STORRS, Conn. – Mickey Grace admits that she was terrified as she accepted a job on the UConn football coaching staff
It was only natural – after all, she was going to be one of the few women in the country, and even fewer women of color, working on a male-dominated Division I college football staff, carrying the weight of a whole genre on her shoulders.
She had every reason to be nervous.
Except none of that had anything to do with Grace’s feelings of anxiety.
What worried her was the switch she was going to have to make from a career in defense to the offensive side of the ball. As usual with Grace, it was all about football. Take care of the football and that bigger picture will take care of itself.
Grace joined the staff of first-year UConn football coach Jim Mora as the Huskies’ offensive analyst, working with wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator John Allen. The football teams have turned heads the past few weeks with two victories in a row and look to even its record this Saturday afternoon at Ball State
As thrilled as she is to have a full-time job in college football, her ultimate goal is to be a coach on the field. While those who know her have little doubt that Grace will eventually get there, the offensive analyst position will keep her as close as possible – and it was a way for Mora to add Grace to his UConn staff.
Grace’s rise in the football profession is also being saluted this weekend as UConn holds a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Title IX and the commemoration of an enduring legacy of UConn women’s athletics since its varsity inception in 1974. Although Grace does not coach a woman’s sport, she is an example of how Title IX has helped females rise in all areas of college athletics.
As a native of Philadelphia, she is well aware of UConn’s athletic history.
“One thing I tell the players is, ‘We are the UConn we haven’t been yet. We’re the UConn that’s yet to be,'” she says. “We’re not trying to be a version of our former selves. We’re trying to be the UConn that has never yet been.”
And she embraces the challenge.
“I have religiously prepared every single day to get through the day,” Grace says. “As an under-30 Black woman, as a mom (to Aria, 6), no one’s going to tell me they don’t know what to do. I figured it out. No one can get anything past me. I’ve pushed the boulder uphill.”
But just because she is all in on UConn football, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t realize the responsibility she carries because of who she is. She still heads a Women In Football support group for females aspiring to be coaches and scouts and mentors a group for high school girls called “She’sMyCoach.”
“When it comes to anything outside of the team that I’m on, then it’s all about young girls and women and what they want to do in life and giving themselves permission to do it,” Grace says.” I use football to teach that. It took me a long time to give myself permission to do the things that I was doing anyway. Someone told me I was a coach before I called myself a coach.
“Right now, I’m more focused on ‘How do we get UConn’s red zone completion rate up?’ I can’t focus on making a statement because then I distract from doing a good job. And doing a good job IS the statement.”
“Mickey has a real intellect about her, an ability to see the game in a particular way, which really impressed me,” Mora says. “But more than anything with Mickey, it was just her personality that drew me to her – woman, man, it doesn’t matter, it was just the fact that she has such an engaging personality. She’s got toughness, she’s got empathy. She’s taught me a ton already – about how things are with this generation, how to communicate with them, the ways they are thinking. She’s really an impressive person.”
So, what does an offensive analyst do?
“Offensive analyst means different things at different places,” Grace explains, “Here, it means I’m working with Coach Allen and the receivers, making sure we’re looking at all our data, all of our numbers, and figuring out what that means for us day-by-day. I’m very much a bottom-up thinker, so when I see numbers, all I’m thinking is, what does that mean for us day-by-day? Right now, we “we are using our data to make sure our learning is efficient and effective.”
Which is of paramount importance as UConn installs its new offense, which was the side of the ball that was foreign to Grace throughout her career as a player, a coach, and a trainer.
“I was horrified,” she admits, “but apparently, all the good coaches do this at least once in their career – they switch. But I trained some NFL athletes and a lot of them were defensive backs and linebackers. So, it’s nice that I knew enough about DBs and linebackers to now incorporate that into my wide receivers’ study. It’s not as terrifying as I thought it was going to be.
“But it’s a new facility with a new playbook, in a new position on a new side of the ball, with a new head coach — you kind of feel like you’re drowning, until you look up and realize you’ve been swimming the whole time.”
Grace, the middle child of three sisters, has been swimming in football waters since her days as an outstanding athlete at Germantown High in Philadelphia, where she was also a three-year captain of the softball team, the center on the basketball team, editor of the school paper and president of the senior class.
“It wasn’t like I really wanted to play football, but it was our only fall sport – it was football or nothing and I needed the workouts,” Grace says.
So, after working as an aide in the football office, she finally convinced the coach to let her practice and she made the team as a kicker. But that wasn’t enough.
“We never kicked, we always went for two,” Grace laughs.
Instead, Grace found a place on the defensive line — becoming the first female to earn All-Public League honors at defensive end — and a career passion was born.
“Football just kept finding me,” she explains.
Grace attended West Chester University where she was playing tennis when the women’s rugby coach heard that the “football girl” was playing tennis and recruited her.
“I told him, ‘Coach, I’m from the ‘hood… I don’t know what rugby is,'” she says with a smile. “He said, ‘We’ll teach you.'”
But football was already in her blood, going back to the high school level to become the defensive line coach at Mastery Charter School and an assistant coach with the Philly Phantomz women’s professional team. That led to a stint as an internal training camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then to a position as a scouting apprentice with the Los Angeles Rams.
It was the contacts she made while with the Rams that brought the opportunity to take a job as the assistant defensive line coach at Dartmouth College last season and also gave her an introduction at UConn.
“I sent Coach Mora a resume when he got the job here and I had been cold texting him,” she says. “Then I got enough people who I knew that he knew to mention my name and I knew some of the staff that he hired.
“I came to visit and kind of just rolled into his office and said, ‘Hey I just want to introduce myself.’ I had all this Dartmouth gear on, and he said ‘Who are you? What are you?’ I said, ‘I’m the assistant D-line coach at Dartmouth,’ and he did the face that everyone does and said, ‘You are?’ “
Mora remembers the first meeting.
“I wasn’t taken back by the fact that she was a woman,” he says with a chuckle. “I was really surprised that Dartmouth had an assistant D-line coach.”
But the UConn coach quickly realized he should learn more about Grace.
“With certain people, the minute they walk into your life, you can feel something special about them,” Mora explains. “Maybe this is a little outrageous at this point in Mickey’s career, but Dan Quinn (former Atlanta Falcons’ head coach and current defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys) came into my life when he was about the same age as Mickey. I was defensive coordinator for the 49ers and Dan came out for an interview for a quality control position, much like Mickey is doing, and the second I met him, I thought. ‘Yeah, there’s something special about him.’ And I have to say, I revisited the same feeling that I had with Dan when I met Mickey. Sometimes, you just get a feeling about people.”
Which led to more meetings and discussions and finally a job offer as UConn’s offensive analyst.
“I would like to get her on the field,” Mora says. “Her greatest asset is her ability to communicate with the players – be tough and demanding, but never demeaning. I see a high degree of trust immediately between the players and her, so I’d like to get her on the field – Maybe down the line. But there’s nothing that would stop me from hiring someone as qualified as Mickey, regardless of what their gender is.”