From their seats in the coaches’ booth, John McClure and Kirk Botkin watched the high school football game unfolding down on the field, early in the 2010 season.
McClure was the running backs coach at Texas High, and his longtime friend Botkin was the new defensive coordinator, having landed there in Texarkana, Texas, after working as an assistant at the University of Arkansas.
“This a little bit different than being on the sideline against LSU or Alabama?” McClure asked Botkin.
“It’s still football,” Botkin replied.
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When Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino fired Botkin after the 2009 season, he had a chance to work at Cornell and Tulane. But his wife Rebecca’s father was laid up with heart and diabetes problems in an intensive care unit in Little Rock, Ark. While talking with McClure, Botkin found out Texas High had an opening, and the school was just 145 miles from Little Rock — a perfect fit.
Botkin spent two seasons there and is now one of four new assistants who debuted at South Carolina this spring. Of the new coaches, Botkin, 41, took perhaps the most winding path to Columbia — from playing in the NFL to coaching at (and getting fired from) his alma mater to recharging himself by returning to a high school setting, where he first fell in love with football.
“I think coaching is coaching,” he said. “I don’t care what level it is. I know good coaches and bad coaches. In the NFL, I knew some coaches that maybe shouldn’t have been coaching there. I know high school coaches that can probably go coach in the NFL.”
Botkin grew up in Baytown, Texas, just east of Houston. His father, Danny, coached some high school and mostly junior high football there for 35 years. Botkin and his brother, Keith, rode the school bus to games with the team, picked up balls and towels on the sideline and celebrated after wins by letting the players throw them and their dad into the locker room showers with their clothes on — a memory that still makes Botkin laugh.
Danny was no pushover. In the summers, he made Botkin and his brother earn money by mowing lawns and painting houses in the 100-degree heat. But the boys kept every dime.
“They made good money, but they hated painting houses,” Danny said. “They said when they got done painting houses after high school that they’d never buy a house they’d have to paint.”
That work ethic pushed Botkin to become an All-SEC tight end at Arkansas, and battle through knee injuries during a four-year NFL career, from 1994-97.
Botkin knew South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward from Arkansas. Ward spent only the 2008 season there, but when he and Botkin arrived, they were randomly paired as roommates in a two-bedroom apartment while they looked for houses for their families. Botkin didn’t know Ward before that, but after living together for four months and working long hours, they became good friends, and their wives did, too.
Between Botkin’s trust in Ward as his boss, the chance to coach in the SEC again and Botkin’s father-in-law improving, taking this next turn in his coaching career was an easy choice.
“That’s really what I was looking for — to have a chance to win, but also work with good people,” Botkin said.