SAN JOSE -- At 12 years old, Ron Caragher was a slow running back for the Morgan Hill Raiders Pop Warner football team.
The team's quarterback was fast, but he had trouble remembering the plays. So coach Ernie Hill decided to have them trade positions.
"We switched, and the rest was history," Caragher said. "Believe me, I wouldn't have gotten a scholarship to a Division I school as a tailback. Quarterback worked out from then on."
The move launched Caragher's playing career, which included being a backup at UCLA. The leadership skills he honed as a quarterback were the catalyst of a two-decade coaching career. On Monday, Caragher, 45, became the 28th football coach in San Jose State history.
Caragher's passion for coaching is rooted in influences that entered his life after his parents divorced and he was living with his mother, Marilyn, in Morgan Hill.
"In a single-parent home, I was very influenced by coaches," he said. "I was very blessed to have male coaches in my life that were good guides for me, because I could've gone different directions. Guys made a difference in my life and helped guide me, and athletics was the means for me to go on in education."
Caragher was a three-sport star at Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose, where he is a member of the school's athletic hall of fame.
Mike Janda was his freshman coach and was promoted to varsity coach before Caragher's senior season in 1984. He still holds the
"If Mike Janda's still coaching at Bellarmine, I still feel young," Caragher said.
Janda recalls seeing qualities that would make Caragher a good coach.
"What I saw there was a tremendous amount of maturity," Janda said. "He got the whole picture. He was really a good leader. Guys really looked up to him. He was always calm, cool and collected."
Janda credits Caragher for helping him grow as a coach during his first season. They teamed up for a 12-1 record, falling in the Central Coast Section championship game at Spartan Stadium to St. Francis. The Bells lost 5-3 on a muddy day, with a punt snapped out of the end zone for a safety that proved to be costly.
"Painful," Caragher said.
The unofficial start of Caragher's coaching career began during his playing days at UCLA under coach Terry Donahue. Caragher was a backup to future Pro Football Hall of Famer Troy Aikman.
"Being a backup quarterback, Coach Donahue asked me to chart coverages," Caragher said. "He asked me to show him tendencies I had seen. I started to have an eye for that. That might've begun it."
His playing time was scarce, but Caragher never will never forget his brief appearance in the 1989 Cotton Bowl, a 17-3 victory over then-undefeated Arkansas.
Aikman lost a contact lens, and quarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel summoned Caragher. He tossed aside his clipboard, raced to grab his helmet and ran in with the play call.
"I called the play and handed it off," Caragher said. "I'm charged up and ready to go, in the Cotton Bowl, in a close game. And then I see Troy come jogging back on the field because they had a spare set. I look back and I laugh, 'What would the coaches have done if I had audibled?' "
While at UCLA, Caragher met his wife, Wendy, who was a tennis player for the Bruins. They have three sons: Josh, 16, Ryan, 14, and Scott, 13.
Caragher began his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Donahue at UCLA in 1994. He was promoted to a full-time position when Bob Toledo took over in 1996, coaching wide receivers, kickers and punters. He worked alongside current San Jose State offensive-line coach Gary Bernardi.
"He's a class guy and a sharp guy and a good man," Bernardi said. "He's a good family man, he's a good football coach, and he's going to be very successful."
When Toledo was fired, Caragher joined Rich Brooks' staff at Kentucky as running backs coach and spent four years in the football-crazy Southeastern Conference.
"That was the best thing in my coaching career that could've happened," he said. "It was great, because I left my comfort zone."
That led to his first head-coaching gig at the University of San Diego, where he spent six successful seasons.
Caragher plans to bring to San Jose State an offense focused on balance and efficient quarterback play, with a 70 percent completion rate the goal. He inherits a quarterback in David Fales who led the nation at 72 percent.
Caragher wants an attacking defense that mixes its coverages and blitzes and a special teams unit that capitalizes that creates positive field position. Those philosophies helped him go 44-22 and win shares of three league titles at San Diego, all of which made Caragher attractive to San Jose State athletic director Gene Bleymaier, also a former UCLA player.
"I've had the privilege and the opportunity to follow Coach Caragher's career for some time," Bleymaier said. "He's always been on the radar and somebody I hoped I would have the opportunity to hire at some time."
The hope is that Bleymaier won't be making another hire anytime soon.
Follow Jimmy Durkin at Twitter.com/Jimmy_Durkin.