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Al Borges' mind works overtime

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Gordon and Jo Borges knew not to bother their son. The eldest of seven children growing up in Salinas, Calif., Al Borges couldn't be worried about much else.

Pencil and paper in his hands and a plan in his head, Borges wanted to draw. He'd zone out for hours, endlessly sketching on anything from napkins to full-on 8½-by-11 sheets of paper. All over the Borges house would be formations and routes, blocking schemes and what Jo called "X's and O's."

Al drew his first play while he was a student and football player at North Salinas High School. Almost 40 years later, he's still at it in his first year as Michigan's offensive coordinator. Al wanted to work in football and this was how he was going to do it, going into his room and drawing play after play after play.

Even if he wasn't particularly neat about it.

"I would throw them out," Jo Borges said. "And he would throw a holy fit."

This is where innovation started, well before he officially would become a college offensive coordinator at Portland State in 1986. Other vocations didn't interest him. As Gordon tried to find other jobs for him, Al would return home soon after, fired, with a huge smile on his face. Borges held odd jobs, from a box factory to gas station attendant to working in the fields of Salinas. He admits now he was lost.

By the time he left yet another job, recapping tires at Firestone at age 19, there was only one option left.

Coaching football.

He became an assistant at Salinas High School, graduated from California State-Chico in 1981 and bounced around smaller coaching jobs until he was hired at Portland State.

The doodling and scribbling paid off, even though he couldn't have imagined then where all of the drawing would take him.

Borges is now a highly sought-after commodity, leading Auburn's offense to an undefeated season in 2004 and becoming a quarterback guru with Tony Graziani, Jason Campbell, Cade McNown and Gibran Hamdan among his NFL-bound pupils.

This Borges challenge is different than any other. He has never had a quarterback like Michigan junior Denard Robinson.

"No," Borges said bluntly. "No. Some of the guys I've coached could do, now [McNown], he would get around, he was tough, he ran well. But not like Denard."

So Borges' beautiful football mind continues to spin, although that should surprise no one.

'Football junkie'

Chris Crawford sat in the Portland State meeting room in 1986, new quarterback and coordinator eating pizza together. As he ate, Borges grabbed the tops of the pizza boxes, pulled out the Sharpie he was carrying and went back into his zone.

By the time he was done, Borges covered the back of the boxes with more plays.

"We'd be out at a dinner or a team function and he would be sketching plays on napkins," Crawford said. "He was so into it. It was almost like 'Are you serious?'"

Borges would enter the Portland State meeting room with a napkin he had drawn a play on the night before. A piece of chewing tobacco in his mouth, Crawford said he'd start sketching the play on the meeting room board -- explaining and becoming more animated as he went.

Spit from the chew landed on the whiteboard, sometimes confusing black spots of chew with his latest innovation.

Then, he'd toss the paper in the garbage -- because once he wrote down had a play, he remembered it.

"I'm obsessive," Borges said. "Guys tell me I'm a nut job and I think I am. I like that part of the game. I like so many parts of the game, but I like the tactics and I like to scribble. So many coaches do. I'm not unusual.

"Lot of guys that do my job are really, you know, Brady [Hoke] calls me a football junkie, that's probably partly true."

Success came fast at Portland State. Under Pokey Allen and Borges, Portland State went 63-36-2 from 1986-92, including five playoff and two national title game appearances.

In the stands, though, there was a rule. Gordon and Jo couldn't tell Portland State fans who they were or who their son was. Al's orders.

"Once he got there, they called him the genius of the offense because he had the weirdest plays you'd ever seen in your life," Jo said. "I would sit there and let me tell you, watching games, and I have to tell you this, he would tell me, 'Don't tell anyone who you are, Mom and Dad.'

"So we'd sit there and hear the fans say 'Oh my God, he's a genius' if the play worked. If the play didn't work, 'Idiot.'"

More than not, it was genius. Influenced by the teachings of Bill Walsh, Borges took what Crawford called average talent, quarterback included, and made Portland State great.

Part of his success came from preparation. Borges scripted his first 25 plays back then and made sure his team ran every one of them in practice during the week. As he grew and adapted as a coordinator, he started to script less -- to the point that since his time at UCLA he now scripts the first 15-17 plays before freelancing.

"There's lots of reasons to script opening plays," Borges said. "That's probably the biggest reason, you don't want to leave a lot on your call sheet. If you practice it, you should do it in a game.

"Otherwise, that's bad economy of offense."

With age comes experience, understanding and instincts. At Michigan, that experience will be even more critical with a quarterback like Robinson, who is improvisational on his own.

Borges is already planning for it. He has said that this Michigan offense will look nothing like anything he has coordinated.

Bread and butter

The way Borges plans an offense, especially around a new quarterback or his first year in a system, is simple.

He goes to what has always worked for him, what Hamdan, the former Indiana quarterback, deemed his "bread and butter."

These are plays Borges cultivated over the past 25 years. They are the plays Borges is going to go to midway through the season in a big drive on a big third down.

Usually, both Crawford and Hamdan said, they are installed and understood by the time Borges' first season with a school begins.

This is where Borges starts. According to Hamdan, these plays are a combination of three- and five-step drop pass plays he likes and 8-10 running plays.

"Some guys, I couldn't even name bread-and-butter plays because they have so many plays it was like, 'Well, what do you like?'" Hamdan said. "That comes back to the honesty, the kind of guy he is. You know where he stands and that's how he builds his offense.

"You know where you stand, know what he likes."

It works because of how he implements it as much as what he installs. It's also why at Indiana he drilled play-action footwork for days -- to the point Hamdan wondered if he'd ever do anything else.

Or why at Michigan he drilled footwork to Robinson and Devin Gardner for weeks. By having these things down, it ensures that the bread and butter will work.

"Footwork is so important because so much of this offense is timing," Gardner said. "If you don't have good footwork, you could be off-time and that's when interceptions come.

"We drill in footwork. Basically every [practice] period."

Once the bread and butter is installed, Borges' innovation shines. He starts tailoring other plays to his quarterback's strengths. At Michigan, Borges has hinted at more shotgun and designed runs for Robinson -- who is more mobile than any other quarterback Borges has had.

With Robinson, Hamdan said, there's a chance Borges' offense might work better because unlike Hamdan and others, Robinson can run. Robinson might shine because if the Michigan junior trusts the footwork Borges drilled, he'll read through progressions and then his feet and instincts will tell him when to run.

"Coach Borges will help the quarterback," said Campbell, his first quarterback at Auburn. "He is such a smart guy who has a great system for a quarterback. He is very instinctive and he knows how to help a quarterback and an entire offense.

"I think he'll have a big effect there."

Genius and ... Everyman

There's a story Jo loves to tell about her son -- because it has nothing to do with football.

When her son was at Auburn, fans would wait just beyond the tunnel at Jordan-Hare Stadium to get autographs. After one game, Gordon and Jo waited for Al amongst the crowd.

As they waited, Al saw a kid in a beat-up hat coming up to him seeking his autograph.

"So Alan said, 'You don't want me to put my autograph here on this dirty hat,'" Jo said. "So Alan took his hat right off his head, gave it to the little boy and signed it. He just sat there and he couldn't say anything. His mom said, 'Aren't you going to thank Coach Borges?'

"He said, 'Yeah.' He was just so surprised. I said, 'Alan, you're going to have to put some hats in the back of your pocket. Those other little boys are really watching you.'"

Borges has an Everyman quality to him despite his football prowess. Hard on his players, they always know he'll be honest with them and make them laugh -- Gardner and Michigan tight end Kevin Koger were recently cracking up in practice as Borges started dancing in the middle of it.

Years after they are done playing for him, they laud him as much as a man as they do as a coordinator.

Hamdan said Borges' honesty when he was telling him he wasn't going to be the starter at Indiana in 2002 -- Hamdan actually packed his bags preparing to transfer to East Tennessee State -- kept him at Indiana.

"He just looked at me and said, 'Gibran, I'm telling you. I really think you can play. I like your style. You can throw it.'"

Hamdan trusted him. He ended up playing, passing for 2,115 yards, and was on NFL rosters for six seasons. Almost a decade later, he still pays attention to how Borges does. So does Crawford, 25 years after he played for him.

In Salinas, Jo and Gordon -- both in their 80s -- don't go to games often anymore. But they watch intently on television. Jo yells at the screen. Gordon, who has a website called Mr. Fitness, sits back and monitors everything.

"To give you some idea of how it affects me, I religiously take my blood pressure to see what kind of internal activity there is there," Gordon said. "During a ballgame or after it, if I take it, Jesus Christ, it's astronomical."

For him, it is the angst of wanting his son to succeed, to watch the obsessive play-designer turn into the masterful play-caller. On each Michigan drive this year, 110,000 others will join him.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.

AFC West blogger Bill Williamson contributed to this story.