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Copycats Around the time of spring practice, normally paranoid coaches open their playbooks and film rooms so rivals can study their strategic secrets

April 13, 1998
April 13, 1998

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April 13, 1998

Pro Football

Copycats Around the time of spring practice, normally paranoid coaches open their playbooks and film rooms so rivals can study their strategic secrets

On the third Friday in March, as a fierce snowstorm gathered in
the bleak central New York sky, Syracuse football players
trudged through a 2 1/2-hour practice inside the Carrier Dome.
Linemen whaled on each other in vicious one-on-one drills, while
punters ripped high spirals that clanged as they rained down on
nearby aluminum bleachers. At one side of the field stood an
offensive assistant from another major college, ending a two-day
reconnaissance trip by trying to glean as much as he could from
the Orange attack.

This is an article from the April 13, 1998 issue Original Layout

Customarily, it would be easier for a 14-year-old girl to get
Leonardo DiCaprio's home phone number than it would be to get a
rival coach to share his precious X's and O's. However, from the
end of recruiting in early February through the close of spring
practice in late April, college football goes co-op as coaching
staffs visit one another's campuses and trade playbooks like
memorabilia collectors swapping wares at an autograph show. My
blitz package is your blitz package. "Hell of a lot different
from the fall," says Washington State coach Mike Price.

Only in the dead of football's winter will you see such sights as:

--Notre Dame defensive coordinator Greg Mattison walking the
halls of Ohio State's Woody Hayes Center, breaking bread and
breaking down tape with Buckeyes defensive assistants.

--Florida State assistants not only on the practice field at
Nebraska, but also in the Cornhuskers' huddles.

--National champion Michigan calling SEC doormat Vanderbilt in
search of defensive refinements.

--Ohio State's offensive staff visiting Nebraska to refine its
short-yardage package. (Suggestion: Steal the Huskers' linemen.)

--Nebraska quizzing--we swear--Army and Navy on the option game.

--Colorado visiting Arizona State, even though the Sun Devils
have become the Buffaloes' bitter recruiting rival.

Or imagine this: On certain weekends the hot coordinators are
flown to enemy campuses and paid to tutor the host staff, which
leads to the likes of Nebraska defensive boss Charlie McBride
cashing checks from Florida State, Georgia and Ohio State, as he
did in the winter of '97. In February, March and April paranoia
goes on spring break.

This is how the process works: Coaches from one school spend
roughly two days working with their counterparts at another
school. Occasionally a staff visits to overhaul its entire
system (switching from the West Coast offense to the option, for
instance). More often coaches travel in search of small
solutions from people running similar schemes, or to find
security in validation of their own methods. "You're trying to
stay progressive, stay on top of trends and changes," says Notre
Dame coach Bob Davie, who was once a voracious visitor but now,
like most other head coaches, sends his assistants. "But overall
you're just hoping to come back home confident that you're
already doing most of the right things and that you can figure
out the rest of it yourself."

Access varies, depending on the schools involved and the
relationship between the coaches. At Florida visitors get all
the tape they can watch, whatever time the assistant coaches can
spare and a seat on the sideline at practice. Gators coach Steve
Spurrier used to tutor fellow coaches, but he noted that they
only briefly incorporated his passing game and then, in his
words, "just filed it all away." Those who visit Nebraska get
the works, but in general, if your college roommate is the
coordinator at the school you're visiting, you've got a much
better chance of learning something than if you've never met the
dude. "Face it," says Syracuse offensive coordinator Kevin
Rogers. "If you have no prior association with a staff of
coaches, they're going to be pretty closemouthed with you."

Almost no program, however, is a closed shop, and this sharing
is a source of great pride in the coaching fraternity. "I think
this is one of the best things about our profession," says Ohio
State coach John Cooper, who as coach at Tulsa in the late '70s
observed Bear Bryant at Alabama and came away floored by his
program's generosity.

Coaches' memoirs-in-progress are flush with similar tales. Hal
Mumme, the pass-happy coach who took over at Kentucky last
season, has visited Brigham Young in 15 of the past 19 years to
study the Cougars' passing game. When current LSU coach Gerry
DiNardo was an offensive coordinator under Bill McCartney at
Colorado in the late '80s, DiNardo went to Air Force coach
Fisher DeBerry for advice on how to install the option, a
philosophical change that led to a national championship for the
Buffaloes in 1990. "He gave me all the time I needed, and I'll
never forget that," says DiNardo. "You think IBM and Apple would
work together like that?"

There are, in fact, boundaries to the sharing, in the form of
four unwritten rules:

1) Never share with a team in your conference.

2) Never share with a team that's on your schedule in the next
two-year cycle.

3) When a staff visits your school, get as good as you give.
("Coaches come to visit us, we send them to the board with a
grease pencil too," says Florida State defensive assistant Chuck
Amato.)

4) Don't give up everything. "A few secrets, a few adjustments,
you hold back," says Nebraska offensive line coach Milt Tenopir.

Even cautious teams can get burned, though. Classic examples: In
the spring of 1986 BYU coach Lavell Edwards welcomed UCLA coach
Terry Donahue, who wanted to learn the Cougars' draw-trap play.
Ten months later UCLA crushed BYU 31-10 in the Freedom Bowl.
"Didn't break many draw traps that night," says Edwards.

Jim Lambright, Washington's defensive coordinator from 1977 to
'92 and head coach since then, was brought in to visit Michigan
in the spring of '90 because his attack defense was becoming the
rage. Twice in the next three years the Huskies played the
Wolverines in the Rose Bowl, splitting the games. Last spring
Nebraska's defensive staff visited Tennessee, and some nine
months later the Huskers pounded the Volunteers 42-17 in the
Orange Bowl.

Hot schools pop up like hot Web sites. In the '70s assistants
flocked to learn Oklahoma's brushfire wishbone. In the mid-'80s
defensive gurus-in-training went to Miami to study Jimmy
Johnson's speedy 4-3. "You had to fight just to get a projector
to use because we had so many outside coaches in the meeting
rooms," says Tommy Tuberville, then a defensive assistant under
Johnson and now the coach at Mississippi. In the early '90s,
Lambright was teaching his mad-dog defense, descended from Buddy
Ryan's 46, that is only now giving way to the fire zone as the
dominant defense in the college game.

The spring of '98 brings new meccas and reestablishes some old
ones. "People ask two questions before they visit," says Davie.
"Who has a new scheme that's working, and who wins
consistently?" At Washington State, where Price's signature
one-back passing offense blossomed last fall in the hands of
quarterback Ryan Leaf and carried the Cougars to the Rose Bowl
(a tight 21-16 loss to Michigan), the phones have been ringing
since mid-January. His one-back clinic in early March attracted
six full Division I-A offensive staffs, including those from
Kentucky, Mississippi and Minnesota.

Michigan has been popular too, since defensive coordinator Jim
Herrmann's customized zone-blitz package helped carry the
Wolverines to their first national title in 50 years. "We could
have been very, very busy every week since recruiting if we took
in every staff that called," says Herrmann. One staff that
Michigan did accommodate was Georgia's. The Bulldogs had a 10-2
season last year but gave up a combined 83 points in losses to
Tennessee and Auburn. "Their zone fires, their schemes were
interesting, but what we were impressed with was their approach,
their overall toughness," said Bulldogs defensive coordinator
Joe Kines, after his mid-March visit.

Nebraska and Florida State are must stops, the Yellowstone and
Grand Canyon on any staff's tour. The Cornhuskers grant requests
for visits to an average of 25 to 30 college staffs and 100 high
school staffs each spring. Michigan State dispatched offensive
assistants Bobby Williams and Pat Shurmur to Lincoln. (Shurmur
has since left the Spartans for a position at Stanford, which
gives a clue as to how information spreads like a virus.) The
Spartans' mission was operational rather than technical. "We
wanted to see how they ran their program," says Williams. "We
were very, very impressed. Their walk-on program, the way they
run practices, the strength program, everything."

Florida State inspires similar reverence. After Colorado coach
Rick Neuheisel visited Spurrier in the spring of '96--"to see
how he budgeted his time," Neuheisel says--Neuheisel went to
Tallahassee to observe the Seminoles' sprawling facilities and
the structure of Bobby Bowden's program. One afternoon this
spring, staffs from Penn State and Georgia were in Tallahassee.

But for every coach who will tell you which schools he's
visiting and which ones are coming to his campus, there are just
as many who want to keep those trips secret. Davie won't reveal
what staff he brought in to work with his coaches on the option,
which will be vital to the Irish, as quick fourth-year junior
Jarious Jackson replaces Ron Powlus at quarterback. Lambright
won't name any of the eight schools his staff dropped in on, and
DiNardo is mum on the names of the half-dozen schools that came
to Baton Rouge.

The coach who visited Syracuse on the aforementioned wintry day
must remain nameless and school-less in this story for a reason:
SI was permitted access to practice only on the condition that
he not be identified. "If the world knows we're here, everybody
will know what we're working on and who we're working with," the
visiting coach said. "That hurts us and makes enemies."

Spring sharing is sweet, but has its limits. Paranoia chills but
never dies.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY FRED HARPER [Drawing of college football coaches comparing plays in circle around goalpost]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY FRED HARPER Coaches from hot programs are flown to rival campuses and paid to tutor the host staff. [Drawing of coaches passing note in classroom while instructor stands atblackboard]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY FRED HARPER "You're trying to stay progressive," says Davie, "to say on top of trends and changes." [Drawing of Bob Davie]