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Michigan defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale talks coaching, recruiting philosophy

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Clinkscale discusses what makes him tick as a coach and recruiter.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 03 Georgia at Kentucky Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Michigan defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale hasn’t been in Ann Arbor long, but he’s loving the change.

“The transition has been going very great for me. It’s been non-stop since the moment I stepped on campus. I fall in love with this place more and more every day,” Clinkscale said on the In the Trenches Podcast with Jon Jansen.

Clinkscale was still a coach at Kentucky in May, but that all changed when a spot opened abruptly on the Michigan staff when Maurice Linguist accepted a job to become the University of Buffalo’s next head coach. Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh got in touch with Clinkscale, and now he’s on the Michigan staff and Michigan filled a void with someone who’s considered to be an up and coming coach as well as a solid recruiter.

Since Clinkscale hasn’t been with the team long, he’s had to play catch-up at a rapid pace to learn the X’s and O’s of Michigan’s scheme along with getting to know his players on a personal level.

“Before I met them all, I asked them to send me three to four goals that they want to accomplish in their lives. They don’t have to be football, just as a man, and three to four things that they do well that we want to continue to build on. So I can understand them. And they can also understand that it’s not just about football for me. I don’t do this for football, I do this for relationships with the players. And, in turn, with my coach when I played, I played my hardest when I loved the guy I played for, when I wanted him to be successful. And I believe players do that all the time. I believe as a coach, you can’t just walk in the door throwing X’s and O’s on the board, talking all this stuff — what you did, where you were, all that stuff. They need to know that you’re human, that you can build a relationship with them, that they can come talk to you about anything. Then they’ll come give you the effort on the field. My job is to coach them in life and to teach them football.”

When it comes to recruiting, Clinkscale’s philosophy is similar to the way he goes about coaching — he wants to develop real and personal relationships with his players before diving into the intricacies of the X’s and O’s.

“I’m just myself. I like to fish, so if I can recruit a kid in the western part of Michigan that likes fishing or if he’s on a farm, I’ve worked on a farm. Or a young man in Detroit. I grew up in the inner city of Youngstown. I went to a private college, so some guys with how important academics are. It’s just being well-rounded. I’ve been blessed to have a lot of different experiences but to also remember that I can’t sell something other than myself. I’m just myself with those people and just build relationships more than recruit,” Clinkscale said. “Recruiting is checking a box – did you call a kid? Did you text his coach? Did you have a meaningful conversation? That’s building a relationship. Are you finding out more about that young man than the other coaches? Are you talking about life, not just football? And are you building a relationship with the coaches, the principal? All the people who, at some point in time, are gonna be in a position to help you get a kid or get a kid over the edge to play for you? For me, it’s just about relationships and giving back and just trying to be that person they can relate to.”

Even with the camaraderie Clinkscale attempts to have with recruits and players, he still is an attention to detail coach who holds his players accountable, as well as himself.

“I’m honest and I’m humble, I teach my players to be the same. We’re gonna teach you all the techniques, and everybody says we’re gonna teach more than one position. I definitely do that. I want them to learn how to field corner, what a safety has to do or outside linebacker. You need to be able to do different spots, because when we do those sub packages, you’ll just be plucking out a linebacker or a D-end and putting in a DB and doing the same exact thing in a different call. Teaching them different things is important, but being humble in that room, understanding where you can get better and that you haven’t played your best game. I haven’t coached my best game, I never will as far as I’m concerned,” Clinkscale said. “I’ll always keep trying to drive and be better. And then being honest with them. If they’re not making plays as a group, we’ll talk about it. Not humiliation, not pointing the finger.”

Michigan’s first game is on September 4 against Western Michigan at The Big House.

Clinkscale coaching highlights
  • Experience as a defensive coordinator in 2015, which makes a potential promotion to co-DC next season not the least bit surprising. The Bearcats ranked third in the American Athletic Conference in passing yards allowed per game (217).
  • Has had success developing players, turning them into NFL talent. In 2019 CB Lonnie Johnson was drafted in the second round, safety Mike Edwards in the third. In 2021 CB Kelvin Joseph was drafted in the second round, CB Brandin Echols in the sixth.
  • As cornerbacks coach at Illinois, the Fighting Illini ranked in the top 20 in pass defense.
  • As special teams coordinator at Toledo the punt return unit ranked No. 17 in 2011, the kickoff return team was ranked No. 11 in 2010.
  • Part of a coaching staff at Kentucky in 2018 that went 10-3 and ranked 12th in the final AP Poll, which was the most wins and highest final poll slot for the Wildcats since 1977.
  • Kentucky’s defense ranked second in the fewest touchdown passes allowed with 9, and No. 3 in passing yards allowed per game with just 167.8. Kentucky led the SEC in passing defense and this in pass efficiency defense.
  • Has been to ten bowl games as an assistant coach.