New Washington coach Chris Petersen brings his unique approach to football recruiting and team bonding from Boise State to the Huskies. Plus coaches take the ice-bucket challenge to fight ALS and more notes across the nation in The Inside Read.
SEATTLE -- Chris Petersen lost his debut game as the starting quarterback at UC-Davis in the fall of 1985 because of shoddy kicking. Davis coach Jim Sochor spent the next practice testing his field goal kicker by gathering the whole team to scream at him during field goal attempts, a common tactic to manufacture game pressure. When Petersen loudly mocked the kicker for his mistakes in the previous game he suddenly felt a hand on his shoulder. “That’s not the purpose of the drill,” Sochor told Petersen. “We never tear guys down here, we’re not going to make them feel bad about themselves.”
Those words still stick with Petersen, and they’ve helped provide a philosophical foundation that he will bring to Washington. Petersen arrives with a 92-12 record in eight seasons at Boise State. And his success can be tied to another great run in college football history: Sochor coaching Davis to 18 consecutive conference titles in the 1970s and '80s.
The method behind that success traces back to everything from ancient Chinese philosophy, a Boise State player who didn’t know a teammate’s name and weighing intangibles over talent in recruiting. Sochor, who gave Petersen his first job, begins explaining his success at Davis by referencing Tao Te Ching, an eastern philosophy that dates back to the sixth century BC. “We wanted to be brilliant at the process and let go of the results, that’s how it all started,” Sochor said. “Our program was all about respect and dignity, praise and positive reinforcement.”
Petersen is trying to put the same process in place at Washington, making his debut season as intriguing off the field as it is on it. By coaching under Sochor at Davis, Petersen learned to create a football culture antithetical to modern stereotypes. Petersen values camaraderie over bullying, building confidence over dressing down players and teaching over yelling.
Petersen didn’t win at Boise with a defined style on the field, like Mike Leach’s spread at Texas Tech. Instead, he adapted schemes to his talent and relied on an intricate process that includes everything from a player never placing his helmet on the ground to bonding through tennis racket home run derby. “We’ve all been on teams thinking the talent may be OK, but they really bonded and jelled and the chemistry was right and they did great things,” Petersen said. “I’ve always gravitated to that. That’s how it should be.”
That’s how it was at Boise, where Petersen led the Broncos to two undefeated seasons, two BCS bowl wins and regular-season victories over Oregon, Virginia Tech and Georgia. There were certainly innovative schemes, deft adjustments and a toughness forged in the weight room. But everything was done with a bigger goal in mind. “Without being too corny, I think we need to coach to a bit of a higher calling,” Petersen said. “There’s more to it than just winning.”
Washington senior linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha rolled his eyes when Petersen arrived preaching togetherness, camaraderie and attention to detail. “In the beginning I was skeptical that unity could have this much of an impact,” he said. But instead of listening to Petersen preach it, Kikaha watched him act it out. Petersen patrols the locker room every day picking up trash, as nothing aggravates him more than messy lockers. He also relentlessly seeks togetherness. That traces back to Petersen’s first season as head coach at Boise State when he heard a senior call a freshman by his number during practice. Petersen called the senior over and said, “Do you know his name?” The player stuttered through the answer. Instead of blaming the player, a building block was born. “That’s on me,” Petersen said. “I wasn’t forcing guys to reach out, the freshmen weren’t mixing with the fifth-year seniors. They’ve got to know each other.”
When he arrived at Washington, Petersen set up the leadership groups made up of players from different classes, positions and backgrounds. The groups have swim nights at a lake, play paint ball and hold barbecues. During team meetings, Petersen will have a player stand up and quiz others about his high school, hometown and siblings. Players’ lockers and seating arrangements at meals are organized so players would be near guys they may not interact with normally.
“I’d say that the bonding has tripled since he got here,” Kikaha said. “I can tell it worked. There are guys that never held conversations, and now they’re hanging out together off the field.”
Former Washington quarterback Damon Huard, who played at Washington and in the NFL for 13 seasons before returning to his alma mater as an administrator with the football program, said he’d never seen such an intense focus on unity. “If we’re a team that can play together and come together and be unified,” Huard said, “in his mind, the wins take care of themselves.”
So how does that help the Huskies beat USC? Kikaha brings up an interesting point, that in this era of defending up-tempo and spread offenses, communication and trust has never been more important. “Think about it,” Kikaha said. “Boise State beat a ton of teams in games they weren’t favored in. The team worked so well as a unit. On film, their guys are a little small or not as athletic as others, but they made their plays because everyone can rely on the man next to them.”
And now Washington is confident that Petersen can lead it back into the national conversation, somewhere the Huskies have rarely been since Don James stepped down before the 1993 season after six Rose Bowl appearances and a share of the 1991 national title. When Washington learned of Petersen’s interest in the job, it essentially ended the search. When Washington hired Steve Sarkisian in 2008, Petersen didn’t return a search firm’s calls. “I didn’t get a sniff from him,” Washington athletic director Scott Woodward said.
Petersen said he began to realize it was time for a change. He pursued the USC job, but the match appeared to be a poor cultural fit for both sides. Interestingly, USC’s uneasiness over Petersen led them to Sarkisian, which opened up a better fit in Seattle. This time around, Woodward said that Petersen’s agent called Washington before Woodward could ever reach out. The Huskies didn’t bother hiring a search firm. The biggest challenge from Petersen’s camp was convincing Washington that he was really ready to move. Woodward flew on a private plane to Boise with senior associate athletic director Jennifer Cohen, and their meeting at a Hampton Inn in Boise ended with a signed memorandum of understanding.
“The last few years I had no inclination to go anywhere or look anywhere. I really felt like growing that program and doing great things there,” Petersen said. “But there comes a time when all things have a shelf life, and when the right things come at you.”
Even with his glistening record, there are still some skeptics that doubt Petersen will take Washington back to national championship heights. The program has won nine games just three times in the past two decades, including last season. And the Pac-12 is a much different animal than the Pac-10 of James’ era, as Washington must leapfrog national powers Oregon and Stanford to win its own division.
A long overdue facility overhaul spearheaded by Woodward has Washington competitive in the conference arms race. The Huskies also boast the best setting in college football with its Sailgaters on Union Bay, Cascade mountains looming to the East and a stadium to match the world class city. Will the team match the setting? Probably not right away. Petersen will bring the same recruiting philosophy he used in Boise, going after players he calls OKGs -- an organic term for Our Kind of Guys. That grew from recruiting players with intangibles, work ethic and love of the game over star ratings and raw talent. Petersen went undefeated in his debut season at Boise State in 2006, following strong stints by Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins before him. Washington is rising after Sarkisian took over a winless team in 2008 and finished 9-4 last season. The Huskies may be a few years away, but Petersen will try and employ the same magic he learned at UC-Davis and Boise and may even use a little Tao Te Ching.
“The culture of love and respect is 8,000 times more powerful than the culture of fear,” said Hawkins, who was part of the UC-Davis coaching tree along with former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti and TCU's Gary Patterson. “It just takes longer to establish.”
1. Coaches embrace the ALS challenge
Boston College’s Steve Addazio, USC's Steve Sarkisian, Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer, Virginia’s Mike London and Maryland's Randy Edsall all took ice-cold buckets of water over their head for charity in the past few days. They are part of the viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that’s dominated Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to raise money and awareness for ALS. While it’s been fun to watch friends, celebrities and even a bride in her wedding dress shriek at the moment water connects with their heads, the movement is more than a viral blip for people at Boston College. Pete Frates, 29, played baseball at BC and has served as the program’s director of baseball operations since being diagnosed with ALS in 2012. Longtime BC sports information director Dick Kelley died in February at age 48 after a four-year battle with ALS.
“It’s striking to me,” Addazio said. “There’s a lot of bad diseases, but is this the worst? A prisoner in your own body when your mind is still sharp. I can’t fathom it.”
ALS -- also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease -- is a ruthless and vicious neurological disorder that doubles as a death sentence, slowly robbing the body of movement. Frates was a BC captain and homered in Fenway Park against Harvard in 2006. Since being diagnosed in 2012, he's paralyzed, eats through a feeding tube and is barely able to speak. But along the way, he’s embraced the fight with the help of his family and the BC community.
In speaking with Pete’s dad, John, and texting with Pete over the weekend, they were elated at the publicity the Ice Bucket Challenge received. “The only ones who haven’t done it are the Pope, the President and Tom Brady,” John Frates said. “In my mind that’s the Father, Son and Holy Ghost right there.”
Pete Frates said in a text message that BC baseball coach Mike Gambino pointed out to him that this may be the most awareness ALS has ever received. But the positive vibes from the spreading of ALS awareness aren’t infinite, and John Frates offered a chilling reminder of that. He said the scariest part about ALS is that the treatment today isn’t a whole lot more advanced than it was during Gehrig’s time.
“When you think of the National Heart Association or the American Cancer Society, there’s one single voice,” John Frates said. “The ALS community is fractured. It’s upset us since Day 1. No one is sharing information, it’s all individual silos. If I’m working with compound X, Y or Z on experiment mice, you might have tried the same thing five years ago. Let’s try and get more collaboration, let’s see if we can get a commissioner or a czar and expedite this thing. If Lou Gehrig was alive today, there wouldn’t be any improvement.”
John Frates suggested that his son has become the national face of ALS through the Ice Bucket Challenge in a way no one has since Gehrig. The bucket is becoming ALS’s pink ribbon, one Facebook post at a time. Frates didn’t start the challenge -- his friend and former Iona rugby star Pat Quinn did. But Frates’ network of friends from BC and in the NHL, MLB and NFL helped spread it.
Frates and his wife, Julie, are expecting a child next month. They’ve gone through interview after interview in the past few days to tell their story to spread awareness, making pubic their personal struggles. The next step is channeling the momentum toward finding effective treatment. Every 90 minutes, someone is diagnosed with ALS. And every 90 minutes someone dies from it.
“Now that this funding is coming in, we have to do something,” John Frates said. “We have moved the mountain, now where do we put it? If we just go back to the same way of business as usual, there’s just been a bunch of silly videos. Who is going to take this mantle?”
2. Stanford’s Ty Montgomery changes mental approach
Ty Montgomery injured his knee in the fourth quarter of Stanford’s 24-20 loss to Michigan State in the Rose Bowl. He left the game after getting hurt on a kickoff return in the fourth quarter, right when the Cardinal needed him most. But Montgomery didn’t spend the offseason drowning himself in could-of, should-of, would-have mentality that’s plagued his career. On the field, things couldn’t have gone much better for Montgomery, as he piled up 2,208 all-purpose yards, including 61 catches and 10 touchdowns. He also won the Jet Award as the nation’s top return specialist.
One thing Montgomery struggled with was not being able to let go of bad plays, so he focused this offseason on changing his mental approach. “If I dropped a pass or if I didn’t get open or I forgot a route, I had a hard time letting it go because I’m somewhat of a perfectionist,” Montgomery said. “I always want to be able to make sure everything is right. I’d be thinking about that last play and what I did wrong and all my attention was focused on the last play and how to fix the last play.”
A book Montgomery read this past offseason -- Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence -- changed his perspective. The book details how athletes can build mental muscle, and Montgomery has put the techniques to use. For Montgomery, the key to his success is in his head. “After a dropped pass, I need to focus on my next assignment and I need to have aggressive positive action-oriented work going on in my head,” Montgomery said. “Rather than thinking about trying to not drop the ball, I need to think about catching the ball.”
The speedy Montgomery is well aware that the major knock against him is dropping passes, particularly deep ones. One of the biggest came last season early in a 20-17 upset loss to USC in which he was wide open. Montgomery didn’t have opportunities for do-overs growing up in Dallas. He lived in a strict house with more than 17 foster children that his mother, Lisa Frazier, cared for over the years.
“I was always raised to do things right the first time and I took that to heart,” Montgomery said. “And for me I wouldn’t allow myself a second time to do anything. If I didn’t get it right the first time, then in my head there were severe consequences. I had this fear of failure, not necessarily a bad attitude, but I was afraid to fail.”
Montgomery’s new approach is already being put to test. In February, he had surgery on his right shoulder and could miss at least the Cardinal’s opener against UC-Davis on August 30. But Montgomery insists his new outlook has made him a more positive, confident person. “I feel fine now,” Montgomery said. “I just looked failure in its face. And everything that comes my way, I’m just going to handle the adversity. I’m going to control what I can control.”
3. Can offseason trip guide Eastern Michigan to new heights?
Eastern Michigan coach Chris Creighton has taken his teams on big preseason trips before. While he was at Drake he took his players to Tanzania in 2011, a trip in which his team played in the first football game in Africa and later climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. His teams at Wabash College, a Division III school in Indiana, traveled to Germany and Austria one year and Panama another. In his first season at Eastern Michigan, he took the seniors and coaching staff to the 14,114-foot Pikes Peak in Colorado. It wasn't his first trip there as he took NAIA Ottawa (Kans.) University in vans there during his first head coaching stint.
This time, Creighton flew his 16 seniors and coaching staff (a group of 28), using money that was raised in a golf tournament. They trekked a dizzying 11 hours, lugging a 51-pound pipe wrench. "It was a really powerful experience," Creighton said. "Climbing mountains can just have that kind of impact."
Eastern Michigan needs to climb its own mountain to rebound from a terrible stretch. The program hasn't had a winning season in 18 years and is generally considered the worst in FBS. Creighton's predecessor, Ron English, was fired in November after a tape recording surfaced in which he used a homophobic slur during a film session with players. "I love our guys," Creighton said. "People have looked down on this program for a chunk of years. We will see what happens. I believe in our guys. I really do."
The group did the climb together, but was divided into pairs. Along the way each discussed questions about the toughest thing they have ever done and personal goals for the upcoming season as well as those they have for five and 10 years in the future. The trip was particularly eye-opening for some of the players. The sight of chipmunks sent a couple of them scrambling for disposal cameras. “It was like they had saw a saber-tooth tiger,” Creighton said with a laugh. The group also had to take turns carrying the cumbersome green and silver pipe wrench. Before the trip, Creighton calculated that each person would have to carry the tool 20 minutes to be able to get it to the summit.
But not all were able to carry it that long and some had to pull double duty. Secondary coach Todd Frakes was the one who got the wrench to the peak, but only after more toting by 6-6, 333-pound offensive lineman Campbell Allison. The wrench traces back to a blue-collar mentality that Creighton has brought to Eastern Michigan. The team worked out in six inches of snow this past winter, which spawned gray turf being installed at the Eagles’ Rynearson Stadium this summer. “We were just talking about how we would play anyone, anytime, anywhere,” Creighton said. “We would play in a parking lot.”
Creighton convinced athletic director Heather Lyke to make the new turf gray to represent that parking lot. He then went a step further and presented the wrench to those who went on the Pikes Peak trip the night before the climb. The tool’s vices represent the gap, one that Creighton feels like his team has closed, even though it is picked to finish last this season in the MAC’s West Division. “They are just a bunch of tough guys who persevered and endured,” Creighton said.
* Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason has a great icebreaker with reporters. “You want to ask me about Aaron Murray?” Mason said with a laugh. Finally Georgia’s starter after four seasons backing up Murray, Mason has grown weary of being asked about his predecessor. “I’m Hutson Mason,” Mason said. “I’m no Aaron Murray. I know Aaron did a lot of great things. I can’t live up to that nor will I.”
Mason showed promise last season in the two starts he made after Murray went down with a season-ending ACL injury. He led the Bulldogs back from a 20-0 deficit to beat Georgia Tech in double overtime and then threw for a career-high 320 yards in a loss to Nebraska in the Gator Bowl. “It’s awesome to know you’re in control now,” Mason said. “You’re leading the workouts. Guys are looking to you.”
Mason went to Bulldogs coach Mark Richt at the end of his sophomore season in 2011 and told him he was interested in transferring. Richt told Mason that he’d like to redshirt him the next season, creating the possibility that he could be the starter for a year once Murray graduated. “It was a leap of faith staying,” Mason said. “[It] finally feels good to put in all that work for four years to hopefully get a reward out of it.”
* Some hailed Ed O’Bannon’s victory over the NCAA as a historical triumph for college athletes. Others opined it was a win for the NCAA. After polling a handful of athletic directors and administrators this weekend, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. “We are two years from getting the sort of resolution that will allow us to know what our future is,” said one official from a power conference school. “There’s so much to happen between now and when we finally have some resolution you can plan around and act on.”
So ease up on the hyperbole and start studying up on Jeffrey Kessler, the high-profile sports attorney who is spearheading what’s becoming known as the “Kessler case.” What makes the Kessler case so intriguing is that barely anyone even knows who he’s representing -- low profile athletes from Clemson, Rutgers, UTEP and Cal. This case is about Kessler, who helped bring free agency to the NFL and end the 2011 lockout.
The heart of the Kessler case is an argument that the NCAA has limited player compensation at an athletic scholarship. A Kessler victory could lead to more of a free market system where the NCAA can’t set the cost of a scholarship. Big questions loom if Kessler wins: Who would decide on some sort of scholarship cap and not be subject to an anti-trust lawsuit? Would Congress or collective bargaining come into play? Would a court establish it?
While it’s premature to determine what the O'Bannon decision means, it’s not too early for observers in college sports to be much more worried about the long-term ramifications of the Kessler case.
* The recruiting saga of Malik McDowell dominated the message boards this winter, as he extended his college decision from National Signing Day in February all the way to April. But the early indicators in East Lansing are that he’s well worth the wait. “Malik McDowell is about 290 pounds; I couldn’t have ever have been 290 and be that fit and run (fast) and agile,” Michigan State star defensive end Shilique Calhoun said.
McDowell, a five-star recruit considered to be one of the Top 35 players in the country, arrived as a defensive end but has taken some snaps at defensive tackle after an injury to junior Damon Knox. He’s got good company inside, as Calhoun went out of his way to single out Enoch Smith, a 276-pound true freshman who could see some snaps his season. Calhoun promised no slippage from a unit that’s been the best in the Big Ten the past three years. He points to the young linemen as a key to the level of play staying high. “I believe we’ll be stronger than ever,” he said. “A lot of people don’t think we’ll have guys to fill in, but a couple of the freshman are going to make a big contributions.”
* Last season the specter of the Texas job opening prompted a round of economic stimulus across the college football landscape that would have made Ben Bernanke smile. Alabama’s Nick Saban, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, UCLA’s Jim Mora Jr. and Baylor’s Art Briles all earned raises or extensions because they were rumored to be candidates at Texas. No one was more aware of this than new Longhorns athletic director Steve Patterson. “I would say that there's probably 15 or 20 guys who ought to be sending Christmas hams to Mack Brown,” Patterson said, “and probably about half a dozen agents that should be doing the same thing.”
Who could be receiving hams this season? While there’s no situation as glaring as Brown’s tenuous tenure in Austin, the two jobs that agents and search firms are circling around this season are Florida and Michigan. Those are two of the best jobs in the country, and if they are open expect a similar effect. In college football, fear is the great stimulus.
* Nearly two dozen college quarterbacks were counselors at the annual Manning Passing Camp last month in Thibodaux, La. During an educational session at the four-day event in which an NCAA official explained the new rule allowing players to receive unlimited meals and snacks, only one had a question about it.
“Now wait,” Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston asked according to a Manning Camp participant, “what is this about?”
Winston’s question left the campers roaring with laughter. He was oblivious to the irony of his checkered past with food and beverages. Winston was cited in April for stealing three pounds of crab legs and accused of stealing soda at a Burger King last year.
“It was unbelievable,” the participant said. “Jameis of all people.”
* Is there a BCS team with less buzz entering into the season than N.C. State? The Wolfpack lost eight consecutive games to the finish 2013, went winless in the ACC and couldn’t come within double digits of Boston College, Wake Forest and Syracuse. Turning the program around won’t be easy for second-year coach Dave Doeren. But there is some much-needed optimism from Wolfpack camp. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett, a 6-4 junior who transferred from Florida, not only gives Doeren the dual threat he prefers (think Jordan Lynch at Northern Illinois), he also brings some much-needed life to the program. N.C. State coaches have made it clear that everything starts with their new quarterback. “He can play,” said N.C. State safeties coach Clayton White. “He’s a dual-threat quarterback who is like a Jameis Winston in terms of size and skill set. I’m not saying he’s a good as Jameis, but he’s a dual threat. It’s hard to get confidence until you start winning, but it starts with the quarterback.”
* Ohio State is expected to have the most dominant defensive line in the nation this season. Here’s something even scarier for Buckeyes opponents: the least accomplished member of that front four may have the highest ceiling. Junior Adolphus Washington -- known as Dede to his teammates -- was a good enough athlete that while at Taft High in Cincinnati he led his basketball conference in scoring and rebounding. Not bad for a 6-4, 288-pounder.
Hampered by a groin injury last season, Washington hasn’t quite lived up to his billing as the best player in the state of Ohio as a senior in 2011 (he had 23.5 sacks as a senior at Taft). But this year promises to be different, as the former end has moved inside and looked unblockable at times in the spring. “He took on a double-team as well as anyone in the country,” said senior defensive tackle Michael Bennett. “Who’s the weak link on the defensive line? I don’t think we have a weak link?”
It isn’t Bennett, who had 7.5 sacks last season and has formed a defensive tackle duo with Washington nicknamed “The Bash Brothers.” It isn’t any of Ohio State’s ends, as junior Noah Spence and Joey Bosa may be the country’s most dynamic duo at that position if they improve from their 28 combined tackles for loss last year.
First-year line coach Larry Johnson, who previously spent 18 years at Penn State coaching the defensive line, knows he inherited a lot of talent and doesn’t mince words about their potential. “This group has a chance to be really special,” Johnson said. “They’re very athletic and change direction well. I’m impressed.”
Q&A with Colorado School of Mines coach Bob Stitt
Bob Stitt is the offensive guru that college football’s most offensive-minded coaches, including West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and Belhaven’s Hal Mumme, call for ideas. But entering his 15th season at Colorado School of Mines, an NCAA Division II school in Golden, Colo., the 50-year-old Stitt still hasn’t gotten an opportunity in major college football. The closest he came was a record-breaking one-season stint as Harvard’s offensive coordinator in 2000 before taking his current job, where he has a 98-60 record. We caught up with Stitt, the most innovative play-caller you might have never heard of in college football.
You kind of became a cult hero after Dana Holgorsen credited you for the fly sweep play that West Virginia used to destroy Clemson in the 2012 Orange Bowl. How did that come to be?
We did a one-back clinic in Las Vegas where I spoke about the fly sweep. Dana took it back to Texas Tech and Coach Leach wouldn’t put it in. Then I saw Dana at a practice at the University of Houston and he was running the fly sweep play, but wasn’t putting it in the air and he had me come on the field and show Case Keenum how to time up the fly sweep. They went ahead and ran it in Houston and Oklahoma State and then at West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. People thought it was something new. But he’d been running it for the longest time and so had we.
How do you describe your offensive philosophy?
Keep it simple and go as fast as you can. We will go out and attack the weakness of the defense. People will ask us, are you going to establish the run or throw it? We don’t know going in. It depends on how the defense is going to try and defend us. We put a lot on our quarterback and the quarterback’s got to get us into good situations and good plays. We just always feel like there’s going to be something good on every play we call because we do have a minimal amount of plays going in, but there’s so many options off of every play. So we feel like the defense can never be right and we can always be right on every play.
You had expressed interest in the Colorado and Wyoming jobs that were filled the last two seasons, but weren’t really a legitimate candidate for either. Why is that?
Unfortunately, athletic directors are a little afraid of bringing somebody up from the Division II level. I think the media comes into play a little bit that they so badly want to win the press conference and throw out this big name that it just eliminates guys like me. There’s a lot of really good coaches out there that don’t get an opportunity because of this. I think that kind of came into play on both of those situations. I don’t know if that’s ever going to change.
What major college football opportunities have you had and what’s the closest you ever came to accepting one of them?
I’ve gotten a lot calls, mostly coordinator jobs, and have come really, really close the last two years of possibly moving and taking that jump as an assistant. But in both situations (a Mountain West team and American Athletic Conference team), it came down to the end and the final hour and it didn’t work out.”
The Stitt Happens T-shirts are a favorite of coaches. What’s the backstory on those?
That was something that FOX Sports’ Bruce Feldman came up with and Tweeted it. Immediately a bunch of people Tweeted back, ‘You print the T-shirt, we’ll buy it.’ So, I did and a bunch of them bought it. Last year we sold a couple hundred.
You’ve been known to darken some bars at the annual National Football Foundation dinner in New York. Who are your favorite three coaches to grab a beer with or those you would like to?
I always like to have a beer with Kevin Sumlin. I really enjoy Dana Holgorsen. About the only time I ever get to see him is at the coaching convention. An interesting guy that I’ve never met would be Steve Spurrier. He is a guy that doesn’t care what other people think. He’s going to do what’s in his gut, which is kind of the way I’ve lived my life and coached football. I’ve just always admired the way he approaches everything.
The Assistant Huddle
* Former Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has resurfaced as the defensive coordinator for Skip Holtz at Louisiana Tech. Texas coach Mack Brown fired Diaz after the Longhorns gave up 550 rushing yards to BYU in Week 2 last season. Diaz is settled in at Louisiana Tech, where he’s optimistic about the talent and potential. “Defense is about accountability and toughness,” Diaz said. “If you’re somewhere where accountability and toughness are not hallmarks or pillars, it becomes much more difficult to play really good defense.”
The abrupt firing put a hairpin turn in the rapid career ascent for Diaz, who began his sports career as an ESPN production assistant. He latched on at Florida State in 1998 as a graduate assistant, worked his way up to linebackers coach at N.C. State in 2002 and became the defensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee in 2006. That led to the defensive coordinator job at Mississippi State, where the Bulldogs finished in the Top 20 in scoring defense, rush defense and tackles for loss in his only season there in 2010.
The Texas job didn’t provide the final stepping stone to a head coaching job. After getting fired in September, Diaz appreciated the extra time with his family but struggled to watch games. “The weekends were horrendous,” he said. “You want to compete. You’re a competitor. That’s what competitors want to do.”
After Sonny Dykes took his high-flying offense to California two years ago, Louisiana Tech struggled to score. The Bulldogs finished No. 111 in scoring offense in Skip Holtz’s debut 4-8 season. That leaves the onus on Diaz’s defense this year as the offense catches up. Diaz is pleased with what he’s seen so far, as he projects junior defensive tackle Vernon Butler as a player with a shot at an NFL future. The amount of quality players in a 4 1/2-hour radius of campus has impressed Diaz.
“There’s good people here and a chance to play good defense and win,” Diaz said. “I feel good about what we’ve got going at LA Tech.”
* Energetic Oklahoma defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery lived up to his reputation again last season. The last three seasons, each defense the 35-year-old assistant has been part of has improved. Prior to his arrival at Michigan in 2011, the Wolverines were 110th in total defense. They improved to 17th during his first season and won the Sugar Bowl. The next season, they moved up four more spots. Last season in Montgomery’s first year at Oklahoma, the Sooners improved to 20th in total defense, up from 64th the previous year, and beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. That’s despite inheriting just three scholarship defensive tackles and a change from a 4-3 to a 3-4 in preseason camp.
“I’m going to make an instant impact with the guys I’m given,” Montgomery said. “I turned a bunch of inexperienced ends into four techniques in a system they don’t fit in and yet they played at a high level and were one of the most productive defensive lines in the country.”
While Michigan tumbled to 41st in total defense without Montgomery last season, his defensive line at Oklahoma figures to be even better this season with a year of experience and huge offseason gains. Montgomery is especially high on junior defensive end Charles Tapper, a first-team all-Big 12 pick last season, and overachieving redshirt senior defensive tackle Chuka Ndulue, who had five sacks in 2013.
Tapper put on 25 pounds in the offseason and is up to 285. He still has his 4.5 speed that he arrived with after just one season of playing high school football even though he was 65 pounds lighter back then. “He’s just a freak,” Montgomery said.
Ndulue now weighs 290 pounds, up 15 from last season. “He does everything I ask him to do,” Montgomery said. “He’s always where he’s supposed to be.”
* Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian emerged as a hot name to keep an eye on for head coaching jobs. Bowling Green expressed interest in the 40-year-old before hiring Dino Babers. The cerebral Bajakian also talked with Elon about its opening, but decided he didn’t want to drop down to the FCS level. “I’m in no rush to be a head coach,” Bajakian said. “That’s a goal, but I like where I am right now professionally and personally at Tennessee.”
Bajakian is in his third stint as offensive coordinator under Vols coach Butch Jones (he also held the position at Cincinnati and Central Michigan). He was the other finalist to succeed Jones when he left Central Michigan in 2010, but the job went to current Chippewas coach Dan Enos. The Williams College-educated Bajakian also once interviewed for the Princeton job more for the interview experience. “When the right opportunity comes along if I couldn’t say no, I’d definitely take it,” Bajakian said.
For now, Bajakian has far more pressing matters on his mind like who will be Tennessee's starting quarterback in its opener Aug. 31 against Utah State. It’s still a three-man race between senior Justin Worley, sophomore Joshua Dobbs and redshirt sophomore Nathan Peterman, who each started games last season. “Nobody has separated themselves,” Bajakian said. “It’s been that way for a while. They’re getting better. They started off camp rusty. They’ve strung a couple of good practices in a row together. It’s improving.”
Worley had the most starts last season with seven, but missed the final four games because of thumb surgery. He threw for 1,239 yards, but struggled with consistency (10 TD passes, eight interceptions). Bajakian doesn’t expect Jones to name a starter until the week before the opener. “You’d like for the senior to just take the bull by horns and be the guy,” said Bajakian of Worley. “He hasn’t done that yet, but he’s shown some flashes for sure.”
University of Texas-San Antonio coach Larry Coker knows his fish. He ate plenty of it during his 12 seasons at Miami, the last six as head coach. But he insists that The Grill at Leon Springs on the city’s north side is just as tasty as South Florida’s finest. Coker’s favorite is the salmon, which he likes because it’s not overcooked. He also recommends the tossed salad and asparagus to go with a red wine from the upscale casual restaurant’s extensive list. The cheesecake is also a hit with the recruits Coker brings in during official visits.
Although the restaurant is located in a former Macaroni Grill, it prides itself on European cuisine and hospitality with Texas Hill Country inspiration. And Coker isn’t the only championship-winning coach that frequents the eatery. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is also a regular.