Say what you will about his past, but Mike Haywood doesn't see his return to college football as a shot at redemption.
Five years after being fired by the University of Pittsburgh following a highly publicized domestic violence arrest two weeks into his head coaching tenure, Haywood is back on the sideline in the same position at Texas Southern, where he was hired Dec. 3.
Haywood will be tasked with leading an FCS program seeking reclamation of its own after a five-season slide precipitated at least in part by significant NCAA sanctions, It's easy -- and perhaps obvious -- to draw parallels between the respective roads back to prominence for both the Tigers and their new coach, but Haywood insists his personal standing is as good as ever and believes the same will soon be true of his new team.
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"There was a bump in the road in my life, and when you've only had one bump in the road in your life, I don't think it's about restoring reputation," Haywood told FOX Sports earlier this month of his first coaching job since the incident. "You can go around the city of Houston or go around the country, and people will give you the same opinion of me -- East Coast, West Coast, North or South. I just think it's a great opportunity for us to work well together to bring a winning team back to Texas Southern University."
It was New Year's Eve 2010 when everything unraveled for Haywood, once thought to be among the hottest coaching prospects in football. And despite what a contrite Haywood might say today, the alleged circumstances led to his arrest at his South Bend, Ind., home at least give credence to the idea that Haywood's new job may also double as an opportunity for atonement.
According to a report obtained by WNDU, police were called when Haywood became involved in a physical altercation with the mother of his then-21-month-old son. Haywood told police at the time that he'd touched the woman in an attempt to keep her from leaving the house with their child following an argument, accidentally causing her to fall to the ground.
Despite his claims that the contact was unintentional and non-violent, Haywood was charged with felony domestic battery in the presence of a minor and fired by Pitt the following day. The charges were dismissed in 2012 after Haywood completed a pre-trial diversion program that included a psychological evaluation, counseling and 60 hours of community service, and for the most part, Haywood has stayed out of the public eye since, though he did file a breach of contract lawsuit against Pitt, which was later settled.
Sonia Corrales, the chief program officer at the Houston Area Women's Center, an organization that provides shelter and support services to survivors of domestic and sexual violence, said she couldn't comment specifically on Haywood's case but indicated that diversion programs can generally be effective in preventing future incidents.
"What we know is that violence is learned, so violence can be unlearned," Corrales said. "There's a local organization here called Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, and they actually provide battered intervention programs where -- whether somebody is sent by the court or it's voluntary -- they can engage in programming that can help them with healthy relationships and conflict resolution. But in every case it certainly depends on the individual."
During his time away from football, Haywood worked at a Louisiana oil and gas company, but he remained close to the sport. A former assistant under Nick Saban at LSU, Mack Brown at Texas and Charlie Weis at Notre Dame, Haywood helped high school programs install special teams packages. He was also linked to multiple college coaching jobs, and at one point interviewed at Tulane -- one of "10 or 12" interviews Haywood said he's had for head coaching gigs since 2011.
None of those meetings led to an offer, however, and though Haywood said he's had many chances to become an assistant, including one under Steve Sarkisian at Washington, none of them felt like the right spot to land. Along the way, Haywood's former mentors -- including Saban, Brown and former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz -- advised him to wait for a head coaching job, but it wasn't until Texas Southern came calling that Haywood, a Houston native whose mother attended TSU, felt he'd finally found the right place.
"I remember Coach Holtz's statement was that the right AD and the right president will hire you, and then the rest will be history," Haywood said. "And now here it is, the right AD and the right president have offered me a great opportunity, and we'll see where it leads."
Outgoing Texas Southern president John Rudley declined comment for this story, but in December, Rudley lauded the hire, saying Haywood was "without a doubt" the best candidate for the job. And in an interview with FOX Sports, TSU vice president of intercollegiate athletics Charles McClelland echoed that sentiment, describing Haywood's hiring as a coup for the university following former head coach Darrell Asberry's resignation in November.
"Texas Southern University has been extremely lucky over our last couple of coaching searches," McClelland said. "In basketball, we were able to get Mike Davis, someone that has taken Indiana to the national championship game, and in my opinion, I got a Mike Davis of football."
The question wasn't so much whether Texas Southern wanted Haywood but whether Haywood, who led a historic turnaround at Miami of Ohio in his first head coaching stint, would be interested in Texas Southern or any other non-FBS school.
"It didn't make a difference to me, but it mattered to the search firms for one reason or another," Haywood said. "For some reason they thought I wouldn't take a job that was smaller than a Pitt job. They didn't think I would take a job at TSU or Sam Houston. But I kept telling them they were incorrect because the only thing I wanted to do was get back in and coach and lead young people because I was missing that part of my life."
For Texas Southern's part, the school says it did a thorough vetting of Haywood before offering him the job -- going so far as to speak with Haywood's son's pediatrician about how he's raised the now-6-year-old. (The boy's mother could not be reached for comment, but Haywood stated that the two have 50-50 joint custody and have a "great relationship" as parents.) And while some might cite Haywood's past as a reason for concern, McClelland said he expects it to be an asset to the university.
"Coach Haywood was at the University of Pittsburgh at the highest level making multiple million dollars a year and he lost it all, so he will be able to tell that story and teach others not to make the same mistakes that he made," McClelland said. "He's literally having to restart his football career, and I think what was most impressive to me was his recognition of the issue, his acceptance of the issue and his willingness to work his way back up. Most people have a sense of entitlement; Coach Haywood doesn't have that."
In the time since his arrest, Haywood says he's mentored several men in similar situations to his, something he says he will continue to do with his players at Texas Southern.
"Every situation in life happens for a reason, and you have to learn and take the positives out of every situation that occurs," Haywood said. "And somewhere down the line, you're going to be able to help someone else. And I believe that part of my purpose in life is to help other people, so if I can help even a few people in dealing with that situation, I think it's a godsend."
That, according to Corrales, is a good start.
"Coaches have a lot of influence, whether they're in college, in high school, at the professional level, even elementary," Corrales said. "We know that they have great influence over players at every level, so they certainly have a role in preventing this."
In addition to simply preaching healthy relationships, Corrales suggests partnering with local organizations to really bring the message home. Currently, the Houston Area Women's Center works with Rice University to educate all students -- not just athletes -- about domestic violence during orientation, and similar programs have proven beneficial at other schools.
"Coaches are not alone in terms of having a role to play in violence prevention," Corrales said. "Obviously, if children are younger you have more of an influence to prevent violence before it ever happens, but later you certainly have influence over your students or your athletes to prevent violence from happening in the future by teaching healthy relationships and teaching conflict resolution.
"Whenever you partner with your community around education to support those initiatives, it's important," she added. "Because the accountability has to be there, and the resources have to be there for victims and survivors."
For Haywood, there are four particular messages he tries to impart on those who seek his advice.
"I've learned a lot, and the No. 1 thing that I've learned is, first of all, it really doesn't matter if you're right or wrong," Haywood said. "The second thing I've learned is that you always have to leave your ego at the door. Third, you have to know when to just back down, to walk away from a situation when someone is losing control. Because anything you do is wrong.
"What people don't realize is athletes don't want the media in their personal life," Haywood continued. "Athletes don't want to call the police because they don't want police in their personal life. So you just have to walk away, and if you don't, whoever calls the police first is the one that's going to win. That's just the way it is.
"Lastly, you have to own it," he added. "No matter who is right or wrong, you have to own it. And it took me two and a half years to own it."
It's when people fail to follow that guidance, Haywood said, that they end up in situations like he did in December 2010.
"They believe that they can work through the disagreement that is taking place," he said. "They believe that they can work through it because they don't believe they're doing anything wrong. However, you cannot rationalize with an irrational person, and that is when the situation gets out of hand, and you just have to throw up your hands, turn around and walk away. It's just what it is.
"Because you're not going to calm them down and they're not going to listen when things are hectic," he added. "Just turn around and walk away and be submissive. Just say, 'Dear, you are 100 percent correct. I'm going to turn around and I'm going to leave and we're going to pick this up on a different day and different time,' and let the situation calm down."
Simply molding high-character players won't be enough for Haywood to keep his new job. He needs to win football games at a program that has 16 victories in its last five seasons combined and another year of massive scholarship reductions and recruiting limitations to endure. Still, McClelland said the expectation is that Haywood will turn Texas Southern into a SWAC champion "and nothing less" -- something Haywood believes to be a reasonable goal.
"Our success on the field next year will be determined by how quickly they buy into the practices, the discipline, the technique and fundamentals, the message, the workouts," Haywood said.
"If the student athletes struggle to make the adjustment, then we're just going to have an average season," he continued. "But if we make quick adjustments and young people adjust and we fit in well together, then we're going to have a really good season. ... You have to make sure that they buy in and keep working with them to buy in, and the sooner we buy in, the sooner we'll be champions."
Unfortunately for Texas Southern, the sooner Haywood accomplishes those goals, the sooner he could be headed back to a more lucrative post at a higher-profile program. As coaches often do, Haywood downplayed any thought that Texas Southern may only be a stepping stone, calling his job "the best in the country," but McClelland understands that success would make Haywood an attractive candidate for other larger universities, and that's a risk he says he's willing to take.
"I don't think I want anybody who nobody else wants," McClelland said. "So I want to be able to go out and attract coaches that are good enough to be able to get other opportunities. It'll be left up to Texas Southern to retain Coach Haywood, but the only way, in my opinion, that Coach Haywood is going to be able to gain those additional knocks at the door is if he's successful here.
"If he's winning me championships, he will deserve the opportunity to move forward, and it will be my responsibility to retain him. But that's a good problem to have and a problem I'm looking forward to having to encounter."
It's also possible that a successful stint at Texas Southern could go a long way toward reshaping the public image of Haywood. But while Haywood understands that, for some, he'll always be "that guy from Pitt," he says changing the minds of those hung up on his personal history has never been and will never be a priority.
"I think that for people who know me, the image has never changed," Haywood said. "I want people to know me and understand me as a great Christian man who serves God and has his priorities in order. I want people to look at me as a great father. One of the greatest gifts that you can receive is to be a father in this world, and part of my role is to teach these young people who have children or who are going to have children your role in our society is being a father and understanding what the gift is.
"And then the other thing is just to be a good man," he added. "Be a good man to your family, be a good boyfriend or husband, and to treat people fair and give people opportunities to be successful in this world."
The latter is exactly what Texas Southern has done for Haywood, a coach many likely thought might never get another chance. Whether that qualifies as a shot at redemption will have to remain up for debate, but there's no question Haywood will be thrilled to be back where he's always been most comfortable when the season kicks off against Prairie View A&M this fall.
"I think it's going to be Santa Claus delivering a gift to him at his age," McClelland said. "It's going to be like Christmas.
"Coaches are a unique breed," he continued. "They're a little bit different than everybody else. They think differently, they act differently, they even talk differently. And to take someone like that out of the fraternity, it's devastating. So to be able to get back into that fraternity, knowing Coach Haywood as the guy that I know now, I really look for him to shed a tear."
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.