The University of Pittsburgh is one of the premier programs in college football when it comes to preparing its players for playing and coaching careers. In 2010, former Pitt tight end Nate Byham became one of the many players to make the jump to the NFL, and now that his professional career is over, he has joined the list of alumni to make the transition from player to coach. Byham currently serves as the tight ends coach and special teams coordinator for the University of Albany, and he can thank his time at Pitt for leading him towards his new career. As it turns out, the man responsible for recruiting Byham to Pitt ended up being the same man responsible for kick-starting his career as a coach.
“It was Coach Gattuso, the head coach [at Albany],” Byham said, regarding how he ended up coaching at Albany. “He was the one who recruited me to the University of Pittsburgh when I was in high school, so I’ve known him for quite a while. I ran into him at a wedding actually right after he took that job, and I was actually still playing in the NFL. We were talking – talking a little bit – and he was telling me about becoming the head coach at Albany and he was filling up his staff. He told me if I ever wanted to get into coaching after playing, give him a call and maybe something could work out. About two months later—I was with the Patriots at the time—I just came off my fifth knee surgery, and I just thought it was about time to hang up the cleats. I gave him a call on a Friday. He said ‘come on up’ and gave me that volunteer assistant coaching role. I was coaching for him that following Monday.”
The Franklin, Pennsylvania native wasted little time joining Coach Gattuso’s staff after retiring from the NFL. For those unfamiliar with Nate’s aspirations, it would seem as though a career in coaching was a lifelong dream he couldn’t wait to begin. And while coaching was an option that had occurred to him in the past, he didn’t necessarily foresee it as his post-NFL career.
“They always say, ‘You always gotta look ahead, you always gotta look ahead and see what you want to do after football.’ I made sure I got my college degree when I was at the University of Pittsburgh; that was very important to me to get that piece of paper, and have that confidence that once football was over, I would be able to get into the work force and have a really good college degree. But I never knew exactly what I wanted to do, because football was such a passion to me. Coaching was something that crossed my mind, but I didn’t really know. I’m one of those guys that lives in the moment, and playing football was my priority at the time. When I ran into [Coach Gattuso] and we started talking, that’s about the time I knew my career playing was coming to an end. And it just seemed right. All the stars aligned and it worked out perfect. It was too good to be true, really.”
One of the primary factors that made the opportunity at Albany “too good to be true” is the man under which Nate Byham works, head coach Greg Gattuso. Gattuso served as the defensive line coach for Dave Wannstedt at Pitt, and although he was not Byham’s position coach, the two developed a close relationship in Pittsburgh that remains just as strong today in upstate New York.
“[Coach Gattuso and I] have always been really close, because he was the one who recruited me to Pitt, so we’ve always had a really close relationship. He’s a very happy guy, and what you see is what you get. There wasn’t a whole lot of change from when I was a player that he recruited to working for him and being my head coach. Obviously, there’s things that need to be done and he’s very particular in that sense, as all good head coaches are. His personality towards me and our relationship that we have has stayed the same, and actually just grown more.”
With such admiration and respect for Coach Gattuso, Nate is prepared to devote countless hours towards creating a winning football program at Albany. He assists whenever and wherever he can, like at Coach Gattuso’s annual Big Dog Prospect Camp, where the Albany coaching staff evaluates the top prospects on their recruiting list. The expectations for the Great Danes’ football team are quickly changing with men like Coach Gattuso and Coach Byham shaping the team’s culture.
“Our goal is always to win the CAA championship and to make the playoffs,” Byham revealed. “When we first came in, that was the goal: to get to the playoffs and see what can happen. We always want to try to win a national championship. We set the bar high for ourselves, but we think it’s attainable. We’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of the CAA for four years, and we’ve been here for three of the years. In that short amount of time, we’ve done pretty well for ourselves and we’re growing rapidly. We’ve been fortunate enough to recruit some really good football players over the last couple of years. So our goal is to win a championship here.”
Byham, a four-year letterman and three-year starter at Pitt, was a two-time All-Big East honoree at tight end. While he possessed reliable hands and solid route running capabilities, it was his prowess as a blocker that placed him above others at his position. The 6-foot-4-inch 265-pounder excelled as a throwback tight end, serving as an extension of the offensive line that paved the way for running backs like LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis. It was this playing style that has shaped his approach towards coaching tight ends at Albany. While many teams today value tight ends that function primarily as oversized receivers, Byham preaches the importance of developing an all-around game.
“I think I probably have more of an old-school mentality, and maybe that’s because I was more of a blocking tight end,” admits Byham. “With that being said, I’ve always thought that the most successful offenses you watch over the years – even before it became a thing lately, as that trend has grown – those successful offenses have great tight ends who can do multiple things. Ten years ago, you didn’t think about the tight ends doing what they do now, people have gone away from having guys that were just tackles, but guys who could do a little bit of everything. You want these guys to be able to understand that they can do everything. They’re not just a receiver.
“One thing I hate is you get these guys in and they want to just want to be a big wide receiver. They gotta understand we can do multiple things. One thing we really focus on is all of our tight ends being able to play both the H-Back – more of a flex receiver role – and be able to put their hands in the dirt and block. The more you can do, the more multi-dimensional you are, the more dimensional our offense is.”
It did not take Byham long to demonstrate that he can transfer his football knowledge to the players at Albany. As a volunteer assistant in 2014, he aided in the development of the Great Danes’ standout senior tight end, Brian Parker. Few players from Albany receive a chance to play in the NFL, but after a year under Byham’s tutelage, Parker signed as an undrafted free agent with the San Diego Chargers.
“Brian Parker was just a great athlete. We came in, he was going into his senior year, and he had all the tools. The biggest thing for him was just cleaning up some technique here and there. When we came in, the big thing for us was just tweaking little things and cleaning up the technique. And I think it was an advantage for him because he had someone like myself working with him that knew the footwork terminology, and the footwork they were going to be looking for at the NFL level. So when he went into his pro days and things of that nature, he kind of had an edge up on the competition from the other guys who were just jumping into it.” He added, “It was a really great experience being able to coach him and to see him have that successful transition into the NFL.”
Nate Byham knows the NFL. He spent two seasons in San Francisco after being drafted in the sixth round of the 2010 NFL draft by the 49ers, and played the 2012 and 2013 seasons with Tampa Bay. Throughout his four-year playing career, he registered 11 receptions for 83 yards and a touchdown, while contributing heavily as a blocker. Injuries, specifically to his left knee, hindered the former Panther’s progress. In total, Byham has endured five surgeries on his left knee, one on his shoulder, and “a little wrist surgery here and there.” Despite his injury-shortened career though, he still views his professional playing days as a success.
“I would describe it as successful,” Byham said of his career. “I really enjoyed my time playing in the NFL. I was fortunate enough to get to play for four seasons, and when I wasn’t out with knee injuries, I was fortunate enough to be able to contribute and play a lot of football. And play against some amazing players, and play next to a lot of great players as well.
“As an athlete, and just as a competitor in general, you always want to test yourself. You’re always trying to match yourself up against the best competition to see if you can thrive and hang. One thing I really did feel in my heart was that I can hang at that level. That was a really great feeling once I realized I belong here, I can play at this level, and I can compete with these guys. I really enjoyed my career in the NFL. I was part of some really good teams, going to the NFC championship game with San Francisco. And I was on some teams that were average, like my first year in San Francisco. I really got to see the roller coaster of how the NFL works.”
The lessons Byham learned while on the NFL’s roller coaster ride allow him to understand the intricacies one must master to play tight end at the highest level. His detailed knowledge of the position, honed while playing for coaches like Jim Harbaugh and Greg Schiano, aids in his success as a coach. According to Byham though, his “coach mentality” began during his time at Pitt. He credits Dave Wannstedt, tight ends coach Brian Angelichio, and the rest of Pitt’s former coaching staff for first exposing him to the approach coaches and players must take to maximize their potential.
“I was always very fortunate to be around great football minds, and they really shaped how I thought. Even when I was still playing [at Pitt], I felt like I was getting that coach mentality. I was learning the ins and outs of the play, and why we do this in a play. They were really technical with learning the whole play and the whole concept, so I felt like that kind of gave me a head up on the competition and prepared me for coaching.”
Not only did Pitt allow Byham to learn from coaches with professional football experience, the university also provided the opportunity to observe and associate with current NFL standouts.
“The one thing about the university is it’s a really great learning environment, especially being there at our facility – the UPMC facility down there in the Southside. You’re right there next door to the Steelers, and you learn, even with the small interactions you have with those guys, what it takes and the dedication [it takes] to get to that level.”
Nate Byham truly enjoyed his time at Pitt and will never forget the memories from his four years there. Of all his experiences, two seminal moments stand out above the rest.
“Obviously, the 13-9 win over West Virginia was huge,” he said. “That’s one that’s hard to ever get out of your mind. But probably, my first touchdown catch was verses West Virginia my freshman year. I remember I was kind of the deer in the headlights; I was a true freshman playing and it was the Backyard Brawl. I was a little bit of a deer in the headlights. It was a big moment for me and I was in the moment. Tyler Palko delivered an inside seam pass to me. I went up, caught it, broke two tackles and scored. It was just a really surreal moment for me.”
Not only will Byham’s memories of Pitt last forever, the friendships he forged while wearing the Blue and Gold will endure as well. To this day, Nate maintains close relationships with many of his former teammates.
“Gus Mustakas is a very close friend of mine. John Pelusi – a fellow tight end and Pittsburgh guy – and Shane Murray and a few others were all in my wedding a few years back. Dorin Dickerson is a good friend of mine still. They say, ‘Once a Pitt man, always a Pitt man.”
Once the season begins, college football coaches take the term “full-time employee” to another level. Early mornings, late nights, and weekend travel prevent coaches from dedicating much time to anything other than their next opponent. As a coach, Byham is no exception to this rule. However, as a Pitt man, he still manages to follow the progress of his former team.
“I really like what Coach Narduzzi is doing there,” Byham revealed. “I think they’re doing a great job and building a great program. I’ve gotten to watch a game here and there, and I really like what they’re doing offensively. Hopefully they just keep on growing. Obviously they’re doing a great job recruiting and getting really good football players in there and doing a good job keeping Western Pennsylvania players home.”
Nate Byham will always be a Pitt man. For the time being though, his focus rests on improving Albany’s 7-4 record from last season. The work isn’t easy, but he is already seeing returns for his efforts.
“I came in as a volunteer assistant coach. The following year I was a tight end coach. Now I’m the tight end coach and special teams coordinator. Every year my role has grown. [Coach Gattuso] trusted me, and put more and more of a work load on me. I feel like I’ve thrived. I love the staff that we have – we have a really great staff. Great team. Great group of kids. It all starts with Coach Gattuso. I’ve been really fortunate, and it’s a really good environment.”
Nate’s quick ascension from volunteer assistant to tight ends coach and special teams coordinator indicates that this is a man with many more promotions in his future. When asked if he has formulated any short-term or long-term goals for himself, Byham returned to that “one step at a time” mentality.
“Like I said before, I live in the moment. I’m really happy where I’m at. I love what I do. I have goals to just coach football. That’s what I love to do. I want to coach successful football teams and win championships, whatever level that’s at. I believe that if I keep my head down, keep working, and keep coaching my tail off in the moment, good things will happen.
“One thing I can say is that I’m not in any hurry to run away from Albany, or try to move up, or go anywhere else, because I’m in such a great environment here coaching. I’m under a great head coach who takes good care of us and gives us room to coach, and work, and grow.”
Aside from his career, Nate has also begun building a family in upstate New York. He resides in Saratoga Springs with his wife Erica and their six-month old son, Grayson. When he isn’t coaching, Nate can be found at home spending valuable time with his family. Most 28-year-olds would struggle to balance the responsibilities of a coach, husband, and father, but Byham insists he is doing just fine.
“It’s going great,” he said. “Obviously, in the beginning it was a little difficult. Grayson came week three of the season, so it was right in the middle of the grind. But I’ve got a great mother-in-law who came up and helped my wife out for that first month or so. I’m in the offense until eight, nine, ten o’clock at night sometimes, and I’d come home and try to stay up with the baby as much as possible, and help my wife out as much as possible. The good thing is once our season ends and recruiting gets rolling more, and this time of year during spring ball, I get plenty of time with them. That’s one thing I wouldn’t trade for the world. It’s been great. It really has been.”
Byham turns 29 in June. Still relatively young, it is abundantly clear that he has a long, rewarding life ahead. But with him, life is not about the future – it’s about the now.
And the now couldn’t get any better for Nate Byham.
“I really don’t think I could ask for anything more,” he said. “I’m very happy with my life. I really enjoyed my career playing football, but it’s just as great coaching it – especially at the collegiate level. I’m really happy about it. Being able to help these guys grow, as well as coach them, be their mentor – it’s really rewarding. To have a great wife and a beautiful son, and to live the life that I have, I’m really fortunate. I’m really happy where it’s at.”