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Callahan moves Nebraska to the West Coast

4/20/2004

LINCOLN, Neb. -- I am ready for cats to lie with dogs. I am ready for a Cubs-Red Sox World Series. I am ready to see Michelle Wie in The Masters, Adam Sandler in Hamlet and Ralph Nader in the White House.

I have seen Nebraska shift to an empty backfield. I am ready to give snowballs a chance in hell.

We're talking about Nebraska, where option offense had become as much a part of the state identity as agriculture. January 9, the day that the university hired former Oakland Raiders coach Bill Callahan, will forever be known as the day that the option bought the farm. On Saturday, what must be a national spring-game record crowd of 61,417 came for the first look at the new coach's West Coast offense.

On the first play, the Husker offense shifted from a two tight-end set into an I. Quarterback Joe Dailey faked a handoff into the line and threw deep. It may be the first time in recorded history that a home crowd ever cheered its offense for an incompletion.

"I was down in my stance," says guard Jake Anderson, a returning starter, "and when Joe called out the shift and we did it, you heard everybody in the stands go, 'Ooohhh.' I almost started laughing."

On the second play, I-back Cory Ross went into motion to the right. There was no one behind Dailey except an official. It is beside the point that Dailey's pass was broken up. He threw it out of an empty backfield.

It is equally irrelevant that Dailey, a sophomore, threw for 241 yards and four touchdowns. The starters played the scrubs, and the Nebraska offense faced a defense with only six scholarship players in a 35-6 victory.

But pay attention to this: Dailey threw 49 passes, even though the second half consisted of two 12-minute, real-time quarters. The school record for passing attempts is 42, and that's in a 60-minute, full-length, here-comes-another-TV-timeout game.

The coaches kept the first team offense together. They prevented blitzes and putting a do-not-hit green jersey on Dailey. He may have signed with Nebraska to run the option, but the Jersey City, N.J., native ran the West Coast offense at St. Peter's Prep.

"There is more opportunity to make things happen," Dailey says of the new offense. "Seven or eight people touch the ball. Last year, it was two or three."

Actually, Dailey threw completions to 11 different receivers Saturday, to the delight of the enthusiastic yet mystified fans in attendance. This is a state where stooped 75-year-olds can spot a slow pulling guard from 40 rows up -- and so can their husbands. If anyone cares to write it, Nebraskans will storm their local Barnes & Noble for copies of West Coast Offense for Dummies.

"I really wanted to put our kids on display and really watch them execute, work and perform," Callahan says. "The players understood that we were going to continue to emphasize the passing game because it's one area we need to get better at, but they came through. There's still a lot more to do."

Callahan spent his first four months trying to cram the NFL daily schedule into the 20-hour work week mandated by the NCAA, and trying to cram the West Coast offense down the throats of players recruited to run the option.

"We had a decision to make," offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said after the game Saturday. "We could put the offense in in bits and pieces, or we could put a lot of pressure on these guys to learn. We made a decision to force-feed them and make them learn as much as they can. We didn't have the time we would like. It's been frustrating. Today was built to give them confidence."

By another measure, Nebraska performed adequately. Not once this spring did Callahan refer to his Huskers as "the dumbest team in America." That was his assessment of the mistake-prone Raiders shortly before his firing last December, 11 months after taking them to the Super Bowl. As out-of-place as Nebraska fans felt Saturday, watching the quarterback make progression reads, it's safe to say that the last place Callahan expected to be this spring is Lincoln.

Season Of Change
When the British balked at their secondary status to the United States in the Allied effort to win World War II, American troops teased that the Brits were underpaid, undersexed and under Eisenhower.

In Lincoln, with the sun setting on four decades of dominance, it chafes Husker fans that their team is underpowered, undermanned and under Kansas State.

Bob Devaney built Nebraska into a national power in the 1960s, culminating in national championships in 1970 and '71. He handed the program to his top assistant, Tom Osborne, who strengthened the program and won three national championships in the 1990s. Osborne handed the program to his top assistant, Frank Solich.

His record of 58-19 (.753) was sixth among active Division I-A coaches, yet Solich won only one Big 12 championship. Still, Solich was family, and when athletic director Steve Pederson fired Solich after a 9-3 regular season, he set off a feud. Osborne, a U.S. Congressman, called a news conference to voice his displeasure, and a few weeks later relinquished his skybox at Memorial Stadium.

Only recently has the feud cooled down to a simmer. When Pederson was introduced at a sold-out, 1,100-seat booster luncheon Saturday, the cheers began immediately. Once a couple of fans booed, many in the audience reacting by standing as they applauded.

"Whoever brought those guys from Oklahoma," a smiling Pederson says of the disgruntled, "get them out of here."

Pederson, a Nebraska native, a Nebraska alum, a former recruiting coordinator under Osborne and a former associate athletic director, returned to Lincoln as athletic director in December 2002. He hadn't been back a year when he cut down the Devaney family tree.

"I returned to a vastly different place," Pederson says. "We always had some strong leadership. We all knew what was expected, what the next day held. All of a sudden I felt like we were almost going through the motions and hoping everything was going to be fine. 'If we don't change anything, maybe we will wake up and the program will be fabulous.' I just didn't see it. I just didn't see that we were on a strong path. A lot of it was gut feel."

Pederson hurt his case when he conducted a secretive job search that stretched to six weeks. One top candidate (Miami Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt) after another (Arkansas coach Houston Nutt) after another (Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer) said no. The Huskers have a streak of 42 consecutive winning regular seasons and 35 consecutive bowl games. Pederson decided that the path back to the elite is via the West Coast.

"I believe we've got a system from professional football that is attractive to a receiver, a running back, a quarterback," Callahan says. "That's centered around their ability to do those types of things that we're asking them. To be able to get the great [skill players], you've got to have a system that attracts them to your university."

Back To The Beginning
Callahan got his break with Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin in 1990, where Alvarez took over a hapless program and transformed it into a Big Ten Conference champion in four seasons. Alvarez met Callahan on the recruiting trail in the mid-1980s.

"He was tenacious, very thorough and very professional," Alvarez says. "In recruiting, you have to be a self-starter. You have to have pride. You have to have a work ethic, because you can get away with whatever you want to get away with. The guys who are recruiting know the guys who are recruiting, and you know the ones who are drinking all night, chasing all night, sleeping until 11 the next day, going to two schools and that's it."

Callahan came to be known as one of the best recruiters in the nation, perhaps because Wisconsin is to speed what Nebraska is to surfing. When Alvarez took over at Wisconsin, he sized up his recruiting challenge.

"Our heart and soul may come from Wisconsin," Alvarez said then, "but our hands and feet had better come from somewhere else."

Callahan understands the parallel in installing the West Coast offense in the heartland. But he doesn't believe the on-field changes pose a big problem. The coach discovered early in his tenure, however, that he must be careful in how he makes them. When Callahan announced a few weeks after his hiring that there would no longer be an open-door policy for walk-ons, the state reacted as if he had forsworn eating meat.

Hold on, Callahan said. He is the father of a walk-on. The oldest of his four children, Brian, is a quarterback at UCLA.

"We're not trying to take away the identification of a young man and his hometown with Nebraska," he says. "All we're trying to do is be more select. We welcome walk-ons. We want them in our program. They add to our program. But I think things got misconstrued. We want the numbers to be more manageable."

The Husker roster, instead of being 170, will be closer to 130. But that's where the makeover stopped. The first-team defense will continue to be known as the Blackshirts, and the tailback will still be an I-back.

"The culture is going to change, but not the tradition," Callahan says. "I'm very respectful of what the university's coaches have accomplished here, very respectful."

When Callahan wanted to express an interest in the Nebraska job, he called Alvarez, a Husker linebacker under Devaney in the 1960s. That put the Wisconsin coach in an emotional bind. One of his best friends is his college teammate, Frank Solich.

"I love my university. I love my alma mater. I'm indebted to them," Alvarez says. "That school did so much for me. Frank is a very close friend. I was very upset because a friend of mine was hurt. Billy called me. He had heard from Pederson and wanted to know would I call to recommend him. I owe that to Billy and I owe that to my alma mater. I wasn't pleased with what Steve did but I had an obligation."

"Barry's great," Pederson says. "Barry's a Nebraska guy."

So too, now, is his protégé. In an effort at team-building, Callahan has taken the Huskers bowling. This week, the coaches will battle the players in softball, using the 16-inch ball favored in Callahan's hometown. In an era when many coaches consider themselves CEOs, Callahan still favors a blue collar. He works with the offensive linemen. He eyeballs the passing drills. He installs the new system himself, in meetings attended by the entire offense.

"I'm a firm believer," Callahan says, "that you have to put plays in with one voice from the man in charge. This is unique. I've never done this before."

There's a lot of that going around. "I don't know if it's quite second nature," said Anderson, the 6-foot-1, 295-pound senior guard, of the new scheme. "We're always getting better. If you had seen us at the first of spring…"

The rules have changed in Nebraska. Get ready to see pigs fly.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel's Mailbag.