DETROIT – The players and coaches are still a month away from returning to the practice field in preparation for the 2023 football season. But already, Tyrone Wheatley – one of the greatest athletes in Michigan high school history – is creating a new level of excitement on the Wayne State University campus.
Hired as head coach last January, Wheatley was introduced at the Wayne State Board of Governors meeting on June 22, where he delivered impassioned remarks about his love for coaching student-athletes, which he says goes beyond diagramming Xs and Os on a chalkboard.
“We’re more than just coaches, we’re more than just an athletics department,” Wheatley said. “We’re psychologists, therapists, mothers, fathers; we’re everything for these young men and women that are on this campus.”
Wheatley relates well to today’s young student-athletes, not only because he’s a former NFL running back, but because his life experiences resonate with those who may also be struggling with social and mental health issues. Raised by his aunt and uncle, Wheatley endured a tumultuous early childhood but nothing detoured him from achieving success in athletics or in the classroom.
“The mental health stage is starting to go through the roof with these young people,” Wheatley said. “So we are there for them during those times and during those needs.”
As Wheatley spoke from the podium, he singled out Wayne State President M. Roy Wilson and Athletics Director Erika Wallace as compassionate educators who remind the Warriors head coach of those who helped him along his college journey.
“I was a 2.4 GPA (student) coming out of high school,” said Wheatley, who was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 2012. “I couldn't get into the University of Michigan on University of Michigan standards alone. Athletics helped me go through. I was a jagged piece of glass, and through athletics and people like Erika and people like Dr. Wilson, they helped form me into this smooth piece of glass that I am now.”
Wallace told the board that she was immediately impressed by Wheatley’s enthusiasm and candor during the hiring process.
“We had a lot of candidates who wanted the position,” Wallace told the board. “We did go through an extensive search, and as we were going through the search process, as we were nearing the end, this individual, our new head coach, Coach Tyrone Wheatley, was the one that really stood out from the rest. His commitment to not only the city, but his commitment to student-athletes and the development of the student-athlete, was something that really was second to none when comparing to the other candidates.”
Wheatley, a three-sports star at Robichaud High School in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, became a highly decorated college football player and track athlete at U-M. He won All-Big Ten honors on teams that won conference championships in both sports and All-American recognition in track.
From Ann Arbor, Wheatley played 10 years in the NFL before a hamstring tear ended his career in 2004. A former first-round draft pick, he is still listed among the top all-time statistical leaders at Michigan.
Soon after his playing career ended, Wheatley took up coaching. He coached running backs at Ohio Northern University, Eastern Michigan University, Syracuse University and Michigan, and spent two seasons as head coach at Morgan State University. He also coached NFL running backs during stints with the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars and Denver Broncos.
These days, Wheatley feels comfortable being back home, coaching in the city and being an ambassador for Wayne State.
“We get a chance to go sit in the homes of parents of potential students who want to come to Wayne State, and we get a lot of traction, not only from student-athletes, but somebody who might live next door,” he said. “We’re the front porch of this university. This is a research institute, and I told my staff, ‘I want people to look at us and research us as to how we do things, not only how we are leaders in athletics, but personal growth and development of our athletes.”
Wheatley finished his remarks by extending an invitation to board members to visit the players and coaches.
“I would love to see you come by, come hang out,” he said. “Come to a practice, come to a game or two, come hang out so you can see what’s going on because we are not only ambassadors but we’re advocates of the university.”
The Warriors will kick off the 2023 campaign with a game at Slippery Rock University on Sept. 2. The home opener at Tom Adams Field is at 1 p.m. Sept. 9, when the Warriors will take on Missouri University of Science and Technology.