Any conversations about SUNY Cortland’s training camp ties to the NFL often involve the College’s partnership with the New York Jets.
But now, thanks to football team defensive coordinator Ola Adams, there’s a new story to tell.
The promising 27-year-old coach will participate in the Bill Walsh NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship program with the Chicago Bears when their training camp begins Thursday, July 25. He’s one of five fellowship recipients the team selected to observe and participate in preseason practice at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill.
The goal is to deliver a slice of professional experience to talented minority coaches who hope to one day obtain a full-time coaching job in the NFL — a career dream for Adams.
“(The fellowship) means a lot,” said Adams, who graduated from Concord University (W. Va.) in 2008 and assisted at SUNY Cortland in 2009 before returning as the College’s defensive coordinator in 2011. “I had been trying for five years and I know it’s the opportunity that I need to get my foot in the door.”
If anyone under the age of 30 can speak to perseverance, it’s Adams, who grew up in a low-income section of northern Virginia with a single mother working double shifts to provide for her family. He used football “as a vehicle to get through life,” improving his once-average marks in the classroom to earn a college scholarship.
But it didn’t end with a stellar Div. II career at Concord that saw him earn all-conference accolades or with a tryout for the Washington Redskins as a free safety. He knew he wanted to pass along the gifts associated with the game to younger players. One of the earliest opportunities came at SUNY Cortland, although not with ease.
Adams’ car broke down in the middle of Pennsylvania on the way to his first interview with head coach Dan MacNeill in 2009. He called his mother from the road and debated postponing the interview.
“I told her I just wanted to come home,” Adams said. “She was like: ‘No, we’re going to make this happen. We’re going to get you a Greyhound ticket and you’re going to make it up there.’”
He interviewed on three hours of sleep and struck up a relationship with MacNeill that has become one of the budding coach’s most treasured.
|When he was hired as SUNY Cortland's defensive
coordinator at age 24, Ola Adams became the
youngest coordinator in the country at the time.
“I tell people all the time that my relationship with Coach Mac is special to me,” Adams said. “Just for us to be able to come together and for him to be able to believe in me at such a young age, it says a lot about the kind of person he is.”
He spent a year at the College as a defensive backs coach before taking the same job at Glenville State (W. Va.) in 2010. When Glenville State’s defensive coordinator position opened up after one season, Adams was intrigued and prepared using MacNeill as a sounding board for an hour-long mock interview.
Ultimately, that job went to someone else. But MacNeill came calling shortly afterwards and drew Adams’ attention to the same position at SUNY Cortland. At 24 years old, he became the youngest coordinator in the country at the time.
In two seasons with Adams leading its defense, SUNY Cortland’s football team has posted a collective 18-4 record. More importantly, the young assistant has continued to develop a reputation built on his own success and the ability he sees in others.
In February, for instance, he was selected to participate in the NFL-NCAA Coaches Academy in Charlotte, N.C., another seminar for football’s up-and-comers. Then a few weeks later, he spent a day at the Finger Lakes Residential Center, a juvenile detention facility, speaking to youngsters who grew up surrounded by the same challenges he once faced.
“The first thing that I asked those kids … was to raise their hands if they grew up in a single-parent home,” Adams said. “Every group, almost every kid raised his hand and it opened the door for me to say: ‘Hey, that’s not an excuse for you to be getting in trouble and ending up in here. I was in the same boat as you.’”
As the latest example of Adams’ willingness to persevere, look no further than the prestigious training camp fellowship.
In 2009, the year he arrived in Cortland, he applied for the same fellowship with all 32 NFL teams and received rejection letters from all of them. He made a giant poster out of many of them, then pinned it to the ceiling above his bed.
“Every day, when I woke up and went to sleep, it was the first and last thing that I saw,” said Adams, who was never sad or angry with the process, only motivated by it. “It was like: ‘Hey, they’re writing back to me. I’m a step closer.’ And that’s how I looked at it.”
Four years later, in typical Ola Adams fashion, the persistence will pay off over the next three weeks with the NFL’s Bears, a team known for its defensive prowess. He’s about to participate in a program that has trained many of football’s greatest coaches, including Super Bowl winners Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin.
“I don’t take any of it for granted at all,” Adams said. “I’m just going to take full advantage of the opportunity. That’s what it's always been about: trying to make the most of every opportunity.”