Cardinal Mooney grad is in his 40th year of coaching football
Life, Tony Ierulli said, is good right now. A starting linebacker for the 1972 Cardinal Mooney Cougars, still the only Sarasota high school football team ever to win a state title, Ierulli commutes daily from his home in Maryville, Tennessee, to Jefferson City, Tennessee.
It's a drive the 61-year-old knows all too well. Jefferson City is the location of Carson-Newman University, and from 2012-2017, Ierulli served as defensive end coach for the school's football team.
Counting his season in 1980 as a graduate assistant linebacker coach at Bowling Green, it was Ierulli's eight collegiate coaching stop. This year marks his 40th in coaching and he's serving it in familiar territory -- at Newman as its assistant offensive line coach.
"It just seems things haven't changed a bit," he said.
In fact, though, things have changed for Ierulli. In the span of a year, he's gone from an unhappy head coach to an ecstatic assistant.
"When you're an assistant coach you can go home after practice, sit back, relax, watch TV," he said. "When you're the head coach, you're in bed at 2 o'clock in the morning with your eyes wide open."
Ierulli thought his eyes were sufficiently open last year when he took the head coaching position at Limestone College, a Division II school located in Gaffney, South Carolina. At the time he believed the job could be the capper to a long and distinguished coaching career.
"Tony Ierulli is here," he said at the time of his hire, "and when Tony Ierulli is not here anymore, he's done."
But in hindsight, there were several red flags. The Saints finished the 2017 season 4-6, losing four of their last five games. Ierulli was hired in mid-February, after the recruiting period. He was the school's fourth head football coach in five years. And Ierulli said the last two, one being current Chicago Bears wide receivers coach Mike Furrey, warned him about working with the Limestone athletic director and assistant AD.
That warning first played out in July, Ierulli said, while he was on vacation in Florida. His offensive line coach left to take another job, and without Ierulli's knowledge, the AD reassigned the duties and changed the salary structure of two staff members.
"That was a major issue that happened early on," he said.
And once the season started, losses along the defensive line and youth along the offensive line spelled doom for the Saints. Limestone lost its first three games, all non-conference, by an average of 28 points. The closest it would get over the next five games would be in a 16-13 loss to West Alabama.
Still, even as the losses mounted, Ierulli said his team continued to play hard for him.
"The players had not given up," he said. "Of course, when you're 0-8, they're going to start moaning. But our guys were giving great effort."
Following a 29-13 loss to Newberry that dropped the Saints' record to 0-8, Ierulli held a Monday team meeting he said went well. The day before 90 percent of his players had attended a local church service.
After the team meeting he was summoned by the AD for a conversation he believed would be routine. But when Ierulli walked in and saw the school's HR employee, he realized it was anything but.
"Yeah, that's when I knew," he said. "I was ready to go out to practice when I was called in to meet with him."
Ierulli was gone. "(The AD) just told me it's just not going to work out and that's all he would say. It was shocking that it happened, absolutely."
Soon afterward it was reported that some of Limestone's players didn't like Ierulli's hard-nosed coaching style or practices, a claim he dismisses.
"Our practice schedule was exactly the same thing as Carson-Newman's," he said. "We practiced hard, but no more than at any other place."
More than anything else, Ierulli believes, his differences with the AD were the chief reasons for his dismissal, though an 0-8 record did him no favors whatsoever.
"I thought I was going to be able to weather the storm," he said. "You see the success that Carson-Newman is having. All I needed was to be able to be there for a while and establish the way we were doing things and the discipline we were having. We have had success down the road."
Now, any success Tony Ierulli experiences is as a Carson-Newman assistant. For as long as the school will have him.
"All I want to do is coach football. I feel I can coach another 10-12 years."