Oct. 2, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – It’s been 38 years since Chuck Heater played football, but just about every day, he still puts on a helmet.
Heater, the veteran Marshall defensive coordinator who has brought an aggressive stopper mentality to the Thundering Herd, isn’t living in the past. The former Michigan star running back – Heater had 1,995 career rushing yards on four Big Ten title or co-championship teams that went 41-3-1 for coach Bo Schembechler – has become an avid cyclist.
Among watching tape, meeting with his defensive coaches, working at practice, Heater tries to squeeze in a lunchtime bike ride just about daily. Visitors to the Herd’s Shewey Building football offices see his black hybrid bike chained to a rail outside the building.
He pedals away toward downtown, eventually riding into Ritter Park. Or, he may take the short ride home to the 25th Street apartment he shares with his wife, Debbie, where they eat a quick lunch. Sometimes, Heater pedals into work as early as 4:30 a.m.
“I don’t drive much here, really,” he said.
He’s not your typical sexagenarian.
Biking has become a routine – a refreshing one – for a lifer of a guy who is in his 12th stop as a college football assistant who has been part of three national championship staffs, a man who will coach his 451st career game Saturday when UTSA comes to Edwards Stadium for the Herd’s 2013 Conference USA opener.
“I started riding a bit my last year at Florida (2010),” Heater said. “I’d always been a jogger – all that good stuff – and that last year at Florida for a change of pace I started riding. We went to Temple the next year, and it’s a tough neighborhood where the university is located and there wasn’t any good place to run.
“I used to do all of my exercise in the morning, so it wasn’t conducive to running, and Philadelphia’s a great city, so I just started riding my bike pretty consistently. There’s an area there called Kelly Drive (along the Schuylkill River, past the Philadelphia Museum of Art) that’s absolutely beautiful. I started riding that, then started riding the whole city.
“For me, that was riding over Kelly Drive, down to the University of Pennsylvania area, over to Lincoln Financial Field, all the way south of town, up through the Italian Village. It was great trip, probably an hour and a half, hour and 45 minutes -- 20 miles, a great, great ride. I started doing that pretty consistently there.”
Heater’s bike made the trip with him to Huntington when he was hired by coach Doc Holliday – a former fellow Florida assistant – in February.
“It’s a hybrid, looks like a mountain bike, but it isn’t,” said Heater, who turns age 61 next Thursday (Oct. 10). “If I ever get real sophisticated with it, I’ll upgrade. But it’s a good bike for me.
“In season, I’m guaranteed to ride (at lunch) Monday and Thursday. It’s a reward on Tuesday and Wednesday, if I get my work done. Tuesdays maybe. Wednesdays, I can’t make it out. We’re too busy. Fridays for home games I’m good. Sunday, sometimes.
“It’s nice to get out of the office. I think a lot when I’m riding. I get refreshed in my thinking, and I’ll come back and a lot of times I’ll have a good thought because you’ve had time to think.
“Sometimes it just sets a fire up there, you get those neurons going. At our stage of the game, Jack, you need to get those neurons going sometimes. Need to fire ‘em, you know?”
Heater said he hasn’t had many challenges riding in Huntington to date. It was different in the City of Brotherly Love, where he was the Owls’ defensive coordinator the past two seasons.
“In Philadelphia, you’ve got to be really careful,” Heater said. “There was a police officer, who opened her car door right on me. I went down, took a flip. I kind of anticipated a bit, so it wasn’t terrible, but I was glad I had a helmet on.
“It took me all the way over and I landed on the back of my head. So, my wife’s rule is I have to wear a helmet.”
He hadn’t worn a helmet since 1975, when he was a 10th-round draft by the New Orleans Saints, and made it all the way through camp until the last cut. He started coaching the next season under Joe Salem at Northern Arizona, and hasn’t looked back.
“I didn’t wear one right away, but my wife said, ‘If you’re going to do this, you’re going to wear a helmet,’” Heater said. “Geez, it sounds like my mother. I’m pretty casual about that stuff, but it makes a lot of sense, and after I got hit that day …
“I kind of landed right on the back of my head and so I’m saying, I’m glad I had a helmet on. That was the one that got me. You’ve got to be very careful, ride defensively, because if you get hit, there’s not a lot of backup there.”
Under Heater, the Herd’s total defense rank has improved from 103rd last season to 11th in a 2-2 start. Marshall also is in the top 20 nationally (FBS) in rush defense, foes’ three-and-outs and limiting opponents’ third-down conversions.
It’s the kind of ride – if it continues – the Herd will really enjoy.
One day – unquestionably it won’t be before the season ends – Heater said he wants to get out and venture upon some of the biking possibilities outside of the Herd’s neighborhood.
“I take about a 40-minute ride now,” he said. “I ride to Ritter Park – really nice homes up there, hills. I haven’t really had a chance to explore all the trails. There are areas out in Barboursville I’ve been told about, but basically for me it’s an escape, get 40 minutes to an hour, and that’s the most I can do and get my work done during the season.”
Some days, Heater said, he gets to the Shewey Building as early as 4 a.m., because he wakes up – “I go to bed early,” he said – and is ready to get going.
“For me, the way I operate, if I’m in the right mindset, I’m here at 4 or 4:30, because I just wake up, and instead of trying to go back to bed with a lot of stuff on my mind … so, I go to work. There’s more to do, and I can get more done then, when it’s quiet.”
He said he and current Louisville coach Charlie Strong ran together when they were Florida assistants on Urban Meyer’s staff.
“Really, what I did was an insult to runners,” he said, smiling. “It was more like jogging, I never really got going very fast, but I really got my heart rate up. When I was younger I used to strain, but not anymore.
“The good thing about this ride is it’s up a hill, Ritter Park, so it’s a 10-minute climb there, every day. So, no matter what, I can get my heart going pretty good for 10 minutes, and I kind of make myself do that. So, it’s better, actually, for me, in terms of cardiovascular … you have to pump a little bit.”
Heater said he likes the dual benefits of his ride.
“It’s mental and it’s physical,” he said. “For me, it’s probably personally more mental, getting outside, refreshed. If I weren’t riding, I’d be walking. But I really understand the value of it mentally, especially in-season, when you’re grinding, in a routine and it’s an escape for a few minutes.”
So, maybe what’s pushing his Herd defense is pedal power?