UConn’s Jarren Horton is son of former NFL coach. Now he is taking similar path: ‘Simple selection for him’
Jarren Horton is no stranger to the nomadic life of coaching.
He’s been all over the map, logging time in college, the NFL, and the defunct Alliance of American Football. Before arriving at UConn as a defensive assistant in 2019, none of those stints lasted more than a year.
“Home is wherever we are,” said Horton, UConn’s interim defensive coordinator. “We can find home. That’s no big deal. Right now, it’s Connecticut. Hopefully it’s Connecticut for a long time.”
It obviously isn’t the most stable lifestyle, but it’s the one he chose. Or some might say it chose him.
Horton grew up immersed in the sport, with fond memories of tagging along with his father Ray, a Super Bowl champion as both a player and coach, to work.
Ray spent 10 years in the NFL as a defensive back for the Cincinnati Bengals and Dallas Cowboys, totaling 19 interceptions in 147 games, including five as a rookie in 1983. After retirement he transitioned into coaching. He was with seven different organizations from 1994-2019 and served in a variety of roles, including defensive backs coach, secondary coach, and defensive coordinator.
His son, of course, was by his side for much of it, even serving as a ball boy when Ray worked under Bill Cowher and later Mike Tomlin for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the early 2000s.
“I always wanted to be around the facility. When I was younger, I didn’t have anything better to do,” said Jarren, 29. “That for me was awesome. I didn’t know it at the time, but just being at practice and listening to the coaches talk to their players and teach them, I didn’t know what they were talking about but subconsciously I understood it a little more.”
Hanging around the Pittsburgh facility is how he met Lou Spanos, who was the Steelers defensive quality control and assistant linebackers coach. He’d later reunite with Spanos while interning for the Tennessee Titans in 2014, building on a relationship that began long before he jumped into the business.
After Spanos was hired to run UConn’s defense in 2019, he gauged the younger Horton’s interest in joining him on staff.
“I was in the Alliance of American Football with the Atlanta Legends,” Jarren recalled. “The league really only lasted a couple weeks. I interviewed with UConn in March of 2019. I took the job. It was a good opportunity for me and my family. I was ready to get back with Coach Lou. On a personal level, it worked out for me because that league folded like 10 days after I took the job.
“I’m happy here. I think even if that league was still going on, I’d be happy here. I love the kids here. I love the guys I work with.”
Now in his third year in Storrs, Jarren is shouldering more responsibility. He was elevated from star/nickel/dime coach to interim defensive coordinator and safeties coach upon Randy Edsall’s departure on Labor Day.
Jarren has his hands full. UConn’s defense has been a mess, capable of being gashed by anyone and prone to surrendering game-changing plays. The Huskies rank bottom-10 nationally in average points (41.6) and yards (467.2) allowed.
“Things are happening fast, but at the same time with my background, I’ve been around this game since I was born,” Jarren said. “I feel like the people that I’ve worked under … have prepared me very well to be in this position. It kind of happened all of a sudden, but at the same time, you’ve got to prepare for anything so you’re ready.”
Like his father, Jarren is refreshingly even-keeled. He thinks it’s why he meshes so well with an eccentric personality like Spanos.
“The buzzword I would use,” Jarren said, “is high energy. He’s very high energy. We kind of balance off each other.”
Ray, 61, last coached in the NFL in 2019 under Jay Gruden with Washington, and now lives in Phoenix. He’s adopted flying as a hobby, and even owns his own aircraft — a “plane with a parachute,” he jokes. He talks regularly with Jarren about the nuances of football and how to manage his responsibilities.
“This is not an easy business,” Ray said. “It’s easy when you’re winning but it’s emotionally taxing when you don’t win. Would I wish that on somebody? No, I think I’d rather have you be a stock analyst or a pro golfer. I think that’s a little easier. But I think you go where your heart takes you. In this case, it’s probably an easy choice for him.”
The elder Horton won one Super Bowl as a player (XXVII with Dallas) and two as an assistant with Pittsburgh (XL, XLIII).
“When you have that team that is playoff or Super Bowl caliber, it’s pretty easy to coach,” Ray said. “You just make sure the guys show up. I’ve said my best coaching jobs sometimes have been on bad teams. You as a coach know, ‘Wow, I did a great job, I got this guy better.’ Sometimes it’s hard to see that.”
UConn is off to an 0-5 start, its worst since 2013, and has dropped 30 of its last 31 games against FBS opponents. The Huskies’ last win came at UMass on Oct. 26, 2019.
But if it’s any consolation, they’re coming off their best performance of the season, albeit in a 24-22 loss. They held Wyoming, a 30.5-point favorite, to three first-half points before wearing down late. Next up is a visit to Vanderbilt on Saturday.
Spanos, now the interim head coach, has been complimentary of Jarren, noting the commitment he’s made to get better.
“If you do the math, we’re probably together more than we are with our families for the last three years,” Spanos said. “We always talk about as a defensive staff, you grow, and you let your assistants get more roles and more responsibilities. … He’s doing an outstanding job. You say, well, we’ve got to do a better job of slowing down the offenses, but all the sideline mechanics, all the prep time, all the communication, being on the same page, we’re working together.”
Jarren often finds himself leaning on the advice of his father.
“There’s a joke among Dick LeBeau coaches, ‘If you’re ever in doubt, blitz them,’” Ray said, referring to the Hall of Fame defensive coordinator who mentored Spanos. “It’s one of those idioms. Let your players play, and you never have to worry about the call. That to me is universal coaching 101. When in doubt, as long as you’re sound, you’re good. Allow your players to do what they do best.”
Jarren’s future with the program is uncertain as UConn embarks on a new coaching search.
For now, he’s only worried about what he can control.
“You always strive to do the best job you can do at the role you’re in,” Jarren said. “You’re always trying to get the next role up. When I would interview places before here, people would always say, ‘Oh, you’ve never been a position coach. I can’t hire you because you don’t have that on your resume.’ I would always say, ‘It might not be on my resume, but I can do it. You’ve got to give me a chance.’
“Now, people can’t say I’ve never been a coordinator. I do see myself as a coordinator moving forward. Just don’t look back.”