In the Interim

Alan Grant
National Football Post

After Bill Walsh retired from the Forty Niners, Ronnie Lott said, off the cuff, that it was like Darth Vader had left the building. It wasn’t an insult, but a statement of fact.

Walsh had gained a reputation as the cerebral leader in a setting that is not known for intellectual prowess. But obviously there was more to the man and more to his method than the high-brow concepts he applied to his passing game. Walsh’s presence shaped the franchise.

Chuck Pagano’s leukemia diagnosis brings a human interest element into the discussion. It’s about real life issues and relationships with players. We’re consumed by overarching themes of motivation and inspiration. The human component is rare, especially when talking head coaches.

In normal circumstances, the head coach becomes, like Walsh, a disembodied voice of authority much more than he is a person. As Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians assumes the role of ultimate authority, it falls on him to organize a unit in transition. Part of his challenge will be to leave some things behind.

I think Brian Billick best articulated the office of head coach. After leaving his post as offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings to coach the Baltimore Ravens, Billick said the hardest thing to leave behind was the actual coaching part. As a coordinator he could sit in his office, watch tape, and conceive schemes. He excelled at that.

Billick once told the story of how one day he passed by Matt Cavanaugh’s office (then the Ravens offensive coordinator) and heard Cavanaugh and the offensive staff animatedly discussing formations. They were excited and engaged and wholly focused on that one task. “I would have loved to just sit down and talk football,” said Billick. “But I didn’t have time for that anymore. I was on my way to meet the capologist, or the general manager, or the owner, or the player personnel director.” Billick still had a relationship with his team, but it had become an administrative one.

The administrative job isn’t to motivate as much as it is to remind people of things. Perhaps that’s what the Saints are missing in Sean Payton’s absence. Maybe that’s why there’s a gigantic Chairman Mao-like photo of Payton overlooking the Saints practice field.

Before Aaron Kromer became the Saints interim-interim coach, he was the offensive line coach. Before that he was the running backs coach. If there was a zone blocking scheme, Kromer’s job was to make sure the tailback knew who everyone was blocking. If one defender was being double-teamed, then the tailback had to know when and where that double team would occur.

Those details are easily lost amid the heated chaos of competition. In their haste to execute the play, an offensive tackle and guard might take a one-and-a-half yard split in between one another. But if the play calls for a one yard split, that half a yard may be all a defensive tackle needs to beat that double team. That’s why a little prompting is in order.

US PresswireSaints interim coach Aaron Kromer has giant shoes to fill.

Perhaps Kromer still does this for the Saints offense, but he either doesn’t have time or isn’t as attuned the Saints defense. The overlooking of miniscule detail leads to disaster.

Avoiding calamity requires an experienced and creative mind.

One aspect of Bill Walsh’s genius was using the relationship between the player and the position coach to his advantage. Most of your time is spent with your position coach. If you’re going to get close to anyone on the staff, it’s likely to be that guy. It’s not uncommon for player and position coach to look out for one another.

When things weren’t going well, Walsh wouldn’t yell at the player, he would yell at his position coach. After Walsh retired, George Seifert continued that tradition. During a particularly sloppy drill, Seifert would yell something like, “What the hell are you teaching those guys over there!?” This was a very simple, yet effective way of telling the player that if he didn’t want his favorite coach to get fired, then both of them should pay attention to detail.

I recently stated that I never wanted anything from a coach other than his unfettered ability to put me in the best position to win. I realize everyone is different.

Some guys need a father figure or someone to offer guidance. Tony Dungy says that he was always astonished that so many of the guys he coached lacked basic life skills. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that one of the reasons Dungy retired from coaching was to offer mentorship to troubled young men.

I know there’s a school of thought that says if a coach can connect with a player on a personal level, he can get him to perform better. There was a coach who tried to do that with me. Sonny Lubick was my secondary coach in college. It was his first year in that position, having coached linebackers prior to that.

On the first day of spring practice, Lubick told me that he was still learning about the cornerback position. This was a problem because I had been a running back in high school and had never played cornerback, but the head coach, Jack Elway was convinced that I could play it in college. I was convinced, too. So I just memorized everything. I always knew where to line up and what depth to take. But I was still missing something.

Every day Lubick tried to talk to me, to “figure me out.” He even tried to push buttons to make me mad, in order to motivate me. But I was already motivated. And I was mad. I wasn’t the best player I could be, but I didn’t know why. Though it’s a violent game, anger isn’t a cure-all. There’s some strategy involved.

Lubick meant well, though. He was a personable guy so I wasn’t surprised when he found success at Colorado State. His personality made him a great recruiter. His demeanor was suited for those unenviable tasks undertaken by all college coaches—cracking wise at sundry events, spinning folksy yarns and, even after a tough loss, finding time to fill the alumni’s bottomless well of self-importance.

When a guy named Willie Shaw came along, I learned how to play football. Shaw had coached the secondary his entire life, including four years with the Detroit Lions. He never tried to be my friend or to figure me out. But he did tell me about receiver splits and how only a few routes were possible based on where the receiver was lined up. He told me about playing at ten yards and slow-pedaling while reading the quarterback’s steps in man coverage. All of this allowed me to grow.

See, it always comes back to the nuts and bolts. Inspiration and emotion are vital to the narrative. But in the end, the game itself is a fundamental thing. It’s not sexy, I know. And it’s easily forgotten.

That's why we need a reminder now and then.

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