Mark Brunell decided the time was right for a new challenge. After a distinguished playing career where he appeared in three Rose Bowls and won a National Championship with the Washington Huskies, then appeared in three Pro Bowls and led the Jacksonville Jaguars to the 1997 AFC Championship game, Brunell concluded that two decades was enough.
Earlier this month, a new phase in the left-handed quarterback's life began. The Episcopal School of Jacksonville announced the 42-year old Brunell as its next head football coach. He replaces David Hess, who resigned in December after the Eagles finished 3-6 and missed the state playoffs.
Recently, Brunell described his thoughts.
"Being a head football coach wasn't immediately on the radar, when my playing days were over," he said. "But I was presented with this opportunity by a friend who is on the board at Episcopal, who asked if being a football coach was something I'd be interested in. I thought about it for awhile and then I thought `Absolutely!' I would love to talk to the school about it. Because I had coached at my son's school last year and really enjoyed it but I had never thought of it as a full time position.
"So we met with Episcopal, everything clicked," he said. "The more I spoke to them the more I could see myself in this role as head coach. It's always been in the back of my mind. My father was a high school coach, athletic director and teacher. My brother did the same thing. So it's in the blood."
For many football players, the end of a playing career often brings with it a dark cloud of withdrawal and sometimes even despair. Such were the highs derived from the camaraderie and high-octane game day experience. Fortunately for Brunell, this wasn't the case when he played his last NFL game in December 2011.
"I was real fortunate," he said. "I've heard it from former teammates and friends. But for me, I didn't experience that. I played 19 years in the NFL. I guess the best way to put it is that I had had my fill. So when it was time to be over, in my mind and my heart I was fine with it. I was fortunate to have a good career but didn't have a difficult time adjusting to not playing anymore."
In taking over the Episcopal job, Brunell's assets not only include his NFL experience, but also the lessons learned from his days at the University of Washington. His head coach was Hall of Famer Don James, and his offensive coordinators were Keith Gilbertson, Gary Pinkel and Jeff Woodruff.
"Those guys were very good influences on my life," Brunell said. "I was very fortunate to play for them and I learned a lot. My college experience was a good one because in high school I liked the game of football, but in college I found out that I loved the game. Part of the reason was from the influence that those guys had on me.
"No offense to other sports, but this game of football prepares you (for life) unlike any other sport or any other experience," he said. "It teaches you how to work hard, how to work with others, and how to overcome adversity. I'm thankful for the opportunity and the game taught me a lot. At Washington, it was an environment that me and my teammates thrived in. It was one of the reasons we were so good. For example, the thing I liked about Keith Gilbertson was that we worked very hard but we had a good time too. He created a great environment.
"It wasn't always serious, it wasn't always focused and watching tape and always grinding. I learned from Keith that you can enjoy what you're doing and have a good time, joke around with your buddies, but you got to know when to work and when to have fun, He brought a lot of balance. And that's the type of coach I want to be. I want us to work hard and win, but we need to have fun too, particularly at this level."
Brunell was one of the original Jaguars from the team's inception in the mid-1990s, and he played there in Jacksonville until 2003. He first attained great popularity when he led the young franchise to the 1997 AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots. As a result, his relationship with the Jacksonville community remains strong to this day.
"With the Jaguars, I still have the possibility of doing events and being at some of their team functions," he said. "I will always have a place with the Jaguars. They are the team that I cut my teeth on. We're living in Jacksonville and that's the team we root for.
"This is our home. It's been our home since 1995. We feel part of this community. This place is very special to us. We were away on other teams for eight years (Redskins, Saints and Jets). Throughout that whole time we couldn't wait to settle down here. There was no deciding after football was over-- we were coming back to Jacksonville, to get plugged back into the community. You know, I wanted a job where I could be in Jacksonville, be in football and make an impact on the next generation. So this opportunity at Episcopal is perfect."
When asked what he's most looking forward to in his first year as head coach, Brunell again harkened back to his days with the Huskies.
"What I'm looking forward to the most is seeing our team come together," he said. "The championship teams that I've been on were the closest teams. They weren't the teams that always had the most talent. But they were teams that had camaraderie, chemistry and a real connection between the players. Where the players looked out for each other and they cared for each other and that's what I'm looking forward to and want to accomplish. That our young men know how to work together and build something special together. That's what I'm shooting for here."
Then Brunell paused to chuckle, before adding, "of course, having a few wins wouldn't be a bad thing either."