RCW: The special teams engineer
Joe DeForest, special teams coordinator of the Kansas football team, has had a long and winding road that has led him, and his family, to Lawrence, Kansas.
Life, in a sense, can sometimes be like a field goal. Sometimes the ball takes a straight line to where you want it to go. Other times, factors like the wind or the goal post can come into play and change the intended path of the ball. In the case of Joe DeForest, special teams coordinator for the Jayhawk football program, his kick has changed paths many times, but has ultimately landed him right where he wants to be – in Lawrence, Kansas.
DeForest grew up in Titusville, Florida, a town about 30 minutes from Cape Canaveral. After graduating from Titusville High School, he attended Southwest Louisiana (now known as Louisiana Lafayette) as a two-sport athlete in baseball and football for the Ragin’ Cajuns.
“The reason why I chose Louisiana Lafayette was because they had a great baseball program and they were going to let me play both football and baseball,” said DeForest. “I only played two years because I had to make a decision. I was a pitcher and a linebacker and that’s not really a great combo as far as lifting and getting ready to go.”
Despite having to balance morning football workouts, classes and afternoon baseball practices, DeForest excelled in both sports. After college, he chose to pursue the football route, even though that was not always his plan.
“There was never a time that I wanted to do football. Baseball was number one in my heart, still is,” said the Atlanta Braves fan, with a laugh. “I’ve enjoyed coaching football, obviously. It’s been 29 years (now that) I’ve been coaching football, but baseball is my first love.”
After spending two years testing the waters of professional football, DeForest returned to south Florida to work as a logistics engineer for NASA. During his time there, he realized that he couldn’t stay away from the game that he loved, so he decided to go back to Titusville High School, this time as a volunteer assistant football coach.
“When you get let go from (football) you sort of get away from it a little bit,” said DeForest. “Then I realized that this is my life’s work and this is what I want to do. I really got the itch back.”
It was there where he got his foot in the door of coaching college football. Through one of the assistant coaches on staff at Titusville, DeForest was able to land a job as a graduate assistant coach at Rice in Houston. After doing a year and a half of graduate assistant coaching, he was hired onto the staff full-time as the outside linebackers coach.
In 1994, DeForest packed his bags and headed to North Carolina to be the special teams coordinator and linebacker coach of the Duke Blue Devils. Following a six-year stint with the Blue Devils, he took his talents to Stillwater, Oklahoma, to fulfill the same role at Oklahoma State. DeForest’s implementations showed tremendous results, as Oklahoma State went from No. 78 to No. 10 in net punting, from No. 67 to No. 12 in punt returns and from No. 92 to No. 3 in kickoff returns. After leaving Oklahoma State in 2011, he once again was on the road. This time the destination was West Virginia, where he coached from 2012-16; his last destination before arriving at KU.
Before his departure to West Virginia, a decision had to be made. DeForest and wife Laura’s daughter and only child, Ashley, was wrapping up an important part of life in Stillwater and wanted to finish out high school with the childhood friends she grew up with.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” said Ashley of the moving process. “But my dad turned down a lot of jobs in order for me to graduate high school with all of the people I grew up with, which was awesome.”
The opportunity at West Virginia was one job offer that DeForest could not turn down. Ultimately, Ashley stayed in Stillwater to finish out her high school career, while her parents went out to West Virginia. Though her parents were halfway across the country, her relationship with her boyfriend, Corey Hassel, flourished. Prompted by Hassel’s baseball scholarship offer, the duo stayed in Stillwater after high school and attended Oklahoma State University together. While Hassel excelled on the diamond, as he earned the recognition of All-Big 12 Second Team honors in 2015, he thrived on his relationship with Ashley even more. On January 8, 2016, the middle school sweethearts got married.
“I’ve known Corey for a long time and I couldn’t be happier about them being married,” said DeForest. “He’s a great kid and he’s a great husband. He’s everything a father-in-law would want in a son-in-law.”
The year 2016 proved to be a big one for the DeForest and Hassel family. By way of the connections he made from his experience coaching in the Big 12 Conference, DeForest received a call about an opportunity to join the Jayhawk coaching staff as its special teams coordinator.
“Who you know gets you there, what you know keeps you there,” is a motto that DeForest said he lives by. “I just knew some guys on the staff. I knew David (head coach David Beaty) a little bit, but not as well as I knew a couple other guys on the staff. I knew Coach (Clint) Bowen from going against him for 15 years; Coach (Todd) Bradford and I had worked together at Oklahoma State. So they sort of got my name in front of Coach Beaty. I’ve been in the Big 12 now for 16 years so I think that helped. I came and interviewed and fortunately got the job.”
Since the DeForests were moving to Lawrence for the next chapter in his coaching career, they invited their daughter and son-in-law to live with them in order to save money on rent and student fees while Hassel finished up his final OSU classes online. Ashley and Hassel didn’t think twice of the offer and decided to make the four-hour move from Stillwater to Lawrence. Now, with his whole family in the same town, DeForest couldn’t be any happier.
“We’re so fortunate now that they’re both here in Lawrence with us. I don’t think you could draw up a better situation,” said DeForest.
“It’s awesome. I love having (Joe) here,” said Ashley, the self-described daddy’s girl. “We’re really close because I’m an only child, so my parents are like my best friends.”
The summer of 2016 was the first one that the DeForests and Hassels spent together in Lawrence. During those few humid months, the shared interest of golf helped bond father and son-in-law closer together, and it was on the golf course where Hassel received an opportunity to become a part of the Jayhawk family as well.
“We were out playing and I actually ran into Ryan Graves (associate head coach of the Jayhawk baseball team) and he recognized me, so we struck up a conversation,” said Hassel. “I remembered playing against him and he remembered coaching against me. He was like, ‘Any time you want to come out and help us out, give me a holler.’ So I called him about a month later and we got this graduate assistant position worked out and the rest is pretty much history.”
Hassel, now in his first year being on a coaching staff, said the adjustment of going from player to coach was difficult at first, but has described it as “rewarding.” He emphasized how much he enjoyed seeing the players grow both on and off the diamond.
Through the difficulties of adjusting to a coaching mindset and lifestyle, Hassel has been able to gain a better appreciation for the supporters he has in his life.
“It’s really meant a lot to be able to get closer to my in-laws and spend a lot of time with them and be there to support them in the football season, and also for them to be there and support me through the baseball season,” said Hassel. “That’s huge. It’s definitely not something I take for granted. It’s been an experience and a blessing that my wife and I share. We’re very fortunate to be around our family and be at a place like KU.”
With this newly shared bond of being on Jayhawk coaching staffs and living in Lawrence, the relationship between Hassel and DeForest took another leap.
“He’s definitely one of the better people I’ve ever met,” expressed Hassel. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. He goes out of his way to do a lot of things for me and my wife. I’m very blessed to be able to be around him and my mother-in-law as well. They’ve been nothing but a class act ever since I’ve known them. They’ve been nothing but good to me and my wife.”
To Ashley, the bond between her husband and parents is everything she could have wanted.
“It means a lot (to see them bond.) Corey is obviously my best friend, so knowing that my dad loves Corey as much as I do means a lot,” said Ashley. “Knowing that he treats Corey as his own son means a lot to me. I’m very appreciative that they get along so well.”
With the two most important men in her life on coaching staffs for KU, Ashley now has become a full-fledged Jayhawk fan. Growing up a part of multiple Big 12 schools throughout her life could create bias toward some schools, but to her, there is really only one team that she cheers for: her dad’s.
“I try to explain to people that I’m always just a fan of wherever my dad has been, and now that my husband coaches, I’ll be an obvious fan of wherever he coaches. So now everything is Crimson and Blue,” explained Ashley.
As for DeForest, he is thrilled that he and his family are in Lawrence, but he also understands that he has a job to take care of. With a coaching history spanning 29 years, he knows the proper installations that he needs to make in order to play his part in this important rebuilding time for KU football.
When talking about his intentions for the upcoming season, DeForest was quick to note how important the Texas win in 2016 could be for the Jayhawk program, relating it back to an experience he had at Oklahoma State. In the first year he was in Stillwater, the team had won three games going into the final game of the season against the second-ranked team in the country, Oklahoma. Much like the Jayhawks did against the Longhorns this past season, the timely defensive stops were able to keep the underdog Cowboys in the game. The Sooners did not have a single rushing yard for the entire game as the Cowboys eventually pulled off the upset and crushed the national title hopes of their in-state rival. The following year, the Cowboys jumped up to eight total wins, capped off by a Houston Bowl victory.
“I can see the Texas win last season being a program changer,” said DeForest. “If we can build off that, then I can see us being on the same trajectory as where OSU is now. I think Kansas can get there, and I think they’ve proven that. They’ve won an Orange Bowl, they’ve played in bowl games. If they give us some time to get this thing turned (around), I think Coach Beaty has got us on the right track.”
Throughout the years, both Hassel and Ashley have gotten a sense of who DeForest is as a coach compared to who he is as a person. For Ashley, she noticed early on that he can be a lot scarier on the sidelines than he is at home. From Hassel’s perspective, he has nothing but respect for his fellow Jayhawk coach.
“He’s one of the hardest working men you’ll ever come across,” said Hassel, of his father-in-law’s coaching ability. “He’s got unbelievable ethic. He cares about his players, he cares about his program and he puts that first. I think that has already caught on here. His personality and the person he is really touches people and it goes a long way.”
If DeForest’s past successes say anything about his coaching career, it is that change and progress are practically inevitable. Beaty has pieced together an incredible coaching staff for the Jayhawks, and DeForest is set to leave his imprint on the program.
Despite his eagerness to help improve the football program, DeForest believes success doesn’t rely solely on the victories within the game, but rather on quality of life. In the eyes of both DeForest and Hassel, his current quality of life is the best it could be.
“Living in Lawrence and being a part of this program is the greatest quality of life I’ve ever had in coaching in 29 years. That goes for the family aspect as well as the football,” said DeForest. “I’ve got my daughter and son-in-law here and my wife. This is one of the greatest towns I’ve ever been in. There’s just so much to do. I just want to continue to enjoy Lawrence and get to know the people.”
“The quality of life here for him is so much better than it has been at other places,” added Hassel. “And that’s not to say that he didn’t enjoy the other places. I just think the staff that he’s working with, the administration he’s working with and the people that he deals with on a daily basis are just such an enjoyment for him. It allows him to go to work with a smile on his face every day. That, in turn, makes Lawrence a special place for all of us. That means a lot. For me and my wife to be able to see my in-laws really happy, that makes our quality of life better. It’s given us the ability to become closer as a family and really enjoy these last eight months together.”
With all of the twists and turns that have occurred in DeForest’s professional and personal life, it is clear that Lawrence, Kansas, splits the uprights.