SMITHFIELD — Coaches from around the country vouched for Christopher Columbus (Miami) High football coach Chris Merritt, but all Bryant Director of Athletics Bill Smith needed to do to find references for Merritt was walk into the Bryant locker room.
Bryant offensive linemen Kyle Mann and Robert Perez both played for Merritt in high school and both told Smith there’s no one they’d rather play for next season.
“One young man said to me, ‘I’ve been playing football for 18 years and coach Merritt is the best coach I’ve ever had,’” Smith said of his conversations with Mann and Perez. “Another young man took a different tact. He went at it from the approach of ‘When I played football for coach Merritt in high school, I would run through a brick wall for him. Even though I’m in college here and he’s still in Florida, I would still run through a brick wall for him.’”
Mann and Perez got their wish because Friday afternoon at the Krupp Library’s Bello Center, Merritt was named the fourth coach in the program’s history when he signed a four-year contract to replace James Perry.
Merritt, who dealt with flight delays on his trip from Miami to Boston’s Logan International Airport, said he’s excited to coach at the Football Championship Subdivision level after guiding Columbus High to five regional titles and two appearances in the Florida state title game in 18 seasons.
“Probably not too many places other than Bryant I would consider doing that for,” Merritt said about leaving a program he guided to the Florida 8A state championship game this season. “This place is very similar to the place I came from; great reputation academically. It has a great future ahead of it and I’m excited. At this point in my life I’m ready for a new challenge.”
The hiring of Merritt is a departure from the hire Smith and school president Ronald Machtley made two years ago when they poached Perry, then the offensive coordinator at Princeton. Instead of going with another offensive-minded college assistant looking for his first head coaching job, Smith said the emphasis after Perry left for Brown three weeks ago was to find a seasoned coach.
In his discussions with the Bulldog players after this season’s underwhelming 6-5 (2-4 in the Northeast Conference) campaign, Smith said it was clear what the team wanted to see in its next coach.
“We were interested in someone with head-coaching experience, at the high school level or the college level, we didn’t think about it,” said Smith, who wore the same suit Friday he wore when he was hired by the school 13 years ago. “We wanted someone who had CEO-type experience over the whole program. It’s something that came from the football team. When I spoke to the team after coach Perry’s resignation, they said it was important we had someone with balance on both sides of the football.”
Merritt comes to Smithfield with something the Bulldogs have been yearning for since they moved up to the FCS a decade ago – success on the gridiron. Along with this season’s trip to the state final, Merritt won 14 district titles and five regional titles to go along with a career record of 172-45 (.792 winning percentage).
Over the last two seasons Perry brought a ‘Play Fast’ mentality to Smithfield, for Merritt the phrase that will define his tenure is ‘Expect to win.’
“For some of these kids, this is going to be their third head coach,” Merritt said. “I realize that and I get that. My job is to win them over quickly. Once they buy in, it’s going to be their football team. …I don’t know the culture, but we have to change the culture. You’re going to here the phrase a lot, expect to win.”
One of the Bryant players who is dealing with his third head coach is St. Raphael alum Alfred Dorbor, who was injured for Marty Fine’s final season on campus. Dorbor had a break season as a redshirt sophomore, rushing for seven touchdowns and 390 yards in 2018.
Dorbor is one of the players who should thrive under Merritt’s tutelage because the 1992 Indiana University graduate wants to emphasize running the ball and stopping the run.
“We’re going to be balanced,” Merritt said. “At any level, you have to be able to run the football and stop the run. Offensively, we are going to be able to run the football. We’ll take our shots and we’ll have a vertical passing game, but I have to evaluate what we have. I’d love to be able to say we’re a two-back, tight-end personnel team or if we’re going to be a four-wide receiver team. We’re going to match the strengths of what our roster has.”
Merritt’s hiring comes just two days after interim coach Vinny Marino signed 15 recruits on National Signing Day. Merritt will have the opportunity to sign a few more players on the second Signing Day, which is Feb. 6.
Currently, the Bryant coaching staff consists of Marino, defensive coordinator Kevin Kelly, quarterbacks coach Alex Kurtz, linebackers coach Raffi Sarajian, graduate assistant Sue Lizotte and assistant secondary coach Bob Mackisey.
“I have found out college coaches are the most resourceful human beings in the world when they want a job,” Merritt, a father of three, said. “I’m opening up my refrigerator and finding a resume. It’s been a crazy couple of days. I’ve been able to make a lot connections and a lot of contacts over the years. I’m excited and have a good group of men in mind to pursue the path with.”
While Merritt was hired to deliver Bryant a trip to the FCS playoffs for the first time in program history, he said he was also hired to develop men, which is why he’s so proud his former – and now current - players Mann and Perez stood by him during the hiring process.
“That’s why I got into the business, to work with kids,” Merritt said. “All of the accolades and all of the coach-of-the-year awards they don’t mean anything [compared] to what you just heard. When a young man says that about you, you’ve done your job.”
Follow Branden Mello on Twitter @Branden_Mello