Prior to his senior year as an offensive lineman at the University of Colorado, Towson football coach Pete Shinnick was thinking about his future.

A marketing and business major, he had an internship that summer at a steel and metal corporation in Santa Fe Springs, California. He was being paid well, with perks that included free housing, gas and lunch every day. He learned the various aspects of the business, rotating among the marketing, sales, accounting, bill collecting and management departments.

But he was miserable.

“It was the most boring thing I’ve ever been associated with in my entire life,” Shinnick said. “It was a great experience and I learned a lot, but that’s when I said to myself, ‘OK, this is not what I want to do with my life. I really love football and want to coach.”

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He didn’t have to search far for a role model.

Pete Shinnick
Shinnick has a head coaching record of 169-58 at Azusa Pacific, UNC Pembroke, West Florida and Towson. (Towson Athletics)

His father, Don Shinnick, was a quarterback at UCLA who played linebacker with the Baltimore Colts for 13 years, winning NFL championships in 1958, 1959 and 1968. Don Shinnick played with Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore, Gino Marchetti and Art Donovan, among others.

Don Shinnick, who died in 2004, holds the NFL record for the most interceptions by a linebacker, with 37. After his playing career ended in 1969, he had coaching stints with the Chicago Bears, St. Louis Cardinals, Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots.

Sports were ubiquitous for the five boys growing up in the Shinnick household.

“There were a lot of broken lamps, tables and furniture,” Pete Shinnick said. “We were always in the backyard shooting hoops, throwing footballs and baseballs. We had a pretty fun childhood. Four of us wound up playing college football. One brother played at UCLA, I played at Colorado and the other two played at Penn State and Hawaii.”

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Shinnick was born not far from his father’s place of employment at Union Memorial Hospital. As his dad’s playing career was winding down, he spent his first few years bouncing around the family home in Towson. With the peripatetic life that comes with being an NFL assistant coach, the family was constantly on the move. With his dad gone for long stretches during football season, Marsha Shinnick was the unsung hero, the glue who made sure her boys had as normal a life as possible.

“The life of an NFL player and coach can sometimes be lonely,” Shinnick said. “During the season, you’re away from your family most of the time. I remember when my dad was coaching with the Raiders and the Bears, I’d see him on Thursday night at around 8 p.m. That’s the only time I’d see him during the season because he was always working and constantly gone.”

Marsha handled the logistics of each move to a new locale, getting her boys to school and all of their football, basketball, baseball and soccer practices.

“Dad would get the job, and Mom was the one making sure that everybody was good, getting us situated and where we needed to be,” Shinnick said.

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“I’m going to put the time in. Our coaches and players are going to put the time in. So I’m also excited about the future for Towson University football, and we want the future to be now.”

Towson coach Pete Shinnick

But it could not have been easy. Shinnick started second grade in St. Louis, finished it in Illinois and then started third grade in California.

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When he was in fourth grade, a classmate was excited about getting an autograph from Ken Stabler, the star quarterback with the Raiders. He kept pestering, asking, “Hey, Shinnick, don’t you want to see it?”

“Man, I was just playing catch with him on Saturday,” Shinnick replied. “My dad coaches for the Raiders, so his autograph doesn’t do too much for me.”

Upon receiving his degree from Colorado, Shinnick’s first coaching stint came as an offensive assistant at the University of Richmond. The one caveat was it couldn’t pay him a salary, so he worked 20 hours a week with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It was a sacrifice he was willing to make.

From there, he moved on to his first salaried job as an assistant at the University of Arkansas in 1989. He was a part of a staff that led the Razorbacks to the Southwest Conference title and a berth in the Cotton Bowl. When head coach Ken Hatfield left Arkansas to accept the Clemson job, he took Shinnick with him. During his second season at Clemson in 1991, the Tigers won the Atlantic Coast Conference title.

In 1999, after other stints as an assistant at Oregon State, Northern Michigan, St. Cloud State and Humboldt State, Shinnick accepted his first head coaching position at Azusa Pacific, a Christian college in California. In his seven seasons there, his teams went 53-22 and advanced to two national NAIA semifinals.

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“Pete was a leader both on and off the field for us,” said Dave Canales, the current offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who played for Shinnick at Azusa Pacific. “He exemplified it every day. He came to work with passion and energy, and he got us excited about practicing and about playing tough. He was an example to us as a father by having his family around all the time and loving his family. He taught us how to have balance in our life and how to approach life every day. On top of all that, he taught us how to compete, how to be disciplined about our jobs, how to know our assignments and how to trust our teammates. He brought us together as a team unit and always gave us a chance to be competitive.”

His reputation as an architect and master teacher who could build winning programs from scratch was bolstered at his next two stops on the coaching carousel. He was hired at UNC Pembroke in 2006 to bring football back to the university after an absence of more than 50 years and proceeded to build the program into a nationally ranked NCAA Division II team.

The University of West Florida hired Shinnick in 2014 as its first football coach. Two years later, it won five games in its inaugural season. In his second year in 2017, it advanced to the national championship. Two years later, it won 13 games and defeated three No. 1 seeds and four consecutive undefeated teams to win the national title.

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And now, in his first year at Towson, his goal is to elevate the program to national prominence. Known for featuring fast-paced offenses that spread the ball all over the field, Shinnick’s coaching philosophy centers around positive reinforcement.

“I give my dad a lot of credit because what I’ve tried to do throughout my career is to have a positive impact on people’s lives,” Shinnick said. “He never told me anything specific, but every time I ran into someone he coached or played with, they all told me about the positive impact he had on them. The one thing he did tell me was, ‘Don’t ever forget what it’s like to be a player,’ so for me it’s always been about the player experience.”

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He also borrowed the philosophy of one of his assistant coaches from when he played at Colorado.

“Gary Barnett was our running backs coach and, when a guy would fumble or jump offsides, he wouldn’t yell or castigate and curse them out,” Shinnick said. “He’d say, ‘Hey, that’s not like you.’ Instead of seeing a negative and reinforcing it with another negative, he saw the negative and found a way to reinforce it with a positive image that the guy could relate to. He really showed me that words matter.”

Shinnick understands that human error factors into every aspect of life, that players don’t want to fumble, jump offsides, drop passes or get penalties. So he frames his response in ways that are constructive without berating his players.

Which leads to another approach that is unconventional, instituting a no-cursing policy.

“It’s something I’ve done my entire career,” Shinnick said. “If we’re going to be a disciplined team, we have to do the right things and, if you can control your tongue, you can control every other aspect of your life and your body. You have to figure out a way to control your emotions so you don’t react in a negative way on the field that costs your team at some point in time. If you get a penalty because you can’t control your tongue and can’t control your actions, that’s not putting the team first.”

Towson head football coach Pete Shinnick kisses his wife, Traci, after an NCAA football game against Maryland on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)
Shinnick kisses his wife, Traci, after last week's Maryland game. (Steve Ruark/AP)

When he had West Florida competing for and winning a national championship, NFL teams began sending their scouts there to observe practices. The feedback he’d invariably get was that his coaching staff did an excellent job of teaching the game and getting everyone to buy into what they were trying to accomplish. There was something different about those practices, the scouts would say.

“I’d say to them, ‘Well, you know we have a no-cursing policy,’” said Shinnick. “And they’d say, ‘Oh! That’s what’s different. Nobody is being yelled at and called a MFer. They’re simply being told what to do and how to do it.’”

When he accepted the Towson job, he reached out to the team leaders who had emerged from the prior coaching staff, some of whom had already entered the transfer portal.

“With the new coaches coming in, I didn’t know them or what their plans were, so my plan was to transfer to a high-major D-I school to play out my final season of eligibility,” said defensive end and NFL prospect Jesus Gibbs. “Coach Shinnick impressed me with his honesty, with his vision of what we could accomplish if I stuck around. He asked me to give him and the new staff a chance. I did and he convinced me that he was the real deal when he and the other staff showed up every day for informal workouts that were not mandatory. He showed me that he wanted to get to know me, not just as a football player but as a person.”

Shinnick hadn’t recruited the majority of the players on the current roster, but he sensed the potential of the returning players who won four games in a row to end last season. In his first meeting, he laid out what they were expected to live up to, telling his new players how there were going to do things and why they’d be doing them, that there was a purpose in everything the coaching staff would be asking of them.

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“The best thing that happened early on was that Jesus Gibbs came out of the portal and decided to stay, as did other key players and leaders like linebacker Mason Woods and offensive lineman Dan Volpe,” Shinnick said. “They’re enjoying this experience thus far, and it’s been fun. I feel like we can have a great year.”

“With Coach Shinnick, he lives up to his words,” said D’Ago Hunter, a running back and return specialist who returned for his final year of eligibility. “Whatever he says he’s going to do, he does it. He impressed me early on when he spoke to me and some of the other team leaders. He’s sincere, straightforward and direct. And it’s evident that he cares about us as human beings. The players have a lot of respect for him, and we’re trusting this process of working together to build something special at Towson.”

The Tigers open conference play with their first home game of the season against Monmouth on Saturday. Despite last week’s 38-6 loss to Maryland in College Park, Shinnick is encouraged about what lies ahead.

“Watching what we’ve been able to do over the spring and the summer is exciting to me,” he said. “Despite the season-opening loss to Maryland, we showed some signs in that game of us becoming a really good football team. I’m excited to not be playing a Big Ten opponent this weekend, to see if we can unleash this thing a little bit against a conference opponent.”

(Towson Athletics)

“If we’re going to be a disciplined team, we have to do the right things and, if you can control your tongue, you can control every other aspect of your life and your body.”

Pete Shinnick

Sometimes, Shinnick will drive past his family’s old home. The nostalgia can be overwhelming thinking back to those days of being a little kid hanging around his dad and his Colts teammates, of experiencing the roar of the crowds in the old Memorial Stadium.

When he arrives on campus bright and early and sees the construction of new buildings, he can’t help but sense a symbolic synergy with what he’s trying to build with the football program. Over the past 10 years, the university has invested $1.2 billion to upgrade its campus with state-of-the-art facilities. He’s impressed with the vision of the new president and athletic director, of the future of the school and its athletic department.

And, as he walks to his office, he often gets goosebumps.

“Growing up, Johnny Unitas was obviously my dad’s teammate and friend, but he was also a true legend in this town,” Shinnick said. “To be able to say that I go to work at Johnny Unitas Stadium, that’s so cool and exciting to me. I’m going to put the time in. Our coaches and players are going to put the time in. So I’m also excited about the future for Towson University football, and we want the future to be now.”

Alejandro Danois was a sports writer for The Banner. He specializes in long-form storytelling, looking at society through the prism of sports and its larger connections with the greater cultural milieu. The author of The Boys of Dunbar, A Story of Love, Hope and Basketball, he is also a film producer and cultural critic.

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