Getting to the top in any profession usually requires starting from the bottom.
Regardless if you’re a Fresno sports legend or former NFL cornerback. Or both.
This would explain why Ricky Manning Jr. is tucked away inside the Fresno State football office on a late Friday afternoon in April. It’s nearly 5 p.m. and most of the coaches have gone home. Manning, however, sits at a computer watching video of Mississippi, the Bulldogs’ opponent Sept. 12. (Fresno State opens Sept. 3 against Abilene Christian, but the Wildcats’ tape has yet to arrive.)
Manning does more than just watch. He’s dissecting and recording every nuance of the Rebels offense.
What personnel group are they in, and which plays are called? If it’s a pass, what routes are the receivers running and under which concepts? Is is a straight drop or moving pocket? If it’s a run, are they using man or zone blocking? Are they running inside the tackles or outside, and to which side?
Manning’s job is to provide answers to each of these questions and enter them into the team’s computer software. He must do this for every play of the game, and when he’s done with one game move on to the next. For Fresno State’s four opening opponents next season, he’ll be breaking down all their games.
For someone proficient with the software, each game can be tackled in about 45 minutes. For someone still getting the hang of it, like Manning is, it can take twice that long.
“It’s tremendously time consuming,” says Nick Toth, Fresno State’s defensive coordinator.
Data entry is tedious, but it’s also essential for compiling each week’s game plan. And at the college level, most of it is performed by low-paid graduate assistants.
The typical GA is a recent college graduate in his early 20s, a profile that fits the 34-year-old Manning like Pop Warner shoulder pads. Yet here he sits. Entering numbers into a computer. Starting from the lowest rung.
“When I was a player I never realized how much work went into it,” Manning says, shaking his head.
“It feels awesome, though. It’s just a blessing to be a part of this program at whatever level. You’re right. I am starting at the bottom. I’m doing the grunt work.”
It certainly wasn’t that way during the late 1990s at Edison High, where Manning was a two-sport superstar in football and baseball. Nor was it like that at UCLA, where he started 45 consecutive games. Or during his injury-shortened NFL career highlighted by two appearances in the NFC Championship game. Or upon Manning’s celebrated return to Edison in 2012, when a one-year tenure as head coach ended under cloudy circumstances.
Manning never stopped coaching, spending the past two years as a Fresno City College assistant. But when the chance to become a GA at Fresno State came along he couldn’t afford to pass it up. Even if that meant turning down a couple full-time coaching offers for his current $1,000 monthly stipend.
“I don’t get paid that much, but I’m getting a free education,” says Manning, who is taking classes toward a master’s degree.
“Most of all I love what I do and I’m surrounded by great guys who go into work every day with aspirations of doing big things. It’s a great environment for me to be around.”
Manning met the Fresno State coaching staff through Tim McDonald, who spent the 2012 season as an assistant under Tim DeRuyter before moving on to become an NFL position coach. He observed Bulldogs practices and sat in on coaches’ meetings, filing up a notebook with ideas.
Before it was certain that things with Manning would work out, Toth posted the GA opening online on a coaching website. Two hundred applications flooded his email in less than 20 minutes.
“We’ve known Rick for a while and felt comfortable with him,” Toth says. “The process for an NFL guy is unique in that he already has a lot of football knowledge. So he’s got to be willing to focus on the other stuff that’s behind the scenes and learn the organizational side.”
That doesn’t mean Manning will spend all his time chained to a computer. The typical GA doesn’t possess a wealth of knowledge and experience from playing cornerback at the highest level.
“Although his job is entry level and the money he’s making is entry level, his input isn’t entry level,” Toth says. “We’ll use Rick on the field a lot more than we would a normal GA.”
That was apparent during spring football, when Manning was on the field helping defensive backs coach Marcus Woodson on a volunteer basis.
“I love having him here,” Bulldogs safety Dalen Jones says. “He’s really hands-on. He’ll actually get down in a stance with you and everything.”
Fresno City coach Tony Caviglia calls Manning a great communicator and teacher of the game.
“He knows football and sees things that many people don’t see, but he’s still building his foundation in coaching,” Caviglia says. “He understands this is a process he has to go through.”
Even if that process includes hours at the computer for less pay than he’d get pouring coffee. Or picking up his three oldest sons (ages 8, 6 and 5) from school and babysitting while his wife, Tosha, is at her job.
“Much is given, much is required. That’s Biblical, and I really believe that,” Manning says. “I’ve been given a lot and I’ve been given a lot of responsibilities, so much is required. And I’m up for that challenge.
“As a father, as a husband, as a colleague and as a coach, much is required of me. So I’ve got to be on my game.”
With that, he bumps a visitor’s fist goodbye. There’s more grunt work to do.