Being true to his school

JULIE HORBAL -- Special to the Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 9:07 AM ET

While many coaches claim they see themselves in their charges, Michael Gray can say it and mean it.

As the University of Oregon Ducks defensive line coach, the former Winnipeg Blue Bomber and 2006 inductee into the Blue and Gold Hall of Fame spends every day looking into the faces of players who are now in the position he occupied two decades ago.

Gray, who graduated from Oregon in 1983, relishes nothing more than the opportunity to do for his players what coaches did for him. The 46-year-old admits if even one of his players ends up where he is now -- completely successful and taken aback by his position in life -- the harrowing life of a coach will be completely worthwhile.

"I tell them not too long ago I was a young man sitting in those chairs. I was dreaming in those chairs. Now I'm looking at them in those chairs," says Gray, now in his second season at Oregon.

"The best part of what I do is seeing those young men grow up like I did. You do a lot of growing up in college and I get to see them mature both as players and mentally. Hopefully they mature. I'm just trying to help make them into good people."

After graduating from Oregon, Gray spent nine seasons in the CFL, the last six with in the Blue and Gold. As a Winnipeg defensive lineman, he played in three Grey Cups and won all of them, including a volatile victory over the B.C. Lions in 1988 made possible by Gray's interception of a Matt Dunigan pass.

Gray retired from professional football after the '92 season, but was not away from the sport for a year before beginning a rapid-fire rise through the coaching ranks.

Upon retirement, the then-businessman moved to Vancouver, where he had kick started his football career with the Lions and set up an off-season home. He was approached by B.C. Lions coach Dave Ritchie and accepted an assistant coaching position which opened an unexpected door to an unexpected future.

"Dave got me into coaching that first year. I'd just retired and the bug bit me. Coaching wasn't that bad," Gray, who now makes Oregon his permanent home with wife Susan and son Parker, 14, said.

"I certainly didn't do it for the love of the money. It was all about the love of the game. I'd not thought about coaching as a player at all. You get very little respect. Very little money. And you work very, very hard. I always say to be a coach you have to either be very passionate or not very bright. Lucky for me, I think it's the first one."

After one season with the Lions, Gray decided to head back to his native U.S. in order to accelerate his career, which saw a one-year stint at Weber College in Utah lead right into a job with the St. Louis Rams of the NFL.

Gray stayed with the Rams for a year before accepting what turned out to be a six-year defensive line job at Oregon State University. He moved to the University of Kentucky for the 2004-05 campaign and then settled into what he now says always felt like home.

Gray finds the Oregon gig the most rewarding of all the titles he has held, partly because proxy of his alumni status ties him to the school and partly because he is living proof of what can come of a hard working Duck.

"When I was working in business (after retiring from football), I enjoyed business, but I wasn't passionate about it. I try and instill into the players just to work hard because you don't know where you'll end up," Gray says. "When I got my degree, one of my professors told me it was there were no specifications on the piece of paper itself. He said I could do whatever I wanted in life. And that's true."

With the experience of coaching both students and professional footballers, Gray admits the students -- while on the field with a certain immaturity and naivete -- are a different breed of player than pros.

And it's that young breed he gets the most out of teaching.

"In the pros, guys have got themselves pretty figured out. In college, I say young men are just wandering the earth. You can mould them and they hear what you say. There's a different motivation for them. Even if you just get them going to class or get a degree, it's all worthwhile," says Gray, who returned to Winnipeg in May to accept his induction into the Hall he now shares with a mix of teammates he is "more than honored" to be recognized with.

"When you're a player, you just try and win every game. Try to get to the Grey Cup. The Hall of Fame wasn't really something you think about," Gray says. "It feels good to feel appreciated, because had someone told me 20 years ago this is where I'd be, I wouldn't have believed any of it. The hall of fame. Coaching at Oregon. I would have said 'Naw.' But it's weird how things work themselves out with a purpose."


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