On any given Saturday during college football season, Slippery Rock University head coach Shawn Lutz can be found on the sidelines discussing plays and techniques with his associate head coach Chris Conrad.
Conrad, 43, might seem like your everyday offensive line coach but the Fullerton, California native has a football career that includes a brief stint in professional football.
Conrad’s football career began in junior high school, but it was not the football that people are used to seeing, he said.
“We didn’t have tackle football in junior high, we had flag football,” Conrad explained. “My first year of tackle football was in ninth grade and I just went out for it because my buddy was playing; that was the only reason.”
Conrad said he quit playing football after that first year because of a number of reasons, but mainly because he didn’t like the coaching staff at the time.
“[The coaches] said a lot of bad words and were always cussing,” Conrad said. “It just turned me off on the game. I took a year off and did track and field, and then got back into football my junior year.”
That same year, Conrad received his first letter from a school to play collegiate football.
“I realized that this could actually take me somewhere and I just went from there,” he said.
From the start Conrad said he was a linemen on both sides of the ball, solely because of his size. At six-foot-seven, 270 pounds, coming out of high school, Conrad was the ideal linemen to be recruited by college football programs. Before deciding on California State University in Fresno, Conrad was recruited by San Diego State, Utah State, and Weber State (UT), according to an article published by the Los Angeles Times in January of 1993.
Conrad said he chose to attend Fresno State because he wanted to remain in California, but that was not the sole reason.
“Truthfully, Coach Sweeney had turned me on to the program,” Conrad explained. “That year, [Fresno State] had just beat USC in the Freedom Bowl and I said, ‘Hey that is the place for me.’ It was one of those thing where I was able to play right away, as soon as I could; and it worked out great for me.”
Jim Sweeney was a long-time coach at Fresno State, leading the Bulldogs from 1976-1977, 1980-1996.
Conrad said he didn’t realize until much later into his college career that he was capable of breaking into the NFL.
“The funny thing is, Coach Sweeney was the guy, when I came in my freshman year, that told me I was going to go pro,” said Conrad, smiling. “But it really wasn’t until my senior that everything sort of sunk in. With everything going on, you don’t really think about it too much.”
Conrad was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round (66 overall) of the 1998 NFL draft. He was selected 26 picks ahead of Hines Ward. The 1998 draft also saw nine-time pro bowler Alan Faneca drafted 26 overall by the Steelers and two-time Super Bowl Champion Peyton Manning drafted first overall by the Indianapolis Colts.
Upon being drafted, Conrad joked that the first thing he had to do was find out where Pittsburgh was located.
“Being from California, I had never really been out to the East Coast,” Conrad explained. “It was a big-time culture shock for me. Great time in my life for me and I have never left.”
Conrad began his professional career in 1998 with the Black & Gold, playing in six games and starting one. 1999 saw Conrad starting three games in 11 games played. Conrad’s professional football career was quickly ended during a preseason game against the Miami Dolphins on Aug. 5, 2000.
“I broke my neck,” said Conrad, simply. “My C4 and C5 had snapped; it hit my spinal chords and I lost feeling on my right side.”
Conrad said in order to come back and play football again, he would have had to undergone numerous surgical procedures on his neck and spinal chord. The doctor told him that if he wanted to walk, and walk well again, that he might want to retire, Conrad explained.
Despite the injury occurring during a preseason game, Conrad said that he started noticing problems during training camp.
“A bunch of ‘stingers’ started to happen during camp,” Conrad said. “It was repeated over and over again like every play. And finally it just snapped and that was it; I started losing feeling in my right side and knew something was wrong.”
Although Conrad’s career was cut short, he is still thankful that he was given the chance to play professional football.
“It was insane,” he said. “Of course it’s always the best time out there on the field with all of your buddies playing. I truthfully had a great experience; it was probably one of the best times of my life.”
Within a year of retiring, Conrad took up a job with Shaler Area High School’s football program and served as the offensive and defensive line coach, remaining there for eight seasons. Within that time frame he also served as the throwing coach for Shaler’s track and field team for five seasons.
Following his tenure at Shaler, Conrad was hired by Carnegie Mellon University’s football program and served as the offensive tackles and tight ends coach for three seasons. Conrad’s next coaching job was helping jumpstart the football program at Northgate High School. He finished the season with Northgate and then received a phone call from then-SRU head coach George Mihalik.
“I got the call from Coach Mihalik to ultimately volunteer with the team,” Conrad explained. “I ended up volunteering here for two years before I actually got hired.”
Conrad was named the offensive line coach on July 13, 2012, replacing long-time coach, Joe Walton, who retired two months earlier.
Replacing Walton, who had coached at SRU for 25 seasons, seemed sort of surreal for Conrad.
“It’s a crazy a thing to look at,” Conrad explained. “I’m myself and was going to do my own thing to help these guys out, help the team out in any way I can. I want to give kids the same opportunity I had.”
Lutz emphasized Conrad’s nontraditional coaching methods.
“[Conrad] is not a yeller or a screamer on the sidelines,” Lutz explained. “He talks to the players and has a conversation with them without yelling at them. He is very articulate with the team.”
Conrad said that during his time at SRU, he has thoroughly yelled at the team maybe two times.
“You got to coach, no matter the situation, you got to teach,” Conrad said. “You’re a teacher on and off the field; these kids need to know that. You want them to succeed and get every opportunity that they can.”
In recent years, The Rock has seen the development of top-tier offensive linemen in Ian Park, Steve Gaviglia and Cory Tucker.
Last season, Conrad helped oversee a Rock offense had one of the most effective offensive lines in all the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC).
Conrad acknowledged that the offensive line is one of the most underrated position in professional sports.
“We make the dream work,” said Conrad, smiling. “I coach these guys to perfect everything to make their job easy; scheme is one thing but technique rules all.”
Before being named head coach on Dec. 18, 2015, Lutz served eight seasons as the defensive coordinator for The Rock.
Lutz said that during that time, he and Conrad developed a great rapport with each other.
“The o-line and the d-line were constantly working together during practice to help understand technique,” Lutz said. “Conrad brings an extreme amount of credibility and passion to his players and to the game and it really shows when these guys go out on the field and compete.”
Having that experience in professional football, Conrad acknowledged that the game of football is drastically different now than from what it was 20 years ago.
“[The] speed and power of the game cranks up every year,” Conrad explained. “Every level you go, that’s one that you see; the speed and the power of the game [go up] go faster and it’s unbelievable and so fun to watch.”
Conrad said that he does not use his former professional career as a coaching tactic.
“I never really use [it],” he said. “It was just a part of my life. I am just trying to be the best guy I can be and help these young men out.”
Long term, Conrad said he will always see himself in Slippery Rock and has no plans on leaving.
“I am very comfortable here,” said Conrad, smiling. “The family atmosphere is huge for me. Coach Lutz has been great and Coach Mihalik was before; it’s what we call a brotherhood, so it’s tough to leave.”