Climbing the ladder
Unlike the specialization of today’s young athletes, Hughes never had a dull moment growing up athletically.
A two-sport athlete at Boston College High School, Hughes played football and baseball for the Eagles, an accomplishment he feels shaped who he is today and was a major reason he chose Davidson College.
“That’s why I went to college,” Hughes said. “I couldn’t see myself going to college for four more years and not doing what I’d done my whole life. After making an academic decision, which my parents told me to make, playing two sports was the second criteria, and that was it.”
A four-year starter at quarterback and a three-year starter at third base, Hughes graduated in 1990 with a degree in sociology/anthropology. His next step — coaching — kicked off a wild ride through his 20’s and 30’s.
“(I knew I wanted to coach) from day one,” Hughes said. “It was going to be football though. I was going to be a college football coach — that’s what I was going to do.”
Hughes took his first job in 1990 as an assistant football coach at Hamilton College, a small school in upstate New York. To make extra money, Hughes also served as a baseball assistant during the spring, bringing his annual salary up to $4,000.
“That’s what drives me nuts with all these guys saying, ‘I’d take that job, but I can’t afford it,’” Hughes said. “If you want that job, and you want to be great at it, you just figure it out. We don’t talk about money — we do what we always do, which is figure it out.”
A year later, Hughes became a graduate assistant at Northeastern in Boston, Ma. Head coach Barry Gallup, who would become the athletic director, approached Hughes asking if he would assist with the baseball team. Hughes would go on to become the full-time defensive line coach for the football team, a position that required hours and hours away from home recruiting.
At 23, Hughes was the youngest assistant coach in the Division I-AA ranks. Gallup kept Hughes’ recruiting area local, which provided stiff competition from some of today’s highest-profile coaches.
“I’m recruiting with Chip Kelly (head coach, Philadelphia Eagles); we’ve got the same area, same hotels and are going to the same schools,” Hughes said. “Doug Marrone (head coach, Buffalo Bills) slept on my couch for two years at Northeastern. I worked with Joe Philbin (head coach, Miami Dolphins) at Northeastern. These are the guys I ran with.”
During his time at Northeastern, Hughes began thinking about a future for himself and his family. He married his wife, Debbie, during his final year at Northeastern, and the two knew they wanted to have a big family. College football, for all its big salaries and high profile games, was not conducive to the life Hughes wanted.
“There’s not very much job security,” Hughes said. “I was working a ton, and I could never rationalize these guys that work so hard and only do it 10 Saturdays a year. I want to work hard and work crazy, because I think I can outwork anybody and play 56 times.”
Hughes interviewed for the baseball head coaching position at Harvard as well as Williams College. At Williams, Hughes got his first big break — a relationship with athletic director Bob Peck, which materialized into a head coaching position at Trinity University in San Antonio, Tex.
With his wife nine months pregnant, the Hughes family boarded a plane 10 days later for Texas.
“My whole plan was, ‘Yeah, I’m going to go, turn the thing around and get another job, and I’m leaving,’” Hughes said.
After winning a school-record 33 games in 1998, Hughes had an opportunity to return to his home state of Massachusetts. Boston College came calling, and Hughes was ready.