“They’ve got Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick as their defensive tackles, and we’ve got kids that don’t belong in the Big 12 talent-wise. You sit around all week thinking, ‘Oh my god, how are we going to gain a yard? When your X isn’t as good as their O, that makes for late nights.”
Herman is talking about one of the crowning moments at Iowa State.
“We actually won the damn thing.”
It came in 2009, 16 days after Suh had broken Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert in half, six weeks before the Huskers would lose the Big 12 Championship to Texas by a tick of the clock. Iowa State forced an absurd eight turnovers, four inside the ISU 5, and with a redshirt freshman backup in at quarterback, the Cyclones took down the Huskers in Lincoln, 9-7.
Herman was Paul Rhoades’ coordinator, attempting to figure out how an outmanned offense could move. Six years later, following an apprenticeship with the Urban Meyer machine at Ohio State, he is preparing for his first season as a head coach.
Week-to-week preparation was mostly the same in Ames and Columbus, but “you didn’t have to worry about personnel matchups near as much at Ohio State.
“I think the situation dictates, but when you have a talent discrepancy, you know you’re probably not going to drive the field on 10-play drives. You know you’re going to have to manufacture big plays.”
In Lincoln, his offense scored its lone touchdown on a 47-yard pass from Tiller to Jake Williams. The connection created 46 percent of ISU’s passing yards.
Herman’s rise from Cal Lutheran receiver to head coach was nothing if not organic: tiny school graduate assistant, big-school G.A., small-school position coach. Small-school offensive coordinator, mid-major O.C., power-conference O.C., power-power O.C.
Following his graduation cum laude from CLU, he looked nearby.
“I wanted to be a Division I G.A., but I didn’t know anybody. I was a Division III kid whose dad wasn’t a coach.”
His opportunity took him 1,400 miles southeast, from Thousand Oaks to Seguin, Texas. CLU defensive coordinator Bryan Marmion became Texas Lutheran’s head coach and offered to bring him along.
“They hadn’t had football there in 12 years. He offered me $5,000 and a cafeteria card for one meal a day, so I packed up my Honda Civic and went, sight unseen.”
After a year, Herman landed a bigger gig while getting a master’s degree in education.
“I learned football from [then-offensive coordinator] Greg Davis at the University of Texas,” he says. “That was back in the I-formation days, and they were handing the ball to Ricky Williams 35 times a game in iso and power. That’s what I believed in.”
After two years, Herman landed his first full-time gig at age 26: receivers and special teams coach at Sam Houston State. Ron Randleman, while ending a nearly 25-year stretch as SHSU’s head coach, introduced a variable into Herman’s belief system.
“There, I had some experience with a shotgun spread offense.”
That changed everything.
“You’ve gotta run the football. Have to, have to, have to. We’re just going to do it from the shotgun, from spread formations. We’re basically a two-back run team that just happens to run from the shotgun. We gain an extra advantage with the QB.”
Herman spent four years at SHSU, with his stay punctuated by an 11-3 season and a trip to the I-AA semifinals. Those Bearkats were pass-heavy — they averaged over 350 yards through the air — but Herman was meshing his Ricky Williams beliefs with a shotgun scheme.
In 2005, Texas State head coach David Bailiff brought Herman to San Marcos as coordinator. He found his quarterback template in Houston transfer Barrick Nealy, who threw for 2,875 yards and rushed for 1,057, manufacturing 34 touchdowns and leading the Bobcats to a I-AA semifinal.
“Once we got to TSU, and I inherited Nealy in 2005, we jumped all in with the shotgun spread.”
Herman spent three seasons at Iowa State before Meyer put a new band together. One of the best identifiers of talent in the country, the two-time national title-winner liked what he saw in the ISU coordinator.
Meyer had long been enamored with a power-spread approach, employing dual-threat quarterbacks from Bowling Green (Josh Harris) to Utah (Alex Smith) to Florida (Tim Tebow). Herman was smart and charismatic, and Meyer took him under his significant wing.
“We got surprised a lot at Ohio State. I don’t know if it’s because we were really good and people felt like they had to do something different. At Iowa State, not a lot. What you saw on film is what you got.”
Herman’s play-calling came together throughout his stops, brick by brick. As other coaches will tell you, he believes Saturday comes down to who, not what.
“I think if you’re down, or if you’re in a tight game, a lot of it is what players need to touch the ball and how we get it to them. You think about players and not plays.”
Football isn’t Tecmo Bowl, where there’s a perfect defensive call for whatever the offense runs. Herman’s offense intends to have built-in answers for whatever the defense tries.
“Offensive coaches will sometimes say, ‘They had a better call than you,'” something Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop tries to exploit. “We don’t subscribe to that. Every call we make has answers built in. Some are better than others, but we’ve got answers. We never go into a game, draw a play, or run any play that we’re crossing our fingers about, hoping the defense doesn’t make this other call.”
You’re going to be prepared for most of what the opponent does. And the opponent only impacts so much of the game plan anyway.
“You’re going to do what you do, if you’re any good. You’re not going to invent stuff.
“Monday is a time to say, ‘Okay, who are they? What is their personality? What do they believe in? Big blitz team? Cover-4? Man to man?'”
And then they dial in.
“When they play base defense in this formation, we like plays X, Y, and Z.’ We’ll all agree on that. ‘Now, are X, Y, and Z still good if they blitz? And if no, then what is our answer? Are we gonna throw a bubble screen? What happens if they’re not in their base defense? Check out of it? Run it? Throw hot?’ Et cetera.”
The biggest change since becoming a head coach is that he’s not just in charge of the offense. He’s had to determine what a Herman defense should be.
“I want great teachers [on defense]. We’ve got to be great tacklers. I wanted a very sound base defense. I wanted to base out of a 3-4, because I knew it was always a big challenge for me game-planning against teams that were really good out of that. But I wanted to have a guy who knew how to pressure people and knew the strengths and weaknesses of different blitzes. I’ve gotta tell you, I think I hit a home run in getting Todd Orlando.”
A former coordinator at UConn and FIU, Orlando spent the last two seasons maintaining one of the nation’s best mid-major defenses — probably the best mid-major 3-4 — at Utah State. An Ohio State Lite offense merged with a Utah State-style defense can win games at TDECU Stadium.
When Meyer announced his hire of Herman in 2012, he said, “I wanted to have a guy that’s going to not have an ego, has a good understanding of our offense and be extremely intelligent to learn what we do and adapt it to what he does.”
“I had never met Urban before he hired me,” says Herman, “but he’s the strongest influence I’ve had. Just the last three years, the things we were able to accomplish there. From a game-planning standpoint, I didn’t change much, but from Urban I learned how to be a head coach.
“I’ve had an unbelievable string of luck. Greg Davis, Ron Randleman, David Bailiff, Paul Rhoades, Urban Meyer. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention all of them as influences.”
SUNDAY: THE TRANSITION DAY
Monday | Tuesday | Wednesday | Thursday | Friday
RICH RODRIGUEZ, ARIZONA HEAD COACH
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
“We had a shorter quarterback, and I thought I could get five dumpy linemen who could get run over slowly.”
Twenty-four years ago, Rodriguez made one of the most significant tweaks in football history because he was looking to overcome physical challenges.
By then, Rodriguez was already a redemption story. He had gotten his first head coaching job at 25 at NAIA’s Salem University. He was gone after a 2-8 year to his alma mater, West Virginia, as linebackers coach.
“I had no idea what the hell I was doing, but we were working hard and having fun. Through trial and error, we started to do our own thing.”
After a year under Don Nehlen, Rodriguez plunged into another small-time gig. Glenville State, conference mates with Salem in what is now the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, brought him aboard. His second tenure began 1-7-1.
In 1991, it was time to experiment. A defensive back in college, Rodriguez asked himself what many defense-minded coaches have asked: what do I hate stopping the most?
“I thought, ‘Let’s try something different with tempo,'” he says. “I was thinking like a defender. The hardest thing to defend was the two-minute drill. Let’s do that the whole game. What have we got to lose? We’ve got 500 people in the stands, and I’m related to 490 of them.
“We were one of the few teams doing that the whole game. This became part of our culture.”
Growth was slow but obvious.
“We went to the shotgun that second year, and we had some moderate success. I was intrigued by the run and shoot offense, but they were under center a lot, and when they got blitzed from the backside, there were a lot of sacks.”
With those dumpy linemen, the shotgun could buy his quarterback time. Glenville State went 4-5-1. His career record was 7-20-2, but he was figuring something out.
In 1992, GSU recorded Rodriguez’s first winning season. Then the Pioneers went 10-3, averaged 33 points, won the WVIAC, and reached the NAIA finals. Over the next three seasons, they won shares of the WVIAC title and averaged at least 34.5 points per game each year. In 1997, Rodriguez became Tommy Bowden’s offensive coordinator at Tulane.
“Tommy took a leap of faith in hiring me and saying, ‘Hey, run the offense you had at Glenville,'” Rodriguez says. “We weren’t really sure how it would work at the Division I level.”
How did it?
“It worked better! That was the pleasing part. We still had some dumpy linemen who got run over slowly, but we had some more athletic guys up front, and we found that we could find some quarterbacks, guys who could both throw and run really well. It opened up options for us in the QB run game.”
Rodriguez found an immediate kindred spirit in Shaun King. In two years, King threw for 6,075 yards and 62 touchdowns and rushed for 1,160 yards and 16 more scores. In the six years before Bowden and Rodriguez, Tulane had won 11 games; with a sparkly new offense, the Green Wave went 7-4 in 1997, then went 12-0 and finished No. 7.
King was the start of one hell of a lineage. At Clemson, Rodriguez’s Woody Dantzler became the first FBS quarterback to throw for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000.
At West Virginia, he had Rasheed Marshall, who averaged about 1,600 passing yards and 550 rushing yards per season. Then, WVU won 33 games in three years with Pat White running Rodriguez’s spread, winning a Sugar Bowl and coming within a game of the BCS Championship in 2007.
Rodriguez’s Michigan tenure was dragged down by shoddy defense and politics, but he still had the offense. Denard Robinson averaged nearly 2,400 passing yards and 1,400 rushing yards.
At Arizona, Rodriguez turned Matt Scott into a 3,600-yard passer and 500-yard rusher. In 2014, his Wildcats won the Pac-12 South with a redshirt freshman, Anu Solomon, throwing for nearly 3,800 yards.
What started off as the shotgun version of the run and shoot became the premier run-first spread, and now the passing has picked back up. You adapt to both your talent and the way defenses choose to defend you.
“Coaches spend a lot of time watching film and trading ideas,” he says. “There’s no patent on schemes, so the way teams defend you change. Teams will defend you different on the back side and front side of the defense. With the zone read, teams become more creative in how they’re defending the back side. So you adjust and create more variety.
“The game’s evolved more over the last seven, eight years than in any time I can remember.”
“On Sundays, we start by reviewing what we just did and figuring out what didn’t go well. And if we’re on the road, we can watch the game on the way home. Our games are so late, but if we ever played an early game, you could watch your game and still have time to watch someone else suffering through those late games.”
As teams become more familiar with you, you become more familiar with them.
“It’s easier to predict how you think they may play against you,” he says. “In the past, it was guesswork. They hadn’t seen you, and you hadn’t seen them. You’d just do what you do and adapt.
“But your first concern is yourself. There’s only 11 guys out there, and you’ve got to find out the plays you can run and execute well.”
Rodriguez’s staff focuses on Arizona first. By Sunday evening, however, they’ve introduced their players to the next opponent.
“As the next two or three days go, you get a feel for how you think they’ll defend you, by formation, by play. You make adjustments, but you still try to pay attention to what you do well and what the answers are for what you aren’t doing well.”
On Mondays, with players getting the day off from practice, each coach will focus on specific situations.
“We have certain areas. Short yardage, red zone, third down; each coach has a section that he watches a little closer. The offensive coordinator and I watch everything. I watch whole games and cutups to get a feel for the personality of the guy calling the defense. I put myself in the shoes of the D.C. I’m him watching us. I’ve been doing this so long that I know what I’m looking for.”
The situational work continues with full-speed practice on Tuesday.
“We have situations — down and distance, field position — on every play. We’re always moving the ball, moving the situation. I want our players to understand that everything is situations. In our Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday practices, we’re never stationary where we put the ball.”
Like Missouri’s Gary Pinkel, Rodriguez points out two things: information is so much more readily available, and paralysis by analysis is real.
“It’s so much easier now. I tease our [graduate assistants]. We had 16 millimeter film and had to be in the dark room. They can do as much in two minutes as we could in two hours. It’s so much easier to create cutups. Our players can be watching themselves an hour after practice on their computer. You can do so much, but you have to be careful that you don’t do too much.
“We can’t overload these guys. If we want to add a play, we take one away.”
What still surprises him on Saturdays?
“There’s something every game. And maybe it’s you. Maybe you’re not executing well, or maybe somebody goes down that you had a key play called for. ‘We thought that would work, and it’s okay, but this other play is working a whole lot better.’ You have to be able to adapt; that’s why I think it helps for the players to have grown up in a system like this.”
And what about halftime adju-
“The halftime talk is way overrated! First of all, the first five minutes and last five minutes are probably to use the restroom. We’re old! We’re not passing up on a chance to go to the bathroom! But then our coaches are talking to each other for five minutes, too. You’re not going to invent a whole lot of things. You have to keep things simple enough that if you make adjustments, everybody already kind of knows why.”
Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo agrees about halftime.
Rodriguez has been operating a variation of the same system for more than two decades. Is it easier or harder to prepare now?
“I liked it better when we were unique! We’re not unique anymore. Everybody sees what we do all the time.
“Offensively, you’ve got to still try to be unique and different. Now if you run two tight ends or an I-formation, it makes you unique. But I love our system because I know the answers and know how to coach it. If something better came along, and I could teach it, I’d do that instead.”
MONDAY: FOR DISSECTING YOUR OPPONENT
Tuesday | Wednesday | Thursday | Friday
TODD GRAHAM, ARIZONA STATE HEAD COACH
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Rodriguez’s 1993 Glenville State fell short of the NAIA title.
GSC quarterback Jed Drenning threw for 401 yards and four scores against East Central in the championship. But two throws would haunt him. After ECU took a 34-28 lead, he threw an interception to safety Cory Bennett, who’d later knock down a fourth-down pass from the ECU 18.
Those were the stops ECU needed. Glenville State could do nothing to stop fullback Tyler Jack, now an Oklahoma highway patrolman, who rushed 38 times for an NAIA playoff-record 318 yards and four touchdowns.
Trying to stop Rodriguez’s offense planted a seed for the opposing 29-year-old defensive coordinator, an ECU alum named Todd Graham.
“We had not seen anything like their offense all year,” Graham says. “They were very explosive, a top scoring team. Our key was the turnovers.”
The two future Pac-12 archrivals stayed in touch.
“They were a no-huddle in 1993,” Graham says, “and it doesn’t matter what you’re running schematically against them; it’s a philosophy. We were very similar in our philosophies of instilling discipline and toughness. His teams are going to be able to run the ball and play defense, and they’re going to be well-coached.”
From East Central, Graham found head coaching opportunities, first at Carl Albert High in Oklahoma, then at Allen High in Texas. In 2001, Rodriguez gave him a call. WVU’s new head coach offered a position as linebackers coach. By 2002, Graham was defensive co-coordinator.
“Rich gave me an opportunity, and the reason he did that was we knew each other from playing in the national championship.
“At West Virginia, we had the biggest turnaround in the country in 2002. And then we [Graham, not Rodriguez] went to Tulsa and had the biggest turnaround.”
Graham has built the reputation of a job-hopper. Part of that is because his success opens opportunities. Tulsa head coach Steve Kragthorpe made him solo coordinator in 2003, and after three years, he had the head job at Rice.
“Rice, they hadn’t gone to a bowl game since Harry Truman was president. We went in and analyzed what the problem was. They struggled running the ball and playing defense. We had smart kids, and we had an attacking defense.
“What you do in the classroom affects what you do on the field. I believe that. Our coaches are responsible for 100 percent of what kids are doing. They’re compensated for how kids do on the field and in the classroom. That’s very unique.
“I believe in the teacher model. I started off coaching seventh grade football, then moved up to high school, then to small college, then mid-major, then to the majors.”
Graham won with coaches from similar backgrounds. At Tulsa, he hired Arkansas high school coaching great Gus Malzahn as his offensive co-coordinator. Within Graham’s aggressive philosophy, Malzahn’s offenses thrived; he went on to win a national title as Auburn’s coordinator and nearly another as Auburn’s head coach.
Graham next hired Chad Morris, who had only coached in Texas high schools. Clemson took him a year later, and he’s about to begin his first season as SMU’s head coach.
“If you look at the guys I’ve hired — Chad Morris, [new Kansas head coach] David Beaty, Gus — they had never coached college football. They had a high school background, a teacher background.
“When I was a high school coach, my philosophy was that we coached both sides of the football and we adapted what we were doing to the skills of the players. We’re all teachers.”
In 2008 at Tulsa, his Golden Hurricane ranked first in total offense (569.9 yards per game) and second in scoring offense (47.2 points per game), but also ninth in sacking quarterbacks (38) and 25th in tackles for loss (86).
“Look at some offenses that throw the ball. They put up stats, but they’re not playing defense at a level that can be successful. So I’ll dictate, for example, that we’re a run/play-action offense. We’re going to run 68 to 70 percent of the time on base downs.
“Everything we do is designed to attack what the opponent is being taught. For example, look at what Gus does and what we do offensively. [When they line up], the primary key will tell the defender that the ball’s getting run to the left. Instead, it’s getting thrown to the right.
“Out here at ASU, our D is designed to attack the no-huddle offense. Of course, the diversity of offenses is difficult. You have to defense the Stanford power run, then Oregon’s offense, then the air raids. You have to have a D that is very flexible and still able to attack offenses.
“Our offense, defense, and special teams have to match and blend on each other. Our offensive coordinator doesn’t get to come in and do whatever he wants to do. We adapt to our philosophy, the talents of the players, and what they can execute. We’re an attacking offense and an attacking defense.”
This synergy came from a style he witnessed while attending North Mesquite High in the 1980s and at Allen.
“The origin of that was [former Texas A&M defensive coordinator, then head coach] R.C. Slocum and the Wrecking Crew.”
As with Rodriguez and Graham, when Graham clicks with an assistant, it remains a relationship for a long time. Mike Norvell, his offensive coordinator at Arizona State, began as a graduate assistant at Tulsa and followed him to Pitt in 2011, then Arizona State in 2012. Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson is a 1986 East Central grad who coached with Graham at Allen High, Tulsa, and Pitt.
“You cannot be a great coaching or teaching staff if you’re changing all the time.”
He’s talking about changing his personnel.
“We’re not going to change quarterbacks on a whim or offensive coordinators or coaches on a whim. The players come and go, but the system has to be adapted. Our plan at ASU has to be different than USC’s or anybody else’s. We’ve had a lot of success here with transition and junior college players. We’ve had a lot of guys in the NFL that are JUCO players; you won’t see that at UCLA or USC.
“You have to adapt to the school you’re at.”
“On Monday, it’s the players’ day off, and we’re working on our base downs game plan.”
Base downs are first-and-10s, or as Graham puts it, “possession-and-10.”
Graham and his staff have completed their assessments of their previous game, reviewed the upcoming opponent’s three previous games and referred rough plans they designed for this opponent over the summer, to see what has changed.
By Tuesday, the base down packages will be installed. By Wednesday, his team will focus on third and fourth downs. By Thursday, everybody will walk through the red zone and what he calls “game position and landmarks.”
“We believe that complexity in organization means simplicity in operation.”
He will repeat that a couple times. In theory, simplicity means the fewest number of Saturday surprises.
“I think early in the year, you get surprised. But once you’ve got six or seven games underneath you, it’s different. That’s why injuries and personnel adjustments can be so important. We lost our starting quarterback [Taylor Kelly] in Week 3 last year, and that impacted us. You can only give one QB reps during the season, so we had to adjust on the move and within the game.
“And of course, sometimes you make more adjustments than others. We’re playing Texas A&M [in the first week of 2015], and they’ve got a great offensive football team. You know they’ll have some wrinkles, and there’s only so many things people can do beforehand.”
TUESDAY: FOR COMMUNICATING THE GAME PLAN
Wednesday | Thursday | Friday
BOB SHOOP, PENN STATE DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR
Matthew O’Haren/USA Today Sports
By Tuesday morning, Shoop’s staff has determined the answers to the three most important questions of the coming opponent: “Who can hurt us?”, “Who can help us?” and “What are their gotta-have-its?”
Sunday, the defensive staff began scouting.
“We’ll have one guy responsible for first downs, one for second-and-long, one for goal line, one for third downs. We’ll have a GA responsible for trick plays and sudden-change situations. We’ll get together at 10 a.m. on Monday, when everybody’s completed their projects.
“At that meeting, we’ll discuss their personnel, their gotta-have-its. Then we’ll go by personnel, by formation. These are our calls versus this. First downs, they’re going to do this, this, and this. We’ll decide on the calls we like, and that finishes around dinner time. In the evening, the guys are doing special teams or recruiting calls, and I’ll write out the game plan and give it to the GAs.”
Shoop and his assistants have finished writing scripts and drawing cards. He meets with the safeties and middle linebackers — “the signal callers” — that afternoon.
“We’ll review the three or four keys to victory with the team, and any new things in the game plan. We’ll go through it, then we’ll walk through it on the field.”
The middle of the week is pure repetition. Practice, review practice film. Review goals, practice, review practice film, re-script cards. Edit game plan (“We’ve gotta cut that part out. It didn’t look good.”), review personnel groupings, script practice, practice, review practice film.
By Thursday and Friday, it’ll be quiz time. Shoop will give his defenders scenarios throughout Thursday practices, which wrap up with a two-minute drill against the offense. And after a quick team meeting on Friday, it’ll be time for one last go-round before the real thing.
“I’ll take the defense out, and we’ll review the calls. We’ll watch the swarm tape — the scout team running the opponent’s offense — and the defense will make the calls as we go. Then we’ll go out on the field for the walkthrough.”
An honorable mention all-conference receiver at Yale in the mid-1980s, Shoop discovered coaching organically.
“I didn’t anticipate that I was going to be a football coach. I was a fan of this sport before I was a coach, and I know college football history inside and out. When I graduated, I wanted to combine my career and sports in some manner, but I didn’t know how to do it. I thought I wanted to be a broadcaster. I took a job at Procter & Gamble, and it lasted about six months. I went and played for a year in Birmingham.”
That’s not Alabama, but the Birmingham Bulls, who play against other United Kingdom teams like the East Kilbride Pirates, Nottingham Caesars and Shropshire Revolution. The Bulls lost just one game during Shoop’s season in Erin Go Bragh Stadium.
“I coached a youth league team there, and it whet my appetite. Coach Cozza gave me an opportunity when I got back.”
Carmen Cozza is the Kevin Bacon of college football. Still ticking at 85, he attended Miami (Ohio), the cradle of coaches. He played for former Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian and eventual Ohio State legend Woody Hayes. He roomed with eventual Michigan legend Bo Schembechler and befriended Bill Mallory, who’d win 168 games. He was Yale’s head coach for the most famous Harvard-Yale game ever. He hired Don Brown (now the head of Boston College’s defense) in 1987.
In 1989, he hired Shoop.
Success requires both the ability to beat coaches and the ability to network with them. Shoop’s father, a lawyer, might’ve said, “We didn’t send you to Yale to be a coach,” but befriending rivals is something coaching has in common with practicing law.
“You’re influenced by all of your experiences,” Shoop says. After a year as a graduate assistant for Cozza (“what I learned from him was loyalty and the ability to adapt to your personnel”), Shoop went to Virginia. George Welsh (“a brilliant strategist; I learned so much”) was in his ninth season, and in Shoop’s lone fall, the Cavaliers reached No. 1 before losing a heartbreaker to national co-champion Georgia Tech.
He was defensive backs coach for Northeastern’s Barry Gallup (“taught me the importance of family and relationships with players, staff, and people in general”) then returned to Yale as coordinator. After Cozza retired, it was on to Villanova for a year as coordinator under Andy Talley (“we kicked ass and took names”). Nova’s offensive coordinator was current Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson (“brightest, most organized person I’ve ever met”).
After a year as Army’s defensive backs coach under Bob Sutton (“most passionate person; ‘passion, toughness, team’ — that was his saying, and I still use it”), Shoop got a call.
On that UVA staff, Tom O’Brien had been offensive coordinator. Now O’Brien was the head coach at Boston College. Shoop spent four seasons as defensive backs coach alongside linebackers coach Al Golden (“the creativity that Al had in recruiting caught my attention”) and defensive line coach Mike London, both current ACC head coaches.
With his Ivy League background, Columbia thought he would fit as its new head coach in 2003. His friend Clawson had taken Fordham from 0-11 to 10-3 in three years, and his mentor Brown had taken Northeastern from 4-7 to 10-3 in two.
“They took struggling programs and made them successful. I thought, ‘If Dave can do it, I can do it.'”
His first Columbia team, coming off of a 1-9 season, went 4-6, including a 37-30 defeat against Clawson’s Rams. Four one-possession losses led to a 1-9 record in 2004, and in 2005, the Lions lost their final eight. Shoop was let go with a 7-23 record.
“I had three different administrators in three years. It just wasn’t a good fit, and they chose to go in a different direction. I was devastated at the time, but it was what it was. It made me bulletproof.”
Shoop started from scratch. After a year as Brown’s defensive backs coach at UMass, Shoop became defensive coordinator for Jimmye Laycock’s Wiliam & Mary. After reaching the I-AA semifinals in 2004, the Tribe had fallen. But they bounced back to 11-3 in 2009 with another semifinal appearance.
“I was at William & Mary for four years and got back on track. Laycock is the same type of person as Coach Cozza: loyal to the program, university and staff. I learned a lot from him about being a manager of people. We had success there against I-A teams [beating Virginia in 2009, nearly beating UNC in 2010] and putting players in the NFL.”
After the Tribe won the Colonial Athletic Association, new Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin hired Shoop. After two decades, Shoop got an opportunity to run a defense in the nation’s toughest conference.
“Within moments, he had sold me on his vision. I’m the yin to his yang. He’s the face of the program and likes being on camera. I like being in the film room.”
In Shoop’s first year, the Commodores allowed 9.6 fewer points per game and .98 fewer yards per play, massive changes for a program outmanned in the SEC. And while he inherited more proven personnel at Penn State in 2014, there was similar improvement: 7.6 fewer points per game, 1.03 fewer yards per play.
“From [Franklin], I’ve learned the relationships piece. I thought I had good relationships, but I didn’t understand. He’s helped me take my game to the next level. And then he had the opportunity to come to Penn State. Being from Pittsburgh, this is a dream come true for me. I’m in heaven right now.”
From the Ivy League to the SEC, his go-tos and his gotta-have-its haven’t changed.
“On third-and-6, for example, a no-cover zone is useless to me. We choose tighter coverage. We want to eliminate those easy throws. Offensive coaches think ‘players,’ not ‘plays.’ We want to do the same. When I first got to the SEC, I watched Vanderbilt’s film, then watched all of our opponents. Same thing as at Yale.”
WEDNESDAY: FOR DIALING IN
Thursday | Friday
MANNY DIAZ, MISSISSIPPI STATE DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR
via Mississippi State University
“Most teams all meld into one. There’s such a thing as a ‘college football offense;’ 90 percent of America runs 60 percent of the same plays. So we’re going to say, ‘What do they do that is unique, by play or formation? If you’ve got a kid that’s been sick all week, and he shows up on Thursday and asks what this team does differently, we’ll be able to tell them.”
By Wednesday, Diaz has attempted to communicate those differences to his team.
“We want you to beat us left-handed because we’re going to stop the one thing you do best. There’s not enough time to practice all of your running plays against all of the stuff we have.”
Taking away your sharpest knife is a good way to avoid getting gashed. If he can force you to adjust, he probably knows how you’ll do it.
Plenty of coaches have found success with a bend-don’t-break style of defense. The idea of hoping that a college offense will eventually make a mistake is sound. Twenty-year old males don’t tend to go long between mistakes. But Diaz has little interest in bending.
“We’ll work on normal downs for a couple of days, then get more into our movement stuff. ‘Here’s the same play we saw yesterday, and here’s their favorite way to run power or counter, but now we’re going to use this movement and pressure.’
“One of the things that scares people away from being multiple is, how do you know when to do what? You can’t do everything, but we want to have enough multiplicity that we feel equally comfortable. We want to stop what you do best.”
Diaz’s career has stretched beyond 15 years now, and there have been twists.
The first was that he became a coach at all. The son of a former Miami mayor, Diaz graduated with a communications degree from Florida State and spent time as an ESPN production assistant. It didn’t take him long to realize his dream and his career differed. So he more or less walked up to Bobby Bowden and asked how he could help.
After volunteering for his alma mater in 1997, he spent two years as a graduate assistant for FSU’s famed defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews and linebackers coach Chuck Amato. If you want an aggressive defense, that’s a good place to learn it.
“You don’t know what you don’t know. You think you have an idea of the game and what goes on, but you’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg. It was a fantastic learning opportunity. It was a blank canvas for me. You’re so impressionable, and obviously FSU in the late-’90s was a great place to learn.”
Diaz’s three years were the 11th, 12th, and 13th consecutive seasons that the Noles finished in the AP top five. That meant huge games against teams like Butch Davis’ Hurricanes and Steve Spurrier’s Gators.
“The first thing you do as a defensive coach is learn offense. We would draw a card for every play of every game that we scouted. You’d sit there and draw every play Steve Spurrier ran, and if the receiver broke the curl off at 12 yards, you’d write it for 12. That was such an education. We did things we don’t have to do as much now because of computers.”
In 2000, Amato became NC State’s head coach, and Diaz followed.
“So much of my philosophy began with Mickey Andrews and Chuck Amato. With Chuck, it began with attacking front play — easy, aggressive reads for the linebackers so they can play fast. Mickey’s defenses played with such a will and toughness and tenacity. It’s hard to duplicate the way they did it.”
“To be good at anything, you have to have the ability to strain [yourself]. That’s not something we were good at at Texas. And that ended up showing.”
At 41, Diaz’s career is still on an upward path. But there’s an elephant in the room. Diaz is where he was in 2010: beginning his first year as Dan Mullen’s coordinator at Mississippi State.
After six seasons with Amato, Diaz got his first coordinator job with Rick Stockstill at Middle Tennessee. In his first season, MTSU set the school record for sacks and tackles for loss and went to the program’s first bowl.
“We weren’t quite as good in ’07 and ’08, and obviously who you’re playing with means a lot. We had some seniors who were really good in 2006, and then we had to recruit.”
The Blue Raiders broke through in 2009, playing disruptive defense and winning 10 games.
“You are who you are, and you have to play to your strong hand. If you can get someone so worried about you that they are doing things specifically for you, then that’s one of the goals of coaching. You don’t want them to get to do the same thing as last week. Part of my philosophy there was, I wanted to create a defense that had elements that offenses didn’t like. Before I had a chance to be a coordinator, I would just listen to the offensive coaches and pick up on what they didn’t like,” Diaz says, offering the inverse of Rich Rodriguez’s offensive philosophy.
In 2010, Mississippi State won nine games for the first time in 11 years. After a disappointing 2010 of its own, Texas brought Diaz in.
UT improved from 5-7 to 8-5 because of a dominant D. The Horns combined 96 tackles for loss (17th in FBS) with 88 passes defensed (third) and allowed only 17 plays of 40-plus yards (24th). In an offense-friendly conference, this was an achievement. But as with MTSU, there were key seniors involved.
“That second year, [linebacker] Jordan Hicks was our only experienced guy in what I call the thinking positions: mike, will, and the two safeties. Everybody else was a true sophomore.”
Hicks was injured early, and things went to hell.
“We just didn’t have football players who were very instinctual yet, and I made a bunch of mistakes in terms of the ways I tried to simplify. And then we went through a run of five offenses [Ole Miss, Oklahoma State, WVU, Oklahoma, and Baylor] that tore up just about everybody.”
Texas allowed 46 points per game and 7.1 yards per play in those five. Over the final six, the improving defense only twice allowed greater than 5.2 yards per play or 22 points. An offensive funk led to two more losses, and Texas finished a disappointing 9-4.
“We rebounded defensively, but by then the narrative had been written.”
Under serious heat for having gone 22-16 in three seasons, Mack Brown was on edge. After one more bad game — a 40-21 loss to BYU in which the Horns allowed an incredible 550 rushing yards — Diaz was let go.
“We knew the defense would get better in 2013 [it did stabilize under interim coordinator Greg Robinson], and a lot of the guys in 2014 were seniors. It does take time. But sometimes you are who you are.
“What’s lost a lot of the time is that, in all of this, there’s a ‘how,’ the thing that’s hard to explain when you need to explain why the defense works or doesn’t work. The defense that I had at Mississippi State, there was a level of strain they played with. It’s habit. Same as FSU. Our defense was born in early mornings in February.”
Given a new opportunity at Louisiana Tech, Diaz found what he needed.
“There’s just something about certain teams, and sometimes they punch above their weight. We knew who we were from Day 1, and the players sensed it. When everybody knows what the demand is, and there’s nowhere to hide, you can be fully demanding of your players. We had a great strength coach. They knew how to strain, and once they bought into how we wanted to play, it took off.”
In 2014, LA Tech’s offense rebounded from awful to solid, the defense from awful to awesome. Diaz’s defense made 114 tackles for loss (third in the country) and defensed 92 passes (first) and allowed only 4.9 yards per play (24th). When Mullen lost Geoff Collins to Florida, he called Diaz back.
The personnel has changed, but he says he’s seeing what he needs to see.
“I’m big into watching ourselves, watching our cutups. We played Marshall [in the 2014 Conference USA title], and we were going to play against a lot of 10 personnel [“1” running back and “0” tight ends, so four receivers]. So we went back and watched all of our plays against 10 personnel to see what they saw. ‘Hey, this looks open.’
“You want to see yourself as your opponent sees you. You can spook yourself into not running something on either side of the ball. ‘Gosh, we love this, but if they run the counter, and we do this … yeah, we better not do this blitz.’ And then it’s that blitz that terrorizes them.”
THURSDAY: THE CHECKLIST
GARY PINKEL, MISSOURI HEAD COACH
Jason Vinlove/USA Today Sports
“I remember we used to have these staff meetings at 8:30, and I’m there three minutes early, of course. But no one else is there. Denny comes in, and we maybe start at 8:40 or 8:50.”
Pinkel is talking about the one time he worked for a head coach other than Don James. He had played for the legendary coach at Kent State, then worked for him as a graduate assistant at Kent State and Washington. In 1977, he got his first full-time gig as Bowling Green’s receivers coach under Dennis Stoltz.
“I love Denny Stoltz. He gave me my first job. He’s a great guy. But he wasn’t really structured, and I was struggling. I’m used to every frickin’ minute of the day being planned.”
Stoltz won 91 games in 15 years at Michigan State, Bowling Green, and San Diego State. He began 1985 11-0 and reaching 20th in the polls. So his system could work. But it didn’t work for a stubborn Pinkel.
“I was so determined. I was going to sit in that empty meeting room for 20 minutes until someone comes in there! I used to go back to my wife and say, ‘That stuff I learned from Coach James, I know it would work way better here!’ I was smart enough not to say that to Coach Stolz, of course, but it was difficult for me.”
There’s a reason Pinkel and Alabama’s Nick Saban, who also played for James, use the word “process” so frequently.
Pinkel craved the structure. By 1979, he was back in Seattle. He spent five years as James’ receivers coach, then seven as his coordinator. In 1991, he took the Toledo head coaching job. He’s now the all-time winningest coach at both Toledo and Missouri, and he has preached the Book of Don from the moment he left UW.
“We call it relentless evaluation.”
They have processes for evaluating personnel. They have processes for evaluating processes. And they’ve got checklists. June and July checklists, Monday and Wednesday checklists. Game day checklists. Camp checklists. Pinkel’s probably got a leaving-the-house checklist.
Thursday’s might be the most important.
“The Thursday checklist is meticulously about everything that can happen on Saturday, everything that we’re going to do. We’ll sit down as a staff, and we’ll go through about 25 different fundamental items. Short yardage, goal line, two-point conversions.
“If it’s fourth-and-1, are we going to go for it against this team? If we’re going to go, who’s carrying the football? Do we need to keep their quarterback off the field? That might make us more likely to go. We tried three fake kicks in the [2015 Citrus Bowl win over Minnesota]. Two of them worked. Those calls were made on [that bowl’s equivalent of] Thursday.
“The neat thing about that is, we do it in a calm setting where you’re more likely to make intelligent decisions. So you’re not caught up emotionally in everything.”
Planned spontaneity. The Process.
Sunday was about self-evaluation, and on Monday, the coaches hammered out the plan. At Mizzou, players didn’t see the game plan until Tuesday. Sunday was regimented and rigorous: offensive assistants graded their players, and defensive assistants did the same.
“I’ll usually sit in with the group that struggled the most on Saturday,” Pinkel says. “That’s the meeting I think I need to be in.”
Later Sunday, coaches came together to grade everyone as a group. Pinkel met with both sides to discuss grades and ask about specific plays from the day before. They discussed changes on the depth chart but rarely make many, and the new two-deep was posted.
“At that time, we talk about strategical things. We might want to lean a little bit in this direction this week because of injuries, production, everything else.”
Recent innovations assure everybody’s abreast of the opponent with time to spare.
“Our players have seen the opponents by Sunday night because of Hudl . It’s just remarkable what you can get from that.”
Game analysts. “They’re really awesome. Last year’s the first year we had them. What they’ll do on Sunday evening before our coaches go home, or Monday before we meet at 7 a.m., is they’ll give their analyst reports. Thorough, 30-minute analysis, offense and defense. All they’ve studied is the next opponent. When I was a coordinator, I would have loved to have had these guys.”
Analysts are a newer creation. As schools in certain conferences make more money, you’ve seen positions like these. If the advanced stat universe is going to take hold at the college level, this might be the door.
“The technology part of the game has changed remarkably. I remember in the 1970s using those splicing machines, hot splicers, putting all that film together. All that information you get now, that’s changed.”
However, like Rich Rod, he says … “It’s all just data, and you have to determine how you’re going to use it. You can get so much data on so many variables. You have to figure out what works best for you.”
Has coaching itself changed?
“I don’t think it’s remarkably different. I think running a program is like running a business. It’s people-oriented, and it’s about attention to detail.”
In most workplaces, when a group is struggling, the thought isn’t to fire everybody. And if one person performs poorly for a month, he or she isn’t replaced by an outsider. There is internal shuffling, an annual review process, et cetera.
“I always tell everybody, those who overcome adversity in our business are the ones who survive. When you’re winning, anybody can do it.”
When it comes to sports, we think the only way to improve is to bring in somebody new.
If you’ve been in the coaching game, you’ve encountered highs and lows. You’ve quite possibly been fired. Different coaches have different definitions of success and failure, but the arcs are similar.
Pinkel has packed ups and downs into just the last few seasons. From November 2011 through November 2012, he endured perhaps his most troubling year. First, he was pulled over for driving under the influence and was suspended for the second-to-last game of 2011. Then, he and his wife got separated and eventually divorced. After that, his team laid an egg in its SEC debut; the Tigers were waylaid by injuries and went 5-7.
To say the least, the masses were clamoring.
“A couple of years ago, we had a pretty tough year, and I know [Missouri’s then-athletic director] Mike Alden wasn’t the happiest guy in the world. I came out in public and said I’m not going to change any coaches. And everybody came at me.
“I have a really strong belief in people. The coaches that work for me are really good, and I think they become better as they mature and go through our process. And I just refuse to throw somebody out for the sake of making changes so it looks like you’re in control.”
One coach left: fan-maligned offensive coordinator David Yost took a position with Mike Leach at Washington State. Given the opportunity to hire from the outside to satiate the Internet (and, perhaps, the athletic department and booster boxes), Pinkel instead promoted young line coach Josh Henson. The masses howled, then quieted when Mizzou’s offense erupted with a 12-2 season. The Tigers followed that by riding an awesome defense to a second SEC East title.
“You don’t start creating things. In fact, when things get tough, I embrace the detail of our program. What we do works here. Coaches don’t get side-swiped when they walk in the door, thinking ‘Oh, what’s going on now?’
“When things got bad, people said, ‘Well, you’re probably looking at things differently.’ No. We’re approaching things the same way we did before. We did it that year. We still do it this year.”
Of Pinkel’s nine primary assistants, four were on his original Mizzou staff in 2001. Three were with him at Toledo. New defensive coordinator Barry Odom is a former Pinkel safeties coach. Offensive line coach A.J. Ricker, hired a year ago, was Pinkel’s starting center a decade ago. Yost was the first who left for something besides a larger role.
“I think, personnel-wise, continuity is important. I see it every year where coaches make changes just to make a statement. ‘I’m fixing things.’ This guy’s coached for you, and all of a sudden he’s not good enough? If it’s gotten to that point, you should have seen it and done something about it two years before. I just don’t believe in throwing someone under the bus just to sound like the guy in power is making these dramatic changes.”
Of course, Pinkel had precedent.
In 1984, in his first year as James’ coordinator, Pinkel helped improve Washington from 23.8 points per game to 29.3. They surged to 11-1, reaching No. 1 before a loss at USC. They hammered No. 2 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and came just short of the national title.
Over the next four seasons, with heightened expectations, Washington averaged seven wins. By 1988, Pinkel’s offense averaged only 23.1 points per game. James was where Pinkel would find himself 24 years later, with an unsettled fan base demanding changes.
“They were yelling at Coach James. ‘Make changes, get rid of this guy.’ He didn’t. What I saw him do was just get back to … not the basics, that’s an overused term. But the emphasis of the detail in everything we do.”
James did make one change: he fired his offensive line coach and brought in a former assistant, Keith Gilbertson. Gilbertson had been making Idaho into a Division I-AA power with an explosive offense. He split play-calling with Pinkel.
Combined with improved recruiting, this was a spark. Washington averaged 27.7 points in 1989 and finished 8-4, then 41.3 and 12-0 in 1991, with a share of the national title.
By treating his group like an organization, capable of growth within itself, James rebounded without top-to-bottom changes.
“That was a great experience, though,” Pinkel says. “I saved those clippings.”
And when Pinkel was 23-19-2 in his first four years at Toledo, he harkened back to them.
“I was struggling early at Toledo, and … Coach James, we had won all those games, been to the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl. And they’re sitting there saying, ‘Well, [James] is too old. Should he be coaching anymore?’ And I’m looking back and thinking, ‘Are you kidding me?”
FRIDAY: THE CALM BEFORE
KEN NIUMATALOLO, NAVY HEAD COACH
Tommy Gilligan/USA Today Sports
“Fridays, guys have the morning off. Get your honey-dos done. Go to the bank. Get a haircut. I want guys to be fresh on game day.”
Niumatalolo can get fired up on the sideline, but he spends as much time as he can laid back. And he wants his assistants to follow.
“[Longtime Nebraska assistant coach] Ron Brown told me that, at Nebraska, that was Coach [Tom] Osborne’s deal. When they played teams back in the Big 8 days, he’d talk to coaches from the other team before the game, and if those guys were tired the morning of the game, he knew [Nebraska was] going to win. His guys were fresh, and his coaches were fresh.”
Friday is not the only time Niumatalolo’s schedule differs from others.
“Our first staff meeting of the week is 6 a.m. on Monday morning. Sunday is open. I go to church. I tell my coaches it’s up to them. They can do what they want to get their stuff done.
“After the game, as we shower and leave, we’ll already have the game broken down on our iPads. So pretty much by that night, I’ll have seen the game. I normally ask my video coordinators to put in the last three games of our next opponent and pertinent film. By the time we land on the plane, we’ll have graded our film already.”
With an unconventional approach — option offense, bend-don’t-break 3-4 defense, shorter work hours — Niumatalolo has established Navy as a consistent program. Despite the recruiting disadvantages that come with a service academy, Niumatalolo has taken the Midshipmen to six bowls in seven seasons since succeeding mentor and Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson. Navy has won at least nine games in a season three times since 2009; the Middies had done so three times between 1979 and 2005.
A star at Honolulu’s Radford High, Niumatalolo committed to Dick Tomey at Hawaii in the mid-1980s. Tomey left for Arizona following Niumatalolo’s redshirt freshman campaign, and when defensive coordinator Bob Wagner took over, he reached across the country, choosing Georgia Southern’s Johnson as his offensive coordinator. The effects were immediate: Hawaii’s scoring improved from 19.8 points per game to 28.1 in 1987, then 31.9 and 36.2.
“When Paul came to Hawaii, it just changed,” Niumatalolo says. “He gave you a dynamic offense.”
From 1987 to 1989, Niumatalolo rushed for 370 yards and passed for 212. But he soaked in everything he saw. He became a graduate assistant in 1990, and when Johnson became Navy’s coordinator in 1995, Niumatalolo became his running backs coach.
“The core of Coach Johnson’s offense is still the same today. It’s amazing watching him at Georgia Tech. A lot of it’s the same as what we did in the ’80s. Everything comes off of the triple option. But there are so many components to running that, lots of blocking schemes and varying your formations to gain numbers advantages.”
The intent of what Johnson now calls his spread option is the same as any pass-first spread: create situations where you have numbers advantages, like two-on-one or three-on-two. The triple option’s deception can help if you cannot simply out-talent the defense.
“The way Coach Johnson and I and our staff attack people now is the way we attacked people then. Same as watching him attacking Mississippi State [in last season’s Orange Bowl victory]. It’s simple but sound, based off of numbers and angles.
“I was into the pick-and-roll in basketball. It’s a simple thing, but there’s a lot of ways to play off of it, and it’s all based on what the defender does. Since I became head coach here, I’ve made some changes. We play with a lot more tempo and with a lot more zone schemes. The defense dictates where the ball’s going, and if their guys are better than you, it’s hard. So we incorporate some zone.”
Running an unfamiliar offense helps you to neutralize defenders.
“The defensive end who’s used to rushing the passer, you ask him to react to what the quarterback is doing, and it’s hard for him. It’s different. And it allows us to slow down people who normally run pretty fast.”
You can’t run your fastest if your brain is spinning its wheels.
“I think guys over-complicate things. You’re going to need a Rolodex on every lineman’s hands. You can’t play fast if you don’t know what you’re doing. If there’s any vagueness, you can’t play fast. Just make sure guys are clear on their assignments.
“And if it takes you all day to come up with your game plan, how the heck are your kids going to get it? If we have to stay at the office all night, what we’re doing is way too complicated.”
“You might get some ideas on us, but we’re always going to get ideas for how to attack you.”
The common idea on Navy is that, once you face that offense once or twice, you figure out what to do. You can find analysts saying Navy joining a conference (the AAC) for the first time is bad for this reason.
Like many pieces of conventional wisdom, this doesn’t even hold up to slight scrutiny.
“Paul’s in a conference [at Georgia Tech], and they’re always leading the league in rushing. The teams we’ve struggled with, they’re the other service academies, so they not only know what we’re doing, but they also practice constantly against tempo and option.”
The numbers bear that out. In the last two seasons, Navy has averaged 5.7 yards per play and 26.6 points per game against power opponents (Notre Dame twice, Ohio State, Rutgers, Pitt, Duke, Indiana) but 5.2 and 25 in four contests against Air Force and Army. (Against all others: 6.2, 37.6.)
While exposure can make you more familiar, it makes Niumatalolo and OC Ivin Jasper more familiar with you. Jasper was a Hawaii back under Johnson and Niumatalolo in the ’90s, a Johnson assistant at Navy and Georgia Southern.
“Ivin and I have learned from the best, and we’ve seen everything. There’s nothing you can throw at us that we haven’t seen.”
And if there’s not a lot of film of you defending the option, Niumatalolo and Jasper take well-educated guesses.
“We’ve seen some guys who line up and try to keep it simple, and we see some who try to change the defense on every play. Which is fine. It’s not a very complicated offense, but there are so many intricacies that we’ve been doing for so long. We’ve got certain things for slanting defenses, for even-front teams, for pressure. The last resort of the defense is to start firing people from the secondary, which we have answers for, too.”
“There are so many times where we’re preparing for an off front, and it’s totally different. So we simply adjust, after the first snap, not at halftime. I stay parallel to the line and see all the calls, and we’re all funneling information to Coach Jasper.
“I can’t tell you how many games where we have had to junk our game plan. But we’ve been doing this for so long. Nobody panics.”
In 1997, when Johnson became Georgia Southern’s head coach, Niumatalolo stayed in Annapolis to run Charlie Weatherbie’s offense. After averaging 32.7 points in Johnson’s last season, the Midshipmen averaged 36.2 in 1997. But Navy’s scoring average fell by nearly two touchdowns per game in 1998, and the Midshipmen went 3-8.
“When I was with Charlie, we didn’t see eye to eye. He was from the Air Force and had a Fisher DeBerry background, and I had the Paul Johnson background. Philosophically, there were some differences.”
Weatherbie let Niumatalolo go. Weatherbie ended up going 6-24 before his tenure ended in 2001. Niumatalolo served three seasons at UNLV under John Robinson, whose storied career was wrapping up, after two terms with USC sandwiching a nine-year stint with the Los Angeles Rams.
Robinson wasn’t a triple option guy, but as Niumatalolo puts it, “football is football. There are keys to winning games. John Robinson wanted to run the ball and play defense. People who throw the ball have success, but when it gets colder, or it gets to the postseason, you need to sustain yourself and shorten the game.”
Niumatalolo learned, in return.
“I learned how to be a head coach. There are a lot of good coaches — assistants and coordinators — but not everybody knows how to be a head coach. Getting people going in the same direction, getting them to buy in, getting the arrows pointed in the same direction.
“John was a great manager of people, had great people skills. I would watch how he treated people, mayors, governors, big business people. He was nice to them and nice to the people who cleaned the locker room. All of his former players who came through Vegas — who played for him at USC or the Rams, or sometimes even guys who played against him — they would always stop in to see him. That spoke volumes to me. When he had a golf tournament, they came from everywhere. Eric Dickerson, Jackie Slater, Kevin Greene.”
In 2002, it was time to reunite with Johnson and Jasper and again challenge assumptions.
“Everybody knows conventional offense, too. Everybody knows ‘how’ to defend the spread. But you never say, ‘We’re going to defend it better because we’ve seen it,’ like they do with the option.
“Whatever you run offensively or defensively, both sides have coaches and players and game plans. You just go play ball.”