WEST JORDAN — Stephanie Davis knows she looks out of place in the coach’s box on the sideline of a game she’s never played.
“I have had referees tell me I’m not a coach,” said Davis, who is an assistant football coach for West Jordan High. “I’ve had coaches not shake my hand. … I know I’m the only girl around, and the questions are just something that happens. There are moments that people question whether I belong there, but I feel at home.”
Davis never aspired to coach football.
In fact, while she always considered herself a college football fan, she readily admits she knew very little about the technical aspects of the sport.
“I basically knew enough to know who was winning,” she said laughing. “I’d sit in the meetings, and it was like they were speaking Russian. I didn’t understand what was said. I’d write down key words that were discussed, and I’d go home and Google them so I could keep up. I didn’t understand schemes, but now I’m able to see and fix problems. … It’s been a journey.”
That journey began when the graduate of West Jordan took a job at her alma mater. As the head track coach, she decided hiring one of the assistant football coaches might help pull some of the football players into the track program.
“As I worked with Jarvis (Cullimore), he said, ‘I want you to be working with all of the football athletes,’" Davis explained. "I just kind of looked at him and said, ‘You’re nuts.’”
But Cullimore persisted, and eventually Davis found herself wondering, Why not?
She approached head coach Mike Meifu, whom she’d coached in the Jaguar track program, with the idea.
“I always just relied on my strengths,” she said of why she felt confident seeking a job with the football program when she had no experience in the sport. “I was brought on to coach speed, power and to get these kids in shape. That’s my whole world. I have done nothing but teach that in my career, so I knew I had a place being there and teaching that.”
So she didn’t know the difference between a 4-3 and a 3-4. It didn’t matter to her new colleagues that she wasn’t sure what responsibilities a nose tackle might have versus a defensive end because she brought something unique to the program and she was willing to study what she didn’t know.
“I constantly taught the kids what I knew and what I could bring to the game,” she said. “I kept building layer upon layer and I was able to contribute what I knew.”
West Jordan defensive coordinator Christopher Bocage, who played at USC under Pete Carroll, took her under his wing. That led to her affinity for the defensive aspects of the game.
“I enjoyed learning, and he spent a lot of nights with me explaining why we align in certain formations,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed every moment of it.”
Senior Helaman Sosi isn't afraid to admit he had his doubts when she showed up at practice his freshman season.
"At first I was hesitant because she's a girl, and I figured she doesn't know anything about football. But she has shown us that our technique in running and being able to control our breathing is something that is very crucial to success on the field. … Steph may be a lady, but she is one of the most fierce and demanding coaches I have met. She accepts nothing but the best from us as players. She trains us in the summer with speed and conditioning, and she knows what she's talking about."
Meifu said he knew what she could add to his staff because she was his coach.
“When I got hired, I got hired really late, and our staff was really stretched thin,” he said. “I just needed people who wanted to help out with all of the different things that go on with a program.”
Davis studied the sport, the schemes and what West Jordan was trying to do, and as she did, she became more and more valuable to the program. Four years later, she now coaches the sophomore defensive backs and helps with defensive calls for the sophomore team, which is coached by Gary Anderson. She also assists Bocage with play analysis during varsity games, but her main duties remain speed, agility and conditioning.
Davis said she’s been open with the players about her questions and the process she’s engaged in to become a better coach and to better understand football technique and strategy. Her players have noticed.
"She doesn't walk around acting like she knows everything, and she is always willing to learn from her other fellow coaches about the game of football," Sosi said. "I love this lady because she does a lot for our program, and she treats us like we're her own sons."
Davis said her coaching style was impacted by longtime prep football coach Rick Bojack, who passed away in May of last year after a battle with ALS.
“He changed my life,” she said. “He was the first adult I had in my life who believed in me. I was so privileged to be coached by him (in track), and he did that for thousands of kids.”
Davis wishes she could talk to him about coaching the sport he dedicated decades of his life to teaching.
“He is the biggest reason I coach today,” said Davis, who also works as a secretary for a real estate company. “I remember how he made me feel, and I just try to make it my mission to help my players feel that way. He did come to one of our games, and he was sitting on the track in a wheelchair. I was going to go tell him one last thank you, but I never got the chance.”
Meifu said Davis’ evolution with the program is a credit to her work ethic.
“She’s earned the trust of the coaches and earned the trust of the kids,” he said, noting it’s not just their teenage players that she’s educating. “She’s at every coaching clinic in the offseason. Every clinic, she’s asking questions, even though she’s the only woman in the room.”
Meifu said they’ve had a number of situations over the years where others have questioned whether she should be coaching the sport.
“There might be people who don’t think she knows what she’s talking about,” Meifu said. “We had an official that pointed his finger at her and said, ‘You, Miss, need to be out of the coaches' box.’ He didn’t believe she was a coach. There have been comments from other players, from other coaches. She’s got thick skin. She’s tough.”
In that regard, Meifu said, Davis is teaching her players something without really intending to do so.
“She is a great example of the idea that it doesn’t really matter who you are, what you look like, where you’re from, if you have a passion for the game and a work ethic, anything is possible,” he said. “She’s really dedicated.”
Davis said being part of football has been an enriching and transformative experience.
“One of my favorite things as a coach is seeing players do the things that they thought were never possible,” she said. “Every sport has value, and football has values that you can take forward in your life — discipline, sacrifice and hard work.”
While Davis never envisioned herself involved in football, she now realizes it was missing from her life all along.
“It really is unique,” she said. “I love the aggression of football, and that’s completely different from other sports.
"I felt like I’d been longing for it, but now I get to be a part of it. … I’d coached track and field, swimming and cross-country, and those sports are performance-based and individual. It’s kind of nice to be in a sport where you can see the grand scheme of things, where everybody has to do their job for the whole team to do well. I love that part.”
Davis acknowledges that while her role with the Jaguar football program is unique, her value has less to do with her gender than one might think.
“I don’t try to think what can a woman bring to the sport,” she said. “It’s more like, if you have something to provide to the game, then bring it to the game of football. Bring your individual talents that you can provide. It’s all about what you can offer, and if you can make the program better.”
Still, she understands why some see her as a pioneer, and she has had confirmation from her players that her involvement shifts what they see as possible for themselves and for other women.
“It is a male-dominated sport, and some women may be afraid to step through the door,” she said. “When the opportunity was brought to me, I kind of chuckled about it, but the more I thought about it, the more I decided, I can do this. I can do what they’re asking me to do.”
Sosi said giving his best effort is the most important skill he's learned from Davis.3 comments on this story
"The number one thing I've learned from her is that you gotta come every day wanting to get better," the senior said. "You need to be physically and mentally ready. If you aren't, there is no point in showing up."
Davis said she brings the same philosophy to coaching that she asks her players to bring to the field — whatever they do, give it their best effort.
“My experience hasn’t led me to say no to certain situations,” she said, adding she tries to live the way she encourages her players to compete. “I don’t put limits on myself.”