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Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Updated: September 8, 2:38 PM ET
Norm Chow's circle complete

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com

It hits him in small doses. A little more every day. A lot more with every game. But it's still a bit hard for Norm Chow to wrap his head around the latest career move in a coaching life that's turned a bit nomadic in his later years.

He sits in his office studying tape on his new protege, Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn, fully engaged in the moment and the task at hand.

Then, on a whim or for no reason at all, he'll look out the window at the Salt Lake City skyline and catch a glimpse of the chapel in which he and his wife, Diane, were married nearly a half-century ago.

He's back home, in a sense. In the place where his family started and his career took off. And yet it feels different this time around, after where he's been and what he learned while he was away.

"It's almost surreal, to be honest with you," Chow said. "I can see the chapel we were married in. It's right down the street. I can see the neighborhood where her parents' house was, where we lived in the basement when we first got married because we were so young.

Norm Chow
Norm Chow had stops at USC under Pete Carroll and UCLA under Rick Neuheisel.
"But you know, I don't know if it's fully sunk in for me. I just keep thinking, 'How many people really get to go full circle like this?'"

He says that last part like I should just know that he feels blessed and lucky to be sitting where he is right now. And I do know, because Chow has spent enough time in Los Angeles the past 10 years for me to know what a genuine man he really is.

But I also know he's had to move around a lot more in his later years than a man of his stature and accomplishment should, and that he's never gotten the shot at being a head coach many believe he so richly deserved.

There are all sorts of reasons for this, most of them specific to the jobs he's held and the people he's worked with. And yes, he's not the best schmoozer or interviewer.

I think he just stayed an offensive coordinator for so long, people didn't see him as anything else.

So he's in Salt Lake City now. Running another offense, grooming another young quarterback and preparing for another game.

Only this game isn't just another game. It's the first game of the newly expanded Pacific-12 Conference, and in a delicious bit of irony, Utah's opponent is USC, the school that made Chow a megawatt star from 2001 to 2004 but he left unceremoniously when his star started getting a little too bright for some people's tastes.

It is the fourth time Chow has faced the Trojans since he left seven years ago, but the emotion of the game hasn't lessened any even as he reminds me that "that was a long time ago."

When I ask about the terms of his departure, he answers politely at first, saying "those were some fun, exciting years" and downplaying the perceived bad blood between he and Lane Kiffin, USC's current head coach, whom he groomed as a 24-year-old assistant but who ultimately succeeded him as offensive coordinator.

"People make such a deal of that, but we're fine. It was fun, really. I think that [the bad blood] is totally exaggerated," Chow said.

I tend to believe him because Kiffin tried to hire Chow away from UCLA when he got the USC job in January 2010 and because I've always suspected the real ruffled feathers in this saga belonged to Pete Carroll, whose star was always undercut a bit by the credit Chow received for his role in USC's high-powered offense.

Chow You're never going to believe this. They give us these iPads and iPhones, i-this and i-that. So I've been reading books on the iPad.

-- Norm Chow
Chow declined to comment on that theory, saying only that he'll forever be grateful to Carroll for the opportunity and the years they spent together.

He did, however, acknowledge that his decision to leave was not exactly his preference.

"It was an interesting time because we were having so much success," he said. "But things evolve. It would've been nice to see how far that thing could've gone."

Kiffin, for his part, had only kind things to say of his former mentor, although his entreaties to bring Chow back to USC in 2010 could have been more of a nod to then-athletic director Mike Garrett's preferences, rather than his own.

"I have nothing against Norm at all. He's been great to me, always," Kiffin said. "I was 24 years old when I got here, and he really taught me a lot. I have great respect for him wherever he's been, especially with the development of quarterbacks.

"I learned a lot from him. His ability to relate to the players, and really instead of trying to run his same stuff regardless [of the personnel], he really tried to feature his stuff around our personnel and what our players did well."

That adaptability has always been one of Chow's greatest strengths. His mind is flexible because his mastery of the game of football is so deep.

What he's never been given enough credit for is how flexible his mind is in other areas.

The last few years when he was at UCLA, struggling to run an offense without enough talented parts to make it work, then struggling to put in a new, unfamiliar offense that could work, he always greeted me with a smile and a simple question: "What book are you reading?"

It wasn't a line. He wanted to know, and then, he wanted to tell me which book he was reading. Neither of us read books about sports. He enjoyed biographies and political tomes. He loved Anthony Bourdain's book and promised to read this book of short stories that I recommended.

When I called him this week to catch up, he asked me again. I mentioned the escapist Marlena di Blasi travel novel and the Pete Dexter books I was reading; he asked what they were about.

Then I asked what he was reading, and he laughed.

"You're never going to believe this," he said. "They give us these iPads and iPhones, i-this and i-that. So I've been reading books on the iPad.

"The only other thing I know how to do on the iPad is play Sudoku so I figure I better learn how to read on it. Half the time I don't know how to turn the page or put a bookmark in, but I have Dhani Jones' book on there and I've downloaded Mike Leach's book."

"So at UCLA you learned the pistol offense and at Utah you're learning how to use an iPad?" I joked.

Chow laughed, then said, "I don't know if I've done either one very well."

It was classic Chow. Lighthearted and self-deprecating.

He'd changed, but he hadn't.

"Different day, different color of shorts I guess," Chow said. "I don't know how long I'll do this. As long as my health holds up. As long as somebody wants me. As long as there is still that fire in my belly, which there is, we'll keep doing it.

"We'll take it a little bit at a time."

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist for ESPNLA.com