First-year Eastern New Mexico coach Mark Ribaudo got his start in college football as a graduate assistant at Midwestern State. (Freedom Newspapers: Kevin Wilson)
By Kevin Wilson: Freedom Newspapers
In Mark Ribaudo’s office there are several clues to untold stories — from family newspaper clippings to thank you letters from parents to framed photos of current and former Eastern New Mexico University players.
Another story lies about 15 feet away, in an office that belonged to former longtime Greyhounds head coach Harold “Bud” Elliott, but is now a meeting room.
Ribaudo said the change was part function, part laziness.
There’s an unspoken reason as well — comfort. Ribaudo takes on the duties of a head football coach for the first time in his life, but does it from the office where he learned to become the head coach for the Greyhounds.
It’s the comfort that a man can feel when he’s coaching football, a profession he’s felt calling since his childhood. Conversely, it’s that same comfort that allowed him to be content working as an assistant coach but have confidence when he took the next step.
Ribaudo took time before a Friday to talk about his upbringing and some of his successes and learning experiences in the sport.
Eastern football practice starts Thursday.
Q: What was your childhood like?
A: I was born in New Jersey. I come from a big Italian family from the East Coast. I was raised most of my life out in Tucson, Ariz. I knew I always wanted to be a football coach when I was very young. I met our high school football coach with one of my brothers when he was playing. I heard that man speak and I knew I wanted to do something along those lines. I was real young … fifth grade, sixth grade.
They gave us a test in seventh grade of what we might be interested in for a career. The teacher said I flunked and I wasn’t into anything. I said, “Yes, I am. I’m going to be a football coach.” It wasn’t on the list.
Q: You played college football at Hastings College and took an assistant job in Tucson. What didn’t you expect when you started?
A: I probably wasn’t prepared at that particular time for parental involvement, just how much the parents were involved. I was in college at the same time, so my “dealing with parent” skills needed some work.
Q: Does that change through the years and/or at the college level?
A: What’s basically changed is me. I was a college kid then; I’m a parent now and I know exactly what they’re talking about. That’s their kid out there, that’s their baby. And now that I have kids, I understand them a whole lot better.
We’re dealing with kids, even at the college level. They’re older, but they take things that you say to heart. Kids want to do well — they want to please you and their coaches. You have to be careful how you teach. It’s not just a situation in the old days where you could scream at a kid and try to get the result you want. You’ve got to treat them like they’re your kids.
Q: How did you transition to the college game?
A: I was an assistant coach for five years at two great high schools in Tucson. I wanted to try and move on to the college level. I just packed up and moved to one of the best places in the world for football, Texas, and I became a graduate assistant at Midwestern State. I sent out about 500 resumes, and they were interested so I signed up. Left my family, left my girlfriend, left my friends, left my comfort zone. I knew they played good football there and that was about it.
Q: Your journey led you through Texas and eventually to ENMU. How did you end up at your second stop, West Texas A&M?
A: I got very fortunate. I got to go straight from a graduate position to a full-time position at West Texas. They were just starting a program, which was another blessing in disguise. That’s hard to do, starting a program from scratch. It was great education. I spent five years there recruiting in this area, coaching in this area, making contacts. And … one of the greatest things that ever happened to me, I got to know coach Elliott.
Q: What was your first meeting with Elliott like?
A: I got to know him through competition because coach Elliott called the plays here and I called the defense there. It was a mutual respect and admiration. I always respected coach Elliott for the kind of program and the kind of product he put out on the field, and it was dadgum hard to call a defense against coach Elliott.
Q: How did you end up calling plays for him, instead of against him?
A: We had a head coaching change at WT. The new head coach brought in a whole new staff, so we were kind of out in the cold. As a matter of fact, I got informed on New Year’s Eve in 1996. I found out I didn’t have a job, and I was up in the office working.
I spent that whole spring looking for jobs and doing substitute teaching. I saw in the paper that Eastern was going to have their spring game and I said to my wife, “Let’s go take a look and see what the Hounds are doing.” I had to be around some football, and I hadn’t been around a spring practice.
We drove out here and watched the game and just out of courage, I said, “Honey, let me go down and say hello to coach Elliott.” I introduced myself and he remembered me.
He said, “Mark, how are you doing? Have you found anything yet?” I said no. He said, “If you don’t find anything, you need to come out here and see what I can do for you.”
On the drive home, I had already made up my mind. Regardless of the situation, I was going to make it work. It was a restricted earning spot — not much money at all. My family thought I was crazy, going from a full time job to GA pay. But I knew it was the right thing to do … and it was one of the best moves I ever made.
Q: Talk about your approach with players. How has it evolved with you?
A: It hasn’t changed too much. We believe in certain things here at Eastern and there are certain things I believe in. That’s why I thought my relationship with coach Elliott was great. We have the same things in our philosophy, which is take what you have with what you are and make something out of it — and never be satisfied.
We’re not going to complain about what we don’t have or conditions we can’t control. We’re going to take care of conditions we can control and think big. We want our players to understand that great things can be achieved. We’re really big on belief and visualization and high standards.
Q: When did you visualize yourself running a program?
A: I don’t know if there was ever a moment when I decided I could. Everybody that’s ever worked for Bud Elliott, if you work with him for a few years and you listen to him, you’re going to have a good template on how to run a program. He showed us how to delegate responsibilities, how to let your people coach, how to recruit, how to treat players, how to discipline players. If you paid attention, which I always tried to do, you gain more and more confidence.
Q: When you learned Elliott planned to retire, did you know then that you wanted the job?
A: I always had aspirations of being the next football coach, but I could have stayed and just worked with him for years. I was just content with calling the defense for coach Elliott.
I thought we had built something here that we could keep (our staff) intact. We wanted the opportunity and (ENMU President) Dr. (Steven) Gamble gave us that opportunity.
Q: On paper, you’re 0-0 as a head coach, with neither success nor failure. Up to this point, what is your biggest success and your biggest failure?
A: The best thing I ever did was come to Eastern, bar none.
There are a lot of moments you hope to learn from. Really, looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. Even when it’s been a setback or a heartbreak, it has given me experience for right now. When we got let go at that other school down the road … it opened the door to Eastern. When nobody responded when I was trying to become a GA, that opened the door for Midwestern State. When doors have been closed, others have been opened.
Q: Do you envision more doors opening or closing along the way? Would you like this to be your first and last head coaching job?
A: I never try to look far down the road when it comes to football. I need to focus on the task at hand. Right now, the only thing I’m concerned about is that 1:30 staff meeting.