CHARLESTON, S.C. – Zane Vance is new to Charleston Southern but has quickly become well-acquainted with its campus. The Bucs' defensive coordinator, along with his full-time staff, has called the Russell West dormitory home since arriving at CSU in February.
"It's funny to watch the students' reaction," said Vance, a college teammate of CSU head coach Mark Tucker at East Tennessee State University. "I'm grey-headed and 53 years old. I'm going up the stairs and you can just see that look like, 'what are you doing here?' and I'm like 'how are you doing?'"
Vance's residence is temporary, but the friendly nature and enthusiasm he's brought with him after four seasons at New Mexico State, is not. A vocal, energetic presence is what Vance has brought to the defensive sideline throughout spring practice.
"That's just kind of the way that I am," said Vance, a former linebacker with 30 years of coaching experience spread across the college and high school ranks. "My wife makes me go outside when I'm at home on the phone because she says 'you have no inside voice. Long ago, you lost your inside voice so you have to go outside.' I think that is my job, to be on top of things on the field and make sure they understand that."
Charged with overseeing a defense that has been one of the nation's best in recent years, building relationships with staff and players has been Vance's first order of business. While putting names to faces, he has also demonstrated his view of football as, ultimately, a player's game.
"I really don't think of things in terms of myself and my stamp or my way or my changes," Vance said. "I really don't. It has not been an intimidating challenge because I have no problems with being around successful people. The challenge is when you get around people that have never been successful and you're trying to convince 'em they can be. I welcome the fact that they've been successful here. Obviously, the challenge to come when the games start is to keep the success at that level."
Beyond relationships, coordinating terminology has been perhaps the biggest focus of spring ball for Vance's unit. Even though CSU is switching from a base 3-4 look to a 4-3, the formation is not all that foreign to the Bucs' returners. Vance said CSU employed, essentially, a 4-2-5 defense for large stretches last year. Former players Seth Harrelson, Justin Mood and Tanner Rogers have also helped bridge the language gap as student assistants.
"None of those three have looked at me with starry eyes and been like 'wow, I've never done that before,'" Vance said. "I've been fortunate to be exposed to some really good defensive football coaches and what you find out is everybody is doing about the same thing. My job is to use the experiences I've had to foresee troubles – formational troubles, leverage troubles – to see those things down the road and teach and install. My job is to be mature and see that."
The native western North Carolinian is also happy to be back in the Southeast with the ability to work alongside a longtime friend and live out his faith. Below is a sample of a recent Q&A as CSU readies for its final scrimmage of spring practice this Saturday.
Q&A with CSU defensive coordinator Zane Vance
Q: You and Coach Tucker played and coached together at ETSU. What's it like to work alongside him now all these years later?
A: We had known for some time that at the end of each season when you're successful, as Charleston Southern has been, the potential for movement is always there. To nobody's surprise who knows him, Mark Tucker emerged as a likely candidate to get this job. He thought he would get the job because the entire staff would be gone, Coach (Jamey) Chadwell would go be a head coach somewhere else and he would have an empty staff room. And though it didn't come out exactly like that, that's pretty much the way it turned out. He had an empty staff room and we go way back.
He's the finest option football coach that I know. When I was a high school coach, I would come down to The Citadel when he was working there and I would make him painstakingly speak in simple terms and teach me the offense from the ground up. I came to discover why this guy is a certified expert in this stuff. He has mentored me every bit as much as I might have ever mentored him.
We also shared a number of very difficult personal times together (Tucker's first wife and mother of his four children, Alison, passed away in 2001 following a battle with cancer). Personal things that he's been through, family things like that, I've been there for those. We've been there for each other and the Lord opened this door and here we are.
Q: How happy were you to see him get this opportunity considering that he was out of full-time coaching for a decade before coming to CSU?
A: I think it's the greatest story that nobody knows. I really do. When this job was coming open for him, he was still in that window where you could look back and say 'four years ago today, you weren't in football. Four years later, you're the head coach of a nationally ranked program.' And he didn't get it because his daddy knows somebody or his daddy's a Bowden or a Stoops or he's got so much influence and money, he can do whatever. He got it because he got out there on the field and he earned it.
I was thrilled for him, thrilled for him. You're talking about a guy who overcame tremendous personal things, tremendous personal adversity. Went down and worked tirelessly to help them (Chadwell and his staff) when they were at North Greenville. He was just going to help. He was getting, essentially, nothing – 'here's a shirt, here's a small check for some gas.' He did it for the love of the game. He stayed true to his faith, he honored the Lord at a time when he could have thrown his hands up and said nothing's going well and I don't see the evidence of Christ's love and I'm gonna move on and just rebel. Rather than do that, he stayed the course, he stayed faithful, he fell in love with God's word and the doors have just opened for him one after the other.
Q: The 'Blue Swarm' name has kind of become a point of pride with this defense. Will you keep that or do you have your own moniker?
A: It's theirs. It's entirely up to them. I think if they have that identity, that's what they want to be known as, that's what they want to call themselves, I'm all about that. I believe that stuff is the most impactful and meaningful when it comes from the players. If I tell them, arbitrarily, 'I'm the boss and you're gonna be called this,' they'll be compliant because we have wonderful young men here but it won't mean the same thing to them. What they want to call themselves is entirely up to them. I have things I'm concerning myself with other than this but I know this, when people used to go to Nebraska, on the rare occasion that there was an opening at Nebraska, the new guy didn't go in and tell the 'Black Shirts' that we're changing your name. They left that alone and that's kind of what I'm doing here.
Q: Had you worked with any of your defensive staff here before coming to CSU? How is that relationship forming thus far?
A: I hadn't worked with any of 'em. I was able to be here when we interviewed all of 'em and it has been really good. I have been really pleased, particularly, with their maturity. You don't always get that with coaches. You can get knowledge but you don't always get maturity. This is a mature, seasoned group of guys. A couple of these guys, this is not their first rodeo either. They've got some miles on the tread and they've seen a lot of things and they're very smart, they're very intuitive, they're beating me to the punch on some adjustments and schematic things which is really helpful to me.