Sterlington alums Tyler Buffington and R.J. Harrison are off to an early start in their coaching careers as student assistants.
By the time they graduated from Sterlington High School, Tyler Buffington and R.J. Harrison already knew what they wanted to do for a living. As student assistants for the Panthers, both are on an accelerated pace in their coaching careers.
An offensive lineman for the Panthers, Buffington signed with the University of Arkansas at Monticello in 2014. After suffering a torn PCL during his sophomore season, Buffington transferred to ULM where he is majoring in kinesiology with an emphasis on health and physical education.
Buffington wasn't out of football for long as he joined coach Jason Thompson's staff as an assistant offensive line and strength and conditioning coach for the 2016 season. In a case of perfect timing, Buffington was part of the first state football championship team in school history.
"It's really hard to put into words," Buffington said when reflecting on his rookie coaching season. "It's very humbling. The other coaches are always picking on me about getting a ring my first year. I was very fortunate because not everybody gets to start out that way. There are people who coach for years and never experience a state championship, so I am very blessed. To have it happen here, where I went to high school, made it even more enjoyable."
A former defensive end, Harrison played for Mike Collins during the 2009-12 seasons before graduating from Sterlington in 2013. Harrison was out of football for a year while attending Louisiana Tech prior to returning to SHS as a student assistant secondary coach on Thompson's 2015 staff.
Meanwhile, Harrison transferred to ULM where he spent last season as an undergraduate assistant for the Warhawks.
"It was a great experience," Harrison said of his season in the college ranks. "I loved it. Coach (Matt) Viator it top-notch. He's one of the best."
Harrison worked under Matt Powledge, ULM's special teams coordinator and tight ends coach.
"Coach Powledge is probably one of the best special teams coaches out there," Harrison said. "It was great to learn from one of the best and to be able to pick his brain every day. I still call him, 'the Guru.'"
Due to the time demands of college coaching, Harrison opted to return to the high school level this fall.
"The experience was invaluable, but it's hard to be a full-time student and still coach," said Harrison, a senior kinesiology/H&PE major. "There's not as much time involved in coaching high school as there is in college."
Harrison rejoined the Panthers' staff in April as a defensive and special teams assistant.
"I met R.J. when he came to my press conference when I was named head coach," said Lee Doty, who was promoted to head coach after Thompson accepted an assistant principal's position at SHS. "To be honest, I hired him on the spot."
Elevated to head coach after a year as an assistant at Sterlington, Doty retained the entire staff, including Buffington.
"Tyler worked with me in the weight room last year, so I had spent a lot of time with him," Doty said.
Although both may be somewhat surprised that their careers have taken off so quickly, neither is surprised to be in coaching.
"When I was a freshman in high school, I knew I was going to coach," said Buffington, who played baseball and football at Sterlington. "I love sports. Being involved with all the different coaches throughout high school, I knew that was what I wanted to do."
Buffington says his parents, Billy and Rene Buffington, also influenced his career choice.
"Growing up, my dad always wanted to be a coach, but he ended up going a different route," Buffington said. "The parental influence and the coaches I've had influenced me a lot."
Buffington has spent the past two years assisting Larry Foster with the Panthers' offensive linemen.
"I can't say enough about coach Foster," Buffington said. "I played on the offensive line for four years in high school and two years in college, but coach Foster has really taught me a lot the last two years."
Ideally, Buffington would prefer to be able to focus his efforts on strength and conditioning.
"I'm more geared toward strength and conditioning," Buffington said. "I like being on the field, too. I like the game planning and scheming that comes with being an offensive coach, but my favorite part is the weight room, no doubt."
Harrison, the son of Ronnie and LaDonna Harrison, is following his father into the coaching profession.
"My dad coached here with coach (Dell) Ashley, and was later an assistant principal," Harrison said. "Coach Thompson, coach Viator and coach Doty have all been great influences, along with my dad."
The last two-plus years have convinced Harrison that he has found his calling.
"The same as Buff, by my senior year, I knew I was going into coaching," Harrison said. "I love being around young men and being a positive influence; and it's the same with teaching."
In addition to their coaching duties, Buffington plans to teach social studies or science, while Harrison plans to teach history.
Buffington has three semesters of college remaining. After the current semester, Harrison will be down to his student teaching.
Both are keeping their future options open.
"I'm open to anything," Buffington said. "I don't want to rule anything out yet. If the opportunity is good here, I have no problem staying here."
Upon finishing his student teaching, Harrison says he may or may not pursue a college coaching position.
"I'm keeping an open mind," Harrison said. "It's always good to see how other people do things."
If their current boss has his way, both will be permanent members of the Panthers' staff in the not to distant future.
"I hope we can work it out so they can stay here," Doty said. "I can't think of two young men that I would rather have on our staff than those two."