By all accounts, Bill Walsh was an offensive genius, the Godfather of the West Coast system still in use throughout college and pro football today.
But there are no bounds to knowledge, or innovation in the game, not even for masterminds.
He placed a phone call. Tommy Bowden sat in his Tulane office at 6 a.m. in mid-November 1998, his team still undefeated after a 49-35 victory over Army. He was the only one in the building. He picked up the phone.
It was Walsh.
"He was at the Army game, and he said, 'I was amazed at what you all were doing, how you got plays in, how you communicated from the sideline to the quarterback,'" Bowden recalled in a recent phone interview. "For him to call -- it was a big deal. I had a feeling that we might have been on to something unique."
The director of that Tulane offense? None other than Rich Rodriguez, who's ready to prove to the world that he still is the master of the spread at Arizona. The hurry-up spread that Rodriguez brought to the major college ranks drew more than complements from Walsh. It drew copycats as well.
These moments happen often for the coaches we identify as innovators, men who have found a way to take old ideas and put their unique twist on them, for setting a new standard of play that gets mimicked from coast to coast. Run a successful system like Rodriguez? Coaches will follow.
Run a successful organization that preaches responsibility from the top of the flow chart to the bottom, like Nick Saban? Coaches will follow. Run a specialized, complex 3-4 hybrid defensive scheme, also like Saban? You get the point.
You cannot be a college coach without copying from somebody else. And yet, you cannot be a successful college coach without having your very own ideas poached, twisted, massaged and re-invented. They are the ground rules of coaching.
"If you see something that works for another team and it fits what you are doing, then you go ahead and use it," North Carolina coach Larry Fedora says. "If it means you beg, borrow and steal, you do it. There aren't any secrets in the game of football with technology today and how much film is out there."
There have never really been any secrets in football. Every scheme is out there for the world to see, and coaches to copy. Oregon coach Chip Kelly has been widely praised for his up-tempo spread offense, and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has been credited for the spread option. Yet both learned, in part, from Rodriguez, who pioneered one of the first versions of the hurry-up spread at tiny Glenville State in West Virginia in the 1990s.
Of course, running a hurry-up was nothing new. Rodriguez modeled part of his offense after the Run 'N' Shoot, which carried the Houston Oilers around the same time period. Sam Wyche had great success with the hurry-up with the Cincinnati Bengals. The idea may have been slower to catch on in the major college ranks, but Homer Smith at Alabama also ran the hurry-up in the 1980s.
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.
”-- coach Rich Rodriguez
In fact, Bowden first saw the hurry-up employed as an assistant under Smith at Alabama in 1988. Coming from a more traditional offensive background learned from his father, Bobby, the initial reaction was, "Huh?!"
"I called my father and said, 'This guy's nuts.'" Bowden said. "But it worked, and when I went to Tulane, I said, 'I want to do something like that.'"
Tommy Bowden arrived at Tulane in 1997, and knew he wanted the hurry-up. He also knew Rodriguez, who used to work at Bowden camps. Nobody in the major college ranks was doing what Rodriguez had done at Glenville State, and Bowden believed the offense was perfectly suited for a place like Tulane, with the ability to recruit skill players and take advantage of their speed on the artificial turf.
He interviewed Rodriguez for the job. Rodriguez asked if Tulane could run his offense, complete with terminology. Bowden said yes. He hired Rodriguez without watching any game tape on Glenville State.
"When 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,'" Rodriguez recalled. "I say coaches are copycats. If they find something they like, they will use it and make improvements. We better be prepared.'"
Tulane beat BYU in the Liberty Bowl to cap the undefeated season. BYU coach LaVell Edwards had made his name off his version of the West Coast offense, turning out legendary quarterbacks Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Ty Detmer. After Tulane won 41-27, Edwards and BYU offensive coordinator Norm Chow approached Rodriguez.
"They said, 'Would you come over and talk some football with us?" Rodriguez recalled. "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 teach me what you're doing.'"
That right there is how information is copied. Er, exchanged.
There are other ways to take a page from a successful coach, as many have done from Saban. While he has derisively been called names for the freakish control he assumes over his teams, the way he plots out every single aspect of the program is something that many of his former assistants have copied when they get head coaching jobs elsewhere.
Take new Colorado State coach Jim McElwain. Back in 2008, while working as an assistant at Fresno State, he received a call out of the blue from Saban. The two had never previously worked together and had no relationship to speak of. McElwain thought he was receiving a prank call from friends.
Once he realized Saban was offering him the offensive coordinator job, he jumped at the opportunity. But when he arrived in Tuscaloosa, he noticed an organization flow chart that had him scratching his head. Everybody had a responsibility. The athletic calendar also was made a year and a half in advance, in order to anticipate every event.
That organizational chart is now in use in Fort Collins.
"Some people on the outside may say Nick is a micromanager, but he isn't," McElwain said in a phone interview. "He understands the power of people, and when you empower them to do a job and do it really well no matter what it is, it's amazing how motivated they are to be successful. And that goes with anything. It isn't just the X's and O's. It's the anticipation of the things that are going to happen so you can prepare yourself in whatever your responsibility is in your organization to handle it, so there aren't a lot of crises."
McElwain also had his players and coaches go through a 16-class mental conditioning seminar last spring, something Saban does with his program.
And the Rams will be running a 3-4 defense in the style of Saban. That defense has spread across the SEC, with teams like Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida also running a similar scheme. The head coaches or defensive coordinators at those respective schools all learned under Saban.
"We want to try to build around personnel," McElwain said. "There's no doubt going against Coach Saban in spring ball and fall camp, I definitely see the value in what he's doing, yet I'm not sure anybody can truly mimic him because he's one of the best pattern match guys on the back end. They take it a new level."
That is the challenge awaiting every coach. Take an existing idea to the next level.
Copy at will.