Coaching visits guided by unwritten protocol

Coaches turn to each other for everything from schemes to drills. In fact, coaches visiting coaches is a long-standing tradition, writes Ivan Maisel.

Updated: May 26, 2006, 11:44 AM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Before you hitch a ride with Bob Davie on his Football 101 trek from campus to campus, there are a few things to keep in mind about coaches visiting coaches. The first is that such visits are as old as the game itself.

No one knows the first time one coach took off in the spring to learn from another. But any history book or biography from the old days mentions them. One example: After Stanford rushed for 383 yards and whipped Army 26-0 at Yankee Stadium in the final game of the 1928 season, Army assistant coaches Ralph Sasse and Harry Ellinger traveled across the continent to Palo Alto, Calif., to learn the double-wing formation from legendary Stanford coach Pop Warner.

Bobby Bowden
FSU coach Bobby Bowden's spring visits have included trips to see Bear Bryant and Vince Lombardi.
In the days when dollars were tight and time plentiful -- the opposite of today -- coaches spent weeks making trips. Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said that in the 1960s, he and his fellow coaches would pile in the car and hop from campus to campus, NFL camp to NFL camp.

Some four decades before he entered the College Football Hall of Fame, Bowden visited the coaching icons of a previous generation: Bear Bryant at Alabama. Forest Evashevski at Iowa. Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns. Don Shula of the Baltimore Colts. Even the legendary Vince Lombardi. Bowden would drive from Tallahassee, where he worked as an assistant for Bill Peterson, all the way to Green Bay, Wis., where a fellow Birmingham native, Bart Starr, played quarterback.

"I had breakfast with Lombardi one time," Bowden said. "During two-a-days, they put us in rooms in the dorm. I got up early and go down to breakfast. The only guy down there would be coach Lombardi. He was early. The other guys would come down 30-40 minutes later. I would say if breakfast was from 7-8:30, I was there at 7, and he was, too. Being on a training table, they had all kind of food in the world. Oh man, it was like Santa Claus. I got eggs, bacon, fruit. I walked over and sat down by him. He looked at me and said, 'You gon' eat all that?'

"I said, 'I am now!'" Bowden recalled, laughing. "That way he sat and looked, I had no choice."

That brings to mind manners of a different sort. There is an unwritten protocol to coaches' visits.

"I guess we've had as many visitors as any school in the country," said Bowden, on the verge of his 31st season as the Seminoles' head coach. "Our only limitation is, if you're on our schedule, you're not invited."

Or, in the case of Shane Beamer, if your dad is on the schedule, you're not invited. When Beamer, now an assistant at Mississippi State, was a graduate assistant at Tennessee in the spring of 2003, he went with several Vols coaches to Texas A&M. When coach Dennis Franchione walked into the room and saw Beamer there, he asked him to leave.

The coaches from both staffs laughed. That fall, the Aggies would play Virginia Tech, coached by Beamer's father, Frank.

The only one not laughing was Fran. "I'm serious," he said. "You'll have to leave."

Shane got up and drove back to Houston.

And if you are invited, what you learn you keep to yourself.

Rich Rodriguez
AP PhotoWVU's Rich Rodriguez hosted plenty of coaches this spring.
"Sometimes you take your films," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Any school can get that, really. But you ask [your host], don't send it out to any of our opponents. If we talk about certain things, don't share it with anyone we play. That's standard protocol."

Coaches who travel also expect time with their hosts.

"If you go and just watch practice, it's not going to be worth it," Connecticut coach Randy Edsall said. "My offensive coaches went down to Clemson. [Huskies offensive coordinator] Rob Ambrose knows [Tigers offensive coordinator] Rob Spence. They were able to go down there and get good information. You got to go where you have relationships with people."

Edsall said he had been turned down only once. When he first got to Connecticut in 1999, he wanted to visit the New York Jets camp. Head coach Pete Carroll told him no, because Edsall had been an assistant for then-Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin, and Carroll didn't want to risk that any information would trickle down to an AFC rival. Edsall understood.

"When I was with Tom, we never allowed other people to come in," Edsall said.

Now that Carroll is at USC, he allows no outside coaches to visit. Not even legends.

"I talked to Pete a couple of years ago," Bowden said. "I said, 'I sure would like to go out there and talk to Norm Chow. He said, 'We don't do that.'"

A lot of times, coaches aren't looking for plays or formations. They may be in search of something as basic as how a practice is run, or how a skill is taught. Hall of Fame coach Red Blaik wrote in his book "You Have to Pay the Price" that when he coached at Dartmouth, he invited Pittsburgh coach Jock Sutherland to Hanover "because I admired his fetish for detail and fundamentals." Coaches today are looking for the same thing. Rodriguez said, "Last year, we got a drill on how to get off a block and make a tackle from Georgia and we used it. We showed it to Florida and they may run it."

Wait a minute. Florida and Georgia are rivals.

"Drills, coaches don't worry about," Rodriguez said. "We didn't talk about plays."

That brings up a key point in the whole visiting business. You never know when this year's friend will become an opponent. One former visitor to Florida State, Bowden said, is Urban Meyer, now the coach at archrival Florida.

Chris Livingston/Icon SMIUrban Meyer visited Florida State and Bobby Bowden until he became the coach at archrival Florida.
"You always hold something back," Rodriguez said. "You always have a little something you talk about but you don't talk about the details. … I just got back from visiting Urban Meyer. He was here last year. We had a 'home-and-home' without having to play each other. My wife said, 'How can you do that? What happens if you have to play him?' I said, 'If we're playing them, it's a pretty good bowl.'"

The most famous coaching visit took place in the summer of 1971, when Bryant decided to switch to the wishbone offense. Bryant had never been shy about asking coaches for help. When he took the Kentucky job in 1946, he asked his friend and Southeastern Conference competitor, Bobby Dodd of Georgia Tech, to come to Lexington and install the T formation for the Wildcats.

After Alabama endured consecutive six-win seasons in 1969-70, Bryant decided to make a change. He phoned his good friend Darrell Royal, who had won back-to-back national championships at Texas with the newfangled offense created by his assistant, Emory Bellard. Bryant made a cloak-and-dagger trip to Austin for a tutorial. Then he brought Royal, Bellard and other Texas coaches to Tuscaloosa.

"I spent four or five days with his staff in Tuscaloosa," Bellard said. "Darrell and I were supposed to speak at their high school clinic. Bear had set it up. I met with his entire staff. I never saw any players. They put it in and upset USC."

In the 1971 season opener, Alabama scored 17 first-half points against a confused Southern California defense, and held on for a 17-10 victory on the road against the No. 5 Trojans. The Crimson Tide went on to an 11-1 record, and used the wishbone for the remainder of Bryant's career, winning three national championships.

Bellard went 85-69 in 14 seasons as a head coach at Texas A&M (1972-78) and Mississippi State (1979-85). He remains best known as the wizard of the wishbone.

One thing you can guarantee about coaches: If you win, other coaches will come find you. Take this spring. In the wake of West Virginia's 11-1 finish and Sugar Bowl upset of Georgia, coaches from Penn State, Ohio State, California, Memphis and Bowling Green went to Morgantown.

"That's kind of neat," Mountaineers coach Rich Rodriguez said. "It's a cheaper way for us to not have to go out there. We don't let them come to campus without us asking them a few questions."

During Bellard's final three seasons on Royal's staff, the coaches never stopped coming to Austin to learn from him.

"I tell you what," Bellard said. "It was unbelievable the number of people that came to our spring drills, coaches from all over the United States at all levels. It was almost coaching chaos. It really was. Oh, yeah, they got in the way."

Darrell Royal and Chuck Fairbanks
AP PhotoTexas' Darrell Royal (left) traded wishbone secrets with OU's Chuck Fairbanks.
Bellard described Royal as the original open-source software. Pepper Rodgers came in from UCLA. A coach from Mexico. A coach from Japan. A Pop Warner coach from Brooklyn. Royal's edict was to help everyone. Royal said yes even to teams Texas played. Even to the team on the other side of the Red River.

"Oklahoma was going through tough times," said Bellard, who lives in Georgetown, Texas, north of Austin. "Chuck Fairbanks was under a little bit of pressure. Darrell told me one day, 'Barry Switzer is going to be calling you. Chuck is in a tough position. I want to help him.'

"I said, 'Darrell, you've got to be kidding!'

"He said, 'No, we need to help him.'

"Barry was calling me two or three times a week. Of course, we were playing them. All of a sudden, they had so much speed it was hard for us to catch them."

Oklahoma won two national championships. What's worse, Royal never beat the Sooners again (0-5-1) before he retired in 1976.

"Darrell called me last night," Bellard said Friday. "He said, 'If I had to do it again, I probably wouldn't be quite so generous.'"

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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