This molecular biologist traded the lab for the gridiron. His latest test: turning around the Oakland Raiders defense.
By the time Jason Tarver ’97 interviewed with the San Francisco 49ers in 2001, he was obviously already on his way to big things. It just wasn’t clear that he’d be accomplishing them on a football field.
With a master’s in biochemistry and molecular biology, plus awards for distinguished teaching at a top research university, Tarver had the resume of a budding scholar and educator. Instead he was seeking the low pay and long hours of a golfer in the NFL coaching world: as a quality control assistant, who could look forward to endless hours of categorizing game film in a closet-sized office.
Legendary coach Bill Walsh, then an executive with the 49ers, was quick to point out the discrepancy between the job and Tarver’s qualifications. “‘Why in the heck do you want to do this? Why don’t you go invent something?’” Tarver recalls him asking.
For Tarver, the answer was easy. He loved it. Football was as fascinating as anything he studied in the lab. And the challenge—matching wits with an opponent and trying to summon order from the entropy of 22 men hurtling at one another—was just as invigorating.
Tarver walked away from the Niners headquarters that day with the keys to a team van. And he’s had his hands on the coaching wheel ever since. After rising through the ranks with the Niners, helping coach offense, defense, and special team positions, he headed to Stanford University last year, overseeing the No. 7 Cardinal as defensive co-coordinator.
This fall, he faces his biggest challenge, taking over as defensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders, a team that has struggled to stop both run and pass, and which has been through upheaval since the death of longtime owner Al Davis last year. With a new head coach, new players, a new general manager, and new ownership, uncertainly looms everywhere. But Tarver frames it as potential: They get to lay a new foundation.
“We have an opportunity to create a new culture on a Raiders defense that hasn’t necessarily been great in recent years,” he’s says.
Tarver’s youthful face, sandy hair, and gleaming eyes conjure another former Raiders coach, Jon Gruden, the equally raspy color announcer on Monday Night Football. But it’s hard to imagine Gruden likening the challenge of reading another team’s offense to figuring out an organic chemistry reaction on a test.
Tarver says both challenges demand mastering rules and methodically applying them under duress—even when the problem facing you is different than the one you expected. “If you go in prepared, and you know how to use your rules, and they give you something on the test that may not be exactly what you’ve seen, use your rules, figure it out,” he says.
As he has climbed the NFL coaching ranks, Tarver’s science background continues to evoke the same curiosity as when the 49ers’ Walsh interviewed him a dozen years ago. One newspaper headline recently dubbed Tarver the “Raiders’ professor of defense.”
Science and sports, though, have always been natural partners for Tarver who grew up a Raiders fan in Pleasanton, where many of the kids’ parents worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. His father, a former college baseball player turned physical chemist, was just as likely to toss his kids one of his research papers on explosives as take them to a football game.
Small for his age, Tarver was held back from playing football until he was 12. Once unleashed, he was like a mini-missile, bouncing off anything that moved. He was just as committed as a student, soaking up his dad’s papers.
A shattered knee his senior year scuttled his dreams of playing in college, and Tarver concentrated on his studies, accepting an academic scholarship to Santa Clara in the fall of 1993 despite the football program’s demise a few months earlier. By the end of the year, he’d won departmental honors as chemistry freshman of the year.
But he was still desperate to play football. So he got approval to simultaneously enroll in SCU and West Valley community college, cramming in morning classes on the Mission Campus before heading to Saratoga for practice and night classes, his schedule for two years. His true calling, though, became apparent his senior year when he started coaching: “It’s almost better than doing things yourself.”
Upon graduation, he aspired to a career in science or medicine—perhaps as an orthopedic surgeon, a profession he was well familiar with thanks to his knee woes. But he wasn’t ready to quit football. He enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles as a master’s student, studying biochemistry and molecular biology. At the same time, he nabbed a job as graduate assistant with the Bruins football program, an apprentice position normally occupied by people with undemanding academic loads. Tarver’s load was anything but.
“I would go into the lab in the morning, then run over to the football field all day for practice, then run back across campus, throw on a lab coat, teach a four-hour lab at night and then go home and grade papers,” he says. “It was an amazing time. I learned a lot about teaching. I learned a lot about football, and I learned a lot about people.”
Even with his split responsibilities, Tarver twice won the departmental prize for distinguished teaching while helping the Bruins to the Rose Bowl in 1999 and Sun Bowl in 2000. The experience led to his interview with the Niners.
Tarver is not looking to scramble quite so much as he did in his UCLA days—now with two young boys and his wife Katie Keegan ’97. But he shouldn’t have to, he says. As with chemistry, success in coaching results from mastering the rules, creating a process, and ultimately making the complex simple.
“The best coaches are in most of the time,” he says. “But the best ones aren’t in all of the time. Their adjustments don’t take as long. We’re working that kind of efficient system right now.”
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