Coordinator Chronicles: David Raih ready to reboot Vanderbilt’s offense
Vanderbilt offensive coordinator David Raih comes to Nashville after a few stops coaching college and NFL offenses, but his journey to West End featured an unlikely start.
April 22, 2021
Vanderbilt offensive coordinator David Raih joined first-year head coach Clark Lea’s staff with lofty expectations. He hopes to rejuvenate the Commodore offense, sure. But more importantly, he wants to elevate the football program to new heights—a tall task at any school, especially one in the Power Five.
But the process is nothing new to Raih. He’s seen the impact of a coaching change before; he understands what it takes to rebuild a team, a record and a culture. He’s experienced it firsthand, as a backup quarterback at Iowa, where he joined the program for the first of 22 seasons under head coach Kirk Ferentz.
Though he admits he didn’t notice it at the time, he says his four years at Iowa were “such formidable years to become a coach.” Under Ferentz, he gained a thorough understanding of what it takes to foster a culture of success.
“[Coach Ferentz] had taken over the program in 1999, when I was a true freshman. Very similar to Coach Lea taking over right now,” he says. “The whole foundation of the program was built on the vision and structure of the head coach, and then the fundamentals and technique of training the actual football team.”
Ferentz’s vision required the utmost trust from his players. They had to buy into his mission as head coach, despite the results not coming to fruition immediately—in fact, with a 1-10 record his freshman year, the results may have seemed far fetched.
But from 1-10, the team improved 3-9 his sophomore year. Then 7-5 his junior year, including an Alamo Bowl win over Texas Tech. And fittingly, after starting his career just 1-10, Raih’s four-year career culminated in an 11-2 record, including a Big Ten conference championship and an appearance in the 2002 Orange Bowl.
Raih, still a backup quarterback with lingering shoulder issues, knew the sun was setting on his playing career. It was time to hang up the cleats. And as he set out to write the next chapter of his life, Ferentz first floated the idea of coaching by him.
“Coach Ferentz, he was the first person to really sit me down and talk about coaching,” Raih says.
The 22-year-old had other plans.
“I wasn’t quite ready for it at the time,” he recalls. “Football—it’s as simple as this: since about the fifth grade, football has been a huge passion in my life. And when I was at Iowa, I had a couple injuries. When he brought up coaching, it was definitely in me; however, at the time, I just needed to step away from it.”
That’s exactly what he did. Raih, a finance major and journalism minor, stepped away from football and decided to put his degree to use. He got a job at Zimmer, a medical device company, and did quite well for himself.
“I had my own territory,” he says. “You know, you run your own [part of] the business.”
Raih’s “territory,” as he calls it, was more than an ideal landing spot for a recent college graduate. It moved him out to Cedar Sinai, California—right in Beverly Hills—and reportedly paid in the six-figure range. It was the type of job that you don’t leave, at least not for good reason.
The whole time, football never left his psyche. So, he found a good reason to leave. A good reason in his mind, at least. But a reason that “people would think you’re kind of nuts for leaving.”
“It’s like they say [in the song] Hotel California, you know?” Raih says with a smirk. “You can check out, but you can never leave.”
Return to the gridiron
“It was just—I had to do it,” Raih says. “Like, I was going back to football one way or another.”
For Raih, the decision to leave an awfully appealing desk job for an unstable, low-paying, benefit-free, time-consuming job was an easy one. That’s because the latter would bring him back to the sport he loved; it would put him back on the football field where he felt he belonged.
Coincidentally, the very moment he decided it was time to return, a nearby coaching change caught his attention.
“It was December 29, 2007,” Raih says, remembering every detail with precision, when UCLA announced the hiring of Rick Neuheisel just a few miles away from Raih’s office at Zimmer. He saw the news covered on every major television channel and knew he had found the perfect opportunity.
He called those closest to him—Coach Ferentz and his father—and told them, despite having no job offer in place, despite having never met Neuheisel, that he was going to UCLA.
“They were like, Well, how do you know?’”
In truth, he didn’t. But that didn’t matter. Nothing was going to get in the way of him taking a leap of faith.
“I’m skipping a bunch of details, but I basically snuck into his [introductory] press conference,” he recalls. “Somehow, he came off the podium, and everyone was there. It was kind of big news. He was a former UCLA quarterback. And he came right through the crowd and I badgered him for about two months.”
His persistence paid dividends—well, not literally. Raih received an unpaid job offer at UCLA, somewhere between an internship and a volunteer position, with a ten-week timeframe.
He ended up spending two seasons at UCLA, one of which overlapped with a young, hungry graduate assistant on the defensive side of the ball—Clark Lea.
Despite not spending a ton of time together, Raih was immediately struck by Lea’s professionalism.
“We were on opposite sides of the ball, we were never in the same room coaching together. We were also just young developing coaches; this was 14 years ago,” Raih says. “But right away it was just undeniable. Coach Lea has always been very diligent and very deliberate with everything he does and you could sense that. Without actually working next to him, I could sense that right away.”
Raih’s time at UCLA may have began with a risky, unpaid job, but it culminated in an invaluable experience that only propelled his coaching career and planted the seeds for a vital, working relationship that would come full-circle 14 years later at Vanderbilt.
Fulfilling NFL dreams
From UCLA, Raih took a job working at his alma mater, Iowa, for three years before then departing for Texas Tech where he spent one season assisting with quarterbacks.
After that season working under Kliff Kingsbury, Raih received an extremely unexpected phone call.
“Six years in, Coach McCarthy with the Green Bay Packers called,” Raih recalls. “And I thought that was a prank phone call, but I ended up getting hired up there, spent five years there and kinda worked up the ranks.”
And work up the ranks he certainly did. He started as a coaching administrator before being promoted to an assistant offensive line coach, an offensive perimeter coach and then, finally, a wide receivers coach.
While the transition to the NFL initially left him in awe, Raih quickly found the same characteristics in the NFL stars that he had seen throughout his entire playing and coaching career.
“When I first got to the NFL, I was kinda starstruck. You’re standing on the field and it’s like ‘look there’s Clay Matthews, there’s Aaron Rodgers’,” Raih says with a laugh. “But it all comes down to just the fundamentals of hard work, training, consistency, building confidence and just regular people who have tough days too.”
After spending five seasons in Green Bay, Raih reunited with Kingsbury after he was hired by the Arizona Cardinals, spending two years on his staff as the wide receivers coach.
Throughout his seven years in the NFL, Raih coached several stars including wide receivers Davante Adams, Larry Fitzgerald and DeAndre Hopkins and, as a result, took away several valuable lessons about work ethic and attention to detail that he now looks to pass on to his Commodore players.
“I tell the guys there’s no pixie dust on it; there’s no magic potion,” he says. “If you look at Davante and Fitz in particular, those guys show up every single camp and every single day as if they were a rookie. And I’m talking about with that anxiety level, that level of competition and the amount of just detail put into their craft. There’s a little bit of an illusion that the ball’s snapped and everyone is just running around, [the training] is so much more detailed than that.”
The phone call from McCarthy that brought Raih to the NFL may have come as a surprise at first, but for him, it was all about chasing his love for the game, wherever that may lead him.
“I never dreamt of being in the NFL,” Raih says. “I just loved coaching and it led there, now it’s led [to Vanderbilt]. But man, I love football. It’s the greatest.”
Finding his footing on West End
Nowadays, Raih finds himself walking the halls of the McGugin Center and running his own offense for the first time in his career. His excitement about his position and the future of Vanderbilt Football is palpable throughout his interview with The Hustler, as is his utmost respect for Lea.
And while Lea and Raih might have forged a strong bond dating back 14 years, Raih is clear that Lea is not one to make a hire just on relationships. Instead, it was a lengthy interview process that ultimately resulted in a mutual feeling of unity and alignment.
“I think that at the end of the day there was an alignment of how we see football,” Raih says. “The progression of things, I always wanted to be a coordinator, but I didn’t want to rush it. It must have been about a five-hour interview. It just felt right. There was just kinda some peace there.”
For Raih, the interviews were just as much about making sure Vanderbilt and Lea were the right fits for him as much as it was about impressing Lea and securing the job.
“Of course, when you’re interviewing, your goal is to have an offer to get the job, but at the same time you wanna feel good about it,” Raih says. “So, I was just open-minded when I came, and it just felt right, the vision and direction that he wanted to go. And I’ve always had tremendous respect for him.”
Raih now has an entire spring season under his belt, which culminated in an impressive Black and Gold Game in which his offense defeated the defense 68-30, using a modified scoring system.
He doesn’t share many details about his scheme but—from the looks of the Spring game—he’s emphasizing a balanced attack in which the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers alike all get a chance to shine. Furthermore, Raih heavily accentuates the importance of fundamentals and technique.
“Our technique is our scheme,” he says. “I am obsessed over technique, the fundamentals of technique of the blocking unit, the footwork on the perimeter, the timing and precision of the quarterback and the receivers.”
And as someone who has spent time coaching at several different colleges as well as two NFL teams, Raih will look to incorporate small pieces from each of his stops into his own scheme.
“There will be personalities of the West Coast offense, picture like San Francisco, Green Bay,” Raih says. “And you’ll feel some of the Air Raid as well. Some of the spread stuff. But, at the end of the day, no matter what we’re doing, we’ve gotta play with great leverage.”
Coming off of a season where the Commodores went 0-9 in SEC play and averaged just 14.8 points per game, Raih knows the task ahead will likely take some time.
“I’m surrounded by great men who are humble and have a lot of expertise and everyday I’m trying to tie it all together,” Raih says. “It’s not gonna be easy but, from what I’ve learned over the years, I think we’re on the right track.”
And who better than Raih—the guy who left his safe, cushiony job in Beverly Hills to take an unpaid coaching gig at UCLA—to seize the challenge of revitalizing the Commodore offense and program as a whole?