No forecaster could have accurately predicted the perfect storm that’s brought Mississippi State from unranked to No. 1 in the nation. It’s the school’s first-ever top ranking in its 119-year football history. A confluence of coaching, talent and leadership has resulted in the most improbable story in college football this season. And, really, most seasons.
In the spring of 2009, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen showed up at an event on campus to celebrate the school’s meteorology department winning the forecasting equivalent of a national championship. Mississippi State edged out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Mullen worked the room to be sure to meet all of the individual forecasters. When he went on speaking tours over the summer, Mullen brought up the meteorology national title as an example of what Mississippi State is capable of. “He used it to illustrate that such championships are possible here,” said former MSU geosciences department head Darrel W. Schmitz.
No forecaster could have accurately predicted the perfect storm that’s brought Mississippi State from unranked to No. 1 in the nation. It’s the school’s first-ever top ranking in its 119-year football history. A confluence of coaching, talent and leadership has resulted in the most improbable story in college football this season. And, really, most seasons.
Amid the whirl of three consecutive victories over Top 10 opponents -- LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn -- Mullen’s outfit finds itself in the same rarified air of national title contention as MSU’s meteorologists. “They won three consecutive national championships,” Mullen told The Inside Read, “And when I’d come to their championship cookout I’d tell them, ‘We want to be like you.’”
So how did we get here? When former Mississippi State athletic director Greg Byrne and associate AD Scott Stricklin set out to hire Mullen in December 2008, they had much more modest goals. No Mississippi State coach had left Starkville without being fired or nudged out since Darrell Royal departed for Washington in 1956, so the idea wasn’t hiring someone to build a statue after. It was to find someone who could get Mississippi State in a position to win consistently.
The hiring of Mullen nearly didn’t happen. Byrne had a firm rule that if a candidate’s name came out in the media during the coaching search they’d be automatically eliminated from contention. So when Urban Meyer slipped up and mentioned Mullen as a candidate in a press conference, Byrne ruled him out. He narrowed down the field and had his sights on hiring a head coach from a lower division. (He declined to reveal who). But Byrne’s wife, Regina, nudged him getting out of bed on a Tuesday morning as the search wound down. “What about the guy from Florida?” she said. “Don’t you want to make sure you have this thing right before you pull the trigger?”
That night, Byrne, Stricklin and MSU baseball coach John Cohen met Mullen in an Embassy Suites in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. The meeting began at 9 p.m. and ended with Mullen agreeing to take the job 2:30 a.m. The group found Mullen organized, confident and ambitious, but still open to ideas. (Mullen is confident enough that he and his wife named their dog Heisman two weeks before Tim Tebow won the award in 2007; Megan Mullen joked that Tebow better win because they didn’t want to name the dog “Davey O’Brien or Walter Camp” after lesser known awards).
Mullen brought the spread offense, which was still novel in the SEC. He also brought a plan for recruiting, the strength program, academics and every aspect of running the program. He also came in a swagger. “I thought we needed an edge,” Byrne said. “He had the edge, but when I told him, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking,’ he listened. To me the most effective leaders have confidence in what they do, but they’re also good listeners.”
Mullen’s edge showed up immediately. Workouts were harder than they’d ever been. Maroon lines were drawn on the practice field, and he demanded that as soon as anyone crossed them they begin running and not stop until practice was over. In his first spring, he became irate with the lack of hustle from team managers working the first-down chains.
“He grabbed the chain and ran it down and slammed it into the ground,” Byrne said. “He said, ‘That is how you do it.’ His example across the board was that everyone was going to give great effort and get them better. He created that culture.”
The ultimate barometer at Mississippi State is success against Ole Miss. Mullen led the Bulldogs to a 41-27 blowout of the Rebels his first year, setting a tone that things were changing. Mississippi State lost 45-0 the year before in Sylvester Croom’s final season. (Mullen is 4-1 against Ole Miss).
In Mullen’s second season, Mississippi State went 9-4 and blew out Michigan in the Gator Bowl. Prior to the start of that season, the Bulldogs found out that Cam Newton -- a former Mullen recruit at Florida -- would be enrolling at Auburn for the 2010 season instead of Mississippi State. That decision later sparked one of the biggest controversies in recent college football history, as former Mississippi State quarterback John Bond said that Newton’s father asked for payment for his son’s services. Mississippi State declined to pay.
An NCAA investigation cleared Auburn of any wrongdoing and Newton won the Heisman Trophy and led the Tigers to the national title. Mississippi State got mocked by SEC fans for missing out on Newton. “Somehow, that reflected poorly on us,” said Stricklin, now the athletic director. “And I know how, but I don’t really know if that’s fair.”
Nearly a year later, a lightly regarded quarterback from Louisiana named Dak Prescott called Mullen and told him he’d just called LSU and informed them he’d be upholding his commitment to Mississippi State. Prescott had committed six months earlier, but a prolific senior year had intensified LSU’s interest in him. “Twelve months later, we didn’t have Cam Newton, but we have a kid we’re proud of,” Stricklin said.
Nearly 11 months ago, Mississippi State was 4-6, but back-to-back comeback November overtime wins over Arkansas and Ole Miss made the Bulldogs bowl eligible. Prescott came off the bench in the Ole Miss victory and led the Bulldogs to a thrilling comeback, cementing his role as the team’s indelible leader for 2014.
Stricklin’s faith in Mullen never wavered, as he laughed recently that the same writers who put Mullen on the “hot seat” lists last season are listing him as candidates for jobs like Michigan and Florida that could potentially open this year.
If this run continues through January, it could set the table for a scene no one could have forecast at Mississippi State -- the championship football team inviting the meteorologists over for a celebration.
1. Believe the hype in Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
The broken finger that Clemson freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson suffered in Saturday’s 23-17 win over Louisville will sideline him for a month, but the relentless hype won’t subside. Some within the Tigers’ program believe that the dual-threat Watson is already better than his predecessor, Tajh Boyd, a sixth-round pick in last May’s NFL Draft. Boyd owns the ACC record for career touchdown passes (106) along with nearly every school passing mark. Except for the school record for touchdown passes in a game (six) that Watson set in his first collegiate start on the way to throwing for 435 yards in a 50-35 win over North Carolina last month. He’s thrown for 1,176 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions this season.
The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Watson is already going through his progressions in a way Boyd wasn’t able to do until his senior year. He is also finding checkdowns instead of throwing deep into double-coverage like Boyd often did. Watson is a calm presence, whose innocent and fun demeanor is contagious. It’s a stark difference from the emotional Boyd, who often got rattled early in big games and never rebounded. Watson has wowed the Clemson coaching staff so much that many wonder what might have happened had he started instead of coming off the bench in a 23-17 overtime loss to Florida State last month.
Clemson coaches had eyed the North Carolina game as Watson’s first potential start because it was the first of three straight homes games, which ended with Saturday’s win against Louisville. The logic in waiting until then was he would avoid potential struggles in the Tigers’ season-opener at Georgia, a 45-21 loss, and at Florida State that could impact him long term.
Clemson has always had huge expectations for Watson, the Class of 2014’s top-rated dual-threat quarterback, since it began recruiting him as a freshman at Gainesville (Ga.) High. The Tigers were sold enough on Watson that they didn’t sign a quarterback in the recruiting class prior to his in February.
Watson has already shattered those expectations, just as he’s likely to do to Clemson’s records.
2. Florida State's Rashad Greene always gets last laugh
Rashad Greene has a habit of frustrating opposing defensive backs. It’s not just the soft-spoken star Florida State wide receiver’s sure-handed play, but also his rapid laugh. The one defenders hear when they try to rattle or hit him. "It’s pretty much pointless for them to talk trash to me,” Greene said.
Because if opposing defenders ever hear Greene respond, they’ll regret it. “It will be after I made them look bad,” Greene said.
That’s what Greene is once again doing this season entering his team’s showdown Saturday against Notre Dame. He leads the ACC in catches (44) and receiving yards (683).
The 6-foot, 180-pound speedy senior quietly led Florida State in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches the three previous seasons, even though former Seminoles wide receiver and NFL first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin often got higher billing. He too could have turned turn pro after last season like Benjamin, but elected to stay after receiving what he said was a second-day NFL Draft grade.
“I consider myself a workhorse,” Greene said. “I do a lot of work and just keep going. All the fame and attention doesn’t really matter to me. I’m more concerned about my teammates and myself getting better and just making sure we win. All the other stuff, I feel like pretty much will take care of itself.”
After Greene broke Florida State’s previous school record for career receptions (215) in last Saturday’s 38-20 win at Syracuse, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher compared him to Derek Jeter. Greene could also break the school records for receiving yards (3,598) and touchdown catches (31) this season.
“Greatness is measured to me with consistency and performance over a long period of time and that’s what he is about,” Fisher said. “He makes all the big plays when you have to, but the rest of the time you’re talking about somebody else all the time. He doesn’t go get the spotlight. He carries himself with tremendous professionalism, represents his organization in the classroom, off the field, on the field unbelievably.”
Like Jeter, Greene doesn’t say much. But he did give rare speech earlier this season when the Seminoles trailed Clemson 10-7 at halftime before rallying to win in overtime without star quarterback Jameis Winston, who was suspended for the game.
Otherwise, the best way to get Greene talking is to ask him about his culinary skills. He’s the team’s unofficial chef and can cook everything from Caribbean to Italian. He grew up in a cooking family and prides himself on his barbecue ribs. He’s a mustard-based sauce disciple, but once again gets quiet when asked for specifics.
“I can’t tell you that,” Greene said with a laugh. “If I tell you, I have to kill you.”
Greene also won’t disclose his recipe for his legendary oxtails, but confirms he is versatile in steaming and grilling lobster tails, another of his favorites. He often cooks for his teammates during the summer and on Sundays during the season, getting up early to do prep work before going to church.
One of the biggest fans of Greene’s food is Winston. “Jameis loves my cooking,” Greene said. “He always comes over.”
Not that Greene says much then either. “I’m the quiet cook,” Greene said.
And with that, Greene is laughing again.
3. Mississippi St.'s Prescott will leave for NFL if he's projected as top pick
Dak Prescott admits that heading to the NFL isn’t something he thinks about a lot. But he told The Inside Read that if he’s projected as a first-round pick, he’ll leave early after his this year. He’d also strongly consider going if he’s a second- or third-round pick. “One of the worst things is not going, getting injured and hurting your situation,” he said. “I wouldn’t risk it if I had a chance to go first round. I’m graduating college, and my time here will be done, I’ll do exactly what I wanted to do.”
He added: “When the time came and there’s an option, first, second or third round and I had the season I wanted to have, I’d go.”
Prescott is on track to graduate in December with a degree in educational psychology, but Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen expects him back next season. “I’d be shocked, but you never know,” he said.
He then thinks out loud for a minute and reminisces about going into Urban Meyer’s office during Week 10 of the 2004 season while at Utah to warn Meyer about the possibility of Alex Smith leaving for the NFL.
“We’ve got to get ready,” Mullen said.
“What are you talking about?” Meyer responded.
“He’s the best player in college football,” Mullen said. “He’s going to be gone after this year.”
One NFL scout told The Inside Read that Prescott is rapidly becoming someone that he needs to figure out. Coming into the season, Prescott started just seven games and was part of a two-quarterback system. There is an inevitable comparison with Tim Tebow because both played in Mullen’s offense. Prescott also is built similarly at 6-2, 235 pounds.
“(Prescott) is a better athlete, throws the ball better and has a better throwing motion,” said the scout. “He has a lot of components you like.”
There's still plenty for Prescott to work on -- anticipation, accuracy and reading coverages. Prescott would clearly benefit from another season. But can Mississippi State replicate a once-in-a-century season again?
Through six games, Prescott has accounted for 23 touchdowns -- 14 passing, eight rushing and one receiving. He’s completed 61.5 percent of his passes, averaged 5.4 yards per rush and thrown four interceptions. Statistics can’t quantify his intangibles. Prescott plans to go into coaching when he’s done playing, and he calls coaching the Kappa Sig fraternity team last year to a win in the Sigma Chi Charity Bowl as “one of the most exciting things in my life.” Prescott excitedly talked about getting water dumped over him at the conclusion of the game and still bumping into players on campus and calling them by their nicknames. (A speedy receiver was known as “White Lightning.”)
“I’m in love with the game of football,” Prescott said. “My first love so far. My girlfriend knows to this day I love her, but football is beyond.”
Prescott said he’d make his decision after the season. “If they’re saying first-round pick, of course my family could use (the money),” he said, “it’s a dream come true.”
• David Cobb is the poster child for Minnesota’s recruiting efforts. The senior running back had hoped to sign with Stanford four years ago, but was no longer in the Cardinal’s plans when David Shaw was hired. When signing day arrived, the Killeen, Texas, product wasn’t as interested in his remaining scholarship offers, all from non-Power 5 schools. But then-Minnesota assistant and now Baltimore Ravens running backs coach Thomas Hammock heard about Cobb’s plight. The Gophers invited Cobb and his mother for an official visit and nine days after signing day he chose Minnesota.
Now, Cobb is among the Big Ten’s best running backs along with Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon. He ranks among the nation’s top 10 rushers with 819 yards and four touchdowns on 154 carries. He’s been instrumental in his team’s 5-1 start that has the Gophers tied for first in the Big Ten West.
“We don’t worry about what everyone else is doing in recruiting,” Gophers wide receivers coach Brian Anderson told The Inside Read. “We worry about ourselves and the kind of kids we can get.”
The 5-11, 220-pound Cobb had raw talent, but needed to refine his work ethic upon arriving at Minnesota. He also needed to work on his ball security and pass protection. Last season, he finally figured it all out when he burst onto the Big Ten landscape with 1,202 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.
“It’s the underdog effect,” Anderson said.
That’s a role Minnesota coach Jerry Kill & Co. are comfortable with, but they’re unlikely to be in with its next three games against Purdue, at Illinois and Iowa. The next time the Gophers won’t be favored should be Nov. 15 against Ohio State.
“We’re proud of where it’s going, but we want to continue to build it the right way,” Anderson said. “We’re going to push the envelope and see how far we can take this thing.”
So far, it’s translated into back-to-back bowl appearances. That’s helped some with recruiting, even though its current class is ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten.
“We’ve got to get what we get and build it,” Anderson said.
That’s worked out just fine before.
• First-year Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has a running question for his unit: “Which defense are we going to be?” The Bulldogs’ three-point win over Tennessee last month perhaps best explains his reason for questioning the Bulldogs' schizophrenic unit. The defense only surrendered 82 yards during 10 possessions (a total of 41 plays), but during five other possessions it gave up 306 yards.
In a 34-0 win at Missouri last Saturday, Pruitt got his answer. Georgia shut out a ranked team on the road for the first time in school history, forced Maty Mauk into a career-high four interceptions and yielded just 147 yards total offense. “We played OK,” Pruitt told The Inside Read.
Georgia needed to be more than OK playing without suspended star running back Todd Gurley for the first time this season. Pruitt later finally conceded the obvious about Saturday’s win, which put Georgia back in control of its own destiny in the SEC East.
“That was far and away the best game we’ve played,” he said. “All year we’ve really improved. The problem is we hadn’t put it together for four quarters. That’s what you got to do to be a good defense.”
Pruitt admits his unit has limitations, specifically not enough “erasers,” defenders who can still make plays out of bad defensive calls. But he said the big plays his defense has given up this season haven’t been because of a lack of talent.
“We didn’t line up the right way, have our eyes in the right spot or play the correct technique,” Pruitt said. “It’s a learning process.”
Pruitt said it was his lack of aggressive play-calling that resulted in Georgia’s lone defeat this season, a 38-35 loss at South Carolina. “If you’re going to win in the SEC, your defense has to play well on the road,” he said. “Those whose do, they win.”
With Gurley potentially not coming back this season, the Bulldogs need Pruitt’s defense to play better than ever down the stretch to remain atop the SEC East. “We’re getting closer to creating the right habits,” Pruitt said.
The question is how will Pruitt’s defense answer him the rest of the season.
• Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory continues to impress NFL scouts. The 6-6, 240-pound junior is projected as a likely top three pick in this spring’s NFL Draft. “He’s an in-between mixture of Jadeveon Clowney and Jevon Kearse,” one scout said. “He’s got Kearse’s freaky athlete ability. Clowney is much stronger, but he’s much tighter than Gregory. Gregory has disgusting bendability much like Barkevious Mingo.”
Gregory injured his left knee in the first quarter of Nebraska’s opener this season and missed a game after having arthroscopic surgery, but still has a team-high 4.5 sacks and six tackles-for-loss. Last year, he led the Big Ten in sacks (10.5) and was second in tackles for loss (19).
“He’s a f------ freak,” the scout said. “Truly something special.”
• Vanderbilt outside linebackers coach Kenwick Thompson has perspective on the Commodores’ growing pains this season under first-year coach Derek Mason. A California assistant for six years until Jeff Tedford’s firing in 2012, Thompson used to look in amazement across the field at Stanford’s players before the two teams’ annual rivalry game.
“Athletically it wasn’t even close,” Thompson told The Inside Read. “But they would just bore you to death and do exactly what they’re supposed to do. Not hurt themselves and then find a way at the end to win.”
Little did Thompson know then, but he was also looking at his future boss in Mason, Stanford’s previous defensive coordinator. Now, Thompson is on the other end of that gazing by other SEC teams.
“We’re going to have to out-execute people,” Thompson said. “The truth of the matter is that a lot of times our dudes don’t look like the dudes across the field. They just don’t. We’ve got to be able to admit to that, but if we execute and do what we need to do at a high level, we’re still in every football game. That needs to be our thing.”
Vanderbilt’s bye this week comes at an opportune time for a young team still trying to learn Mason’s 3-4 defense and with a trio of struggling quarterbacks. The Commodores are still searching for their first SEC victory under Mason, but have only lost two of their last three league games by a combined 16 points, a vast improvement.
“We’ll see the benefits later,” Thompson said. “But right now we’re going through it because these guys just haven’t seen that much football. It would be tough in any league, but in the SEC it’s even tougher.”
• It took Willie Fritz not playing in a national championship to finally get his long-awaited FBS head-coaching job. The first-year Georgia Southern coach had interview opportunities before his Sam Houston State teams played in the FCS title games in 2011 and 2012, but decided it wasn’t fair to his players to pursue them. But after losing in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs last season, he made the jump.
“It’s been a big change,” Fritz told The Inside Read.
One the 54-year-old Fritz has handled seamlessly in guiding Georgia Southern to a 5-2 start in its first season in the FBS. With a spread option attack that features the program’s vintage triple option scheme, his offense leads the FBS in rushing (372 yards per game) and is 13th in scoring (41.3 points per game).
His team’s losses to North Carolina State and Georgia Tech came on the road by a combined five points. The Eagles also have a 4-0 record in their inaugural season in the Sun Belt, which they joined July 1.
Georgia Southern can win the conference title, but are ineligible to play in a bowl game this season unless there aren’t enough bowl-eligible teams to fill the allotted slots. Fritz inherited 15 starters from last year’s 7-4 team that upset Florida 26-20 on the road in its season-finale.
“We’re doing a good job,” Fritz said. “The kids are playing hard and the coaches have embraced what we’re doing. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Fritz’s offense is the same type of scheme that he ran at Sam Houston State. Except at the FCS school Fritz’s starting quarterback was a better passer than runner and he estimates his offense threw the ball five to 10 more times per game (Georgia Southern ranks 11th to last in the FBS in passing). His attack also featured a wide receiver who ran the Wildcat with triple-option dimensions.
Fritz’s path to Statesboro, Ga. has been a winding journey. He’s a former high school assistant who coached Blinn College in Texas to back-to-back undefeated seasons in 1995 and 1996 en route to consecutive national championships with eventual Kansas State quarterback Michael Bishop.
He was then coach of Central Missouri, an NCAA Division II school, for 13 years before leaving for Sam Houston State in 2010. He has a 181-69-1 career record with at least seven victories in 18 of 21 years as head coach. “I put my time in,” Fritz said. “I paid my dues.”
The biggest difference in Fritz’s move to the FBS has been the year-round recruiting and his public appearances (he estimates he’s made 120 since being hired in January). His transition has been eased by Georgia Southern’s loyal fan base that was built with six I-AA national championships. “It’s a lot different place to make the move up than other places,” Fritz said.
Now, the question is can Georgia Southern keep him from moving again? After all, the last time Fritz’s season ended early, he got his current job.
“We really like it here,” Fritz said. “I think it’s a place you can win big at. It’s the most fertile recruiting area I’ve ever been around. We’re kind of the show down here.”
• Mississippi defensive coordinator Dave Wommack was still being hard on himself Sunday morning even after an impressive 35-20 win at Texas A&M in front of a hostile record crowd of 110,000. Leading up to the game he had told Rebels coach Hugh Freeze that the team’s offense would need to score more than unusual to help his unit against the Aggies’ high-scoring offense.
But until giving up a touchdown on the game’s final play, Wommack’s defense had scored as many points as it had surrendered, returning a fumble and interception by Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill.
“I started playing soft in the fourth quarter,” Wommack told The Inside Read. “That was my fault.”
Never mind that Wommack’s game plan stymied Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin’s scoreboard-busting offense like never before. It was shut out in the first half, the first time that’s happened in Sumlin’s seven years as a head coach.
The savvy veteran Wommack did it with what he thought was kryptonite for Sumlin’s offense, which entered the game averaging 47.8 points. After poring over seasons of film, he noticed opponents who were successful against the Aggies had stopped not their vaunted passing attack, but their running game. “When they were forced to throw it all the time usually good things happened like turnovers,” Wommack said.
In all, Hill committed three of them as his team’s running game mustered just 54 yards on 35 carries. This season, Wommack’s defense is allowing 4.31 yards per play this season and also has 12 interceptions, both best in the SEC.
“We’ve got some experience and guys that have a lot of pride,” Wommack said of his defense. “They play for each other. Our offense has put us in some good positions on many occasions. I’m proud of where we’re at right now.”
• As for Texas A&M, its current two-game losing streak is hardly getting much SEC sympathy. After all, it’s always been about next season for the youthful Aggies, who will return plenty of starters on both sides of the ball. Sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill will be better after a year as the starter and he’ll have nearly all of his weapons back. For the first time, there will also be high expectations for Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, whose unit has struggled during Kevin Sumlin’s first three seasons in College Station.
Whatever the Aggies achieve this season will be a bonus. But next year, it’ll be hard to find reasons why they shouldn’t be in the thick of the College Football Playoff race.
• With Georgia’s Todd Gurley suspended for allegedly being paid to sign autographs and Florida State’s Jameis Winston also being investigated for the same thing, some college football coaches are fearing their opponent’s fans more than ever.
An assistant told The Inside Read he’s always concerned about his players potentially accepting money for autographs. But in light of Gurley’s suspension, he’s increasingly worried that opposing fans will target his top players not only for their financial benefit, but also to try to keep them off the field.
“They get the signatures, videotape it and sell them,” the assistant said. “Then before playing (us), you put the story out. Well now, you’ve made money and you’re basically buying the best player off the other team.”
The autograph dealer who allegedly paid Gurley for his signatures is reportedly a fan of one of the Bulldogs’ biggest rival, the Florida Gators.
“It could very easily happen,” the assistant said. “The fan’s got complete control of the situation.”
Q&A with Oregon State coach Mike Riley
It’s been a wild season for the Pac-12 with the all the Hail Mary’s, stunning upsets and offensive fireworks. One zanier than even Oregon State's Mike Riley, the conference’s longest tenured coach, can ever recall. Yet in his 12th consecutive season with the Beavers (14th overall), Riley has Oregon state in the hunt for the league’s North division entering a pivotal home game Thursday against upstart Utah. College football’s most universally liked head coach spoke with The Inside Read about his reputation, going home twice and dancing in Texas.
Your bio describes you as “the best guy in college football.” How’s a nice guy like you been so successful in such a brutal game?
Oh, my goodness. I don’t know how they qualify that statement really. I don’t know what to say about that. My comment to that point has always been, "I hope people just see a guy that enjoys what he does." I love the game of football. I love the people in football. I love my association with teams, coaches, the media. I do try to reflect and remember how thankful I am to be here at this time, because I started out just wanting to be a defensive backfield coach. That was good enough for me. I’m always kind of surprised that I’m getting to still do this.
You won a national championship at Alabama playing for Bear Bryant. What’s the angriest you ever saw him?
Oh, man. Most of the time, everything about Alabama was pretty steady. It was intense, but it was pretty steady and a great atmosphere. If he ever came down from the tower before practice was over, you knew something bad was about to happen. Only do I remember a few instances when he came down. After that, the excitement started because he came down because he was mad about something. That’s when sparks would fly a little bit.
You once left your current job after two seasons to become coach of the San Diego Chargers, only to return four seasons later. Did you know you had made a mistake?
Well, I proved one thing, you can go home again. Thomas Wolfe said you couldn’t and I did. I really don’t try to think of it as a mistake. I, however, would probably not do it like that again. When the opportunity was open again, I wanted to go back and finish what we began and I was sorry for the lost time. I was thankful for the work that Dennis Erickson did in the program because he made it better while I was gone. But I also felt a void for having left it when I did. Both my wife, Dee, and I were really excited for the opportunity to come back. I really appreciate Oregon State having an open mind because many times people close the door to somebody looking for a second chance. They didn’t and I’m thankful for that. When we came back my wife and I said, let’s try to make this our last stop. And we worked hard at it. In order to do that, you have to win some games and then you have to elect to stay after you do that. And so we’re back here now. This is almost unbelievable to me.
You coached in the CFL and won two Grey Cups. How did that shape you as a coach?
It opens the door in your mind a little bit for what you can do offensively. It’s an exciting open game, lots of different stuff. I actually lost my hair coaching the defensive backs in the CFL, because it’s crazy to play defense up there with all the motions, formations, the wide field. But it’s a great game. It does present so many possibilities of what you can do, offensively, defensively, really in everything.
You and your wife have a home outside of San Antonio. Many don’t know this, but the two of you have been known to cut a little rug at Gruene Hall, correct?
That’s right. We love it. You know we got to coach in San Antonio for a couple of years in one of those ghost of football past leagues. But we were thankful for the opportunity to learn about the Hill Country. My wife found an old farmhouse out on the Guadalupe River and we’ve kept it since ‘91. That is our place to go. Sometimes we can get our kids now, who are grown, to go back and be with us. But we go every summer and we enjoy the people, the food, and the music at Gruene Hall. We have our local favorites down there that we always try to catch if they’re playing at Gruene Hall. My son has since moved with his wife to Austin. So, it’s a double bonus for us when we go down there. We get to see him. The residual thing for me football-wise, I go down there in the summertime and I plan all of our fall camp, our practice schedules, our installation, and all that stuff. It’s a great place for me to go.
You’re a fan of author John Lescroart. What is it about his books?
I enjoy authors that know their setting so well like John. He knows San Francisco like the back of his hands. I know a little bit about San Francisco. So, it’s always intriguing for me to read books of people that know the setting so well. Another one of my favorite authors is James Lee Burke. His settings are in the bayou country of Louisiana, New Iberia, sometimes New Orleans. I spent a year in New Orleans. I love reading books by people of places that I’ve been. That’s always a lot of fun for me.
You also like the Counting Crows. How did you get turned on to them, and what’s your favorite song of theirs?
My son was probably my biggest influence. I’ve gone on to more of the locals down in Texas. Robert Earl Keen and Gary P. Nunn and Kelly Willis, Bob Schneider, those are my new favorites. I still listen to Counting Crows quite a bit just because of my son’s influence. If I had to pick a favorite, I’d say, Round Here.
What do you make of the state of the Pac-12 this year with the road teams having won 14 of the league’s 18 conference games?
It is absolutely the craziest it’s ever been. You could see it coming a year ago. It was competitive then and I was telling people, this is only a sign of things to come. In the last three years, there have been 10 new head coaches in our conference. There was kind of a changing of the guard. Each one of those programs that were down are growing and they’re all competitive. You can throw out the books on just about every game now. You just don’t know what’s going to happen.
• Andy Buh’s job consists of sword fights, shootouts and Spiderman. There’s also fishing and camping trips. It’s all for his two young sons, Luke and Logan. “I’m like a professional dad,” Buh said with a laugh during his first interview since losing his job as California’s defensive coordinator in March.
The once rising star was reassigned in the athletic department after the Golden Bears went 1-11 last season, his first under coach Sonny Dykes, and had the worst defense statistically in school history. He views the experience as an invaluable lesson. “It’s a now business,” Buh said. “It’s not, let’s recruit to your system. Use the personnel that you have, build the scheme around them and go from there.”
The 41-year-old Buh is now living in Reno, Nev., where he played for the Wolf Pack. A Nevada graduate, he got his start in coaching at his alma mater as a graduate assistant in 1997 and was the school’s defensive coordinator from 2010-11. He has been spending some time around the program this season. “It’s been a chance to step back a little bit, re-energize and study football,” Buh said.
This past spring, Buh also visited coaching friends at Arkansas, Florida, Florida Atlantic and Wisconsin for professional development. He focused less on scheme and more on what coaches are doing with their current players.
Buh admits that he coached the opposite way at Cal with his multiple 4-3 defense. Before his season there, he was Wisconsin’s linebackers coach for a year and an assistant at San Diego State and Stanford. “You try to do things that your players can do, but you also have a system and believe in it,” he said. “At different places we’ve been, you’ve had enough time to recruit to it.”
Buh declined to discuss the specifics of his contract with California, which was a guaranteed three-year deal worth $1.5 million, but said he has an obligation to find a job. He hopes to find a new gig during the next coaching cycle. “As soon as the market opens, then we’ll be attacking this thing pretty hard,” Buh said.
In the meantime, Buh has a trip to Florida to see family. He’s already taken family-related visits to the San Diego area and Indiana.
Most days though, Buh is busy taking Luke to pre-kindergarten, karate class and swimming lessons. “The task right now is family,” Buh said. “That’s kind of what we’re enjoying. Being around the young ones and watching them grow. Spending as much time as possible with them.”
• Memphis defensive coordinator Barry Odom still texts frequently with his old boss, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, to get feedback on his ideas. One of Pinkel’s best pieces of advice to Odom came two seasons ago in his current job when he took over a defense that had been ranked 117th nationally the previous season. Pinkel relayed what he was told when he had struggles at Toledo in 1991, his first season as a head coach. “You got to roll up your sleeves,” Odom recalls being told by Pinkel. “You got to keep working. Keep your head down and don’t listen to all the stuff that’s being said.”
Odom followed Pinkel’s advice and in his first season as Memphis’ defensive coordinator, his unit skyrocketed to 50th nationally in total defense behind his aggressive 3-4 scheme that focuses first on stopping the run. Last season, it moved up another 11 spots and this season is so far 42nd nationally (357.2 yards per game). The remarkable turnaround has earned the 37-year-old Odom plenty of praise. It’s come from the likes of Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze, whose team scored just one touchdown through three quarters before beating Memphis 24-3 late last month.
It’s sure to make Odom a hot commodity during the next coaching cycle. “I’m fortunate that I’m around a lot of good people,” Odom said.
Before Odom started coaching, he was a linebacker at Missouri under then-Tigers coach Larry Smith and finished his career as the school’s fifth all-time leading tackler. He coached high school football for three years before he returned to his alma mater as an administrative graduate assistant in 2003. It was the first of his six seasons in various administrative roles before Pinkel finally promoted him to Missouri’s safeties coach in 2009. “I don’t know of a better organizational guy in coaching,” Odom said of Pinkel. “It’s to the minute and very detailed.”
It’s an approach Odom has brought with him to Memphis. He and Tigers coach Justin Fuente have known each other since their days playing high school football in Oklahoma. Odom has admittedly learned a lot from the rising Fuente, who was formerly TCU coach Gary Patterson’s offensive coordinator. He also knows Pinkel is just a text message away.
Said Odom, “It’s great to be able to have a sounding board.”
As part of shedding more than 200 pounds, East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill stopped eating out. But that hasn’t stopped him from dining nightly at his favorite eatery, Erlene McNeill’s Restaurant, otherwise known as his wife's home cooking.
“I have a beautiful cook and my waitress is gorgeous,” McNeill said of his wife of 27 years. “Her tip is enormous.”
With the Atlantic nearby, McNeill’s wife usually makes him fresh seafood. Their kitchen is stocked with fresh crab legs, scallops, shrimp and fish. One of McNeill’s favorite meals is her specialty seafood boil of crab legs, shrimp, potatoes, corn and sausage with a lemon and garlic peppered seasoning.
His wife’s cooking helps keep McNeill on his diet. And as much as he loves East Carolina’s fans, it also allows him to spend time with his family in private.
“Calidad de vida,” McNeill said.
The Spanish phrase translates to quality of life. Said McNeill, “Balance is key.”