Jeff Pearlman

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Jim Colletto

#87
He was a coach with the Ravens when they reached the Super Bowl. He was a coach with Purdue when the team won one game. The ups and downs of a grid life. POSTED January 30, 2013

The other day, when I told my friend that the upcoming Quaz would be the former Ravens offensive line coach, he said, “How the hell do you get such random people?”

I laughed. Generally, the answer comes down to Facebook or Twitter or a friend or a friend or a friend. In the case of Jim Colletto, this week’s Quaz, however, it comes down to a simple letter.

Toward the end of last year, after I wrote a piece for CNN.com about Bobby Petrino being college football’s biggest slime, Colletto e-mailed me a friendly note, saying he agreed 100 percent with my take. He identified himself as a “former football coach”—which led to me Googling his name and finding this. In short, Colletto is a “former football coach” like Pam Dawber was a mere character actress (OK, Pam Dawber is a mere character actress. But you get the idea). Ever since leaving UCLA in 1965, he has held one esteemed position after another—head coach at Cal State Fullerton and Purdue; Notre Dame offensive coordinator; offensive line coach for UCLA and the Detroit Lions and, in 2000, the Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens.

Here, Jim tells what it’s like to prepare for the biggest game in professional sports; how it feels to never have a winning season as a head coach; why recruiting isn’t as bad as it seems and why Orlando Bobo was no, well, bobo.

Jim loves warm spring days, Orlando Pace and the sound of footballs flinging through the air. He’s a good man, and I’m honored to welcome him to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Jim, you were a coach with the Ravens the last time they reached the Super Bowl. How big is week-of preparation in winning or losing the game? What I mean is, do you think it makes a difference what the Ravens and 49ers do in the week (or two weeks) up to the game? Why? Or why not?

JIM COLLETTO: Yes, it makes a difference. In my mind it may help the defense more than the offense. Defensive football has a lot to do with visual recognition of plays and the more you can look at them; it helps with the proper reactions you want to the particular play. With 49ers’ running some of the Pistol offense that the quarterback ran in college (that you do not see much in pro football), it may help with defensive schemes vs. those plays. It still requires execution and  the 49ers can run it faster than you can simulate in practice. From an offensive standpoint, teams may add a few wrinkles not seen in the regular season or playoff games. But generally offenses stay with the things that made them successful. As offensive coaches you have to fight the urge to add too much new stuff. The old adages are true—those who don’t turn the ball over, and don’t give up big plays on defense, and make big plays on offense … will win the game. Also, as with the Ravens’ win in 2000, special teams will play a big role. The two-week time period helps the players recover to some degree from the long haul the NFL season demands. You may see some new formations, new motions or different ways to run the basic plays that have carried both teams through the 16 games plus playoffs.

J.P.: Jim, you’ve been involved in football for a long time. You were a defensive back and fullback at UCLA. You were the head coach at Cal State Fullerton and Purdue, and you’ve been in assistant in both college and the NFL. So I’m fascinated to say to you that, to be blunt, I don’t want my coach to play tackle football. I think it’s dangerous, and I see no need to subject him to genuine physical harm and trauma when dozens of other sports exist. Jim, please tell me why I’m wrong. Or right.

J.C.: I would not let a boy play tackle football until he was 12-years old. The game, if taught correctly, has an element of risk but in my mind is safe and extremely worthwhile to play. The key is knowing how the coaches coach the kids and their knowledge of football skills. You can never take the risk of injury out of the game, but all sports have an element of risk. The kids must have good equipment, especially the helmet! The coaches must be good teachers with positive reinforcement and have a well-thought-out program of strength development—especially in the area of the neck and shoulders. I am not a big fan of Pop Warner or Pee Wee football, as too many of the coaches do not know what there are doing. The game has many positive things that young kids can learn early in life that go with them the rest of their lives. But it is not an easy game and is not for everyone.

J.P.: Jim, here’s what I know. You were born in San Francisco, attended high school in Monterey, played baseball and football at UCLA. But where, specifically, did your love for sports come from? When did you first realize, “Hey, I’m awfully good at this stuff”? Was there a moment? An event?

J.C.: My Dad was a great high school player at Monterey High School and all of his six brothers were athletes so I just started playing as early as I can remember. We did not have Pee Wee football in those days so I played flag football and Little League baseball.

J.P.: Ray Lewis’ amazing career is coming to an end. You were with the Ravens when he was there. What are your memories of him? And do you understand people being able to move past the incident he was involved in? Or is it something we should continue to dwell upon? Something not worth forgiving?

J.C.: Ray Lewis was—and is—a tremendous leader for the entire Ravens team. He comes to play every week. The team responds to his enjoyment of just playing the game. All out, every snap, from start to finish. I have great respect for Ray and he has to be one of the great players to have ever played pro football. I do not know all the facts of the past incident. I just know what I saw as Ray moved on and set an example for those veterans, rookies—and to the community at large. He showed what a dedicated professional can accomplish. Dwelling on the past, in my mind, serves no purpose.

J.P.: I don’t mean to stir bad memories, but I have to ask: In 1993 you coached the Purdue Boilermakers to a 1-10 record and 10th place finish in the Big Ten. I’ve never coached, so I wonder: What does that feel like? Literally, how is it for a coach when the losses pile up, and nothing can be done? Are you helpless? Resigned? Inanely optimistic? And what do you, specifically, recall from that season?

J.C.: It was a tough year as we ended up playing the nation’s toughest schedule, with the Big Ten’s youngest team, and one that had an unusual number of injuries. You keep working to improve the players you have, and there is always another game or season around the corner. We had some good young players who expected the coaches to lead them through tough times. We ended up losing our last game against Indiana on the road in a close game against a good team, and that gave us a good feeling looking toward the next season. At Notre Dame in my first season as offensive coordinator, we were 1-4 after five games and everyone was on my case big time. You have got to hang tough and do the things you believe in. We won six of the next seven games and got to a bowl. You cannot flinch as a coach in this game.

J.P.: Along those same lines, in 2000 you were the offensive line coach for the Ravens. What does it feel like—really, really feel like—to win a Super Bowl? And what specific memories stand out from the Super Bowl win over the Giants?

J.C.: The Super Bowl is a fantastic experience. When we won, you literally feel like you are on top of the world. It is such a tough road to get to the game, when you win you just feel like you have accomplished something very special. I played on a Rose Bowl championship team; as the offensive coordinator at Arizona State we beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl: and the Super Bowl win—well, the feelings were very similar. You did your job the best you could and it paid off. In football it does not always happen that way. The punt return and kickoff return for touchdowns stand out and walking off the field after the awarding of the Lombardi trophy took place. Seeing Art Modell in the locker room with the trophy was simply the best.

J.P.: I’ve never understood why any normal human being would want to be a college coach. You’re 40 … 45 … 50—practically begging 18-year-old snot nosed kids to come to your school. Is recruiting as awful as I imagine? And why did you coach college? What was it about for you?

J.C.: Recruiting has changed greatly over the years. When I started you recruited all the way into May and were allowed to entertain the prospect and his parents with dinners and attendance at other athletic events. Everyone tried to do more than the other and it became quite expensive and time consuming. Today the time is much shorter ( first week in February), paid visits to a college are limited to five during an certain time period and the entertainment expenses have been reduced. Recruiting lasts all year long now in regards to getting kids interested in your school. The emphasis on junior recruiting and getting high school juniors to commit to your school has increased. Schools have summer camps that invite prospects to attend, so the coaches can look at them and the prospect can see the school. The whole process has been accelerated. The limit on scholarships that can be given has been reduced and that has made more players available to all schools that give grants. Recruiting is easier depending on the school you represent. It was much easier at Notre Dame, Ohio State, UCL—because of the star power of those types of schools. Most top high school players would be interested in your sales pitch, attending your summer camp, etc. But if  a coaching staff works hard enough and does a good evaluation of an athlete academically and athletically, there are enough good student athletes to build a program. It is time consuming, and it can be frustrating, but it is so much better now than it was years ago. Some kids can be a pain but for the most part in my experience the kids have been fun to talk to and recruit. You are providing quite an opportunity to them and I think they understand that. I enjoyed college football because you can watch players grow in maturity, skill level … and becoming a productive person. You have a hand in that and that is very worthwhile. The joy on their faces when they achieve a big win, their sense of accomplishment when the graduate (and many do graduate), or being drafted to play in the NFL gives the coach a sense that he has contributed to the success of that team or individual. Many, as the years pass, become life-long friends who appreciated what you did for them.

J.P.: Jim, I mean no disrespect … at all. Like zero. You’ve had a long and productive and fascinating career. But in 11 seasons as a college head coach you never went .500 or better. I’m a fan of self-reflection, so I wonder, looking back: Do you blame yourself? The talent you had? Were you simply a guy who was a better position coach than head coach? And do you think a Bill Parcells or Tom Landry or Chuck Noll could have won with the pieces you had? Is there a difference between the OK coach and the great one?

J.C.: This is an area that I am glad to talk about. Could Parcells, Landry, Noll … win with the pieces I had? The direct answer is—No! The sports media puts to much emphasis on just win and losses without knowing the environment you coach in, the talent level of the players you have, the morale in the program and the obstacles you have to overcome. There are a lot of excellent coaches out there and a large part of their success deals with talent level of the the players they coach. Coaching football is not rocket science. Look at the Washington Redskins and how two rookies have changed their season. There were the same coaches who, over the last two seasons, could not win many games.

Here is another example of what talent level can mean to wins and losses: As a coordinator at Arizona State, Notre Dame, and Ohio State, the record of those teams was 60-31-4. As coordinator at Purdue ( I acted as offensive coordinator when I was also the head coach), plus three other seasons, was 34-62-4. Same basic offense, same basic plays. When I took the job at Cal State Fullerton, I was 29 and Fullerton was moving from Division II to Division I in football. I had come from the University of the Pacific, and we had some real good teams. We were starting at the bottom, with limited resources and few legitimate Division I players. When we traveled to road games we had players staying four to a room. I paid for pre-game meals out of own pocket. We had a large fundraising operation run by the athletic department so that the program could function. That first year we lost to Southern Mississippi 70-0 and the next week beat Cal State Northridge, 14-0, so you can see the different level that the program was on. We gradually built the program, little by little. It would take a novel to explain all that we did. Each year we got a little better and in 1977 and 1978 we became a pretty competitive team. We got two players who left another program and in 1978 we were fourth in rushing in the NCAA and seventh in total offense. Our running back ended up as the second leading rusher in the NCAA with more than 1,700 yards. We beat Pacific, Long Beach State, Fresno State and lost to San Jose State when we had a holding penalty on the goal line that cost us the potential winning touchdown. It was the best Fullerton had ever done in Division I football. In 1979 we had two good young quarterbacks, but both got injured and we played the last game with the brother of our quarterback coach who was just a student at the school. We gave Long Beach State a hellva game.That was it for me but we had brought the program from nothing to something. The program went forward and had a couple of great seasons when they had a great quarterback—then it slipped back into the doldrums and eventually they dropped football.

Was it a mistake to go there? Probably, but at 29 you thought you were going to be the next Knute Rockne. I did learn a lot about being a head coach. One, you better have good players or the ability to get them; be able to play good defense and have a few breaks go your way, and you must have a quality coaching staff. When I went to Purdue they had eight losing seasons out of the last nine. The only winning season was 1984 and I was the offensive coordinator. We beat Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio St that year. Only one other team had managed to do that and that was Michigan State and they did it twice. Jim Everrett was our quarterback and he went on to a good NFL career. Kevin Sumlin, the coach at Texas A&M, was on that team. We ended up with a 7-5 record, losing to Virginia Tech in the Peach Bowl. The year before I went to Purdue, I was at Ohio State and we beat them, 42-2. Fred Akers had been the head coach (quite successful at Texas) and his last two seasons at Purdue were 3-8 and 2-9. Probably not a smart move on my part. Recruiting was poor and the reputation of the program around the Midwest was terrible. The first year we go 4-7, miss a chip shot field goal to beat a good Indiana team that played in a bowl … that would have put us at 5-6. The next year was 4-7 again with some narrow losses. Then we hit the 1-10 year. We were just starting to make some progress in recruiting and a lot of young players had to play. One thing that hurts your record at Purdue is beating Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Notre Dame. I was 1-16 against those schools. We had two close games with Notre Dame, one with Penn State, beat Michigan once. Since 1997 thru 2012, Purdue’s record against those teams is 13-36. You can see the problem. I was 20-27-3 against all the other teams. Split games with North Carolina State, California and Virginia. Played Wisconsin six times; we won two, lost three and tied one. We beat every team in the Big Ten (other than the ones mentioned) at least once. We lost 10 games by four points or less. You margin for error is so small; those other teams have good coaches to who are trying to win and you are not going to out-recruit Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame or even Nebraska.

Did I make some mistakes? Yes. Where all the play calls great? No. But we made Purdue competitive again. I think we had 10 or 11 pro prospects when Joe Tiller took over. Matt Light, Roosevelt Colvin, Mike Alstott, Chike Okeafor are names you might know. Coach Tiller did a great job with the players he inherited but there were some good ones there. We just never could recruit the great defensive lineman to get us over the hump. As you can see the Purdue program tailed off and again they have hired a new coach. I wish him the best. It is an outstanding school.

I do not know what a great coach is—every situation is different. Because you have won somewhere does not guarantee that you will win at the next place. I know this: the coach who has the best players year in and year out and makes average players into good ones will be successful. He must coach them into being a good team and that is where the the coach earns his reputation. You could write a book on this topic.

J.P.: You spent two seasons (1997-98) as the Notre Dame offensive coordinator. You saw how the school worked, how the athletic department worked. Why, in your opinion, did the Irish spend much of the past two decades lathered in mediocrity? And how do you explain their return to glory?

J.C.: I do not know if has been two decades but I know when we played them when I was at Purdue in the early 1990s they were pretty good. In 1998 we were 9-1 going into the USC game and had to play the game with a freshmen quarterback due to an injury to our starter, Jerious Jackson. We lost to Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl, 35-28, with Jackson playing on one one leg. That was a very good team and should have played in a BCS bowl if the quarterback had not gotten hurt. We lost to a very average USC team 10-0. I do not know what happened during the Willingham era and Charlie Weiss’s teams were both good and bad. Notre Dame is a great place to coach but it is also tough in that every team you play will give you their best effort. You cannot take any game lightly at Notre Dame and the fan expectations are out of this world. They have a done a good job of recruiting. I think they have a good coaching staff and they have had some good breaks go their way. The Stanford game; getting to play USC without Matt Barkley; Pittsburgh folding up after having a big lead. As long as you thorough in your recruiting and have a sound coaching staff, Notre Dame should always be in the elite of college football. It reeks of tradition and it plays on a national stage every Saturday. Why would top players not want to go there? Plus their fight song is the best.

J.P.: You’ve coached offensive lines for years and years. The cliche is always, “Running backs get all the credit, offensive lines get none.” Do you buy this? And how, specifically, can an offensive line coach make an offensive line better? What are the small details we never hear about?

J.C.: This has changed a little over the years and there is more of a focus on offensive line play. We had a 2,000-plus-yard rusher (Jamal Lewis) at Baltimore as well as the second most rushing yards in a game by Lewis and the offensive line was given a lot of credit for his accomplishments. You can make a big impact on improving the offensive line at any level. It is a position that requires the perfection of a large number of skills, different kinds of pass protection, one-on-one run blocking, zone-run blocking, double team run blocking, blocking when lineman pull, etc. It is constant repetition of skills that begin as individual drills, progress to group drills and then move into a team situation. The fan never hears about the footwork that is used on each play. The angle of release from the line of scrimmage to engage the defender. The correct placement of the hands and helmet as you contact the defender. The techniques used to block defensive line twists in pass protection. The offensive line is the heart and soul of a team; if they cannot perform a multitude of tasks under pressure, your chance of winning is not very good. The offensive line coach, and the secondary coach, are the two most valuable coaches a staff can have. Their players can control the success or failure of a team faster than any other position. Others may get the glory, but the offensive line is the glue that holds it all together.

J.P.: You played your last collegiate game at UCLA nearly 45 years ago. You’re approaching 70. I’m fascinated—absolutely riveted—by aging, and how people adjust. So, Jim, how have you adjusted? What I mean is, it often seems v-e-r-y hard for ex-athletes to accept getting old, because they used to rely on physicality and speed and power and then, pfft, it’s gone. Is it tough for you? Or easy and smooth? Why?

J.C.: Not playing any longer was not a problem as I was not big enough or fast enough to play pro football. I had injured my wrist my senior year and that ended any plans of playing pro baseball. The athletic transition was easy; the coaching situation was much tougher. I would go back to coaching today if someone wanted a 68-year-old line coach. The ability is still there. The games become like a drug and the loss of that weekly fix and the preparation for the games is extremely hard to get used to. All of sudden you have all this time on your hands. You have to adjust and it takes time. I helped with a high school program for a few years and that helped a lot.

J.P.: Whenever I hear coaches giving pep talks I always think, “This is such friggin’ nonsense.” The whole, “Guys, we’re gonna go out there and …” just strikes me as, well, ridiculous. But, Jim, does it really work? And what’s the difference between a great pep talk and a mediocre one?

J.C.: Pep talks are very much overrated. Mediocre pep talks are ones that are made too often and lose their value as being too repetitive. The best ones in my mind are ones that are given early in a game week that set the tone for that week’s practice, or given the night before so a player can think about it before bed and the first thing the morning. Preparing the players well for a game can be the best pep talk you can give. If you give a pep talk, the emotion you show must be sincere or the players will see through it immediately. Pep talks on the sideline are of value when you need to get the players’ attention or get their focus back where it belongs.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JIM COLLETTO:

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall: No, I have not had that experience.

• The world needs to know—what was it like coaching Orlando Bobo?: He was a good guy and fun to coach. He was a pretty good player.

• Five most talented offensive linemen of your lifetime?: Jonathan Ogden, Randall McDaniel, Willie Viney (University of Pacific), Luis Sharpe (UCLA), Danny Villa (Arizona State); the first two players will be in both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame. One other linemen I need to add to the list is Morrison England, Jr. (Pacific). He is now a federal court judge in Sacramento. He played with the New York Jets for a short time. He just threw out Orly Taitz’s (the birther queen) lawsuit in California to invalidate Obama’s election. He was a very good player.

• I’m a Delaware Blue Hen. What can you tell me about Tubby Raymond?: I did not know him personally, always heard good things about him.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Richard Dent, Dennis DeYoung, Larry Hagman, Flavor Flav, oysters, Cleveland, Celine Dion, warm spring days, strawberry shortcake, Orlando Pace, Sears, Bob’s Big Boy Buffet, Diane Feinstein: Warm spring days, Orlando Pace, Richard Dent, strawberry shortcake, Bob’s Big Boy buffet, Diane Feinstein, Celine Dion, Sears, Cleveland, Larry Hagman, Dennis DeYoung , Flavor Fav, oysters.

• At the time, post-Super Bowl, were you in favor of replacing Trent Dilver with Elvis Grbac? Yes, but I had no say in the matter.

• Five reasons to make San Francisco one’s next vacation destination: Food, cable cars, Fisherman’s Wharf, Golden Gate Park, all the different neighborhoods.

• Bobby Petrino—good hire for Western Kentucky or bad one?: Do not like it, will see what results.

• Who wins in a thumb fight between you and Brian Billick?: Brian—he has more leverage.

•  If you hadn’t been a coach, what career would you have chosen?: Police work, FBI—something along those lines.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life