WVU Alum Pennington Draws From Coaching Mentors In Building Career
Young coaches entering their first position in charge of a program have learned from, and been influenced by, many of those that coached them during their careers. West Virginia alumnus John Pennington, currently entering his third season as the head coach at West Virginia State, was hard-pressed to single out just one person who had the biggest impact on his desire to be a coach, but did finally settle on a trio of mentors who were atop the heap.
“There’s no way I can pick just one person. It’s a culmination of everyone I’ve been around and learned from,” said Pennington, a native West Virginian. Unsurprisingly, all three of those on his list have state roots.
“Rich Rodriguez, Steve Edwards and Bill Stewart were some of the main guys that I learned how to be a football coach from.
“Coach Rodriguez, it was his intensity and his competitiveness. Bill Stewart was who I wanted to be. A family man, he loved his wife, he was a tough guy but he was still a normal human being. That’s a person I wanted to emulate. Then Steve Edwards was like a second father to me. Those are the three guys that stuck with me and had the biggest influence on me,” Pennington detailed.
Rodriguez and Stewart were at WVU during Pennington’s career (2001-04), with the former the head coach and the latter in charge of quarterbacks and special teams.
“You try to learn from everyone – steal from the best and make it your own,” said Pennington, describing how he has learned lessons from each of his stops and fit them into his own personal philosophy. “Bill Stewart wasn’t even my coach. He didn’t coach my position. He was just a role model for me. There were things he said in the locker room that changed my outlook on things. I love that I can be someone like that now at West Virginia State.”
From Rodriguez, Pennington took the competitive nature, which certainly complemented that of his own. As a walk-on wide receiver, Pennington had to battle to get noticed, and for every snap he got. In that regard, he mirrored the playing days of Rodriguez, who was also a walk-on at WVU.
Pennington’s battle paid off with modest numbers, but a good bit of playing time and one of the biggest catches in Mountaineer history. With WVU trailing Pitt 24-17 with less than a minute to go in the first half of the 2003 Backyard Brawl, Pennington slipped behind the Panther defense and made a diving, fingertip grab of a Rasheed Marshall pass to tie the score. The fired up Mountaineers then proceeded to score 28 unanswered points in rolling up a 52-31 win.
That’s the sort of storybook tale that every walk-on dreams of, and it’s one that Pennington held while playing wide receiver at George Washington High School in Charleston. It was there that Edwards, the long-time coach of the Patriots, was the first to heavily impact his outlook. He still goes back to the support he received there, which encouraged his dream to play for his state University.
“I’m still learning every day,” said Pennington, who has worked at state schools including West Virginia Wesleyan, Concord and West Virginia Tech, as well as his two stints at West Virginia State . “I learn by failing and succeeding, and trying to have a growth mindset with everything I do.”
Pennington has assimilated his lessons well enough to help guide the Yellow Jackets to two consecutive winning seasons in his first two years. Those mark the first above-.500 records in a decade at the Institute, West Virginia school, but it hasn’t been easy. While Pennington has learned a great deal along the way, he has come to find out that many of the lessons a head coach has to learn can only be achieved on the job.
“There are so many things as a head coach that they can’t warn you about,” he said, recalling talks and comments and interactions he has had along his route to a head coaching spot. “There’s so much you have to do. The stories that some players walk into my office with are heartbreaking at times – what these kids have gone through. You can’t have any kind of prep for that. There’s no handbook for dealing with some of those things. Those are just things that you have to learn from experience. I think that’s what makes you a great leader – going through things that you aren’t prepared for.”
Pennington began preparing for that leadership role at WVU, where he was selected as the Ideal Mountaineer Man in both his junior and senior seasons. He’s been on a fast track ever since, rising from a graduate assistant spot at Wesleyan to the man in charge at West Virginia State in a little more than a decade. That has also helped reinforce one of the many lessons that was passed down to him from his mentors, but which is only now beginning to sink in.
“They told me it goes by fast, and everyone tells you that, but now I’m seeing it. I can still remember being in the locker room in Morgantown, and now I’m in this completely different position,” Pennington said, reflecting on his Mountain State success story. “That’s one lesson that stands out, but there are so many things coaches told me that I didn’t understand until I got to this side of the game. When I got to a graduate assistant position I started getting it. I’d think, ‘Oh, this is why they told me that.'”
Consider all of those lessons well-learned.