Purdue’s Ryan Wallace leans on family background in first season as full-time assistant

Purdue tight ends/assistant special teams coach Ryan Wallace

WEST LAFAYETTE – Ryan Wallace had an endless supply of ideas.

Football coach. NASCAR pit crew member. Even a lawyer.

“That was one of them,” Wallace’s father, Kevin said while driving from Louisville to West Lafayette a week ago about his son’s desire to become a sports attorney. “That probably would’ve been the best choice for his parents.”

Well, his parents are fine with what Ryan has elected to pursue and it fits into the family narrative. He was named to Jeff Brohm’s staff as the tight ends coach and special teams assistant after spring practice. It’s his third season on Brohm’s staff, the first two in quality control helping with the offense and special teams.

That’s OK with mom – the former Dana Cunningham, who played basketball at Western Kentucky – and dad. You see, Ryan’s dad knows plenty about coaching football.

He’s served as a head coach in the high school ranks for 33 years and just completed his first season at Saint Xavier in Louisville after spending more than three decades in the Bowling Green area. He’s one of 11 coaches in the state of Kentucky to win 300 or more games. He’s a five-time state championship coach.

But did he want his son to enter this – at times – unforgiving profession, especially starting out in college?

“Originally no,” Kevin admitted. “At the college level, it’s a scary thing. You have to get yourself attached to the right people in order to move up. The way things worked out for him early in his career and to work with coach Brohm ended up being a blessing for him.”

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That blessing turned into a joyous phone call the day Ryan was told by Brohm he was being promoted to a full-time position. Although Ryan was the favorite to replace Mark Tommerdahl, who left for Texas Tech, spring practice served as an audition.

“He was fired up,” Ryan said of his dad’s reaction. “I don’t know if he was more excited about me getting the job or me not calling him about money anymore.”

Ryan did consider taking the sports attorney route and seriously flirted with becoming a pit crew member for a NASCAR team. But it would’ve been hard for him not to be involved in football based on all the factors.

The family ties. He was a ball boy for his dad’s teams. He was the water boy. He remembers dumping sand into a player’s helmet during a game. That player became a high school principal in Kentucky.

“I was always around it,” Ryan said.

His own playing career played a role, which began at Colorado before transferring to Kentucky. He played two seasons at Western Kentucky at tight end and eventually stepped into the coaching profession starting at Austin Peay, back to Western Kentucky and then Purdue.

“He works extremely hard and he played the position, so he understands it," Brohm said. "He’s assisted us on the offensive side for a while and he knows our players. Sometimes when you’re making decisions, you have to factor that in. He’s got a lot of energy and I think he has a bright future.”

The NASCAR interest was a natural fit for the Wallace family. Kevin has been taking his family to the Daytona International Speedway for the July 4 race for as long as anyone can remember.

“His mom said he was two,” Kevin said, as he continued driving to West Lafayette to pick up Ryan. The family, which includes Ryan’s younger brother, Cameron, was headed to Chicago to watch the Atlanta Braves and the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

But there’s a deeper connection to racing. Kevin’s father, Howard, was involved in drag racing. Kevin grew up around the track just like Ryan grew up around the football field.

Kevin didn’t force NASCAR on his kids, but it has given the family common ground, similar to their rooting interest in the Braves. Ryan owns a powder blue Atlanta jersey.

“It gave Ryan and Cameron a connection with my dad,” Kevin said. “My dad passed away almost 11 years ago. They were pretty young when he passed away. They had a good relationship with him. They all enjoyed NASCAR and enjoyed following it. It wasn’t just me but more of the relationship they had with their grandfather.”

Now, Ryan enters a different type of race. One where there’s recruiting to find the best prospects and bring them to Purdue. He also has to coach and develop the players on the current roster in helping the Boilermakers continue pushing forward under Brohm.

And the 29-year old Ryan Wallace remains on his own personal track. He wanted to be a full-time coach in a Power 5 program before he turned 30. He wanted it to happen sooner but Brohm wasn’t ready to hire him when Tony Levine left the program after one season in 2017.

But when Tommerdahl bolted after one year, Wallace’s patience paid off.

“I talked to him after Tony left,” Wallace said. “I thought I was ready. He said he needed someone with more experience and after that happened, I stayed in my role and did the best I could. The next time, the timing was good for me. He knew I was interested.”

Ryan will lean heavily on what he’s learned from his father and other coaches to make sure his first full-time job is a success. There’s understanding the value of preparation and evaluation – not only the opponents but players on the current roster – along with the work ethic needed to succeed and the building and maintaining of relationships.

“I think he’s doing what he’s always wanted to do,” Kevin said. “I don’t know if he was born coach but from the time he was a little boy, he grew up in the locker room, he grew up going to practices. I think it’s going to be a neat experience for him to get an opportunity to be a full-fledged assistant coach in the Big Ten at his age.

“It’s a huge responsibility but he’s got a really good background with the people he’s played for and the people he’s worked for. I think he’ll do a solid job.”

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