For a full decade of seasons from 1997-2006, Mike Minter roamed the Carolina Panthers secondary as a hard-hitting safety with a nose for making big plays.
Now a decade removed from his playing days, Minter is head coach of the Campbell Fighting Camels, having led a program that won one game the season before his arrival to 13 victories in his three seasons. We recently caught up with Minter.
You're about to kick off your fourth season as head coach at Campbell and obviously you've made some strides in the win-loss column. But tell us what you hope to accomplish with these young men beyond the wins and losses?
"Our whole purpose is to pull out the greatness in each player. That's number one. We try to get the most out of who they are, regardless of whether they are trying to get to the next level as far as the NFL is concerned, or if they're going into corporate America, or going into entrepreneurship. We want to give him the tools and the skills to be the best that they can be, so they'll know how to use these tools no matter what they choose to do in their professional lives – and really be a champion in that area.
"That's what we try to do with each individual. It's a fun, challenging thing when you're talking about 18- to 22-year-olds. But man, it's been fun."
You didn't gravitate to coaching right away after your playing days ended, but was it something that you knew you wanted to try in the back of your mind?
"I felt that coaching would have come easy, and that's probably why I ran away from it at first. We normally run away from the things that we are called to do. There was a high school athletic director at a private school (First Assembly Christian) in Concord (N.C.), and our kids had grown up together. When he became AD there, he said, 'Mike, why don't you come over here and help me build this program? You know, as a consultant, not as a coach.' So I said, 'Sure. That sounds great. I'll come over and do that.'
"But the coach had resigned at the end of the school year, and so we didn't have a coach at the time. So I took it. And in two months, I had to learn high school football."
How did that work out?
"We went to the state championship the first year and lost in the state championship. But at that moment, from Day One, I fell in love with it. I was like, 'Yeah, this is it.' But I thought I could just do the high school thing and continue with that.
"Three years of that and two state championships and I was like, 'Man, this is too easy. I'm going to have to challenge myself. I need something harder.' So I decided I would go to the college level. I decided I would give myself five years to become a head coach in Division I football, and I did it in three (after one season each as an assistant coach at Johnson C. Smith and Liberty University).
Did you know right away that Campbell was going to be a good fit for you?
"When Campbell called to talk about the job, I fell in love right away. I knew I could work with (AD Bob Roller) because he had vision, he understood what it took to get to a championship, he believed that Campbell could win a championship – and I liked that.
"I said, 'Look, it's going to take a lot. But you and I together, I believe we can get there.' So I took the job here at Campbell and never looked back."
Well, let's look back a little at your playing days with the Panthers, when you compiled some eye-popping numbers: 148 games played, 141 started, still the third-most games started by anyone who has put on the Carolina uniform. But this is the one that stands out: You are third all-time in interceptions with 17, but first in interception return yards. Was that the old high school running back in you coming out, and does it give you some bragging rights?
Minter (laughing): "I used to tell everybody that this old running back could still run. But that was just a great time with the Panthers. I just enjoyed every single game. It wasn't like I was going out to seek any records or anything like that. It was just playing football.
"My single goal was to play for one franchise my whole career. That was the only goal I had from an individual standpoint. And of course from the team standpoint, the goal to go to the Super Bowl and win it was something that I always had, too. But those were the only two goals I had, and I was able to accomplish the first and at least come close on the second when we went to the Super Bowl in 2003 but lost (32-29 to New England)."
Why did you have the goal of only playing for one franchise?
"Because people weren't doing it. And I'm the type of guy where I want to be different. I want to do something no one else is doing at the time. You rarely get a guy who can play double-digit years in the NFL and retire with the same football team. You have a lot of guys who get toward the end of their career and they go play for someone else. I wasn't interested in that.
"To make it through three head coaches, four defensive coordinators and all those years to stay with one football team, that was hard to do. But I was focused on that, and I'm proud that I was able to do it."
Toward the end of your time with the Panthers, they drafted a young linebacker/safety named Thomas Davis, who was a quiet rookie in 2005. What are your thoughts about how his career, which has included coming back from a total of three ACL surgeries, has progressed?
"I got a chance to go to training camp this year for the first time since I retired, and I got a chance to talk to him. The first thing I told him was, 'Man, I'm just so proud of you because of the simple fact of the man you've become.' He took what he saw from all of the older guys that he got to play with as a young man, and he took bits and pieces from all of them to develop his personality and the professionalism that he brings to the game. The hard work, the belief and the effort, man, that's the American Dream right there. You've got to have all those ingredients for it, and that's why everyone loves him so much – because his story embodies all of that.
"And I think Luke Kuechly has made him even better as a football player – because Luke brought the how-to-study film and how to do this and that, which helped Thomas take his game to even another level. And think about it: Thomas could have said (when Kuechly came in): 'Wait a minute, rookie. I'm the guy. You can't teach me nothing.' But instead he immediately thought, 'This rookie is something special. And he has something that I don't have that I need.' Thomas was able to humble himself and learn from a player like Luke Kuechly. I think that speaks volumes about the type of person Thomas is. I wish I could still line up and play with him today."
What other current players on the Panthers do you wish you could suit up with?
"Man, you know what? I love how (safety) Kurt Coleman plays. That's the one safety that I've looked at since I retired and said, 'You know what? I could play with him, now.' I like how he plays. He's an enforcer back there. Not only is he picking off balls, but he's also making you pay when you come into that secondary. So he brings that physical force, and I believe for a defense to be great their secondary has to be physical. They have to be the leading force in the physical game, and he brings that. He's a guy who loves the game. You can tell... No. 20 and No. 30 could have some fun together back there."
"Well, Cam (Newton) is the best quarterback we're going to see. This guy is unbelievable. And I'm not saying that just because he's a Carolina Panther. His maturation at the position, he's taken it to a whole other level. He's very calm back there. He stands tall in the pocket, puts the ball on the mark. When I was at training camp (recently), I was amazed at how easy he makes everything look. I mean, this is professional football. Everybody is flying around, and he makes it look like he's out there going at a jog pace. And he has command of the football team, which is what you want from your quarterback. He's very intelligent. He knows he can beat you with his mind, and he also can beat you with his athleticism. And when you have that combination, you normally have Hall of Famers. Cam is that guy."