As an all-state player at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi, Jordan Lesley didn’t know he wanted to coach; he just wanted to play.
A high school linebacker, he recorded 95 tackles and 11 sacks his senior season in 1999. Lesley had a college career in front of him and was headed to Troy University, but his IAHS coach, Lynn Moore, planted a seed that coaching might be part of his future.
“My high school coach was a big influence on me,” noted Lesley. “He told me he thought I’d be a good coach. At that time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, other than just play. My college coach, Larry Blakeney, was the first one to give me an opportunity to get into the profession, but my high school coach, what he did with our team really inspired me.”
Itawamba Agricultural High School, which is located about 20 miles from Tupelo, Mississippi, in the northeast corner of the state, is big deal in the area, just like many small town high schools dominate the social life in their region.
“High school football is what everyone did on Friday nights,” Lesley recalled. “My mom’s three brothers were good football players, and they played at my same high school 20 years before me, and they were on a bunch of undefeated teams. When I was coming up, my high school wasn’t very good – 2-8, 1-9, things like that – but just when I got to the school, there was a coaching change, and we immediately improved. While I was there, we won 10 games twice and 11 games when I was a senior. Our coach completely 180’ed the program, and I was fortunate to see that and be a part of that. He showed us that this is how you do it, and this is how you create winning ways. I still talk to my high school coach all the time.”
Lesley arrived at Troy in the fall of 2000 just as the Trojans were making the transition from I-AA to I-A. The school, which had moved from Division II to I-AA in 1993, climbed another level to FBS in 2002. Lesley was part of that move, and he spent his early years at Troy as a pass rushing defensive end. But the Trojans had a couple other pretty good defensive ends at that same time – DeMarcus Ware and Osi Umenyiora. Between them, they would provide Troy with a dominating defensive line and then go on to spend a combined 24 years in the NFL with 11 Pro Bowl selections between them.
That kind of talent left little defensive playing time for Lesley, so when the Trojan coaches suggested he shift to offense, playing H-back and tight end, he jumped at the opportunity.
“I just wanted to play,” he said. “I knew I was going to be limited behind those two, so I moved over to offense.”
Lesley started at his new position as both a junior and senior and was the team captain in 2004 in helping the Troy a 7-5 record and a spot in the Silicon Valley Bowl in its first season as a member of the Sun Belt Conference.
His playing days over after 2004, Lesley was at a crossroads in his life.
His high school coach’s words, though, began to resonate.
His coaching career started at his alma mater, as he was a graduate assistant at Troy in 2006 and then spent nine years working in the junior college ranks.
“Coach Larry Blakeney gave me my first coaching job,” Lesley said. “The guy I G.A.’ed for there was a former junior college guy, and he always told me, ‘Look, you can sit here as a G.A. for years, but at some point you’ve got to recruit and at some point you’ve got to coach and you’ve got to make your own way.’ So, that’s what I did. I went out to Texas (Kilgore College), where I didn’t know anybody, though I did have a connection to the guy who hired me. Then after a few years there, I ended up back in Mississippi, and it just sort of went from there.”
After spending one year as a G.A. at Troy, Lesley took a job coaching linebackers at Kilgore College in northeast Texas, working three years with that program. He then spent 2010 as the defensive line coach at Northwest Mississippi Community College, 2011 as the defensive coordinator back at Kilgore, before returning to NWMCC as the D.C. in 2012. Then he was hired as the defensive coordinator at East Mississippi C.C., spending three years (2013-15) with the juco powerhouse,
Along the way, he kept running into Neal Brown.
“It’s funny, but I was always crossing paths with Coach Brown,” Lesley said. “He was in his first year as position coach at Troy when I was a G.A. there. Then my first full-time job was at a junior college in Texas, and during time, he goes from Troy to Texas Tech, so he’s kind of recruiting that school. After that, I come back to Mississippi, and he goes to Kentucky, and all the SEC schools recruit Mississippi junior colleges, so he’s recruiting the school I’m at. Then I get a chance at East Mississippi Community College. Most people know about that school. It was good before I got there, and we took it to another level, winning 32 games in three years and two national titles.”
Nine years coaching juco football can seem like an eternity for someone hoping to advance to a higher level, but Lesley had faith that he was on the right path.
“There is a fear that you won’t get a chance to move up,” he admitted. “The thing about junior college is everyone comes through there recruiting – Division I, FCS, Division II, the whole deal. So, if I don’t want to get stuck there, I had better put a product on the field that people liked watching. In Mississippi, junior colleges played on Thursday nights, so your resume was out there on the field for everyone to see every Thursday night. When those coaches were watching our games, watching our films, what they were seeing was my resume. That’s how I viewed it. Coach Brown saw that and gave me my opportunity.”
The product Lesley was putting on the field at East Mississippi was staggeringly good. Not only were the Lions 32-1 in his three seasons there, but their defense allowed an average of just 10.3 points and 232.1 yards per game during that time. They also amassed 149 quarterback sacks and 57 interceptions.
It was hard for the young Troy head coach not to notice what the TU alum was doing at EMCC.
“Coach Brown got the Troy job in 2015, but it didn’t work out for me to join him his first year,” noted Lesley. “They were recruiting a lot of our guys at East Mississippi, though, so we were in constant communication, and eventually it worked out.”
Lesley returned to Troy in 2016, and spent the first two years working exclusively with the Trojans’ defensive tackles before taking over the entire defensive line in 2018. Then when Brown was hired by West Virginia last January, Lesley was one of five assistant coaches from the Troy staff who followed him to WVU.
Like Brown, Lesley stresses details.
“At the stage we’re at, we have to remind these guys what it takes every day,” explained Lesley earlier this spring. “I’m not complaining about that, because that’s my job, but when the players take ownership of that, and you don’t have to constantly remind them, then the better you’re going to be. They are the ones who have to do it on Saturdays, not me.”
Brown’s attention to detail even carries into recruiting, which is a multi-step process for the Mountaineers.
“If you are evaluating a player, you want second opinions,” noted Lesley. “There is nothing better than eyes when it comes to evaluations. I like having Coach Brown’s input, and input from others as well. That way when it comes to signing day, you look out and see that’s our guy, not my guy or your guy, but our guy.”
The defensive line Lesley has been working with last year was a fairly young group. Out of the 15 d-linemen in his room, only four were seniors – Reese Donahue, Reuben Jones, Stone Wolfley and Brenon Thrift. That leaves 11 with eligibility remaining; three of those are true freshmen or redshirt freshmen – Jordan Jefferson, Jalen Thornton and Tavis Lee. To that group WVU is adding several newcomers in 2020, including junior college transfer Quay Mays who enrolled in January and went through part of spring practice before COVID-19 concerns shut down all workouts.
“There is a world of difference between a young player and a 21- or 22-year-old senior,” Lesley explained. “You start out with a guy who isn’t physically or mentally mature and finish with one who is pretty much a grown man as far as his body goes. He’s as strong as he’s going to be, as big as he’s going to be and as fast as he’s going to be in his whole life. From a freshman to a senior, your approach to the game totally changes.
“Nurturing is probably the best word as to how you treat younger players, but still they have to grow up fast.”