It was nearing 10 p.m. on January 30 at the law firm of Siegfried and Jensen in Salt Lake City. Another long day and night for Sharrieff Shah. He looked through some paperwork and tried to focus. Then the phone rang.
In the early 1990s, Shah had been a top-flight cornerback and a three-year captain at Utah. He’d taken a long road to becoming a personal injury attorney at Siegfried and Jensen -- one that started when he hurt his neck playing football, ending his hopes of a career playing the sport he loved so much.
To stay attached to the game, he became a sideline reporter for the Utes' radio network. He earned a Master's degree at Utah. He even became an NFL agent for six years before finally becoming an attorney 11 years ago, all while keeping in touch with coaches and players at his alma mater. He was perfectly happy just practicing law and being a sideline reporter on the weekends -- something he had done for 12 years. The work was hard but it was work.
Shah looked down to see who was calling at such a late hour. It was Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.
This wasn't completely out of the ordinary. Shah spoke with Whittingham regularly since the coach was hired in 2005, talking to players when the coach asked and helping out when he could. This time, though, there wasn't any small talk.
"Sharrieff, I want you to coach," said Whittingham, who had lost two assistants since the end of the season. "We think the opportunity is right."
It wasn't the first offer. Ron McBride, who was Shah’s coach at Utah, had offered an entry-level coaching job on his Utah staff soon after he graduated, but Shah turned it down. And less than three years ago, still without any coaching experience, he got a coaching offer from Whittingham. He turned that one down to watch his son, Sharrieff, Jr., play high school football.
That time, he wondered whether he’d made the wrong decision. How could he keep turning down such a great situation?
"I felt like I had squandered an opportunity," Shah says.
But here it was again, another shot at turning his life on a dime. And this would be the last offer, Whittingham told him.
Shah hadn’t coached at the college level; he had never even coached a high school team. But a FBS coach was on the phone offering him a third chance, this time to become the cornerbacks coach of his beloved Utes.
"I know coaches," Whittingham told him. "You are a coach. You know this system."
Betting on a personal injury attorney to become a successful assistant was a risk Whittingham was willing to take -- a move in line with another high-risk, high-reward hire he was about to make.
Along with hiring Shah, Whittingham soon would make Utah quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, just 25, the youngest offensive coordinator in the history of major-college football.
"If putting a team in a great position to excel means hiring like this, getting a young innovative smart coach that traditional wisdom would turn their nose up at, then do it," Shah says. "I love that Coach Whittingham is willing to do it.
"I think Coach sees in us, me and Brian, the potential to do something that he may not even understand yet. He’s willing to take a chance on us."
College coaches don't often pluck their assistants from the offices of local law firms. Shah knew how lucky he was. But was it the right time? His son was set to graduate -- off to play football, likely at linebacker, for Utah State of all places.
Yet over his 11 years as an attorney, he had grown weary of his inability to make his clients feel whole again after devastating losses. As a college football coach, he’d get that chance every day.
His wife had been traveling, and when Shah picked her up at the airport and saw her face, it hit him that this would be his last opportunity to be a part of the sport he loved so much. He knew right then that he had to take it.
"I felt like the time was finally right," Shah says.
Still, Shah wondered aloud to his wife about the transition, wondered whether he’d be away from her and their 7-year-old son, Omar, too much.
But he was used to working 80- to 90-hour weeks at the law firm. If anything, she pointed out, some weeks might even see him home more often.
With his decision made, Shah went to his boss' office a few minutes before their weekly Wednesday meeting. After a few minutes of small talk, Shah dropped the news that he was going to become Utah’s cornerbacks coach.
"What?" Ned Siegfried said.
Shah told him again.
In the years they had worked together, Shah never mentioned the previous offers or his desire to become a football coach. The gravity of the situation caught Siegfried off-guard. He wondered silently whether a transition like this ever had taken place. But knowing Shah, having talked football with him at the office for years, Siegfried knew that the law-to-college football transition would come as naturally as possible to him.
"The skills that he brought to the table as an attorney," Siegfried says, "all of those things will translate wonderfully into him becoming a great football coach."
Will it really be that much of a transition at all?
"As an attorney, I would evaluate, research and do anything that's necessary to bring about a resolution for a client," Shah says. "A good coach does the same thing. He’ll prepare his players to put them in the best position to win.
"You prepare and prepare and prepare to be a good lawyer, just like you prepare, prepare, prepare to be a good coach. You’re ready at any time to make a rebuttal."
After the initial shock, Siegfried wished Shah well. If he ever wanted his old job back, if he ever wanted "to come home," Siegfried told him, there would be a position waiting.
"I'm going home," Shah told him. "I’m going where my heart is."
Shah says his decision has yet to fully sink in, and he spent his last few days as an attorney preparing depositions in California. Monday, he officially became a football coach, and he’s preparing for the start of spring practice on March 20.
For a man who never has officially coached, he’s still getting used to the position. After telling Omar he would be changing jobs, Omar responded, "Congratulations, coach."
No one had ever called him that before.
He better get used to it fast.
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