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Cedar City • Demario Warren is documenting his dozen years between graduating from high school and becoming Southern Utah University's football coach, detailing how knee injuries luckily forced him into coaching roles.

And then he corrects himself. "Not luckily," he says.

Yet if those setbacks in high school basketball and college football seemed unfortunate at the time, they launched a career that took him from playing for UC Davis to joining the SUU coaching staff the next season. Former SUU coach Ed Lamb hired Warren, even though the offensive coordinator who planned to bring him to Cedar City ended up staying in Davis.

And eight years later, having succeeded Lamb, Warren will lead the Thunderbirds into Rice-Eccles Stadium on Sept. 1 to face Utah for the first time in what he describes as "a moment these kids will never forget."

Same story for himself and anyone who recognizes his significance as the first African-American head coach of a Utah college football team. Warren's career has evolved nicely in those eight seasons since he asked his wife if she wanted to move with him and their 3-year-old son to Cedar City. Amanda Warren's response: "Where is that?"

She can laugh about that discussion now, having become immersed in the community as a mother of three and an accountant for the Leavitt Group. And her husband has proven to be a discovery in his profession. His rise to a head coaching job at the FBS level at age 31 seems remarkable, except to those who knew him at Fairfield High School or UC Davis in northern California.

"I don't want to say it's a tough place, but it's not easy to grow up here. He was always able to rise above — for a lack of a better term — the garbage," said Fairfield basketball coach Eddie Wilson, an English teacher who labels him "a Renaissance man."

Warren's family is thriving in Cedar City, where he felt a "ton of support" during the two weeks when the school searched for Lamb's replacement. He calculates their growing level of acceptance by having a week's meals delivered when their first Utah-born girl arrived in 2009 and a month's meals provided four years later when another daughter came.

Warren's traditional home life comes in contrast to his own upbringing, being raised by a mother who was 15 when she delivered him. He witnessed how Kimberly Magee worked 12-hour days in packaging for a pharmaceutical manufacturer, while his father was "in and out of jail," by his account. Their relationship is developing. "I'm still getting to know him," Warren said.

That's the background for a difficult conversation between Warren and his mother when his then-fiancee became pregnant during his freshman year at UC Davis. Warren "promised that it wasn't going to affect what our goals were, let her know her sacrifices weren't going to go unnoticed," he said.

He would keep striving to graduate from college and become a high school basketball coach. A knee injury in his own senior year of basketball at Fairfield had created Warren's first coaching experience. During college, he returned to Fairfield High, joining the coaching staff. "We knew he was going to be good, from the start," Wilson said.

As a UC Davis football player in 2007, he unwittingly auditioned for another job. Warren carried the ball only eight times for the Aggies that season, due to his knee injury, while becoming almost a player-coach. The program produced "a lot of smart, disciplined guys," said former assistant coach Rich Scangarello. "Demario was one of those guys."

Lamb pursued Scangarello in assembling his initial SUU staff in '08, and agreed to hire Warren to coach running backs as part of the deal. So when Scangarello chose to stay at UC Davis, Lamb decided he "couldn't stomach" rejecting Warren. Lamb's only concession was moving Warren to defense, where he personally could work with him.

"As that program grew, [Warren] grew as a coach," said Scangarello, who competed against SUU with UC Davis and Northern Arizona. "Ed really mentored him and did a great job."

Warren went from coaching the cornerbacks to overseeing the entire secondary and then becoming the defensive coordinator, while taking on other administrative duties. "Everything I asked him to do, he exceeded my expectations," Lamb said.

So did the Thunderbirds. SUU won the Big Sky Conference championship in 2015 with a defense that produced two defensive backs taken in the first five rounds of the NFL draft — safety Miles Killebrew and cornerback LeShaun Sims — with end James Cowser signing as a free agent. Even in a 12-9 loss at Utah State, that defense was outstanding. SUU held the Aggies to 250 total yards and no offensive touchdowns, while forcing 14 punts.

Warren's calculated, aggressive style of defense is "very outside-the-box, very physical, very confident," said USU coach Matt Wells. "That's a direct reflection of the kind of coach he is."

About 10 percent of FBS and FCS head coaches are ethnic minorities. So SUU's Nov. 12 game at BYU (another first-time opponent) also is notable in Utah sports history, with Warren meeting Kalani Sitake, a Pacific Island native.

"I understand the importance of being successful as a minority coach, especially in Utah," said Warren, recognizing his success could create opportunities for others.

In the absence of Lamb, who became a BYU assistant coach, and those NFL prospects, Warren will have to rebuild SUU's defense and adjust to a head coaching role. During spring practice, he found himself having to tone down his reactions to good defensive plays, now that he's in charge of the entire production.

What won't change is Warren's personality, a "blend of knowledge and intensity and compassion," said Wilson, describing him as "charismatic and demanding at the same time."

Lamb liked having a staff with diverse personalities, but he also welcomed how Warren "approached the game a lot like I did — positive with the players, patient, calm," he said.

"You can just see the love from all of his players," Amanda Warren said. "That's what people need to know about him."

Twitter: @tribkurt —

About Demario Warren

Age • 31. (Maine's Joe Harasymiak, who turns 30 on June 23, is the youngest head football coach in the FCS.)

Birthplace • Vacaville, Calif.

High school • Fairfield (Calif.) HS; rushed for 1,181 yards as a senior in 2002, inducted into the Fairfield Athletic Hall of Fame in 2015.

College • UC Davis, running back, 2004-07; totaled 180 yards of rushing and receiving vs. South Dakota State in 2005.

Family • Wife, Amanda; son, Demario Jr. (11); daughters, Jazelle (7) and Daylee (3).

SUU experience • Assistant coach 2008-13; defensive coordinator, 2014-15.

2016 schedule • SUU plays three in-state games: Sept. 1 at Utah, Oct. 22 vs. Weber State and Nov. 12 at BYU.