Darian Hagan thrilled to have his whistle back

Darian Hagan teaches his running backs during Spring Camp. (Don De Mars/EVT)

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RB coach Darian Hagan. (Credit: SDSU Athletics)

On December 6, 2023, Darian Hagan posted a GIF on X (formerly Twitter) of a man blowing a whistle with the caption “Got my whistle back!!”

Earlier that day, SDSU announced Hagan as its new running backs coach under head coach Sean Lewis. 

After serving as the RBs coach at his alma mater, Colorado, for the previous seven seasons, Hagan was stripped of the role by Deion Sanders when Sanders took over as head coach in 2023. Sanders reassigned Hagan as the Executive Director, Community Engagement & Outreach/Football Ambassador for the Buffs. 

It was the first time in nearly 20 years on staff that Hagan would not work directly with the players on the school’s roster. 

“I learned that I miss affecting kids (and) young men,” said Hagan during an upcoming episode of The SDSU Podcast about his season without a whistle. “I realized I missed the day-to-day interaction with the coaches and interaction with the players and just being around the game of football in general. It’s something that has grown on me over the years that I felt lost and I felt sad without it this past season.”

In 2004, Hagan began a coaching career for the school he quarterbacked to its first national championship (co-shared with Georgia Tech) in 1990 despite not having much of an inclination to step into the profession. 

Enter Gary Barnett, Hagan’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and then-current head coach. Hagan credits Barnett’s pushing and instilling guidance in him as a player to become the person he is today. 

“(Barnett) has all the wisdom and all the tools necessary to work your mind over and get you thinking in positive ways,” Hagan explained. “When I was playing as a freshman, I didn’t think I had to study the game of football because I just knew that my natural athletic ability was going to take me to the top. Once I realized that I had to study and put in the time to be a good football player and then Coach Barnett (took) the time out of his busy schedule to meet with me multiple times a day just so I can understand what we’re trying to accomplish on offense.” 

That change in mindset heading into Hagan’s sophomore year soon became critical. 

Colorado’s starting QB, Sal Aunese, was diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer and was not expected to live long (he passed away early in the 1989 season). Suddenly, as Hagan recalls, his teammates had to now trust “the guy that didn’t prepare, didn’t study, and didn’t have any confidence in himself.” 

Darian Hagan at Colorado. (Credit: Colorado Athletics)

Hagan rewarded his teammates’ faith in him. In his first season as the starting quarterback, he became just the sixth player in NCAA history to run and pass for over 1,000 yards in the same season. He finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting. After leading Colorado to a national championship in his second year as the starter and an overall 28-5-2 record across three years, he was inducted into the Colorado Hall of Fame.

When Barnett returned to Boulder in the early 2000s as the head coach, Hagan was a frequent phone call recipient. 

“He just kept calling me and calling me for three straight years, and in the third year, I was like, yeah, I am in,” recalled Hagan about Barnett’s pursuits. “He told me the reason why he picked me was because he didn’t see another person that he wanted around his players that he could trust … and do the right things, say the right things.” 

Across parts of three different decades and through the tenures of seven different head coaches, Hagan was the one constant in Boulder. He started out as a defensive technical intern in 2004 but quickly ascended to offensive assistant coach just one year later. He served his first stint as the RBs coach from 2006 through 2010, shifted to the Director of Player Personnel and Development roles for five years, before starting his second stint as RBs coach.   

From 2016 to 2018, he guided a 1,000-yard rusher each season, just the second time in Colorado history the school had three consecutive seasons with such a feat. 

Hagan’s coaching philosophy is to keep things simple. 

“My job is to get you lined up, give you your assignment, and then back up let your God-given ability take over because that’s what God has presented you with to be able to play at this level,” Hagan explained. “I’m not going to confuse you or put doubt in your head. I want to just make sure that you have the correct information and the correct way to do things with technique and fundamentals and then just back up and let you do your deal. That’s what a good coach does.”

During his season away from the sidelines, Hagan formed a friendship with Lewis, CU’s new offensive coordinator. Hagan would see Lewis every day because the coordinator’s path to the practice field included walking by Hagan’s office. The opportunity was not lost on the Buffs legend.

“I would always reiterate to (Lewis) that I love the game of football, and if (he) ever leaves here, take me with you,” Hagan said. 

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By the end of November, Lewis was the head coach of SDSU and made a call to find out whether Hagan’s daily statements were genuine.

“I didn’t know that it was going to happen, so when he called me and asked me (if I) was serious and did I want to come with him to San Diego State, before he could really say anything, I was like, coach wherever you (are) at, I’m in,” Hagan explained. 

RB Jaylon Armstead runs in the only SDSU TD against Oregon State (Don De Mars/EVT)

“I would have followed him anywhere just to get back on the field.”

Following practice on Tuesday, Lewis recalled those daily interactions at Colorado and how easy it was for him to recognize Hagan’s genuine nature and how he would lead young men the right way. 

“That time that I spent with coach Hagan in Colorado, I knew that he was a great man and someone that obviously could add value if an opportunity such as this presented itself,” Lewis added. 

Hagan relishes the opportunity to develop running backs in Lewis’ Aztec Fast offense. Especially because their role in the offense is so versatile. He has always looked for backs in the mold of local San Diegan and NFL Hall of Famer Marcus Allen. He looks for someone who can do a little bit of everything and with this offense, that is more a requirement than a luxury. Hagan highlighted Allen’s play as a fullback to highlight the local legend’s versatility. 

“Our running back has to do a lot of different things, and by the way, he has to protect (the QB) as well,” added Hagan.

The Aztecs’ running back room returns the top six players from last year’s roster, none of whom were able to elevate themselves with their production to the lead role. Hagan’s approach to spring camp is to give all six, plus early enrollee freshman Anthony McMillian, equal reps to show what they can do. 

“All of them have bits and pieces; now we have to get them all doing the right things fast and doing it with physicality, and we will have a special room,” Hagan said. “The guy that is consistent, that is accountable and reliable is the guy that’s going to eventually step to the forefront.”

The best piece of advice Hagan received was from his head coach at Colorado, Bill McCartney, another major influence in his life. McCartney broke down coaching into one simple phrase: taking players places they can’t take themselves. 

As a graduate of Locke High School in South Central Los Angeles, a coaching position at SDSU is a homecoming for Hagan. It gives him the ability to do for kids in his backyard what coach McCartney and Barnett did for him. 

“Being from Southern California, knowing that I grew up in South Central LA and knowing that the only way out for me to be where I’m at today was to do really smart things,” Hagan articulated. “I had to work hard to get out of South Central LA and to be able to give kids in that area the same opportunity is a blessing for me and so I don’t take that lightly.” 

Now that Hagan has his whistle back, taking Aztecs to places they can’t take themselves has officially begun. 

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