My major was computer information and business management," Belk said. "So I had planned to get into some type of tech technology or into the sales world and had things lined up before I started coaching."

The Blazers won a national championship in 2012, when Belk was coaching defensive backs.

"I kind of fell in love with the locker room," Belk said of his first coaching experience. "Being part of a locker room and a brotherhood was the part that intrigued me the most with the people. I kind of got that at a young age, and I kind of still keep that same philosophy. And that's really the most important part, more than any logo, any amount of money."

After the national title win, Belk developed a relationship with Kirby Smart, who also got his start at Valdosta State.

"Kind of randomly, he called me and we linked up," Belk said. "He was telling me all the reasons I should come to Alabama to be a [graduate assistant] and progress my career. He had done that leaving Valdosta State going to Florida State. And I went and interviewed, and a week later, I was in Tuscaloosa working for him and Coach Saban."

Belk's tenure at Alabama brought a wealth of learning experiences and relationship building, but things really got rolling when then-West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson called him on Feb. 5, 2017, the day of Super Bowl 51, when the New England Patriots staged a historic comeback to beat the Atlanta Falcons.

A lifelong Falcons fan, Belk said, "I'll never forget that one. That was a long night for us."

But Gibson's call gave that day a more positive meaning to Belk, who flew up to interview for the cornerbacks job with Gibson while Holgorsen, the Mountaineers head coach, was out of the country.

"I can tell, you just get around guys that you know will be coordinators and keep advancing in the game," Gibson said. "And I knew from day one that he was that kind of guy.

"The thing that separated him from some of the other guys when I was first digging into him and researching and all that was, you know, his ability, the relationships he builds with the kids and the recruiting aspect of it, that was the biggest thing that stuck out in my mind."

Gibson offered the job to Belk, who, when finalizing his deal, slid the contract back across the table to Gibson without looking at it.

"I didn't care about money, I would have went for free at that point," Belk said. "I just slid it back and said, 'I'm in. I'm gonna earn my money.'"

IN 2016, BELK'S last year as a graduate assistant at Alabama, he spent a lot of time with current Maryland head coach Mike Locksley, who was an analyst on Saban's staff. Locksley said he believes Belk will stand out among the next generation of head coaches.

"Too many times you see coaches -- some are good with X's and O's, some are good at recruiting, some are good at managing players, but very few are able to do all three," Locksley said. "And he has this natural ability to connect with the student-athlete. He's a guy that -- because he's been around some really good coaches on the defensive side of the ball -- he's absorbed that piece of it. But I think the thing that makes him stand out is just his ability to do all three of those things."

Holgorsen enjoys Belk being his own person.

"One thing I think that he takes great pride in is having that really strong relationship with Nick and Kirby," Holgorsen said. "He's proud of the fact that he's kind of made it without them. He's got a good relationship with them, and they communicate a lot. But he's kind of found his own way, so to speak, and I think that's a tribute to him."

Holgorsen added, "And he's gonna be a great head coach. And, you know, when that's gonna happen, I don't know. But when it is, I'm going to be happy for him."

In 2011, during his first year of coaching, Belk went to the American Football Coaches Association convention and listened to longtime Georgia coach Mark Richt speak. He still has the notes he kept from the talk on his phone.

Richt talked about how he was always worried about the next job until he went to Florida State and became the quarterbacks coach, and then offensive coordinator. "Then he had a lot of success, and then became a head coach and talked about focusing on what's important right in front of him," Belk said. "And that lesson has kind of stuck with me.

"Sometimes you can overlook the details when you're worried about things that you can't control. And the one thing I can control now is how hard I work and the way that I lead the guys that I'm supposed to do my job with each and every day. I love what I do, and I enjoy coming to work each and every day.

"And then, you know, me being young and Black, I don't shy away from that. I have a certain responsibility too -- if I don't do things right I could be holding somebody else back. And if you've been around me enough you know I take that kind of stuff serious because a lot of people in this business, we talk about sticking together, we talk about doing things right. And, you know, the more success I have is probably going to open the door for somebody else, potentially guys on our staff or other staffs."

Belk describes all the attention he has received as a transition, but says it makes him go harder at his profession. So despite being seen as a surefire head-coaching candidate in the near future, Belk keeps his focus on Houston football in 2022, where the Cougars are one of the favorites in the American Athletic Conference as they transition to the Big 12.

"My whole goal in being here -- and I feel like part of my obligation to our head coach, this university and most importantly our players -- is to win a championship. And the reason that's important ... that's our players' goal, they want to win.

"And, you know, getting a taste of it last year -- watching Desmond Ridder hold that trophy up when that confetti was falling in Cincinnati, to go into the next week, and our players are hoisting the trophy in Birmingham, beating Auburn, basically in a home game -- that taste of failure and taste of success, I think, has motivated the guys who were here last year to really take it to the next level.

"And let's be on top of the throne next season, winning this conference and see where it takes us."