Category Archives: History and Biography

The Tao of Frank Beamer’s Special Teams

Coach Beamer interviewing with Erin Andrews. Photo by Erich Geist (http://www.flickr.com/photos/virtee/)

 

“I think the kicking game is one of the most important parts of football. I personally believe the kicking game is just as important as offense and defense. I have believed that since my college days.”

That’s a quintessential Frank Beamer quote showing just how important a place special teams hold in the coach’s heart.

Except it isn’t a Frank Beamer quote—the author is Jerry Claiborne, Beamer’s coach at Virginia Tech, a special teams guru in his own right, and a major influence on the winningest active BCS coach in the game.

I grew up in southwestern Virginia and played high school ball at a time when “Beamerball” was becoming a nationally used term. I remember coaches coming back from Hokie clinics with packaged punt rushes and techniques like practicing kick blocks with Nerf balls.

Beamer’s “secret,” though, was never about tactics or coaching techniques. VT’s tremendous special teams run of blocked kicks and returns for touchdowns was the result of Beamer’s managerial skills. He took Claiborne’s emphasis and magnified it to a degree probably not seen before in major football.

First, Beamer invested his coaching staff in the philosophy. If you watch a VT game on television, you’ll hear at some point that Beamer is the squad’s “Special Teams Coach,” and that he takes personal responsibility for the performance of his kick units. This isn’t the easiest responsibility in the world—just ask Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson how his stint with special teams went.

What you don’t hear as much is that each of Beamer’s assistants is responsible for a particular aspect of the kicking game. Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster, for example, coaches the punt- and kick-blocking teams.

Even more important, though, is how he gets buy-in from the players. To give a frame of reference, most teams (at every level of play) don’t pay much attention to the kicking game, with the following habits being pretty common:

• Special teams practices are squeezed into short sessions at the end of practices, or held before or after the main practice block.
• If you have a role on a special teams unit, it likely means you don’t have what it takes to contribute to offense or defense (even at tiny high schools.)
• The kickers wander off into an empty field away from the rest of the team to kick and send text messages.
• Players run through the drills at half speed because they don’t want to be killed in the conditioning sessions that often follow.
• Film sessions ignore kicks that don’t result in points or turnovers.

Add these practices to the fact that special teams wreak havoc on the body and it’s easy to see why they don’t have much allure.

Beamer flipped this trend on its head and put Claiborne’s mantra to work. He schedules special teams work for the middle of the practice day. He often puts his best players on special teams—it’s still a common to see Tech’s best DB, receiver, or tailback returning kicks. Beamer promotes these duties as a way to playing in the NFL, where low-ranked and undrafted rookies often have to play their way from the kicking game to having a shot on offense or defense.

The placekickers also have the importance of their work elevated by a “one-kick” drill. For this drill, held often during the week, the kickers are given a single shot at making a field goal from a given spot on the field. No do-overs or excuses. The entire team stops to watch the kick, which ratchets up the tension and simulates a game day experience.

Beamer also gives out benefits and attention normally lavished on important starters. Units that spend their time running up and down the field are excused from a number of sprints and conditioning drills. After games, Beamer names both a special teams player-of-the-week as well as a “Kahuna” moniker for the special teamer with the biggest hit. During the week, all the units meet regularly and get timely feedback on their practices.

Finally, Beamer sets the same kind of clear and measurable special teams goals that offenses and defenses have been assigned since the game began. For 2011 some of those goals were:

• Average 10 yards per punt return
• Return kickoffs to at least the 28 yard line 60 percent of the time
• Block a punt, field goal or extra point, or force a bad kick at least once a game
• Gain 20 yards of comparative field position in the punting game each game

Goals like these have been met with success. Since Beamer started at Tech in 1987, his special teams have tallied 19 punt returns for TDs, 17 blocked punts for the same, nine kickoff returns for scores, four TDs from blocked kicks, and even returned a fumble for a score. Altogether, that’s 50 special teams touchdowns.

It’s true that other teams have learned from Beamer’s example, and the Hokies no longer hold the undeniable edge they once did. Opponents put better players on the field, and the shield punt has taken away VT’s aggressiveness much the same way the spread and option games have dialed back the ferocity of their defense. Looking at intangible items, it seems the Hokies now endure a counteraction to everything good they do in the special teams game. A strong return team will be balanced by weaker kickers. Odd breaks (such as Michigan’s fake field goal in the Sugar Bowl) feel tilted against the squad.

Even playing their most talented players yields mixed results. Return man Dyrell Roberts nearly saved a Hokies contest versus the Crimson Tide, though playing that same role led him to endure two nasty injuries he never seemed to recover either physically or mentally from. Conversely, a phenomenal talent like David Wilson never consistently lived up to the promise of his athleticism.

Unsurprisingly, Beamer’s reaction has been to redouble his efforts with the special teams, including using more scholarships for stars and recruiting harder for both the blue-chippers and the hidden gems who often walk on to football squads. He’s thrown several tactics at the shield punt, and he’s solidifying his kicking group. While I don’t think Tech’s special teams (or any other school for that matter) will soon reach the same  apex reached during their days in the Big East, I imagine we’ll see marked improvement over the next few seasons. And that will give opposing coaches something to worry about.

Garo’s Gaffe

To honor the 40th anniversary of the ’72 Miami Dolphins’ famous undefeated season, let’s talk about that team’s most famous (or infamous) moment: Garo’s Gaffe.

Garabed “Garo” Yepremian was the quintessential European kicker. Armenian by ethnicity, Cypriot by birth, and almost elfin in stature, the soccer-style kicker came to America with his brother, noticed the sport of gridiron football, and thought, “Hey, I can kick that thing.”  With his brother as an agent, the hopeful went about visiting NFL teams with a traveling salesman’s sense of determination.

Garo Yepremian.

The scheme worked.  The Lions picked him up, and along with the Dolphins he later played for the Saints, Bucs, and a Continental Football League squad.  He was hated by many of his opponents for being seemingly antithetical to the sport: foreign and lacking any of the brutality, athleticism, or bulk found in his teammates.  I’ll argue that in some ways, this disregard led him to becoming perhaps one of the toughest kickers in history, as teams routinely went headhunting for the 5’7″ Yepremian.  (He also served in the Army during a year-long hiatus.)

He was the league’s most-accurate kicker for several seasons, amassed over a thousand points, made two Pro Bowls, once kicked a record six field goals in a single game, and was named to the NFL’s All ’70’s team.  Not a bad career for a guy who once explained his enthusiasm over a made XP by saying “I kicked a touchdown.”  (He told this to Alex Karras, which, if you’re read my earlier piece on the Lion DT, you know was asking for the decades of jokes the comment led to.)

Yet he’s best known for a near-disaster.

The year was 1973, the scene Super Bowl VII, the stage LA Memorial Coliseum.  The undefeated Dolphins were two minutes away from blanking the Washington Redskins.  Yepremian was setting up for a 42-yard field goal that would ice the victory for Miami, while a simple miss would have given them at least a half-field of cushion and a favorable kickoff return situation.  Then everything went wrong.

Now you might say things actually went wrong before the ball was snapped. Garo’s kicks had been a little low all game.  Miami Coach Don Shula had put him on the field only because the idea of his soon-to-be 17-0 squad winning the Super Bowl by a 17-0 score had a nice ring to it.  Up by two touchdowns that late in the game (and in the ball control-minded 70’s) nearly guaranteed a win. A conservative punt might’ve been a better choice.  That said, though, punting later proved to be a risky option itself.

Getting back to the action, the ball was snapped and Garo launched into it.  Instead of clearing the line, though, the kick went straight into the back of blocker Bob Heinz’s head and bounced backwards to the Dolphins’ right side of the field.  Washington DL Bill Brundige erupted past a whiffed block and blew through the middle line in pursuit of the ball.  Yepremian, meanwhile, followed his tumbling folly to the fifty-yard line, where instead of falling on it, he made history.

“On the blocked kick, I was lucky,” he recalled.  “The ball just came into my hands. I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve thrown a pass before in practice. I’ll throw it downfield.’”

The wind-up.

Yepremian never got a good grip on the ball—in the 5’7” kicker’s hands it could as well been a watermelon.  His arm moved downfield, yet the ball popped free and fluttered around his earhole, not moving forward in the slightest.  Fortunately for Yepremian, he was by default the closest player to the ball, and still capable of grabbing and falling on it.

But he didn’t.

Yepremian swatted the ball.  On film, it almost looks like a volleyball bump or someone recoiling from a snapping snake.  He says he was trying to bat it out of bounds, though he was twenty yards from the sidelines and ended up batting the ball forwards, anyways.  As it happens, he batted the errant kick/pass/flail right into the hands of Washington CB Mike Bass, a former teammate of Yepremian’s from their days in Detroit.  Bass caught the ball in stride and took it down the sideline (because he had plenty of room) and straight to the end zone for his squad’s first score of the game.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oh45VfGFRiU

There were two minutes left and suddenly the ‘Skins were back in it.  George Allen’s subsequent deep-kickoff gambit nearly paid dividends with a blocked punt, though unlike Yepremian, this special teams attempt escaped without a turnover (or errant passes) and Miami wrapped the game shortly after.

Yepremian was worried sick over the play, to the point he was almost physically incapacitated well into the evening.  He credited an encouraging post-game letter from Don Shula for turning around his psyche and allowing him to continue with his successful career.  In true Yepremian fashion, the letter turned out to be written by the coach’s wife.  Neither Shula nor Yepremian knew until Garo thanked a confused Shula for it years later.

I don’t want to turn this into a punching bag story—Yepremian was an excellent kicker who overcame hardship and doubts, and he now runs a charity for brain tumor research.  Even his greatest humiliation was a sting only in itself, as Miami still won the game, and it took both a questionable decision to kick along with poor blocking to even put Yepremian in such a situation.  That said, it’s funny as all get out, and the good-natured kicker turned his error into a late show circuit where he amused the likes of Johnny Carson.  All’s well that ends well, right?

The Curious Case of Gordon Gee

A statue of OSU mascot Brutus made to resemble Gee; photo by Natalie Guinsler.

Gordon Gee was—and still is—a bona fide celebrity at Ohio State.  From his his bow ties and round glasses, to his off-the-cuff manner and comfort with crowds, Gee is an accomplished self-promoter, and has leveraged his fame to not only become a tremendous fundraiser, but to become adored by many in the Buckeye state.  For all his skill, Gee’s recent nudge from the president’s office was a self-inflicted affair reflective of a career that became known more for gaffes than achievements.

Gee is a man of competing concepts.  He abstains from alcohol as part of his faith, but he attended OSU social events (including Greek and dorm parties) regularly.  He’s an outsider from Utah (schooled in Utah and New York), who was accepted almost unabashedly as a transplanted Ohioan.  And despite the transplant, he left OSU, yet was still admired enough to be rehired.  He reignited the core Columbus campus with a spate of land buys and construction, yet traveled the state and the school’s other campuses enough to be seen as an advocate for all of Ohio.

His CV might suggest a nebbish scholar, but he’s best used in emptying donors’ pockets and aiding OSU’s—he seems most comfortable spotlit as a charismatic, driven figure , as his success in a current $2.5 billion campaign suggests. Finally his public persona is  warm and caring, yet his most controversial actions are seen by many as calculating, self-serving, even heartless.  One striking example, if true, is his ex-wife, Constance Gee.  She claims Gordon divorced her at the behest of Vanderbilt trustees, who threatened their then-president with termination if he didn’t distance himself from Constance’s publicly-exposed use of medicinal marijuana.

Gee holds the dubious honor of creating controversies of some sort at each of the five institutes he’s helmed, whether the Vanderbilt scandal, his corporate-style revamping of (and sudden departure from) Brown, allegations of sexist comments at Colorado—even his stint at WVU had a hint of the unusual, as he was bit of wunderkind having taken the post at the age of 37. The past three years brought heaps of criticism that, hard to believe, relates most to his handling of the Buckeyes’ football team—the same team that exited a cheating scandal by hiring an upgrade over their fired BCS Championship leader.

He was also a man who learned from his mistakes, only to create new ones, and sometimes come full-circle on old problems.  Most tellingly, Gee keeps a list of the one-liners and comments that’ve caused him the most trouble in public, and it’s quite a list: calling a sitting governor a “dummy,” making a Polish joke, and his “Little Sisters of the Poor” quip are some notables.  Despite having so many learning experiences, the cause of his departure has been a series of embarrassing verbal gaffes, beginning with an ill-advised quip on Jim Tressel’s importance (made during the midst of an NCAA investigation), and now concluding with jabs at Catholics and Southerners. It seemed Gee thought himself immune to recriminations for his stand-up routine, or perhaps had little self-control over his own mouth, though both are hard to fathom for a man of his experience and position.

He also continued his methods of changing the university climate, which to many faculty and alumni tarnished the university.  Tuition and fees were raised and lowered in see-saw fashion, and much of the university’s parking space was leased to QIC, a private firm in Australia, for 50 years and $483 million.  Raising the ire of landlords and students alike was his plan to build more student housing for second-year students, which would pull them out of the city and suburbs and into the ever-growing main campus.  He also oversaw a curriculum that gradually pushed more teaching responsibilities on GTAs whose stipends were lower than those of peer institutions.  Since most of these changes occurred during the recession, opinion was split on whether Gee was pointing OSU in a sensible direction, or merely taking advantage of circumstance in implementing his vision.

There was also an inevitable element of timing that likely hastened Gee’s ouster.  Gee’s return to OSU was fortuitous—his second term followed the resignation of Karen Holbrook.  Holbrook was in many ways about as different from Gee as two presidents of the same school could be.  A biologist who steadily worked her way up the career ladder (without incident) to the provost’s spot at UGA, Holbrook had few of Gee’s concerns.  While her academic progression plan was established in part by Gee, she was the first to honestly carry it out, and she did so through consensus-building and collaboration.  She also ended the school’s policy of open admission for Ohio residents, which drastically changed the campus’ student culture.

Both Gee and Holbrook were respected as fundraisers, though Holbrook took a patently academic route, as her big successes were with federal research entities, not alums and friends of the school.  In the eyes of many, OSU’s first female president was most concerned with tamping down the Buckeyes’ football culture, particularly boozing and tailgating. I find it hard to fault her much in this regard—she had barely settled in when OSU’s 2002 victory over Michigan erupted into the school’s largest-ever riot.  And this is coming from a school with a reputation of rioting for no particular reason.  On one trip to Columbus, I remember seeing copies of The Lantern, the student newspaper, with front page shots of street riot. Many of the participants were captioned with requests for identification tips.

In fact, Holbrook’s resignation letter mentions football only in that the sport (along with things like “random warm spring weekends”) was a cause of riots, and that this had been tamed under her watch.  OSU also won a national title on its way back to dominance under her, though this gets no mention, as tangential as her participation might’ve been.  Worsening her perception in the eyes of Buckeye fans was when portions of a later interview with USF were made public, particularly her stinging comments on rioting at OSU.

It’s been six years since Gee took over for Holbrook, and among the faithful, memories of the bad old days aren’t nearly as strong, and perhaps even forgotten.  Since then the inevitable divide of “academics vs. athletes” has gradually worsened.  You can see it in the message board posts and hear it in conversations among fans. The tone of conversation has moved to a different point most recently, with OSU supporters seeing the  entire institution’s value as being sullied by Gee’s remarks and the mishaps that occurred under his watch.

Perhaps most important is that the university seems to be a perpetual motion machine when it comes to fundraising and major sports.  The upshot is that the sense of gratitude towards Gee has diminished, as has the need for him.  In the eyes of the trustees, it seems the aging president could only screw up the good thing they had going: he wasn’t a bad leader or even a bad person, just an embarrassing and erratic one.

Rightly or wrongly, they think he can be easily replaced—easily enough to warrant a carrot-and-stick expulsion from his post.  The carrot was a generously compensated “President Emeritus” role that would ask him to still raise money and hobnob with elites; the stick was publicly chastising him with a letter of rebuke that promised stern consequences for future errors made during his presidency, and a demand that he essentially enroll himself in a supervised etiquette program.  My guess is that any replacement will come without Gee’s public missteps, yet lack the star-power that was so critical to Gee’s fundraising abilities.  Unless of course they fellow Maurice Clarett’s advice and hire Jim Tressel to take the post.

Deacon Jones (1938 – 2013)

“Going in, going into The Pit, I like to slap the guys’ helmets.  It shakes them up.  When I get to the man with the ball, I hit him as hard as I can.  If I can hit a man hard enough so he has to be carried off the field, I’ll be glad to help him off.”  –David D. “Deacon” Jones

Deacon Jones

Deacon Jones might’ve been the greatest defensive end to ever play the game.  During ten years with the Rams he earned the nickname “The Secretary of Defense” by terrorizing quarterbacks.  Even though he may have invented the term “sacks,” they weren’t individually counted until 1982, so gauging his stats is a bit of educated guesswork.  Jones may have had nearly 200 during his 14-year career, most of them during his tenure with the Rams’ “Fearsome Foursome” line, and good for third-all time.

He used speed, guile, and power to rip and dart past opponents, bull rush through timid blockers, and employed a head slap so effective that linemen would come of their stance with their arms up like a rolling boxer’s.   Quarterbacks and runners weren’t safe from his hands, either, since one of his favorite tackling styles involved clubbing the ball carrier across the head and/or face.  He was one of the main reasons head slaps and clubs were banned.

Just as impressive was his drive.  Players around the league were amazed by his dogged, sideline-to-sideline pursuits.  “The main thing is to keep going,” Jones said once.  “If I get blocked, I claw my way in, even if I have to crawl.”

Despite all this he was only a 14th round pick coming out of college, though this was due more to enrolling at small, historically black schools, and even being kicked off his first squad for participating in the Civil Rights Movement.  Deacon grew up in violently segregated Florida, and personally witnessed heinous racial acts, one of which ultimately ended in death.  He came into the NFL determined to shed aside the docility demanded by the South and make a name for himself, which led to him developing a persona to match his on-field prowess.  He was wild on the field—not so much coached as unleashed—and brash during interviews.  He gave himself the nickname “Deacon” to help in this effort.

Jones was so dominant that family movie night at George Allen’s house (then head coach of the Rams) would turn into a film session extoling the defensive end’s virtues.  He also became a fixture in the Allen family, and many years later Allen’s daughter Jennifer named one of her sons ‘Deacon.’

Like many ex-NFLers (including fellow Foursome members Rosey Grier and Merlin Olsen), Jones dabbled in acting and broadcasting after his playing days ended.  He had numerous cameos in number of shows and films, one of which was alongside Jim Brown.  I remember recognizing Jones on G vs E, a short-lived series that tried to ride the combined coattails of The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the late 90’s/early 2000’s.  No surprise he was the best part of the show (and he played a character named ‘Deacon,’ no less.)  He was even a talented singer.  The last decades of his life were spent fighting poverty in the Anaheim/LA area, mainly through his eponymous foundation.

A quick glance at the number of headlines and recollections on Jones is sign enough of his impact.  Twice named Defensive Player of the Year, a five-time All Pro, and a first-ballot Hall of Famer, Deacon Jones left an indelible mark on the game.

Pat Summerall (1930 – 2013)

“For somebody who has been as close to the game as I have, it is staggering that people heavily involved in the game today wouldn’t know who Jim Brown is, not to mention Landry and Lombardi.  We live in an era of unprecedented communication, in which there is an abundance of sports talk stations and information available on television, radio, and the Internet.  But it seems that the more information there is, the more the actual history seems to get buried.  It’s appalling to me, but then again, history and football have always been two of my biggest loves.”  –Pat Summerall, Giants

George Allen “Pat” Summerall was a piece of history himself.  A three-way player—offense, defense, and special teams—in college and the pros, a good enough basketball player to get an offer from Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp, and a minor league baseball player, he’s best remembered (on the field, at least) for his role as placekicker for the New York Giants.   Summerall was a true throwback—well over six feet tall, an end on defense and offense, and a straight-ahead kicker during an era when special teamers were embraced as teammates, and not the vestigial oddities that seems to be the norm today.  His greatest moment was a 49-yard field goal (the longest boot of 1958) made in a snowy season-ender against the Browns that sent the Giants to the playoffs.  His book Giants, quoted above, is an account of both his time as a player in New York, and an ode to two of his coaches on that team, Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry.

Of course, he’s best known for his broadcast work with Tom Brookshire and then his two decades with John Madden.  His tenure alongside Madden cemented Summerall’s place in the pantheon of football commentators; though his reserved, thoughtful tone as play-by-play caller probably won’t get the same retrospective airplay as his longtime colleague’s, it was every bit as important.  He called 16 Super Bowls, an AFL-NFL Championship game, Emmitt Smith’s breaking of Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record, Masters golf tourneys, and the U.S. Open, along the way racking up awards and accolades, including enshrinement in the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association’s Hall of Fame.

For many folks my age, Summerall and Madden simply were the combined “voice” of football.  In his prime, Summerall was in a class by himself in a way that should inform his peers in every sport.

The Isolation Play

The Isolation run, or “Iso,” is about as direct as football gets.  A classic I-formation play, it has everybody on the line manhandle the nearest defender, while the receivers shoot inside to pick-up force and fill players.  The fullback takes a running charge at an intentionally unblocked or “isolated” linebacker; the tailback takes the handoff at a full sprint and follows this human battering ram through the hole:

 

Isolation play run to the strong side; SLB is the isolated defender.

“Inserting” the fullback through the line of scrimmage like this creates an extra gap for the defense (especially linebackers) to worry about. And because the tailback can cut to the left or the right of the lead block, deeper defenders on both sides of the formation have to make the right reads.  Since Iso’s run into the teeth of the defense, they’re usually short-gainers, though this is compensated for by their playaction potential–it’s hard for linebackers to not creep up when they’ve got two backs making a beeline for them.

I’m a child of the 90’s, so for a long time I considered the Iso play to be football at its purest.  It was the greatest common denominator among the top-level teams.  The NFL was still largely familiarizing itself with zone schemes, spill defenses, post-steroid era physiques, and spread offenses, an environment that favored the straight-forward Iso and teams like the Redskins and Cowboys, who took advantage of the play.  Meanwhile, running-based college programs like Nebraska leaned on the Iso to bludgeon lesser teams into submission, especially at the end of games when the option was an unnecessary risk.  (A close cousin of the Iso would be the interior Lead play, which generally asks the fullback to hit the first man he sees, as opposed to seeking out a specific player; note that you’ll sometimes see “Iso” and “Lead” used interchangeably.)

Emmitt Smith cuts off a block by Daryl Johnston.

Most high schools, meanwhile, played the same I-formation schemes.  Prior to the public adoption of the Internet, it was extremely hard to use new football concepts even if you subscribed to all the latest magazines and regularly attended coaching clinics.  Of the two best-publicized schemes of the time—I-formation, passing-tree ball that borrowed from Coryell, and split-back, route-concept schemes associated with Walsh—the I-formation was easier to teach and easier to match talent-wise, so it was either what most coaches knew, or what they could easily pick up.

Iso and Lead plays are more common the further down the ranks you go. To be honest, the only play I remember from JV is “Pro-right, 24 Ice,”  which was just a strong-side Iso out of the I.  Up by twenty? Run the Iso.  Down by twenty (admittedly more likely with waifs like young me blocking)?  Run the Iso.  It’s easy to see why: the Iso has everyone pretty much blocking straight ahead, so it reduces screw-ups when there’s a lead to protect, and at least lets your team worry about getting their heads straight when things have gotten out of hand.

The Iso (and more general interior Lead plays) had to evolve in order to offset the play’s biggest shortcomings.  First, the Iso was vulnerable to slants and stunts because it didn’t put blockers in a position to consistently create favorable angles.  Second, the Iso created a relatively small hole for the running back, so if a linebacker was quick he could gum the play up either by jamming the fullback near the line or by slipping the center-guard combo block.  For this reason, the classic Iso is now mainly used as a change of pace or as a clock-killer at higher levels of play; if you watched the Ravens wrap-up the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl, they broke out an Iso/Lead play when closing out both games.

Though better known for “student body right,” John McKay’s USC squads, which were coordinated by Don Coryell among others, might’ve been the first to figure out a way to keep lead plays like the Iso working even against eight-man fronts.  Coryell and McKay (both I-formation gurus) simply added elements of the draw play.  This twist combatted both of the traditional Iso’s weak points.  A deeper, delayed handoff meant the running back could read developing blocks at the line of scrimmage and run to daylight; the linemen knew this, so they could pass set and react to the defense, essentially letting the DTs and DEs go wherever they wanted to and take themselves out of the play.  Meanwhile, the linebackers had to respect the QB’s deep drop (and the backs’ slight hesitation) by maintaining their depth, which gave the fullback plenty of room to make his block.

The trick to making the play work was that both the fullback and the tailback read the defense.  The fullback went to wherever the onside defensive tackle had vacated to meet the linebacker, while the tailback read the entire front for creases and cutbacks; if it happened to be the middle that was open, he read his fullback’s block to determine which direction to cut after clearing the line of scrimmage.  It’s easy to see how these reads fed into the evolution of the formal zone run game.

Norv Turner and Ernie Zampese, both Coryell disciples, ran the play with regularity when they served as offensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys in the 90’s.  It might not be a stretch to say that Emmitt Smith earned his HoF credentials with two versions of this hybridized play called “Iso” and “Lead Draw.”  The Cowboys “Iso” was a direct descendant of the classic Isolation play, as it had the fullback draw a bead on an isolated middle ‘backer.

The Iso-Draw play, as described by the Dallas Cowboys in the 90's; the hatch marks on the TB's path indicate a deep handoff.

The fullback in this case was the 6’2 Daryl “Moose” Johnston, who routinely served as clean-up man for missed blocks on Iso plays.  He was such an effective blocker that it was often advantageous for linemen to miss blocks, because Johnston would pick up loose DTs and free the linemen to occupy the ‘backers, creating a de facto Wham play (back-on-lineman.)  Smith, meanwhile, was a savant at reading fronts, and could often cut plays to the backside by three or even four gaps for big gains.

 

How Mike Mamula Crashed the Combine

Fairly or unfairly, Mike Mamula is remembered as the guy who exploded our perception of the NFL Scouting Combine.  His performance (which today might be considered routine) was so phenomenal that it may have advanced the Boston College DE’s landing place in the 1995 NFL Draft by several rounds.

Coach Mike Boyle.

There’s some conflicting background on whether BC strength and conditioning coach Jerry Palmieri (now with the New York Giants) or another local S&C coach, Mike Boyle, were more influential.  Both are excellent coaches who no doubt had major roles in Mamula’s performance; it seems most likely that Boyle was responsible for Mamula’s gaudiest performances, since that degree of specialized training would fall outside the range of normal activities for a college S&C coach.  Boyle is credited by some as the inventor of combine training, which lends more weight to this theory.

Boyle’s background in both powerlifting and athletic training informs his methods, and over the years he’s worked for most of the major sporting organizations in the Boston area, including the Bruins, Red Sox, and Boston University, moving from full-time jobs to consulting roles that supplement the much more stable and lucrative profession of running major training facilities.  These days he’s a known-enough figure in the S&C world to where his opinions are news makers; his argument against bilateral lower-body strength-training movements (especially the squat) kicked off a long-running debate not too long ago.

The set-up for Mike Mamula was perfect.  First of all, despite his post-NFL reputation, Mamula was a good player who’d been noticed by scouts. The LB/DE ‘tweener followed a solid junior year by capping his college career with an explosive senior season aided by BC’s switch to a 4-3 front, finishing with 13 regular-season sacks, an All-Big East nod at defensive end, and a four-sack bowl game.  Though not ranked highly at the time, he had the stats and situation that would corroborate a strong combine performance.  You can imagine a coach saying, “Well, if he’d played for a higher-profile school and had been in a defense that fit his skills, he’d be on everyone’s radar.”  In retrospect, it was also a weak class for defensive linemen, with only a few name players to come out that year.

That same hypothetical coach could also have said, “And he probably wasn’t coached well, either.”  It’s a common line of reasoning in the NFL, born of a big-brother mentality the league carries.  Some of it’s reasonable—get a guy full-time and with a paycheck on the line, and he might be a little more motivated than he was in college.  Other times, though, it’s simple arrogance.  Add to this that the 90’s were a renaissance for the 4-3 defense where speed became paramount, and the league would be easily excited by an athletic pass rusher.

The final ingredient was the insertion of a savvy coach into a combine milieu that was old-fashioned at best.  The NFL Scouting Combine was about a decade old in 1995, and was still seen more as a replacement for in-person visits to the Senior Bowl and private invites to NFL facilities.  It was about watching routes, releases, and footwork, and about interviews and giving players the eyeball test.  Not as appreciated was the fact that the combine was the only way of creating an even playing field for comparing athletic talents of so many players.  Rather than looking hard at what drills meant, they were treated as a “pass-fail” series of tests…and the players knew it.  In fact, the entire football system—from high school to the pros—was largely in an anachronistic mindset when it came to valuing strength and conditioning: it was assumed talents of speed and strength were largely uninfluenced by training.

Boyle’s strategy seems so simple that today it’s almost hard to believe he made people rethink the combine: he focused Mamula on the gaudiest raw-athleticism events (vertical jump, 40-yard dash, and bench press, in particular), and then trained him to be good at the events.  If Mamula could stand among his peers, coaches would reevaluate his film and see him not as someone taking advantage of weak competition in low-stakes games, but as a hidden gem.

The catch is that all the tests had little do with success on the football field.  The bench press test is the most egregious example: for a 400 or 500-pound bencher (which is common for college linemen), the combine bench test is an endurance event akin to judging a sprinter based on his 5k speed.  Players have to pace themselves, build-up tolerance to pain and fatigue, and learn techniques to make the motion as easier as possible.  Being overweight and having short arms is essential to a great bench performance; neither characteristic is exactly desired on the field.  And as you’d expect, most of the techniques for excelling at the bench press test have limited usefulness in improving football performance, and push the rules of the combine to their limits.

The strategy worked.  Mamula ran a 4.58 40, hit 28 repetitions on the 225-pound bench press tests, and had a 38.5” vertical jump.  He was faster than linebackers, had better jumping abilities than some corners, and out-benched much bigger offensive and defensive linemen.  It was an eye-catching performance.  When the Eagles selected him with the 7th overall pick, Hugh Douglas and Warren Sapp were still on the board.  In fact, Head Coach Ray Rhodes and company traded picks with Tampa Bay in order to move up and get Mamula.

Philadelphia got themselves a decent player, a solid guy who never cracked double-digit sacks in a season (but came close) and who struggled with injuries.  Some argue that starting three years for a top-shelf Eagles defense speaks to his abilities, though I feel it speaks more to the money invested in him.  I remember him getting engulfed by bigger tackles, especially when rushing the passer.  He never looked agile enough, either, to make the transition to 4-3 ‘backer, which might’ve extended his career (though it’s a very rare transition for the NFL.)  He was out of the league by 2000.  While it certainly wasn’t the career expected of a single-digit first-rounder, he wasn’t a Ryan Leaf, either.

Meanwhile, Warren Sapp and Hugh Douglas became forces on the field.  Despite his gifts, Sapp had a reputation as a wild card from his days with the Hurricanes, so the Eagles might be forgiven for missing a player who would’ve been a perfect fit for their system.  The Bucs took the risk, and ended up getting him and Derrick Brooks, the two players who would become the cogs of their dominating defense.  Missing Hugh Douglas was more of a head-slapper, at least in hindsight.  While he was drafted by the Jets, they ended up trading him for draft picks a few years later…to the Eagles.  He earned a few All Pro nods in Philadelphia, and helped provide the pass rush they never got from Mamula.

Out of all the parties in the Mike Mamula story, Mike Boyle probably came out best.  He’s an S&C star who’s regularly lauded in mainstream news, sports, and health publications.  While he opened the floodgates for combine prep, he managed to stay ahead of (or at least with) the leading wave.  And he’ll forever be remembered as a sort of gym-rat jester who pantsed the NFL at their own event.

Gridiron and the Silver Screen: Alex Karras

By any account, Alex Karras was a character: raconteur, salesman, entrepreneur, author, broadcaster, and actor.  Karras, who passed away just a few months ago, was also one of the NFL’s best defensive tackles in the 60’s, though his talents on the field were somewhat overshadowed by the poor Lions squads he played for.  Nicknamed “Mad Duck,” Karras was a stumpy bulldog of a player who was so near-sighted he played by feel, and was renowned for his speed and violence.  A telling anecdote from a league game involved his mauling of a hapless second string guard; the opposing lineman turned out to be one of Karras’ older brothers (all three Karras boys played professional football.)  In recalling the story, Karras wondered aloud if he had subconsciously recognized his brother despite being unable to make out his face, and if he had taken out an adolescence’s worth of anger on a former bully.

Alex Karras as “Mongo” in Blazing Saddles.

Karras had a stream of oddball enterprises and hobbies.  He sold “personal massage devices” that he would demonstrate on the shoulders of unsuspecting passersby.  He hosted a celebrity golf tournament in Detroit that was essentially a day-long practical joke: the course could feature free-roaming zoo animals (he called a 300-pound tortoise let loose on the green a “moveable hazard”), holes so deep that sunk putts were almost irretrievable, loudspeakers blaring machine-gun noises, roving Mariachi bands, or a parade of armored vehicles led by a little person in Gen. George S. Patton regalia.  During a year where he was suspended from the league for gambling on other teams, Karras became a professional wrestler and once held a match alongside Bronco Nagurski.

Despite his talents on the field and exploits off it, Karras is probably best known in his far more mundane jobs as on-air commentator and actor.  He got a taste of the acting bug when journalist George Plimpton’s short stint as a benchwarming-quarterback was turned into the feature film Paper Lion; for the sake of verisimilitude, the actual Detroit team was called in to play themselves on screen, and Karras featured prominently in the final cut.  After leaving the NFL, Karras appeared in a dozen episodes of The Tonight Show and spent three years in the booth for Monday Night Football.  He had guest spots and supporting roles on a handful of shows and TV movies, and an extended role in the Centennial miniseries, though his two most famous gigs were distinctly different.

Karras, Emmanuel Lewis, and Susan Clark pose for a Webster promo.

The first was as the menacing Mongo in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.  The film is considered a comedy classic, and Karras’ role as a hulking force of nature with a surprising philosophical bent is popular even today.  Fans of the film might interested to know that Mongo’s horse-punching was reportedly inspired by a real-life incident witnessed by Mel Brooks in which comic actor Sid Caesar knocked-out a troublesome steed.

On the other end of the spectrum is his role as oafish father George Papadapolis on the long-running series Webster.  On the air from 1983 to 1989, the family comedy was produced by Alex Karras and his co-star/actual wife Susan Clark; the pair conceived of the show as a family ensemble piece about the life of an oafish former football player (naturally played by Karras), though rising child star Emmanuel Lewis was grafted onto the production by the network.  After a few stormy years (and a particularly rough first season fomented by ABC forcing Lewis-focused episodes) the show settled into the ensemble format originally envisioned by Karras.  Thanks to Webster’s long initial run and subsequent syndication (as well as his other acts), Karras might be the most visually recognizable player to come from an era that included Jim Brown, Dick Butkus, and Johnny Unitas.

Like Father, Unlike Son

The Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh Super Bowl match-up has cast some attention on familial ties in football.  The “Brother Bowl” is rare enough to be intriguing in any environment, and especially so in the biggest football game of the year.  As good as the season has been for the Harbaughs, it’s been an uneven one for a handful of coaches who followed their legendary fathers into the profession.

USC's Lane Kiffin during the final seconds of a 2010 loss to Notre Dame.

Skip Holtz’s run at South Florida ended with a thud.  His second straight losing season notched only three wins, and built on none of the ground developed during Jim Leavitt’s long tenure.  Expectations were high for Holtz, whose success at ECU included two CUSA championships and a stretch where he nailed consecutive wins over Boise State, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia (all ranked, and with WVU at #8 at the time.) Many thought Florida’s talent base and USF’s strong position in a BCS conference were two ingredients that would elevate both program and coach.  It didn’t work out that way.

Holtz landed on his feet, though it seems that keeping the momentum developed by Sonny Dykes and crew will be tough: the team’s roster is built for one of the most unique schemes in the game, while Holtz isn’t known for being a whiz on offense. Then again, his dad survived a disastrous attempt to bring both the veer and the Notre Dame fight song to the NFL’s Jets.  And there’s probably thousands of kids out there who think he’s really a doctor, so maybe LT isn’t that great an obstacle.

When I started writing this piece, Derek Dooley was still looking for work following his departure from Tennessee.  After three losing seasons (including 3-5, 1-7, and 0-7 conference efforts) the biggest surprise may be that he lasted that long.  His tenure will be remembered for Tennessee’s first loss to Kentucky since dinosaurs roamed the earth, on-field coaching gaffes, recruiting failures, a hemorrhaged coaching staff, and the creation of a run-off rule nicknamed in his honor.  The last one is probably the only one people will remember; the rule was designed to reverse an odd situation where the Vols lost a bowl game because their opponent penalized themselves at the end of the game.  That game capped Dooley’s first season, which unfortunately for the young coach was also his best season in Knoxville. I wouldn’t bet someone else’s money on him coming close to equaling his dad’s national title and six SEC championships, especially since his post-Vols springboard team is the Dallas Cowboys, which has its own running theme of failure in this piece.

For my money, the saddest story actually involves the man Dooley replaced at Tennessee.  Lane Kiffin has been a mirror-universe Midas, with every program he touches collapsing into chaos.  He was given the benefit of a doubt over his Oakland exit—call it the “Al Davis Clause”—though the shambles Kiffin created in the wake of Phil Fulmer at Knoxville largely erased the goodwill.  Bad losses, recruiting and public affairs gaffes, an ill-advised public showdown with Urban Meyer, and a humbling bowl loss that showed his team to be largely unprepared and apathetic—Kiffin achieved all this in just one season, then fled the Tennessee Valley like a deposed dictator.  He even left rioting youth in his wake. He established shop at Southern Cal, where he teased Trojan fans with a 10-2 season before becoming the first coach to take a preseason #1 to a 7-6 record ranked outside the top 25.  He even echoed his bowl “success” with UT, with his Trojans getting soundly whipped by Georgia Tech at the Sun Bowl.

It’s the saddest story of the three not because of Lane (who still is employed with the Trojans), but because he dragged his father into it.  While Lou Holtz entertained audiences across the country with his Dadaist talents, and Vince Dooley enjoyed consulting gigs and writing children’s books, Monte Kiffin spent a fair chunk of his golden years trying to help his son win a few ball games.  Monte is recognized as one of the greatest defensive coaches to have worked in the NFL, and he’ll be synonymous with Tampa-2 schemes (and probably Cover-2 schemes in general) for decades to come.  So of course his venture into the college game was unrewarding.

The media tale is that the elder Kiffin couldn’t match the schemes of today’s spread squads, though it’s a faulty analysis: it wasn’t the smoothest schematic transition for Monte, though his game plans against Florida (when he was at UT), Oregon, and Georgia Tech had an expert’s wrinkles, and his teams held more than a few potent offenses to respectable scores.  An eminent professional, Monte couldn’t overcome the chaos of sanctions, blue-chippers, and his own son’s antics.  There are two versions of how his tenure in the college ranks ended.  He was either fired by Lane, or he willingly left for the Dallas Cowboys, a team led by the Lane Kiffin of Owner/GMs.  If you’re of the mind that he was escaping the college game, he knew going in that two opponents in the NFC East take offensive cues from Baylor and the run-and-shoot (Chip Kelly came along later.)

Rex and Rob Ryan are a mixed bag that seems appropriate for a year of successful brothers and lacking sons of coaching legends: the tantrum-throwing twins flip back and forth between being hailed as geniuses approaching Buddy’s understanding of the game, or being scapegoated (as is their current predicament.)  Come to think of it, Rex and Rob have quite a bit in common with their dad.

Rob Ryan and his playsheet.

Buddy Ryan at his peak was a defensive genius, but he was undone by a mercurial temper, stubborn personality, and a professional self-destructive streak that occasionally led to violence.  Rob’s work with the Cowboys was likewise volatile and odd. He brought the same strategies that at their best baffled even Tom Brady, though his tenure was marred by injuries to his players and their lingering difficulties in learning his shifting schemes.  In the end, his final season was eclipsed by the advertisements gracing his play sheets, and perhaps a bit by the arrival of his replacement, Monte Kiffin.

In New York, Rex seems to be on thin ice with the Jets, though given how much turnover has gone on in the staff and front office, it’s as stable as can be expected.  His tabloid coverage and the Tim Tebow trainwreck, unfortunately, have been more consistently newsworthy than his teams; barring some tremendous improvement, Ryan’s departure seems a matter of “when,” not “if.”

None of these examples point to any disadvantage with being a famous coach’s son; if anything, having family roots eases an entry barrier.  The stumbles only show how difficult the profession is, where even being raised in the football life doesn’t guarantee regular success.

 

*The Close But No Cigar Category:  In case you’re wondering, Michael Lombardi isn’t related to Vince, and Pat Shurmur is Fritz’s nephew.

 

Bryant and Saban

Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban.

[Saban’s] got a nice little gig going, a little bit like Calipari. He tells guys, ‘Hey, three years from now, you’re going to be a first-round pick and go.’ If he wants to be the greatest coach or one of the greatest coaches in college football, to me, he has to go somewhere besides Alabama and win, because they’ve always won there at Alabama.”  –Steve Spurrier

 

With Alabama’s rout of Notre Dame, Nick Saban achieved something Bear Bryant never did–he beat the Fighting Irish, and for a national championship, no less.  True to his MO, Saban’s post-game demeanor was that of a man walking back to the office after a good working lunch.

Saban may well be on his way to owning more national titles than any other coach in college football, including the six generally attributed to Bryant.  Aside from sharing their best-known employer, Bryant and Saban have a handful of similarities.  Bryant had the same unshakable focus of Saban: Texas coach Darrell Royal once said “the difference between me and Bear Bryant was that I was a guy who coached football and then moved on. […]  Coach Bryant was a man on a quest, a quest for immortality.”  They are the only coaches to win SEC championships at two different schools.

Both Bryant and Saban will be remembered as taskmasters, with Bryant’s infamy owed to his reign, later regretted, over a Texas A&M squad in Junction, Texas, and Saban’s arising from a stream of demands and tirades that seem to peak when his team is destroying opponents, and an obsession over issues of discipline bordering on compulsive.

Both built teams by out-recruiting the competition and pushing rules on player eligibility.  Biographer Keith Dunnavant writes that Bryant “was probably responsible for the implementation of more new regulations than any coach who ever lived, because he was determined to use every loophole to his advantage.”  He signed players as athletes in every college sport besides football, “taught” courses in football that were de facto live practices for his team, and bought players expensive team gear to add class and distinction to the program.  Saban has taken on efficient (or ruthless, depending on your perspective) methods for culling weak links from his squads, hedging his bets by intentionally oversigning recruits, and running a marketing enterprise that pitches Alabama football in a way that puts Apple to shame.

On the field Bryant and Saban are known for efficient, well-drilled squads.  Conversely, neither are remembered as chalkboard innovators: Bryant gave credit to the trends he adopted and adapted, and while Saban is the most vocal proponent of his route-reading pass defenses, Bill Belichick is owed at least half the credit for developing the technique.  On offense, Saban’s approach is more related to Bryant’s pro-style squads than it is to today’s hottest systems.

Finally, both Bryan and Saban came to latent Alabama powerhouses that were distanced from their national title days, but not so distanced as to be forgotten or rendered moot.  If there is a football-focused caveat to Saban’s career, it is this last similarity.  His greatest successes came at LSU and Alabama during an era when membership in the no-holds-barred SEC is almost a requisite for winning a national title.  No other conference has the money, fan-base, or creative “intangibles” of the SEC, and no other conference has been close for over a decade.

This commonality is an introduction to where Bryant and Saban diverge.  Most recent out-of-conference challengers–Southern Cal, Ohio State, Miami, and Florida State–to the SEC ended up relying on their own cocktail of NCAA infractions to help leverage their legitimate attributes, though they eventually proved to be amateurs compared to the big-business SEC.  I say this knowing that violations, whether of institution policy, NCAA fiat, or public law, happen at every school at every level of play.  The SEC has just insulated itself from the consequences far better than other conferences by both practice and by its tremendous importance to the revenue side of collegiate athletics.

Alabama was coming off historic failures when Bryant arrived, and the SEC football monopoly simply did not exist in his day.  He won his games in an era far more formidable than Saban’s: Paterno, Osborne, Hayes, Switzer, Bowden, and Holtz were all in their prime at one point during Bryant’s career.  Meanwhile, Saban’s challengers are a ragged lot: the best pure coaches work at non-traditional powers, while his nearest rivals in major conferences are prone to self-destruction.  At the same time, Alabama is (and has recently been) without doubt the alpha of the SEC pack.  Look no further than hapless Mike Shula, who not too long ago earned a 10-2 season with the Crimson Tide.

Bryant also wisely avoided the NFL pitfall that has soured fans in both Baton Rouge and Miami.  Strangely enough, Bryant’s opportunity also came from the Miami Dolphins; his stated reason for turning down the Dolphins was that he would never leave Alabama just for a bigger paycheck.  This speaks to what might be a persona deficit that could hamper Saban’s status as historical icon: it’s rare for a man described as aloof, taciturn, and mercenary to hold sway over the imaginations of football fans and historians. Personality is partly why we “know” Bryant better than Bernie Bierman,  Barry Switzer better than Bud Wilkinson, and Jimmy Johnson better than Dennis Erickson.

There is one comparison to still be made between Bryan and Saban, and that’s their adaptation to changes in the game itself.  Bryant eventually had to adopt the Wishbone to successfully close out his years.  Saban, meanwhile seems to have a chink in his armor: the spread-option coaches among his competitors–Urban Meyer in particular–have managed to needle soft spots in the Alabama coach’s vaunted system. Today’s concepts threaten to strip him of the strict sidelines-control he values; if they become a long-term component of the game, it’ll be interesting to see how he adapts.  (Saban also may suffer comparatively by virtue of the fact that Belichick has adopted and mastered shifts in the game with great success in the NFL.)

All said, the jury is out on Saban’s final spot in history. Every coach is one calamitous decision or revelation away from public failure and humiliation, though if anyone is relatively safe from this, it seems to be Saban. The quote that began this entry reflects this reality, and while Spurrier’s words were more psychological warfare than anything, they also have a measure of truth when it comes to assessing Saban’s legacy up to this point.  Saban has had good stints with Toledo and Michigan State, and his success at mighty LSU reached its apex with an asterisked split-championship many think rightfully belongs with Pete Carroll and the Trojans. Given that the NFL is full of coaches just like Saban (and is adopting the same spread tactics he’s publicly lamented), it seems unlikely he’ll find redemption there, or a way to burnish his legacy the way Johnson and Switzer did.

There’s no doubt Saban is a tremendous coach, and perhaps the best in the NCAA right now.  But for him to be considered an all-timer, he has to personally surpass the mythos of Alabama and all it represents, and that likely means putting Bear Bryant’s achievements numerically and unequivocally in the rearview mirror.  Anything less and he may be remembered as the football equivalent of a jockey fortunate enough to have ridden Secretariat.