Among coaches, sharing is common
Every winter and spring, college football coaches gather for games of show-and-tell.
Their goal: to share ideas.
Coaches are maniacally competitive, but they're also content collectors. And while they're in a big-money, high-stakes profession in which one man's success is directly tied to another man's failure, many are willing to help one another, as long as certain protocols are met and the circumstances are right.
"It's professional development," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "I don't think you see guys at Fortune 500 companies trade ideas all the time, where in our profession -- football, basketball, other sports -- coaches talk a lot to try to keep learning and getting better every year."
Rodriguez, considered an architect of the spread offense, met for three or four consecutive years with Kevin Sumlin, Urban Meyer and other coaches who used one-back, up-tempo spread systems. At one point, the yearly summits featured coaches from almost every FBS conference.
After Rodriguez's West Virginia team stunned Georgia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl, he said more than 50 college staffs visited Morgantown to trade ideas. Rodriguez's only rule with them: show-and-tell isn't a one-way street.
"We'll talk to you about some of what we do, but you've got to tell us some of what you do, too," he told the visiting coaches. "I've always said there's no patents on schemes."
Dave Aranda is a bit embarrassed to admit it.
"I never really played football," the Wisconsin defensive coordinator said. "I was always injured in high school and I was injured in college."
Aranda loved the game, however, and wanted to coach. As a student assistant at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks during the late 1990s, he not surprisingly had a limited network. What he had were two major college teams nearby -- USC and UCLA -- and an NFL team, the San Diego Chargers, about three hours away.
Aranda began cold-calling coaches from all three teams. He connected with Jason Tarver, then a defensive graduate assistant at UCLA, and Dave Doeren, then a grad assistant at USC.
"[Doeren] would give me the practice tapes and tell me, 'This is how we do this drill,'" Aranda recalled. "He was my in."
Fast-forward 15 years and Aranda occupies Doeren's old office at Camp Randall Stadium. Doeren, the Badgers' defensive coordinator from 2006-2010, now serves as NC State's head coach. Tarver is the defensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders.
Aranda remains in touch with both men and meets with them to share ideas. He recently went to Raleigh, North Carolina, to visit with Doeren's staff about odd-man defensive fronts, which Aranda employs at Wisconsin.
"It started back then," Aranda said of his days at California Lutheran. "Any time you can say, 'Hey, these are our issues with the spread option, the quarterback run game, how can we come together to talk about it in a forum?' That's a positive thing."
Such forums not only help coaches, but entire programs.
In the winter of 2000, Northwestern's coaches were looking for answers after a 3-8 season. Their offense had finished 110th nationally in scoring (12.8 ppg). Current Indiana coach Kevin Wilson, then the Wildcats' offensive coordinator, began studying Clemson, which was using a no-huddle, run-based spread offense orchestrated by Rodriguez. At the time, few teams operated as quickly as the Tigers.
After bumping into Rodriguez at a clinic in February, the Northwestern coaches asked if they could visit Clemson. In March, Wilson, head coach Randy Walker and the offensive staff spent a weekend watching the Tigers practice.
I remember calling them ... and saying, 'Congratulations, but gosh, I was hearing our plays getting called.'” -- Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez
"We were changing [to] a different style of mechanics," Wilson said. "It wasn't just, 'What's your plays?'"
When Northwestern began spring practice weeks later, Wilson scrapped the team's traditional offense for the no-huddle spread. That season Northwestern finished third nationally in total offense and ninth in scoring, setting team records for points (441) and rushing yards (3,062), and winning a share of the Big Ten title.
The Wildcats have used a version of the spread ever since. Wilson became linked to the system, coordinating standout offenses at Oklahoma before landing his first head-coaching gig at Indiana, where he uses a fast-paced spread offense.
How much did the Wildcats' coaches absorb from their weekend in Clemson? More than Rodriguez ever imagined.
"I can remember watching one of their games where they scored all those points, and you could hear the audio," Rodriguez said. "And they were calling the same plays, the same terminology, the same checks and even some of the same hand signals. So I remember calling them, Kevin or one of the other coaches, and saying, 'Congratulations, but gosh, I was hearing our plays getting called.'
"It helped their program do some neat stuff. I remember watching it and thinking, 'They're executing it better than we are.'"
Wilson went to Clemson to study a vastly different offense, but many coaches brainstorm with colleagues specifically because they have similar strategies. This spring, the offensive staffs from Ohio State, Clemson and Texas A&M gathered in Columbus, Ohio, and swapped ideas for two days.
"You want to have a core group of guys that might share the same philosophies, whether it be in tempo or formations or plays or all of the above," Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "For us, it's the Clemsons, Oregons, Auburns of the world that are two-back, run-oriented teams but from the shotgun."
Northwestern's coaches weren't the only ones at Clemson that weekend in March 2000. Wilson remembers meeting a young New Hampshire offensive coordinator named Chip Kelly. After Northwestern's breakthrough season, Kelly called Wilson.
"You guys mind if I come by and see you?" Kelly asked. "Same deal. Just watching for ideas."
Kelly became a record-setting spread offense practitioner at Oregon, and last year took the scheme to the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles.
Every coach has his networks. Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop's "little circle" consists of Aranda, Louisiana Tech defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. Sometimes they'll each study an area -- third-down defense, spread quarterback run -- and then discuss them as a group.
"Everybody's trying to find a better way to defend the spread," Shoop said. "Dave and Manny see it at the college level, and Sean sees [Panthers quarterback Cam Newton] every day."
Syracuse coach Scott Shafer approaches ideas-sharing sessions with three basic questions: What are we doing? Who is doing it well? Are they willing to talk?
"You have a handful of [coaches] who think they invented everything," Shafer said, "but the rest of us share a ton of ideas."
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has "30,000-foot discussions" about best administrative practices with other head coaches, including longtime friend Dan Mullen from Mississippi State. But Fitzgerald also sets aside a midseason meeting for his staff to brainstorm which teams they might want to visit in the winter and spring. They then contact coaches toward the end of the season to schedule meetings.
You have a handful of [coaches] who think they invented everything. But the rest of us share a ton of ideas.” -- Syracuse coach Scott Shafer
When Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig visits other coaches, he doesn't set out to overhaul his system.
"I'm just trying to find a nugget or two," Ludwig said, "that can make a difference in a handful of plays through the course of the year."
Mississippi State staff looks both inward ("What's new that we're going to run with four-wide receiver sets?" Mullen asks) and outward ("These guys had a great scheme last year against this style of offense and we have to play two of those offenses this year. How are they teaching these things?") before determining who they visit and when.
Before Mullen's assistants hit the road, he provides a warning.
"The worst thing you want to do is waste time," he said. "Don't take a visit somewhere just to take a visit. Have specific things we're looking for. I've made those mistakes before. You say, 'This is what I want to learn,' and you go there and they don't tell you anything.
"People are secretive."
The need for coaches to safeguard their "intellectual property," as Fitzgerald puts it, results in certain protocols for brainstorming sessions. There are generally two non-starters: coaches from teams in the same league or teams that are scheduled to play in the immediate future don't meet.
Some coaches avoid meeting with colleagues from potential bowl opponents.
"A good friend of mine in the Big Ten said, 'Hey, let's get together and talk ball,'" Stanford coach David Shaw said. "I said, 'I might play you in the Rose Bowl. That's the last thing I want to do. Me help you and you help me, and the next thing you know, we're in the Rose Bowl and I know your calls and you know mine.'
"I still have to be able to say no just because of that possibility. I have to guard against that."
Some teams are less concerned about potential matchups. Herman and Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith visited Clemson after the 2012 season to talk offense. The Buckeyes and Tigers ended up playing in the Orange Bowl this past January.
When the staffs met months later in Columbus, they reviewed some plays from Clemson's 40-35 win.
"Every now and again you get a little pit in your stomach," Herman said. "I'm sure the pit for us was a lot bigger since they won the game. But there's not a whole lot of awkwardness."
Stanford, meanwhile, avoids sharing ideas with other college coaches for two reasons.
For starters, the Cardinal use offensive and defensive schemes that are more tied to the NFL than the college game. Before joining Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego in 2006, Shaw spent nine years as an NFL assistant. He then joined Harbaugh at Stanford, installing a Bill Walsh-style West Coast offense that remains to this day. Shaw succeeded Harbaugh as head coach when Harbaugh left for the San Francisco 49ers.
Stanford runs a defense installed by Vic Fangio, a longtime NFL assistant who spend the 2010 season with the Cardinal before joining Harbaugh with the 49ers.
Other current and former Stanford assistants -- Derek Mason, Mike Bloomgren -- spent most of their careers in the NFL. Since Stanford recruits nationally, Shaw encourages his assistants to drop in on the closest NFL team. NFL coaches also come to Stanford to study and share.
On both sides of the ball, we have more of a connection with the NFL coaches.” -- Stanford coach David Shaw
"On both sides of the ball," Shaw said, "we have more of a connection with the NFL coaches."
The Stanford coaches also don't have to stand opposite those coaches on fall Saturdays. Shaw would like to help his college colleagues grow in the profession, but not at the expense of losing games. He's not going to let potential future opponents behind the Cardinal curtain.
Things used to be different in the 1970s and 1980s when Shaw's father, Willie, coached in the Pac-12 (then Pac-8/Pac-10) at Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State.
"The old Pac-8 had a golf tournament and every coach would be there for 2-3 days and they would trade ideas and help each other professionally," David Shaw said. "Now these games are so big and so vital, you don't want to talk ball with anybody in your conference. Sometimes you don't want to talk ball with anybody in your immediate area. So you have to pick and choose those teams on the college level.
"It's kind of a different world. I don't always feel comfortable with the way that it is, but it is the way that it is."
The nomadic nature of the profession also enters a head coach's mind when he's deciding whether to green-light a brainstorming session. A non-threat could soon become a yearly opponent. Coaching trees are vast. "Everybody's pretty much interconnected," Fitzgerald said.
Mullen remains close with Meyer, his former boss at Florida, Utah and Bowling Green. But if Meyer asks whether his staff can visit Mississippi State, Mullen begins the vetting process.
"Are there specifics you want? Is there anybody on your staff I have to be worried about?" Mullen said. "Anybody who coached at Alabama last year and is just going to try and get some stuff to go share with Alabama?
"I've had it where we'll have our staff go and say, 'I'd like these guys to come and this guy used to coach with so-and-so in our league, so leave him at home.'"
When Wisconsin played South Carolina in the 2014 Capital One Bowl, Shoop, who had faced the Gamecocks with Vanderbilt, gave Aranda a scouting report on South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw. The next month, after Shoop moved from Vanderbilt to Penn State, Aranda provided his friend a primer on the Big Ten.
But can the exchange continue? Wisconsin and Penn State are in opposite divisions and don't play again in the regular season until 2018.
"I wouldn't have a problem with it," Aranda said. "But I haven't talked to [Badgers head coach] Gary Andersen."
Shoop feels the same way but admits, "I'm sure we'll be very cautious about what we share with each other now."
Shoop has a bigger dilemma: his younger brother, John, is Purdue's offensive coordinator. Penn State and Purdue are in opposite divisions and don't play until 2016.
"Unless it's in the championship game," Bob Shoop said.
Who coaches can visit is one part of the equation. What they can discuss during those visits is another.
Any large get-togethers must first be approved by the head coaches. Before meeting, participants usually outline discussion points, whether it's combating certain schemes, how plays are taught, the alignment and techniques of individual players on certain plays, or how to handle rule changes. Terminology is typically off limits because there are so many no-huddle offenses that call plays at the line of scrimmage.
The goal: to extract specifics.
"Anybody can get the playbook and look at it," Penn State coach James Franklin said, "but if you don't understand all the little coaching points that make the play successful, it's worthless. You've got to go to places where you're going to be able to ask the tough questions and really work through all the details."
The availability of film has transformed the scouting and gathering process. Wilson remembers the VHS days, when he would ask Northwestern staffers to record Clemson's games so he could compare the two offenses.
Now he has a vast library of video and can easily access clips on YouTube or coaching websites.
"There's not a lot of secrets out there," Mullen said. "You can break out film and have a pretty good idea of what people are trying to get done."
But to truly understand the nuts and bolts, face-to-face meetings are necessary. There's also the teaching piece.
"We all know the formula to winning, but who's willing to work and get it down to the grassroots level?" Shafer said. "Too many times we get too many good ideas where we complicate the game for these young kids and then they don't play as fast. If you can't explain it well enough, you don't know it inside and out.
"As coaches, we always have to steer clear of being too smart for ourselves."
Fitzgerald has received a lot of advice in his coaching career, but one line sticks with him: The minute you stop learning is the day you die.
"You're always evolving, always tweaking, always changing," he said.
It's why even in an age when the money is bigger, the stakes are higher and information is guarded closer than ever, coaches still gather to pick each other's brains. They owe it to themselves.
They also owe it to their players.
"You're always telling your team they have to improve and get better," Wilson said. "You have to do that as a coach, too. You have to stay on the cutting edge."