Oxford High head football coach Chris Cutcliffe has experienced the joys – and the warts – of big-time college football from the inside out.

He grew up with his successful, much-respected father, David Cutcliffe, coaching at Tennessee and Ole Miss. He coached with his dad as a student and graduate assistant at Tennessee and then Duke.

Rick Cleveland

The 32-year-old Cutcliffe knows first-hand how fickle the college coaching business can be. Do not misunderstand. He loves the sport. He loves the teaching. He thrives on the competition and appreciates, greatly, the inherent camaraderie football provides.

His daddy – and many others – believe Chris could be making hundreds of thousands of dollars as an assistant coach at college football’s highest level. And that’s with the lure of millions as a college head coach in his future. Chris knows this, as well. He also knows that happiness and satisfaction are not always measured in dollars.

Had he chosen that college coaching route, young Cutcliffe would be out on the road this week, as his dad is, trying to convince 17- and 18-year-olds to play football for his school. Or, he would be searching for a job, as many college coaches are with the recent rash of firings. Instead, Chris this week prepares his Oxford High School team for Mississippi’s Class 6A championship game Friday night. The Oxford Chargers will play the Oak Grove Warriors Friday night at The Rock in Hattiesburg.

Oxford High vs. Starkville in the MHSAA Class 6A playoffs at Bobby Holcomb Field in Oxford, Miss. on Friday, November 29, 2019. (Bruce Newman, Oxford Eagle)

That’s not all. Chris Cutcliffe teaches two high-level algebra classes and a leadership class. He doesn’t do that because he has to. He does it because he wants to and he believes in the value to society of teachers. He is also Oxford High’s assistant athletic director. At home, he and his wife, Molly, a nurse practitioner, raise six boys, all under the age of 8.

When does he sleep?

“Sometimes, we don’t,” he answers, smiling.

Ole Miss head coach David Cutcliffe, left, with his son Chris (just to his right), accepts the Golden Egg following the Rebels’ 20-3 win over Mississippi State at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss. on Saturday, November 27, 2004. (Bruce Newman)

Earlier this week, David Cutcliffe was talking by cellphone about Chris between recruiting visits in the Atlanta area.

“I could not be any more proud of him,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s done a terrific job in Oxford, a place he really loves. He loves what he does.”

The father well remembers a conversation with his son eight years ago. The son had just earned his Masters at Duke while helping his father achieve football success at a school that had not experienced any in decades. Molly was pregnant with their first child. Chris told his father he was strongly considering returning to his high school alma mater, Oxford, to coach and teach.

Said David Cutcliffe, “Chris said he just didn’t think he wanted to move his family all over the country, didn’t think he wanted to spend all that time on the road recruiting. He said he believed he and Molly would be much happier in Oxford, a place he grew to love when we lived there.

“Clearly, he had thought all this out,” David Cutcliffe continued. “But I’ll never forget him asking me, ‘Dad, am I making a mistake? Am I just settling?’ I told him, ‘No, son, you aren’t settling. You will be doing the greatest, most important and rewarding job in the world, coaching and teaching.’ And I really believe that. My wife, his mother, is a teacher, a great teacher. I love the fact that Chris is every bit as good a math teacher as he is football coach.”

Younger readers may not remember that David Cutcliffe, tutor of both Peyton and Eli Manning, won four bowl games in six-plus seasons (1998-2004) at Ole Miss after helping Phillip Fulmer win a national championship at Tennessee. David Cutcliffe was fired at Ole Miss in 2004 when he refused to make changes on his coaching staff he didn’t believe were necessary.

Chris Cutcliffe was a senior quarterback at Oxford High during his dad’s final year at Ole Miss. He played quarterback for Mississippi Coaches Hall of Fame coach Johnny Hill, helping the Chargers to a state championship game. He was also a math-minded honor student, one who from the earliest age always answered the question – “What do you want to be when you grow up?” – with this: “Coach.”

“For as long as I can remember, I never said I was going to be a football player or I was going to be a quarterback. I always said I was going to be a coach,” Chris said.

Oxford High coach Chris Cutcliffe speaks to the team against Charleston in a preseason jamboree at Bobby Holcomb Field in Oxford, Miss. on Friday, August 11, 2017. (Bruce Newman)

Chris Cutcliffe learned the business in expanded roles as a student assistant at Tennessee and then a graduate assistant at Duke. He was an integral part of the coaching process at both places.

Said Chris, with obvious pride, “I learned from the best.”

And what did he learn from his father?

“I think most of all I learned that it’s more about how you treat people than it is about x’s and o’s.”

He learned the same kind of lessons from his mother, Karen. He would be with her in the shopping mall and some child would run up to her and gleefully hug her years after she had taught him or her. That made as big as impression as the football victories and trophies.

Most Class 6A coaches have one assignment: Coach. Chris chooses also to teach.

Oxford senior quarterback John Meagher, who will play football at Navy, says this of Chris Cutcliffe, “Intellectually, I really believe, he’s a genius.”

“Coach is such a math-minded type guy, very analytical,” Meagher said. “He sees things out there on the field that other people don’t see. He makes changes on the fly that help us win games.”

This is Cutcliffe’s fourth season as Oxford head coach after five as an assistant. His first team won eight and lost five and made the second round of the playoffs. The second went 8-4 and missed the playoffs. Last year, the Chargers were 9-3 and lost in the first round of the playoffs.

This season, Oxford is 13-1. Way back in August, they lost to Starkville 45-17 in the second week of the season. They have won 12 straight since, including last Friday night’s 25-16 victory over Starkville in a North State championship rematch.

David Cutcliffe has watched all this progress from afar. And he and Karen Cutcliffe plan to be at The Rock Friday night. “Wouldn’t miss this,” he said.

He and Chris talk virtually every day or night, comparing notes on how their teams are doing.

Said the father, “We go into schemes, practice schedules, process, game plans, all of it. Both of us are obviously eaten up with it. But I’ll tell you, Chris is such an innovative, young coach. I think I sometimes learn more from him than he does from me. He can talk using our terminology at Duke, but I don’t know his terminology at Oxford, so he explains what they’re doing, using our Duke terminology. I was worried a couple years ago when Oxford moved up to 6A. That’s a huge move, but they’ve grown into it. Chris has got a great staff. They’ve gotten better as a team all year.”

On those last two points, father and son agree.

Said Chris, “I know you hear all the time where coaches talk about their team as a family. Here, we really do take pride in the family part. What I enjoy most in all this is the relationships with the players and our coaches. You ask any of them and they’ll tell you. We really are a family.”

Chris Cutcliffe was asked: What’s the best advice you ever received from your father?

He smiled before answering. “Dad always has told me: ‘Wherever you go, whatever you do, leave a place better than you found it.”

Chris Cutcliffe took that advice to heart. But he doesn’t seem ready to leave Oxford – or high school coaching and teaching – any time soon.

Oxford High head coach Chris Cutcliffe, left, and quarterback John Meagher (17) celebrate the 25-16 win over Starkville in the MHSAA Class 6A playoffs at Bobby Holcomb Field in Oxford, Miss. on Friday, November 29, 2019. (Bruce Newman, Oxford Eagle)

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.