WR Cornelius: “I just tried to do whatever I could.”

By Adam Silverstein
May 16, 2011

Former Florida Gators wide receiver Jemalle Cornelius has one of the biggest smiles you will ever see. And he has plenty to be happy about these days. Having settled down in his hometown of Fort Meade, FL, Cornelius is the head coach of his high school team and is continuing the legacy of his former coach, whose retirement two years ago gave him the opportunity to take the reigns.

Married with three children, Corenlius chose stability over chasing his original dream – playing in the NFL. Speaking with me last week for a feature published on InsideTheGators.com, he opened up about choosing to attend Florida, going through two coaching changes, how his coaches developed him as a player and person, putting the desire to play professionally in his rear view mirror and doing what he can to improve the play and character of his student-athletes.

Check out the feature I wrote last week (subscription required) and supplement it with the remainder of my 45-minute interview with Cornelius found here:

ADAM SILVERSTEIN: Talk about growing up in Fort Meade and how that experience is different from how other people you know grew up.
JEMALLE CORNELIUS: “It was different. I grew up in a real small town, not much to do. All we had as kids was sports. We didn’t have no movies or much stuff to do for entertainment. So we played sandlot football during football season, played baseball during baseball season. Year-round we were just playing sports; that’s pretty much all we had. My dad was a pastor at a church, so he was always involved in the community. He coached me when I was growing up – every sport I played. He was always there. I saw [sports] as my way out, my opportunity.”

AS: Was football always your best sport?
JC: “I started off playing baseball. I was a good baseball player. In Fort Meade, it was crazy, when I was coming up we didn’t even have little league football. We had to go to another city just to play. When I grew up, I played a lot of sandlot football, but it was baseball because we had a baseball team. I first got involved with football in seventh grade. When I got to high school, I just got tired of playing baseball because that’s all I did. It just kind of got boring and football was more exciting, so I leaned towards that.”

AS: You were a standout wide receiver your junior year of high school, but senior year you did it all: starting quarterback, defensive back and punt returner. What was it like being asked to do so much?
JC: “My junior year, we had a real good team. We were stacked. We had a lot of guys coming back; we just didn’t have as many athletes. Coach just kind of pulled me to the side and told me he was going to put me at quarterback. I was the back-up quarterback the year before. At that time, all I wanted to do was win a state championship, so I felt like that was the best thing for me to do. I went over to quarterback. I played defensive back. I returned punts and kicks. I just tried to do whatever I could to, first of all, win a state championship, and then being recruited as a player, the more you can do the better you look to a college coach.”

AS: It must have been tough losing those three title games…
JC: “We went three years in a row – my sophomore year, junior year and senior year – we went to state and lost to North Florida Christian. They had [Florida State linebacker] Ernie Sims at the time, and every year he beat me. Every single year.”

Read the rest of our exclusive interview with Jemalle Cornelius…after the break!

AS: Being located 45 minutes between Tampa and Orlando, were you always a Gators fan growing up? Did they recruit you early on?
JC: “I grew up loving Florida State. I had played receiver my junior year, and I really liked it. I knew I could play a lot of positions, but I wanted to play receiver at the next level. I went to Florida State my junior year, and they wouldn’t recruit me [as a receiver]. They would have wanted me to play DB, and I didn’t want to do that so I took them off my list. [Florida] recruited me from the beginning. I went to a number of games. My junior and senior year, we were up there almost every home game.”

AS: Did you have any second thoughts when Steve Spurrier left for the NFL and Florida hired Ron Zook to replace him?
JC: “I did because when you have a new staff, you don’t really know what’s going to take place. As soon as he got the job, he flew down and visited with me at the school. I was pretty impressed with that. That kind of reassured me that everything was going to be alright.”

AS: What were those three years like under Zook? He could obviously recruit with the best of them, but fans were none too pleased with how his teams turned out.
JC: “I had no problems with him. Coach Zook was a great, upbeat guy. Obviously we weren’t winning. When you go to a place like that, there’s pressure to win. They want you to win year-in and year-out. You need to be playing for a SEC Championship or National Championship. They expect to see good offense, good defense, good special teams – they want to see it all every year. They don’t like for you to lose home games. There were a lot of games in those three years that we should have won, but we didn’t. We just didn’t finish them off. Coach Zook did a good job, but he was just unfortunate.”

AS: So Zook gets fired and Urban Meyer comes in with all this hype. What was your initial impression of him?
JC: “My initial impression of him…he came in, his first meeting I really just felt like, ‘Man, this guy’s intense.’ We was in a meeting and he was talking about the way it was going to be. ‘It ain’t going to be no options. This is how it’s going to be. I’m looking for guys that are tough, that are smart and love the game.’ That’s basically what he told us.

“A great hire Coach Meyer made was when he brought in [strength and conditioning] coach Mickey Marotti. They do everything cutting edge. They are on the cutting edge. They’re intense, high-energy.

“Coach Meyer didn’t like guys in that category ‘too cool for school.’ If you were laid back or going through the motions, you wouldn’t make it in his program. You just can’t feel comfortable going through because they were going to find out and hold you accountable. The biggest thing was Coach Meyer held us accountable. If you didn’t do something right, he was going to let you know.”

AS: The two of you grew extremely close over your final two seasons. Talk about your relationship with Meyer then and now.
JC: “One night we had a meeting. We had a lot of discipline issues on the team, and he called a meeting at like 8:00 at night. I was always known on the team as a guy who was dependable, always did the right things, but I was real quiet. I didn’t really know a lot of the guys on the team and just kept to myself. He called me out in the meeting.

“‘Just because you’re a good guy doesn’t mean that you’re helping the team to the best of your abilities. That’s being selfish.’ I knew I should do a better job helping my team and become a better man, become a better player and become a better teammate. At the time, no one had really challenged me the way he did. I started hanging out with the guys more, started being more vocal. Me just taking that challenge and being willing to accept his constructive criticism helped me and changed the way he viewed me. I became one of the guys he could trust. I was dependable. Anything he asked me to do, if I could do it, that’s what I did.

“We talk on occasion. I text him or whatever. Last time I saw him on the field, he was recruiting a guy I had. I went up to him and we spent a couple hours together. Every time I see him, it’s always great. I think we’ll always have the type of relationship where I can call him or text him if I really need something, he’s going to come through. He really helped me when I was applying for the head coaching position down here. I know he’s a busy man. He called the principal for me. He took time out of his schedule to call our principal. He made a pitch for me, talked to the principal for a good 30 minutes or so. When you got somebody like that calling the principal, it’s kind of hard for them not to give you the opportunity. It’s Urban Meyer on the phone, you’re going to have to listen. He really helped me.

“He also gave me some pointers in the interview process. The biggest thing he taught me is you have to go in there with a plan. Your plan for where you see the program, your vision for the program. You have to cast a vision and then be able to show how you’re going to make the vision become reality. A lot of the things he taught his guys I kept and use for myself. He really helped me out, man. He really did.

“I played for him and then I played for Tony Dungy. They both got the same coaching philosophy, just two different personalities. To me, it’s like a house. They would have the same house. A foundation is built. I think Coach Meyer’s would be a brighter color, and Tony Dungy’s would be a little duller color. Not saying that he’s a dull guy. The foundations of their programs are the same. Coach Meyer just has more of an outgoing and extroverted personality. They both want to help the guys develop and know that will ultimately make a good team.”

AS: You went through that 2006 season and won the title not only as a starter but also as a team captain. What was that experience like?
JC: “It was surreal. It wasn’t just high school. Me not winning championship games went all the way back to little league. I can’t tell you how many championship games growing up [I lost]. I played in a lot of championship games but had never won a championship. Always played well, always performed well, never won a championship game.

“I remember being in my hotel room the night before and I said [to my dad], ‘You know what? I think we’re finally going to win us a championship.’ It all came together. That night I realized everything in my career just came together. Being a captain, being out there on the field, actually contributing. I felt like I wasn’t just a guy on the team, I contributed. It just brought everything together. It was a great moment for me and a great year for me. It capped off my career. Everything I had been working for since I was a kid came together on that night.”

AS: How did the team react, if it did at all, when Ted Ginn ran back the opening kickoff for a touchdown?
JC: “Nobody had to say nothing. It was just a look. Everybody was focused. The weeks and weeks and weeks of preparation, we had the game plan down. The first 10 plays or so were scripted. We went over the script. We knew who was going to be open. We knew everything about them. We studied those guys and we were prepared. Going into the game, we had no doubt we could win. When Ted Ginn ran that back, I don’t remember anyone batting an eye. It was like, ‘OK, they got theirs, now it’s time to show those guys we’re ready to play.’ We had so much confidence going into the game because of the preparation we did. It was unbelievable – that month or so at practice. We said, ‘This is our shot. We’re not going to let anybody beat us.’”

AS: Going into the NFL Draft that year, obviously you hoped that you would be picked, but did you expect it?
JC: “Going into it, everybody as a kid wants to get drafted. My dad raised me to think that’s a bonus. You go to school, get your education, and if you don’t make it in the NFL, you can do something else. We hoped for the best and prepared for the worst. I had already made up in my mind that, if I didn’t get drafted, I would still go [to the NFL] either way. I didn’t run very well at the combine. I ran like a 4.6; I hadn’t ran that slow in my life. Came back and did better at the Pro Day, but guys want to see how you perform at the combine. Ran a slow time; still to this day don’t understand exactly what happened. It is what it is.”

AS: Over the next year you spent time with Buffalo, Indianapolis and Arizona. Was there a reason in particular that you didn’t catch-on and when was the breaking point for you?
JC: “I was undersized. They knew I was undersized. When you’re undersized, there’s only so many spots for undersized receivers in the NFL. Buffalo, I was there with Roscoe Parish, Peerless Price, Josh Reed and Lee Evans. We were all standing in line and they ended up keeping the guys who were a little taller, a little bigger. On a roster, you can only have so many guys around 5’10” and 180 lbs. The corners are getting bigger, so they want bigger guys outside and smaller guys in the slot. If I had to pinpoint one thing, being kind of undersized probably was the biggest thing.

“After I was cut from Arizona, I came home and did the whole Arena route. I went to San Jose. I had a visit set up with the Orlando Predators and, that same year I was doing that, that’s when the Arena League folded. I was back at home. I got married and had two kids at the time. At some point, you got to say, ‘Hey look, I’ve got to do what’s best for my family. I can’t be hopping around here.’ Some people choose that life. I wasn’t raised that way. My dad was at every game. I started looking for a job in the educational field.

“And then the head coach I played for resigned, so I went ahead and applied for the job. After I interviewed for the job, I got a call from my agent the next day to go to New England for a tryout with the New England Patriots. I had already pretty much got the job as a head coach and I gave the guy my word, so I didn’t want to burn any bridges with them. I took the stability. I feel like it was a test. It was hard, but I ended up taking the stable job and choosing the family route.”

AS: At that point you’re a 24-year-old head coach. Let’s talk about your first two seasons. How did your guys finish and what is it like being on the sidelines in that role now?
JC: “I was nervous. I was the youngest coach in Florida at the time. I knew a lot of the guys, so the biggest thing I had to do my first year was hoping they would receive me as a coach. A lot of the guys on the team saw me not as Coach Cornelius but Jemalle that plays for the Gators. There were a lot of guys I was coming back to who I signed autographs for at Florida, or we worked out together when I came home. A lot of them came up to Gainesville to watch me play. It was hard for me to get them to go from, ‘That’s Jemalle Cornelius, wide receiver for the Gators’ to ‘That’s my coach who I respect as a coach.’

“That first year, there was a lot of emphasis placed on discipline. We always had talent. From 1999-2011, we’ve won 12 district championships and had guys who have gotten picked up by Division I programs. The challenge was getting them to respect me as coach. My first year we finished 11-1 and lost in the regional finals to American Heritage. And then this past year, we went 11-2 and we lost to that same team in the regionals. Two very good, productive years.

“I want to win, I really do, but I really place an emphasis on these guys going to college. At the end of the day, you can win a lot of state championships, but that’s not really that important in the grand scheme of things. I was more proud this year. We had three guys sign on signing day. Next year coming up, I got two guys who are on pace including one who has already qualified with the NCAA. I’m trying to get them to that next level so they can experience all the things I did in a Division I program.”

AS: How is the recruiting process from the other side? Have you had a lot to deal with in that regard? Has it changed at all over the last 10 years or so?
JC: “The biggest change I’ve seen is how you get exposure. It used to be coaches come and watch you play. Now a lot of these coaches are relying on these Rivals highlight films, combines and other stuff. They’re trying to come in at the end, letting them do the leg work before they get the guy. When I was growing up, it was more about going to camps on campus – which is still big – and then they come in on Friday nights and evaluate you. Now it’s going more toward the Rivals and the combines, the Under Armour and all that stuff. It is good because now you’ve got YouTube, Facebook and Twitter [to get exposure]. I just made a page on Facebook where you can go pull up Miner Football highlight films. I try to update them.

“Technology is making it easier to get your guys exposure. It’s better, but the only thing is with more technology and more exposure come more pressure. The guys get on those websites; they look at who ranks them this or that. It can get crazy at times. Last year I had an Under Armour All-American and in one day we had Coach [Nick] Saban, Coach [Derek] Dooley and Coach [Gene] Chizik in at the same time. Seeing it from the coach’s perspective, it’s a lot busier than what I remember.

“As a player, you shake hands and you already have in your mind who you like. As a coach, you try to organize and make sure guys aren’t coming in at the same time, make sure you have the proper paperwork. It’s crazy how much goes into recruiting. I didn’t know how big it was as a player; I let my dad and coaches handle it.”

AS: What has been the biggest adjustment you have had to make transitioning from player to coach? What have you learned that you misunderstood as a player?
JC: “As a player you go to practice, you watch a little bit of film and then you go on the field and do what you’re supposed to do. As a coach, you have to come up with every detail. You have to make sure you have a depth chart, it’s a broader vision. You’ve got to look at every injury scenario, what to do if it rains, a bigger perspective. You don’t appreciate the hours that coaches put in. As a player, you kind of take it for granted, but coaches really do a lot.

“And I’m only a high school coach. I can only imagine how much time goes into getting ready for a college season and getting ready every week like in the SEC. The hours are crazy. I put in a lot of hours as a high school guy, so I know it’s very hectic on them. The business of it, the paperwork, the film, making sure you cross all your Ts and make sure every single I is dotted. Every possible scenario that can go wrong probably will, so you have to be prepared for it.”

AS: Do you have aspirations to coach in college or the pros one day?
JC: “I’ve thought about college, doing the college route. Right now I have a nine-month-old daughter, a four-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter. I’ve been here two years going into my third season, so I want my daughter to at least get to two or three where she doesn’t need as much attention and can get into a day care and all that stuff. Probably within the next two years or so I may look into it and start applying at some places.”

AS: Do you have any thoughts about new head coach Will Muschamp or the team going into next season?
JC: “I’m just like any other fan – I’m following anything I can on him. I’ve seen some of the interviews he’s done, and I like that he’s doing his own thing with the Florida Way. I like that he’s identified a slogan, something the guys can point to. He has a plan. I like his intensity; he seems like a very intense guy. I think he can relate to the players because he’s younger. I like the fact that he’s from Gainesville, and I like the fact that he’s a defensive guy.

“I hate to compare him to Coach Meyer, but the philosophy we go by around here is the plan to win at Florida when I was there. The No. 1 thing is play great defense. To be a national championship contender or SEC contender, you have to have a great defense and I have no doubt that he’ll do a good job with that. He made some great hires.

“I had a chance to meet with coach Durkin and I’ve talked to coach Lewis a couple times on the phone. I’ll get up there this summer and hopefully bring a couple guys to camp. Everything he’s doing, it looks very organized and impressive. I’m behind him 1,000 percent.”

AS: You were a team leader back in your day and continue to be a very moral guy as well. With all of the drug arrests and other problems the team is facing now, what would you say to the players to help get them on the right track?
JC: “If I had the opportunity to speak to the team, I would tell them that the leaders have to lead. Coach Meyer’s thing was that the objective of a leader is to set a standard and then make sure everybody else lives up to that standard. They’ve got to have guys who are willing to be in the forefront and say, ‘I’m going to do the right thing no matter what and, if I see you’re not doing the right thing, I’m going to be man enough to come to you and tell you what you’re not doing what you need to do. You need to do right; you need to do better.’

“You can do that in a nice way, but the No. 1 thing is guys who are leaders on the team, doing the right thing, cannot be afraid to confront [the others]. It can be in the dorms, in the locker rooms, in the weight rooms, wherever it has to take place. At some point these guys have to confront the guys who are not on board with the Florida Way and doing things the right way. They have to be confronted and, after they are confronted, they need to be held accountable. After you confront them, then you have to get in there and keep asking questions.

“Accountability, in my mind, is asking the tough questions. ‘Are you going to class? Are you clean? Are you giving everything you’ve got in the weight room?’ If you’re living that example, if you’re doing that, you may make mistakes but the overall product you’re producing as a Florida Gator athlete [is what’s important]. If you’re efficient at what you do and the way you live your life, people are going to be attracted to [follow] you. The guys that are doing that on the team have to be willing to take that next step, confront those guys, and then hold them accountable.”

» OGGOA INTERVIEWS:
F Chandler Parsons | C Marreese Speights | LB Mike Peterson | PG Taurean Green | QB Tim Tebow | QB Danny Wuerffel | ESPN’s Erin Andrews | ESPN’s Erin Andrews II | DE Alex Brown | WR Percy Harvin | F/C Al Horford | WR David Nelson | QB Shane Matthews | TE Cornelius Ingram | DE Jermaine Cunningham | S Major Wright | LB Earl Everett | DE Justin Trattou | DT Terron Sanders | F/C Chris Richard | DE Lynden Trail

7 Comments

  1. Timmy T says:

    Awesome. You always ask great questions in your interviews, Adam. JC comes over as an excellent young man with his head squared up perfectly on his shoulders.

  2. npgator says:

    I am shocked that he wasn’t taken by an NFL team.

    • SC Gator says:

      Maybe… but it sounds like he’s doing work that really fits him well, being a positive influence on others.

  3. SaraGator says:

    Love, love, love CI!

    Keep ’em coming, AS. I enjoy these interviews more than anything.

    • Gator Boys says:

      Thats JC, but I agree. Nice work Adam.

      • SaraGator says:

        Ha! I really meant to type JC; don’t know why I typed CI. That’s what I get for goofing off during a teleconference meeting.

  4. npgator says:

    Yeah – that is not CI but nevertheless.

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