Aaron Babino has no problem putting his horns up. In fact, now that the former Texas Longhorn is the linebackers' coach for the Marshall Mavericks, he has even more reason to do just that.
"That's the funny thing because that's our sign here in Marshall is the Longhorns' sign," Babino said. "That's actually cool for me. How ironic is it that I'd end up at a high school with a similar logo and do the same sign and everything? It kind of fits me perfect. Who would have thought I'd be in Marshall doing that? I'm glad I'm here. Things happen for a reason."
Babino played for the Texas Longhorns from 1996 through 1999.
"I was a safety and I played linebacker," Babino said. "(John) Mackovic is the coach that recruited me and then I played two years for Mack Brown."
He was a teammate of Ricky Williams in 1998 when the running back rushed for 2,124 yards and 29 touchdowns to win the Heisman Trophy.
"Coach (Tom) Herman was a grad assistant at UT when I was playing," Babino recalls. "Major (Applewhite) was a player. He was our quarterback and now Major is the head coach at U of H and Herman is the coach at UT."
Babino grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, home of Jimmy Johnson who coached the Cowboys to two Super Bowl victories. Babino's dad played at Oklahoma for Barry Switzer, who replaced Johnson and took the Cowboys to their third Super Bowl of the '90s.
"He played, I want to say 74-77," he said of his dad. "They went to back-to-back national championships. He always gives me a hard time. He was a defensive tackle."
On his resume at Texas, Babino earned MVP honors of the 1999 Cotton Bowl where Texas defeated Mississippi State.
"He'd come to my games and he'd wear an orange UT shirt," he added of his dad. "He'd say, 'That's the only time I'll wear a burnt orange shirt, on Saturdays when I'm coming to the game. That's it.' But you know he was proud of me. It was cool to watch football through his eyes because he was my biggest critic. Even when I did get the MVP of the Cotton Bowl, he always talked about the tackles I missed. 'What about this play? What about that play?' I'm like, 'Dude, I got the MVP.'"
After graduating from Texas, Babino stuck around the Austin area and coached at Pflugerville High School.
"Before I started coaching, I was actually doing stunt work for movies," he recalls. "I was on Friday Night Lights and the Longest Yard then Invincible. It was all football movies, so that was fun. I was doing football stuff. That's how I got into coaching. I was obviously not playing anymore and I was getting older. I still had love for the game, so what better to teach young men how to play the game. Football is the ultimate team sport that not only helps you helps you do well on the field but it helps you do well in the classroom because you have standards for the kids. Obviously all team sports do but it's the ultimate team sport. All 11 guys have to be on the same page."
Once he became a coach, he applied lessons he learned from playing at Texas.
"The biggest thing I took from coach Brown would be, 'one heartbeat,'" Babino explained, "everybody being on the same page and working together as one."
Now that he has been in it for a while, Babino said the most rewarding part of the business is seeing his players graduate.
"One of the sayings that coach (Claude) Mathis says is, 'If the only thing they learn from us is football, then we've failed them'" he explained. "If a kid can catch a ball and tackle, and block but he's not doing anything well in the classroom, he doesn't have any plans or goals after high school, then we as a staff, and me as a coach, I feel like, have failed that kid. There's more to life. Sports teach you discipline, dedication and hard work. That's probably the most rewarding part is to see those kids graduate and go off to college and have options to do something with themselves."
Babino is optimistic about the Mavericks' chances in 2017.
"I tell you what man, this team has a lot of tools, a lot of athletes," he said. "They can be as good as they want to be. I have not coached a team with as much talent as this group of kids. How many high school teams have three DI offensive linemen at the 5A level and a Baylor commit on defense? These kids have a lot of talent and the way we practice them, and the things we're demanding of them, it's going to get the best out of them. It may not look pretty today. It may not look pretty tomorrow but it will show up on Friday nights because they've been through it. We're putting them through it right now. When it comes to game time, it should be easy for them."
His group of linebackers is no exception either.
"Those guys have a lot of athleticism," Babino added. "They're not very big but they have a lot of football sense, particularly I'm talking about Tre Macon and Corteze Hurd. Then we've got a returning starter at inside linebacker with Christian Lovera. We have a move in, Brevin Randle, he's going to be a junior this year. He's a really good kid. He's about six feet, 205 pounds. They're just learning our defense. We have a new defensive staff so we're all learning a new scheme and they're learning it. We did well and went to state in 7-on-7 this summer. My group is really athletic and really fast at that position. Macon and Corteze played safety last year. Here's the funny thing: I played safety under Mackovic and I played outside linebacker under Mack Brown. So I can tell them how to play it and how to make that transition."
Another transition Babino made was moving to East Texas after spending about 22 years in Austin. He moved to Tyler Lee where he coached the Red Raiders for a season.
"That coaching staff left when coach (Clayton) George decided to resign over there," he said. "Coach Mathis came over here from SMU. We never actually coached with each other. We knew of each other but we never actually talked in person. We always heard about each other's coaching abilities if you will, and shoot man, he told me he had a spot over here for me and I was like, 'I'm all in.' Plus I was already in East Texas too. He's a great coach. Who wouldn't want to coach under Coach Mathis?
The feeling is mutual for Mathis who says he's glad to have Babino on his staff.
"I knew him from playing at UT and everything," Mathis said. "We're fortunate to get him here, very fortunate to get him here. He's also our associate AD as well as my linebackers coach. I couldn't have made a better hire."