Ryan Bolinger has seen, and done, it all.
Sequoyah’s head football coach has worked in the lush football facilities at the University of Tennessee, mentored young athletes in multiple weight rooms and even evaluated NFL quarterbacks from the comfort of his own home.
His current office is located in the Sequoyah fieldhouse, which overlooks a football field surrounded by farmland. It’s a far cry from Neyland Stadium, or the other facilities he would have frequented had he stayed on the college coaching path.
So why didn’t he? How did a man who was once on the fast track to a career as a college or NFL coach end up here?
Freshman in the film room
Bolinger’s first foray into coaching began through a friend of a friend.
He was done playing football, though not due to lack of opportunity; some Division I-AA colleges had offered him, he had some prospects at other schools as a preferred walk-on, and academic scholarships were also a possibility.
But Bolinger cared more about the mental side of the game, dreaming of one day becoming a college football coach. He knew what he wanted to do even during his high school days.
His father’s boss, at a company Bolinger also worked at during breaks, was a friend of Tennessee defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell. Through a well-placed phone call, Bolinger secured a volunteer position in the program’s film room while he attended UT.
While helping break down film during his undergraduate years, Bolinger also had the chance to study under defensive coordinator John Chavis.
“And that’s when it all started as far as getting exposed to the coaching side,” Bolinger said.
He attended meetings and helped on the sidelines during home games, doing whatever the program needed of him. After finishing his degree, Bolinger was brought back as a graduate assistant, taking on more responsibility while he completed his master’s degree in sports psychology.
As a graduate assistant, Bolinger worked under Chavis on defense and also helped with special teams. But after head coach Phillip Fulmer was fired in 2008, and Lane Kiffin was hired to replace him, he and every other graduate assistant was laid off.
“It was nothing personal,” Bolinger said. “He just wanted to bring his own people in, which we understood.”
His time away from the Vols was short, though; shortly after, Kiffin reached back out to Bolinger, hiring him as an assistant to new defensive coordinator, and Lane’s father, Monte Kiffin.
Bolinger was soon promoted to assistant to the head coach, and everything was looking up. He and his wife had a child and were looking at buying a house, expecting to settle down in Knoxville.
Then, in one of the most infamous moments in program history, Kiffin abruptly left to take the head coaching job at USC, throwing everything into chaos.
“We were thinking, ‘Okay, we’re going to be here for a while,’” Bolinger said. “And then, lo and behold, (Kiffin) decides to leave. We’re like, ‘Man, here we go again.’ My wife’s like, ‘Are you kidding me? Two years in a row we’re going through this stuff?’”
Finding a path
Bolinger spent six weeks with new head coach Derek Dooley before he was let go. Having bought a home in the area and with 18 months left on his contract, Bolinger worked in broadcasting at Tennessee for the next year and a half.
He had other offers in college football, including an opportunity in recruiting at Mississippi State, but didn’t want to uproot his family for a low-paying job in an industry notorious for poor job security.
Bolinger was done, at least temporarily, with college football.
“It was definitely a God thing, taking me out of that,” Bolinger said.
After spending time at D1, a training facility in Knoxville, National Fitness in Maryville and training local players on the side, Bolinger realized his new passion in working with a different age level of athletes.
“That’s kind of when I started looking at maybe getting into some high school stuff,” Bolinger said. “For a long time, I didn’t want to deal with high school stuff. Didn’t have that desire. It finally went away as I just spent more time with training these kids. I was like, ‘Okay, this is maybe something I could do.’”
After also working as a remote quarterback analyst for the Cleveland Browns, a position that saw him evaluate film of quarterbacks and was brought on by a call to Jim Haslam, father of team owner Jimmy Haslam, Bolinger was ready to begin his high school coaching career.
Becoming the Chief
Bolinger worked as an assistant at Knoxville’s Grace Christian Academy and also had two stints, including as head coach, at Concord Christian, during which the school tried, and failed, twice to cement a football program.
But it was when he saw that Sequoyah High School, located close to his wife’s longtime employer, Chota Community Health, was looking for a head football coach, he knew what the right move was.
And so did Sequoyah. Bolinger was hired to replace former head coach Bobby White; the man who had held so many previous positions, and had worked in so many different programs, was now tasked with leading the Chiefs.
“Applied for the job, had an interview and fell in love with it ever since,” Bolinger said. “The opportunity, I think, has been great. Still think that. Still think that we can do some really good things (at Sequoyah).”
It wasn’t just Bolinger’s resume that made him attractive to Sequoyah’s administration, either.
“This is one of the things that we saw in (Bolinger) is that he was willing to do the fundraising,” Sequoyah principal Debi Tipton said shortly after Bolinger’s hiring. “He was willing to go out into the community and talk to the business leaders and all of the community people in Madisonville and Vonore.”
Bolinger’s first season with the Chiefs had its share of hardships. Although there were flashes of potential, Sequoyah finished 0-10, hampered by an injury to starting quarterback Gabe Littreal.
That record obviously wasn’t what Bolinger expected or hoped for, and was the result of a coaching staff made up of holdovers and new faces still learning to gel together, according to Bolinger.
He credited the Sequoyah administration, though, for its support and flexibility in helping him push the program toward his vision of what it could be. If anyone can bring the Chiefs up to par, it could well be Bolinger, a coach with a stunning resume forged along a nontraditional, yet remarkable, path.
He’s seen it all, and he’s done it all. Now, though, he’s hoping to do just this one thing for a while.
“That’s part of the plan (at Sequoyah),” Bolinger said, “is to go in and build something and make it great. And hopefully be there for a long time.”