Donald Durrett was going through his normal routine.
The Saginaw High School football coach wrapped up a midweek practice and was going through supply closets to make sure all his players had returned their equipment. He noticed there were several helmets and pads missing, so he went back out on the field to check to see if there were some stray supplies.
When he went back to the field, Durrett saw something he didn’t expect. It was a group of his players, including future college standouts Otis Washington of Vanderbilt and Ronald Stanley of Michigan State, running sprints.
They were all being led by Roy Manning.
“Last week we got a little tired in the fourth quarter,” Durrett recalls Manning saying. “We have to make sure we’re in shape so it doesn’t happen again.”
By taking the initiative to do extra work after practice, the first-year Oklahoma cornerbacks coach displayed at a young age qualities that have become synonymous with his coaching style: an infectious energy and a relentless commitment to getting better.
Twenty years after graduating from Saginaw, Manning moved over 1,300 miles from Pasadena, California — where he coached outside linebackers and special teams at UCLA — to Norman, where he has been charged with the task of helping rebuild the Sooners’ secondary. In 2018, Oklahoma’s cornerbacks were part of a secondary that gave up 294 passing yards per game, which ranked 129th out of 130 teams in the country.
After spending 2018 with a 3-9 UCLA team, Manning now has the opportunity to unleash his energy with an Oklahoma squad with national title aspirations. And he’ll be doing it alongside Alex Grinch, who brought Manning with him to Norman after Manning bounced around the country, holding seven different jobs at four different schools since 2010.
The only job he’s had for more than two consecutive years was as the outside linebackers coach at Washington State from 2015-17. In this role, Manning worked under Grinch, who was the defensive coordinator at the time and is now in his first year running the defense at Oklahoma. After just a year of being separated while Grinch was defensive coordinator at Ohio State, Manning of course couldn’t wait to work with him again.
Grinch and Manning manned a rebuild of the Cougars’ defense that the Sooner fans are hoping to see recreated in Norman. In the year prior to their arrival, the Cougars were among the nation’s worst defenses, ranking 99th in total defense. In 2015, they were 16th in the nation in total defense.
Their energy and enthusiasm bring a new feel to an often lethargic defense that held the Sooners back from reaching national championship games in 2017 and 2018.
“I thought they got along really well here because their skills kind of complimented each other,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said. “They both create a lot of energy in practice and I think that’s key in elevating the focus and attention of everybody.”
'I’ve always been that energetic'
The relationship that Manning cultivated with Grinch in Pullman, Washington, was an important factor in bringing him to Norman. But what is perhaps Manning’s most notable characteristic also stems from his time the pacific northwest: his Twitter account.
Sooner Nation may be familiar with Manning’s Twitter videos. And if they aren’t, they should be.
In each video, Manning points the camera at himself and speaks energetically about his team. The first video he uploaded to Twitter was on April 10, 2015 — roughly four months after his hire at Washington State
The video was shot at WSU’s Martin Stadium and is unintentionally prophetic with the caption “This was just the start… #GoCougs,” as his videos and audience have grown over time.
Four years, two jobs and several thousand followers later, Manning posted his most recent video after the Sooners’ 70-14 win over South Dakota. While his first one was a measly 23 seconds and didn’t even feature Manning’s face, the last one runs two minutes and 18 seconds and shows his face, and enthusiasm, the entire time.
The first video has less than 30 views, four retweets and 14 likes. Not even 48 hours after its posting, the last one had over 35,000 views, over 200 retweets and over 1,400 likes.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Manning’s manic energy, is Grinch’s deadpan seriousness. Despite their two different personalities, Grinch and Manning work well together. But as long as Manning is putting results on the field, Grinch doesn’t mind his vibrant Twitter.
“I don’t want (his Twitter) to trump his ability to coach the game, but that’s the No. 1 on the Roy Manning description: he’s an elite coach, an elite recruiter and an incredible professional,” Grinch said. “But he also has that other side, which is fun for us other coaches. I probably spend more time retweeting him than making my own content, and I think the players really enjoy it. The nice thing is that its not fluff — it is him and it’s coming from a good place and having fun in a serious game.”
Grinch touched on a critical aspect of Manning’s Twitter, and that’s the genuineness of it. Manning isn’t tweeting to chase clout. He’s doing it to express his passion for the game, his appreciation for his career and his love for his players.
“I’ve always been that energetic,” Manning said. “Every day is a gift ... There’s a lot of places you could be and a lot of things that you could be doing. There are a lot of less fortunate people who don’t get to wake up every day and get paid to do what they love to do and call it work.
“I’m one of those lucky people, so it’s just me being me.”
While these videos may seem out of the ordinary to some fans, it doesn’t surprise those that know Manning because that energy is always is always present. In fact, Leach said the Washington State staff still watches Manning’s videos on a regular basis to get a good laugh.
“When I first saw them, we just laughed about it around the office. It was just such a Roy thing to do that none of us were surprised,” Leach said. “He always brings that energy, especially in practice. As a matter of fact, we still look at his tweets just to watch him go off once a week.”
'A father figure'
But behind the Twitter bravado is a man who worked relentlessly hard to reach the position that he is in, and work equally as hard to help his players reach their potential.
Saginaw went on to win the Michigan Division II State Championship over Birmingham Brother Rice, 14-7. Including Manning, there were six NFL players on the team. Despite the immense wealth of talent on the team, Manning was the unquestioned leader of the pack.
“He’s a big reason why we won that state championship in ‘99. I know we had several other NFL players, but he was just the standout,” Durrett said. “He took it to another level by himself because of the grind he made everyone else put in. You can only do so much else as a coach but if you have kids that want to get better themselves, you just can’t teach that.”
After his time at Saginaw, Manning went on to play four seasons at Michigan. As a lifelong Michigonian, playing in Ann Arbor was a dream of his that he worked as hard as he could to make a reality.
“He was so caught up in going to college,” Durrett said. “He did a lot of that work on his own by going to Michigan camps from day one and he earned everything he got. Sometimes as a coach I could push kids to reach certain things, but he earned it all on his own.”
When he donned the maize and blue, Manning worked his way to a starting role as an outside linebacker and eventually played three seasons in the NFL after going undrafted in 2005.
In 2010, Manning entered the coaching ranks and has been all over the place in the past decade. But in 2011, and 2013-14, Manning was back in Ann Arbor coaching for the Wolverines. He was a graduate assistant in 2011 and coached outside linebackers in 2013, but he entered uncharted territory in 2014 by coaching cornerbacks.
Manning had never coached secondary before, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him from doing the best he could in his new position.
“We talked in meetings a lot about how he was learning the position for the first time and that he wanted to get better at it,” said Channing Stribling, who played for the Wolverines from 2013-16. “Just seeing that passion to get after it was big for us and made us closer with him.”
An aspect of Manning’s coaching that Leach, Grinch and Lincoln Riley have all raved about is his ability to recruit at an elite level. Stribling was already in the program prior to Manning being named his position coach, but he said his ability to relate to all the players helps his recruiting.
“I think I related to him because he just told his story. He was another guy who didn’t get heavily recruited,” Stribling said. “He just has so much passion and love for football and he saw that same thing in me so it just helped us get along easy and acted like a father figure for me at times.”
Despite only being Stribling’s coach for his sophomore season, Manning developed a connection with him and the rest of the defensive backs that lasted far beyond Michigan’s pedestrian 5-7 2014 record.
Stribling said he felt Manning was one of the first coaches to recognize his ability and was a key factor in unlocking his potential. Two years after Manning left, Stribling had the best year of his career by reeling in four interceptions and being named All Big 10 second-team.
“He was one of the first coaches that I had that I really feel like gave me my shot ... I just felt like I saw him in my shoes and he saw me in his shoes,” Stribling said. “When he left our room, all that energy and passion he had brought to our room still resonated with all of us for the rest of our time there.”
'I’m on cloud nine'
Now entering his tenure at Oklahoma, Manning once again is trying to soak in as much knowledge as he can about coaching cornerbacks. According to Durrett, Manning has spent the last nine months since his hire reaching out to NFL contacts to learn the ins and outs of coaching the position.
Manning’s hire has already paid some early dividends for the Sooners. In just two games in 2019, the cornerbacks have displayed improvements over 2018. This can be seen with sophomore Brendan "Bookie" Radley-Hiles, who returned an interception for a touchdown and recovered a fumble in the Sooners’ win over South Dakota.
Not only is Manning showing early success, but also he has come to enjoy the Norman community and Oklahoma as a whole.
“Coach, Oklahoma is the best place and has the most well-mannered people,” Durrett recalls Manning saying over the phone recently. “There’s so much pride and they treat me right down here. I’m going to give it back to them as best as I can.
“I’m on cloud-nine right now.”