By Bruce Wood
Sammy McCorkle could feel something was wrong the minute he woke up that Sunday morning during preseason a few years back.
“I thought I had the flu or something,” the Big Green assistant coach recalled. “My wife was outside doing something and I walked out and told her, ‘I am going to try to eat a piece of toast. If I can’t eat it, I am going to take myself to the emergency room.’”
For those of you keeping score, it was appendix 1, the Dartmouth secondary and special teams coach 0.
McCorkle can laugh about it now. “My wife said, ‘I can’t believe it. The one day off you have, and you have to go have surgery.’”
Vicki McCorkle had it right about the “one” day off piece.
“I showed up the next day at work, which probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do,” admitted a sheepish McCorkle, a special teams standout as a player for the Florida Gators. “It was plug it up, stick some gum or something in it, and let’s go.”
It wasn’t gum, of course, although maybe that wouldn’t have been a bad idea.
“We tried to look out for him but he was at practice and still leaking,” Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens said with a grin that bordered on a grimace. “It was arghhhh! That’s how he was a player. He’s probably one of the toughest guys Florida ever had.”
The only remaining assistant from the staff Buddy Teevens assembled when he returned to Dartmouth in 2005, Sammy McCorkle dreamed of playing big-time football as a boy growing up in Florida. But tough guy or not, there simply aren’t many major college coaches stopping by high schools to take a look at 5-foot-9, 157-pound high school linebackers.
Fortunately for McCorkle, he had a high school All-America teammate on the Fort Pierce Central High School Cobras named Anthony Riggins who had college coaches flocking to the coastal city halfway between Miami and Daytona Beach.
Among the coaches courting Riggins was Rich McGeorge, then on Steve Spurrier’s staff at Florida.
“He watched me and introduced himself,” said McCorkle, at the time a self-professed “Gator hater” who had long dreamed of playing for Tennessee. “Coach McGeorge said, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to have any spots this year, but we would love for you to have an opportunity to be a preferred walk-on.’ That changed my mind quick.”
Goodbye Knoxville. Hello Gainesville.
After a redshirt season at Florida, McCorkle grew into the 180-pound backup strong safety who blocked the punt against Alabama that helped swing the momentum to the Gators in the 1994 SEC Championship game. McCorkle would go on to be honored with the Florida Special Teams Player of the Year Award his final two years, setting school records along the way for single-season and career punt blocks. He also took part in four bowl games, played in the 1995 national championship game against Nebraska and oh, by the way, earned a scholarship.
While McCorkle majored in community health at Florida and was proud of his father’s work as a fire chief, his goal after graduation was to follow in the career footsteps of his namesake, uncle Sam McCorkle.
“He was a college football coach for many, many years,” the Dartmouth assistant said. “He coached in the SEC and all over, mostly in the South. I looked up to him and really thought what he did was cool.
“When I was done playing, I didn’t know what the heck I would do without football, which had meant so much to me and given me such incredible opportunities.”
And so he took a job as an assistant coach at Spanish River High School in Boca Raton, Florida, where his responsibilities included serving as head softball coach. His ultimate reward, however, was meeting a Spanish River teacher named Vicki, who would become his wife.
After one season at Spanish River, he landed back in Gainesville as a graduate assistant. It was there that he happened to meet a new assistant coach by the name of Buddy Teevens, who had arrived in town shortly before the 1999 Orange Bowl.
“I think he showed up that bowl week,” McCorkle cracked. “Our running backs coach took the Duke job and he came rolling in. It was like, ‘Who is this new guy with the headset on?’”
McCorkle was only kidding, of course. He quickly got to know Teevens, who recognized immediately that the young graduate assistant was going to be a terrific coach.
“I was always thinking about guys I might want as assistants if I got a head coaching job,” Teevens said. “As soon as I met him, I thought, ‘This guy is special.’ I could tell he was an honest guy who was good with people and had a good sense of humor. I saw him with recruits. He was very supportive, tremendously loyal and hard-working.”
After his GA stint at Florida, McCorkle went on to spend four years as an assistant at Tennessee-Martin. He was working as the head coach at Martin County High School in Florida when Teevens, just hired by Dartmouth, caught up with him and asked about his interest in possibly joining the new Big Green staff.
With his wife’s blessing, McCorkle accepted Teevens’ offer to come to Dartmouth, which he’ll freely admit he didn’t know much about at the time.
“My mom swears that they called me my junior spring and asked what my scores were. When I told them they said, ‘Well, it was good talking to you,’” he said with a laugh.
What McCorkle found in the Ancient Eight was a much better brand of football than he ever expected.
“I was very impressed with the talent in the Ivy League,” he said. “Obviously, they don’t play in the playoffs, but when I coached in the (Ohio Valley Conference) we played against Eastern Illinois, Tony Romo and those guys. I realized, shoot, these guys definitely can play against those teams. No doubt about it.”
Dartmouth at the time? Not so much.
With substandard facilities and a recent history of struggles, Big Green football was in the midst of the worst stretch in program history, hitting rock bottom with a winless 2008 season. “A lot of our guys have no idea what it was like around here back then,” McCorkle said. “Even our coaches don’t. Coach T and I joke all the time about it. They have no idea about the facilities and the rest.
“We had great kids back then, but unfortunately we didn’t have the depth. The starting 11 could go out and battle for two and a half quarters, but after that they were gassed.”
McCorkle could feel a sea change taking place when the Floren Varsity House came online in 2007.
“I remember Shawn Abuhoff and that class being the first one we could walk through Floren,” he said. “I truly believe all those facilities made a huge difference because his class was the one that turned it around. I know people say you don’t need it, but you do these days. You have got to have that stuff to be able to recruit and compete.”
The breakthrough came with a 6-4 record in 2010 and Dartmouth hasn’t had a losing season since, a span capped by the Ivy League championship a year ago.
Abuhoff, the 2011 Dartmouth captain who went on to become a first-team All-America return specialist and made the All-Ivy League First Team twice as a defensive back and twice as a return specialist under McCorkle, is a huge believer in the coach who recruited him out of Dade Christian High School.
“He saw potential in me where some people didn’t,” said Abuhoff, today an attorney back home in South Florida. “Coach Mac was very straightforward with the idea that, our team is down, you will have an opportunity to play right away if you come prepared. He is very genuine and at the end of the day, what you see is what you get. It’s not like he puts on a façade.
“He understands what it takes to win. He has been successful while not losing his priorities, his goals, his family nature.”
McCorkle came to Dartmouth thinking he would be on to bigger and better things after three years. Now the Big Green’s associate head coach, he’s in his 12th year on staff in no small part because he’s come to realize bigger isn’t always better. For him or for his family. The Upper Valley is pretty much the only home 14-year-old daughter Allie and her 12-year-old sister Madison have ever known, and it’s where five-year-old Campbell was born.
That’s incredibly important to McCorkle, who has seen the uncle he so admires make no fewer than 20 stops at high schools and colleges since breaking into coaching in 1973.
“As a young coach you are always looking, wanting to coach here or coach there,” he said. “But when kids come along, it’s not what you want anymore. It’s what the family needs. To me that’s the most important thing. You couldn’t ask for a better place to raise your family.
“It’s almost a joke when I tell guys who are always moving that I’ve been here for 12 years. I know I am very lucky and very blessed, that’s for sure.”
Teevens, the Dartmouth football program and, most importantly, the players who learned football and life lessons from McCorkle are glad he’s stuck around a lot longer than those three years he expected to be here.
“You step on the field and he’s going to push you,” said Abuhoff. “He was not the type of person who would just wave it off if we weren’t successful. He wanted us to learn, to grow and become better players, and better people at the same time.
“I have a bunch of buddies who went on to play college football and they don’t keep in contact with their coaches. They don’t necessarily have a relationship or the experience that I had with Coach Mac. Whenever he’s down here I try to meet up with him. I know how lucky I was that I got to play for that man.”
A veteran writer and observer of Dartmouth athletics, Bruce Wood launched a web site in 2005, www.greenalertfootball.com, specializing in Big Green football news coverage.