- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Here's an interesting story from Andrea Adelson about "copycat coaches." It's interesting not only because it's a good topic but also, for our purposes, because its central figure is new Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, arguably the father of the modern day, run-first spread-option attack.
Andrea sent over the Q&A she did with Rodriguez, which we're going to publish in its entirety. It includes lots of background on Rodriguez and his innovative offense, which has been copied by a lot of folks -- yes, including that guy up in Eugene.
Thanks to Andrea for doing all the legwork and writing a nice story.
When was the first time you had coaches asking for pointers on your offense?
Rich Rodriguez: When we went to Tulane, the second year we had a good year, with Shaun King. Then you had some games on TV, and that was the first time after that season that a lot of coaches started coming and visiting and calling. We beat BYU in a bowl game, and Lavell [Edwards] was the head coach, Norm Chow the offensive coordinator. So after the game, they said, ‘Would you come over and talk some football with us? I’m thinking are you kidding me? This is Norm Chow and Lavell Edwards, the passing gurus. I said I’ll do it on one condition. You have to give me some of your information, too. You have to teach me what you’re doing. Norm and I have been friends since that time. It was a great trip.
What was your connection with Tommy Bowden at Tulane?
RR: At Glenville, I went to the Bowden Passing Academy and I always talked football. Tommy had taken an interest in what we were doing. We never worked together when he called me to be offensive coordinator. It was really flattering. I asked, ‘Will you let me run my offense?’ He said sure. Tommy was the first big name, big coach, who took an interest in what we were doing. When we went to Tulane, there were a few folks. At Clemson, we saw a few more. Then at West Virginia, it wasn’t as good the first year we were there, but after that it took off again. I can remember Urban [Meyer], when he first got the Bowling Green job, we were at a coaches convention hospitality bar. He told me, ‘I’d like to run some of your offense.’ So he sent his whole staff for a week, we traded some ideas and so we always traded ideas. The Oklahoma guys, Bob Stoops and I became friends. They would come to our place or we’d go to Oklahoma and spend the week. After the Sugar Bowl year in the 2005 season, we had a whole bunch more. Some 30 different staffs come in, Penn State, Ohio State some non-traditional non-spread coaching staffs. I said maybe I am being too open, but I thought it was a great opportunity for us to learn, too. To pick their brains.
How much of what you do today is based on your original ideas at Glenville State?
RR: We always thought the more people that do this, there’s going to be more ways to defend it, we better stay on our toes and try to keep being progressive with it, tweak it but not lose our core base about it. The core and the base is still the same but because there are so many spread teams and such a variety of it, it’s forced us to look a little deeper at what we’re doing and not be so egotistical that if we find another team that’s tweaking it a little better than us, let’s do it ourselves.
How much of the different spread systems we see are based on what you did at Glenville State?
RR: It is funny to watch because there are predominantly pass spread teams. Then there are teams that predominantly do run spread and teams right in the middle. Tempo is such a big thing, that’s not part of schemes and formations. When we first started doing it, we wanted to get in the two-minute drill the whole game. I said if I can find a quarterback, and get five linemen to get run over slowly we’ll be OK, and that’s what we tried to do. It took off, and we had great time with it. Woody Dantzler and Pat White, we started developing things for them in the offense, but I still think the base of our offense and base of most of them are putting your guys out in space, and see if you can execute it. The hardest thing is to tackle in the open field. The second hardest thing is to block in the open field, but that was our whole philosophy, make them defend in space and create some conflicts for them. Oregon does a lot of that. Chip [Kelly], when he was at New Hampshire, he came down to visit. What Oregon does is pretty similar. Probably what Baylor did last year was similar in a lot of ways. We watch all those teams but we still go back to our base.
When did you know what you were doing would catch on at the FBS level?
RR: Glenville was a small school, NAIA first then Division II. As we moved up and then we played that same level competition, we had great success but it’s apples and apples. When we played a couple I-AA games, money games for us, we were putting up big numbers and big points against those teams and almost beating them, that’s when I thought OK maybe some folks will see it, but they didn’t. It was still a little bit hidden. Until we went to Tulane and had the undefeated season, I think it started coming out and we started saying we better be prepared. There are going to be more teams doing it. I say coaches are copycats if they find something they like, we better be prepared. If we don’t find out the problems they will figure it out themselves. What’s surprised me even through the 1990s and even in the early 2000s, it wasn’t a big deal. But it seems in last five, five years it’s exploded. I think it started on the high school level. You’re seeing more and more high schools doing it. High school coaches are creative because most of them can’t recruit so they’ve got what they got. They find out a lot of these athletes are playing basketball or running track and they might like to play in this type of offense. You can get out in space, run routes, be a quarterback in the spread. So more coaches started seeing the value in that. Once you have success, the monster keeps getting fed I guess.
Do you remember seeing Northwestern upsetting Michigan in 2000, a game that has been widely credited for bringing the spread mainstream?
RR: Randy Walker was there, God bless him. He called and we talked and he said I‘m going to bring some coaches down. He brought his whole offensive staff. I thought they’d stay a day or two. They were there for a week, and they had a great time and I guess they put it in. I remember calling [offensive coordinator] Kevin [Wilson] or Randy after I saw one of the games on TV. I saw the signals on the sideline. I said, ‘You could at least change the signals.’ They used the same signals, the same verbiage, the same terminology. My players are looking at me, saying where did they get that from? I said we better change our signals, now that Northwestern is doing it, the whole country is going to see it.
A lot of people see what Chip Kelly has done at Oregon and praise the twist he has brought to the spread. He learned some from you. What do you think now that you will be coaching against him?
RR: Everybody has probably taken some ideas from somewhere and then you start thinking if we weren’t as open would it be out there as much now? I think it would because coaches are among the most creative people in the world. It’s such a competitive business. You study other people and see if they can help you. It’s going to be out there. The fact Chip’s in our league and other teams run the spread, helps us out. If things they do look like a good idea, or maybe we like the way we’re doing it better. But it still, it comes down to having good players that can execute. What Chip has done, what Urban has done at Florida, they’re recruiting the right players and they’re getting them to execute and the scheme is fun to watch.
Many folks credit you for your spread ideas. How do you feel you want to be remembered whenever your career ends?
RR: My first thought -- it’s really about making sure that every player that played for us enjoyed their experience. That’s one of the joys of coaching this offense. It takes a great commitment because to go fast and go no-huddle, you have to practice that all the time. Once they get it, they enjoy it. It’s like fast-break basketball, so you hope kids enjoyed being a part of it. When I first did this in 1991, it was a blank slate. I didn’t have a point of reference so we studied run and shoot tapes. Our quarterback was short, so we put him in shotgun to see if we could do something there, and over three, four years, it became the perfect experimental ground. I’ve enjoyed doing it, and the reason you enjoy coaching is because you see your players enjoy doing it and giving them a chance to have success. You get players like Pat White, even Denard Robinson and guys like that. People say they don’t know if they can play quarterback, but not only do they become great players, they become one of the best in college football.