Starting from scratch paper
Two coaches for the developing Georgia State program talk playbooks and identity.
This story originally appeared in the June 1, 2009 issue of ESPN The Magazine. It is part of an ongoing series regarding the building of Georgia State's football program, the archives of which you can access here.
John Bond really doesn't want a playbook, something that could be stolen or lost. He's more comfortable with his pile of scrap paper and napkins, his doodles and graphs. And Georgia State's 46 year-old offensive coordinator would rather not talk about his schemes at all, to be honest. He doesn't want to give anyone an edge.
John Thompson, GSU's 53 year-old defensive coordinator, is way different. He loves the organization and presence of a physical playbook; he recently prepared six of them, all now stacked neatly in his office, each about a different aspect of defense. He loves sharing specific plays and asking other coaches why something is how it is. As he sees it, there just aren't many secrets when you're a football coach. "That's just the way coaching works," he says.
Both men are working on the most intriguing task of their careers: They must create something from nothing; they have to give their team an identity. Georgia State is 15 months away from kicking off its very first football game as an independent, but before the FCS Panthers can snap a ball or intercept a pass, before the practice field takes its rectangular shape out of the dirt, this start-up team needs the most important things it will ever have besides players and coaches: an offense and a defense.
During a long morning meeting in mid-February, as an offensive assistant coach speaks, Bond lowers his pen and starts to draw. Like a distracted student in the back of class, his eyes lock on the blank margins of the memo in front of him. His mouth makes one of those discreet smirks that are the hallmark of a person's nearing a breakthrough. His pen traces circles in a row, a vertical line cutting through each one at an angle -- the sketch of an offensive play that Bond has just imagined. The other assistant keeps talking.
Bond has been doodling. A lot. On napkins, discarded fax paper, travel itineraries; in his office, in meetings, at restaurants, at home. Although he hates the idea of containing his offense in a binder, the reality is that at every school Bond has ever coached -- from Army to Northern Illinois to, most recently, Georgia Tech -- he's built merciless rushing attacks using actual playbooks. And he has to have this one completed by early this summer. (Head coach Bill Curry gave him a deadline of June 12.) So Bond needs something to put in it. Like, you know, plays, verbiage, formations, even how far away the offense will circle up for the huddle (three yards sounded about right). It is a team effort that includes line coach Mike Riddle and assistant head coach George Pugh. But really, everything starts in Bond's head.
On this, the first day ever of meetings between the three coaches, Bond's offense sits in two semi-arranged paper piles. One is a stack of his original drawings; the other is computer renderings of those drawings. Bond has a sheet in front of him labeled "Personnel Groupings." In honor of Georgia State's mascot, he has named the formations after different types of cats: Panther (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB); Lion (2 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB); Cheetah (4 WR, 0 TE, 1 RB); Puma (5 WR, 0 TE, 0 RB); Tiger (3 WR, 0 TE, 2 RB); Wildcat (1 WR, 2 TE, 2 RB).
Bond holds court at the front of the room, marking vigorously with blue marker on the huge dry-erase board as the assistants and an intern listen. He then asks Riddle and Pugh how they feel about the cat names, versus, say, numerical identifications like "deuce" or "11." This is the very first materialization of an offense at a school that's never had a football team. Pugh and Riddle ask if cat names will be harder to remember than numbers. "We want to do everything we can that takes away their having to think," Riddle says.
"All right, that's fine," Bond says. "We'll just call that stuff by number. Why memorize 'Panther' when all you have to say is '11'?"
Bond, whose family wanted to stay in Atlanta after he left Georgia Tech in late 2007, was an easy hire for Coach Curry. He interviewed on Curry's first day on campus, this past July 1, and the two quickly clicked, discussing exactly what they thought the offense should be. Curry also said flat out that he wanted Bond to create the system. "We are in lockstep," Bond says. "He told me we want to be tough, physical and, theoretically, 50/50 run/pass. The highest-scoring teams do both well. We'd like to be athletic, as opposed to big, up front. We want to run some option, to give our linemen a chance, because they're going to have to play as freshmen. What we call it or how we do it…it's not a big deal to Coach. He trusts me."
So what will the team's identity be? Spread? Shotgun? Some Wildcat? You'll have to wait for the Panthers' first game, in September 2010, to find out. "I don't really want anyone seeing what we're trying to do," he says. "Those things can get out somehow. I don't like to give anything away."
Just down the hall from Bond, one man holds a clinic on how to create a defense. His 30-year coaching life has prepared him for this moment. He has filled two dry-erase boards with meticulous and artistic diagrams -- names, plays and details learned at all eight career stops. He opines like a philosopher who is skilled in the polemics of theory.
Thompson, who's led defenses at Arkansas, Florida, Ole Miss and South Carolina, travels the room. He thrusts his arms toward the board, which is so covered, there isn't room for another word. "Man, this is fun," he says.
Chris Ward, the defensive line coach, and Anthony Midget, the defensive backs coach, listen. In front of them sit six binders, all 300-plus pages, all written by Thompson, all assigned reading from their boss. There are no Post-it drawings here. The titles: Multiple Blitz System (two volumes), Defensive Backs & Coverages, Linebackers, Multiple Fronts System and Gameplanning. In Blitz, Thompson has incorporated schemes and ideas from every place he coached that have influenced him. "Jimmy Johnson and Butch Davis and the attack 4-3…Buddy -Ryan's 46… " He rattles them off. Thompson knows defenses, has memorized them, can recite a year and a particular style and whom he learned it from.
"Get it from one person, it's stealing," he jokes. "From two or three, it's research."
After being fired along with the rest of Ed Orgeron's Ole Miss staff, Thompson had free time last spring. He took his two sons to middle school, hit golf balls. "Tried to be a good daddy," he says. He also worked hard on these books. He wanted to be exceptionally organized and believed that completing his library would help him land another job. By summer, he knew the clerks at Oxford's Sir Speedy office supply store by name. Every Saturday last fall, Thompson recorded Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida -- as many big games as he could. On Sundays he'd watch them, stop them, rewind and stop them again, taking notes. As he'd do later at his GSU meetings, he chewed gum the whole time.
Thompson first met Curry in 1987, when Curry was Bama's boss and Thompson his linebackers coach. He says his GSU interview entailed "what's important about coaching. I told Coach Curry how last spring all I did was work on those playbooks. That really interested him."
Curry, a 66-year-old football scholar himself who built a rep on forging defenses, references Thompson's books and energy as key reasons he hired him last summer. Since then, he hasn't given Thompson much direction. "Some guys hire you and say, 'I want you to do this under these guidelines,' " Thompson says. "Some just say, 'Run it.' Coach Curry told me to run it."
Poring over the binders, Midget and Ward help Thompson decide on a defensive approach. They decide that, as a team, they should be unpredictable and proactive. "Why react to the offense? Make the O react to you," Thompson says. "Take the coaches out of it, make it a players' game, and make them play. Let's be aggressive -- sometimes the illusion of a blitz is as good as a blitz."
The room smells of markers and politics. Written on the board are the names of presidents. During Barack Obama's first month in office, the coaches had been having impassioned political debates. To tap into that same energy, Thompson picked presidents for his package names. "Lincoln" is an Under Man Free coverage; "Reagan" is Under 8; "Clinton," Over 3 Buzz; "Kennedy" is Over 3Y; "Obama" is Over 8.
At the end of the meeting, Midget wonders aloud, "I want to see if the Democratic defenses hold up better." The men joke about the presidential sets, but the nicknames have great significance. They are the first steps to a finished product, one whole side of a team.