June 6, 2006

Information exchange: Coaches not afraid to share

The most productive days of Penn State's 2005 season might have been spent in Austin, Texas, in February.

That's when Nittany Lions offensive coordinator Galen Hall visited old friend Greg Davis, his counterpart for the Longhorns.

Hall's desire was to tweak his offense to better utilize quarterback-to-be Michael Robinson, a player who also had dabbled at wide receiver, running back and punt returner in his time in Happy Valley. There was no question about Robinson's athletic ability. There were questions about how to get the most out of it.

That's where Davis entered the picture. His QB, Vince Young, was fresh off an MVP performance in the Rose Bowl against Michigan. Young rushed for 192 yards and four touchdowns and passed for 180 yards and another TD.

"When Penn State called, (Hall) said, 'We have an athletic quarterback that's going to take over. We'd like to see what you're doing with Vince,' " Davis said.

Penn State coaches spent four days in Austin, learning the ins and outs of the Longhorns' zone-read offense while trading ideas with the Texas staff.

The exchange paid off. Robinson became the Big Ten coaches' offensive player of the year after leading the Nittany Lions to an 11-1 record while passing for 2,350 yards and running for 806.

Penn State coaches weren't the only ones to visit Austin last season, but they were the most high-profile example of coaches helping coaches.

From signing day in February through the start of summer vacation, college coaches often visit other campuses or NFL teams with notebooks in hand, ready to learn the tricks of the trade from their competition.

"It's not any different than any other profession," said South Florida coach Jim Leavitt, whose staff was among those to visit Texas last season. "There's always an exchange of ideas."

The flow of information involves everything from practice schedules to spread-option offenses.

Ideas to good use
Penn State offensive coordinator Galen Hall visted Texas before the 2005 season for ideas on how to better use dual-threat quarterback Michael Robinson. Robinson's numbers in 2005 compared to those in the first 3 years of his career:
Year Pass Rush Total TDs
2005 2,350 806 3,156 28
2004 170 172 342 1
2003 892 396 1,288 8
2002 119 263 382 6
"You visit on everything – how you much hit in spring training, how much do you scrimmage, to the actual nuts and bolts of the zone read, how do you block this run and that run," Davis said.

In preparing for Young's arrival, Davis said the Longhorns did not visit other campuses but did "a massive amount of research" to adapt the offense to Young's talents. The Texas staff studied Rich Rodriguez's spread offense at Clemson and West Virginia on film when Young enrolled in 2002.

After Young's first full-year as a starter in 2004, the Texas staff invited Indianapolis Colts quarterbacks coach Tim Caldwell to discuss play-action passing and using three wide receiver sets.

In turn, Texas shared some of its findings with other college coaches.

Over the last two seasons, Texas has served as host to about a dozen college staffs. They have come from all over –Texas State and Stephen F. Austin to LSU, Tennessee, Maryland and Michigan. (The Wolverines visited after Texas defeated them in the 2005 Rose Bowl.)

The Longhorns aren't alone. West Virginia's Rodriguez and Florida's Urban Meyer have been popular hosts in recent years as well.

Five Division I-A coaching staffs and several Division I-AA staffs visited West Virginia this offseason for a seminar on the spread offense that turned the Mountaineers into an 11-1 team last year.

Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen blended ideas culled from visits to Louisville, Northwestern, Purdue and West Virginia before he took over at Bowling Green in 2001. Meyer took the system to Utah, and in 2004, the Utes were 12-0 and sent quarterback Alex Smith to the NFL as the No. 1 overall draft pick.

By the time he was hired at Florida in 2005, assistants from Texas A&M and Virginia Tech visited Gainesville to pick up on the spread-option offense.

Although Meyer has participated in the practice on both ends, the exchange of ideas can be puzzling.

"The more I think about it, it's bizarre," Meyer said. "You work so hard – like with the spread offense, that's trial-tested. You fail before you succeed. All of the sudden, I listen to one of my coaches say, 'It took us five years to figure this out, and by the way, here it is.' "

Just because coaches freely share ideas, it's not a free-for-all on their playbooks.

Coaches rarely, if ever, will invite staffs from schools in the same conference or teams they know they will play in the next few years. Even coaching staffs that exchange ideas will not share everything.

Even if they did, these offseason sessions don't take the place of coaches coming up with new ideas on their own, said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, who could recall 15 to 20 coaching staffs visiting him at previous jobs.

"If you go somewhere, they're going to tell you some things but not everything," Tuberville said. "Most everything that you're going to learn that's going to benefit you is going to come from you studying. They're not going to give you those things. You're going to have to figure them out on your own."

The amount of access varies from school to school. Texas, for example, allows staffs to observe spring practice and will take one-on-one time for question-and-answer sessions. Other staffs will open only a portion of spring practice or provide no access at all.

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, despite requests from other coaches to explore his offense, is among those who'd rather keep his ideas to himself.

"We've had a few that want to come visit, but what we say is we'll provide some tape, you can watch tape," Spurrier said. "As coaches, we don't sit down and go over every little detail with them. I think that's the way it should be everywhere."

That doesn't mean Spurrier is not looking elsewhere for inspiration. Like many coaches, he will often meet with NFL coaches during the offseason.

With game film readily available for both NFL and college games, there are few secrets on game day.

"Everybody copies everybody," said Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who was the offensive coordinator at Southern California, N.C. State and BYU. "I did a lot of that in college. That's just part of the deal."

This spring, though, Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter brought in an NFL coach to discuss ideas that can't be found on game tape.

The Sun Devils coach met with the Colts' Caldwell in Tempe, Ariz., for a couple of days. Instead of talking about X's and O's, they discussed teaching philosophies.

"What separates teams is how you teach them," Koetter said. "How does Jim Caldwell teach Peyton Manning? Those are the details that are really important."

Although coaches don't rely solely on these offseason clinics for fresh ideas, even one piece of new information can make a big difference.

"I love to hear other people's ideas," Koetter said. "If they give us 20 ideas, you might take one or two, and if one or two makes you better, then it's worth it."


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