The season-ending injury to your quarterback Robert Griffin seemed to define last year for Baylor. What were you thinking once you found out that Robert would miss the rest of the season after playing in just two and a half games?
I don’t know if “define” is the correct term. I think it was just kind of a blow to us or a shock that we were not going to have one of our weapons offensively, and really the leader of our offense. From that standpoint, we just understood that we had to rally together, fight hard and move forward. I think our guys pledged to do that as a team. Of course, the end result wasn’t what we felt like we could have or should have done, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort or accountability on any of the players’ parts.
How did Robert’s injury change your expectations for last season?
I think you still have the same goals and expectations. You’ve just got to find a different way to meet them. We didn’t do that, so it’s just one of those things that you fight through, you live through and you grow from. We feel like we’ve done that.
Your replacement for Robert – Nick Florence – was thrust into the starting spot as a freshman last season. Where did you see him grow the most in 2009?
Just his belief in himself and the belief that our players developed in him. You know, there have been a lot of people who have played under center at Baylor University and said “Down, set, hut,” and Nick went to Missouri and set a school record for passing yards [in a game]. And he was only a freshman. That was a big deal because it happened against a quality opponent. He’s very capable. He’s a great inspirer; he’s a great teammate. He’s a guy who really studies and understands the game because he’s very intellectual.
How close is Robert to being in ‘game shape?’ He didn’t play in your Spring Game, but it sounds like he is close to a full recovery.
I think he’s ready. If we had a game inside of six weeks, I think toward the end of that six week period, he’d be ready to go. Physically, he’s good. What he’s got to do is just get out there and go through it, get hit a time or two, and realize everything’s okay. He’ll be ready to roll. He’s a competitor, he’s a fighter, and he’s very determined. So he’ll get himself back ready to go.
Will we see Robert run as much as he did in his freshman season? He carried the ball 174 times in 2008.
Honestly, I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see how everything transpires. Our plan last year, prior to him getting injured, was not to run him as much. He didn’t run much against Wake Forest or UConn. It’s a deal where we’re going to just take what we’ve got and use it, and use the other people on the team to do whatever we can to get ourselves a win. If it means Robert’s going to hand it off or throw it more, that’s fine, because he’s all about winning. And that’s what we’re all about.
Spring practice ended for Baylor almost two weeks ago. Since you have already used your 15 practice sessions allotted by the NCAA, can you talk about what you and your staff do during the summer?
It’s never ending. What we’re doing is recruiting and taking care of our guys on campus, making sure everybody’s eligible and taking care of business. Once spring finishes, there’s usually about two or two and a half weeks left in the semester. We’re really bearing down on academics during that time. We’re getting the guys mentally refreshed, get them concentrated and ready to go when they back with our summer strength and conditioning program. Then it’s just go to work, turn the lights off, sleep and work again. It’s non-stop, and the next thing you know you’re into the season and it’s time to go. We’ll have about eight camps throughout the summer at Baylor where we look at underclassmen at. It’s a good chance for us to evaluate young people in that category.
Who did you see make big strides during spring ball?
A lot of guys really did a good job. Two or three that specifically come to mind…
Philip Blake. He moved in from tackle to center. He did a great job filling in for J.D. Walton, who has been our guy for the last three years. Phillip did extremely well.
Danny Watkins, our left tackle. He really finished strong last year, and just kept that going through this spring. He’s going to be a guy who’s going to be an impact player for us.
Defensively, Antonio Johnson, our outside linebacker. He had a great spring, and a great fall [last year] also. He’s going to be a three-year starter for us as a senior coming up this season.
We moved Tim Atchison from cornerback to free safety, and he did a great job this spring. It’s a natural position for him, so he’s going to do well there.
Your defense had problems stopping teams at times last season. Do you think that was a product of playing against great offenses in the Big 12 like Texas , Texas A&M, Oklahoma , etc? Where do you think the defense needs to improve the most?
I think the offense and defense have to work together. We were a little better offensively in 2008 than we were in 2009, and that made the defense a little better. We didn’t do a very good job offensively in ’09, and consequently the defense was on the field more and had to make more plays. It’s kind of a two-way street. One side of the ball has got to help out the other, and we didn’t do a very good job of that last year. We understand that we are in what I think is the toughest division in college football. That’s why we’re in it: If you’re going to play, play with the best. Our guys understand that, and they know what they’ve got to do to be competitive in it, and have an opportunity to get bowl eligible coming out of it.
With Robert Griffin returning, I’m sure you expect some big things from this season, but many prognosticators will have you near the bottom of the division. Do you relish playing the underdog role?
I guess I do. I’ve been involved with it all my life. I like being in a situation where you have to stand on your own two feet and be your own man, not living off somebody else. With our guys, they are the ones who have got to make it happen in the Big 12, and our program has to be the one to make it in the Big 12. We’re not living off somebody else. I do like that. I like that situation, and the opportunity for accomplishment it gives for our players and our football program.
Baylor is the only private school in the Big 12, and you have to compete with schools like Texas, which has the highest athletics budget in the NCAA. Do you think Baylor has the tools to compete at the top of the conference on a consistent basis?
I think without a doubt we do. We don’t even view ourselves in that “public or private” category. Our guys are here to get a great education and play top-notch football. That’s the type of guys we recruit, so we don’t recruit any differently than Texas, Oklahoma or anybody in our division because that’s who we’re playing against. We’ve got to go toe-to-toe with them and come out swinging, and get a few of those guys against them. We’ve been able to do that over the last couple of years.
The recruiting class you brought in this year is one of the most touted to come to Waco . Was there any area in particular that you were looking to address in recruiting?
We always focus up front on both sides of the ball, O-Line and D-Line. We got some really good guys. It just happened to turn out this year that our defensive back class was voted as the number four class in America, so that was a real strength for us in the recruiting wars. We didn’t go into it saying we wanted to do that; it’s just that we landed some guys that are really good football players, and can come in and help us. We’ll always start our focus up front on both sides of the ball. We’ll look for guys who can run defensively and have a pretty mean mentality while we’re doing it.
Before you got into the college ranks, you built Stephenville High into a Texas high school football powerhouse, winning four 4A titles in 12 seasons. How were you able to have so much success with that program?
There are a bunch of keys. You’ve got to have a lot of people going in the same direction. You’ve got to have an administration, players and coaches that are hungry, that are focused, that have vision, belief, confidence. It’s really no different at that level than it is at any other level. It’s a cumulative effort of a lot of people wanting the same thing. And that’s what’s inspiring to me about being at Baylor, because our people are hungry. Our university is hungry, and our fans our hungry. It’s my job to feed them, and it’s our players’ jobs to feed them. That’s the part that I like. We have that opportunity in front of us, and it’s going to be fun when it happens.
Your spread offense really served as a catalyst in the state of Texas . After they saw the success you were having in the 1990s, dozens of schools changed their offenses and patterned them after yours. Where did you come up with your version of the spread? Did you have any influences when you designed your offense?
I appreciate you saying that, because honestly we were some of the first people to start throwing it around and spreading it out. I just kind of came about it through trial and error. I had my first head coaching job back in 1984 in Hamlin , Texas . That first year, we made it to the quarter-finals and got beat on penetration. So the next year, I understood that if we didn’t spread the field and give our guys space to create plays in, somebody with better talent was going to shut us down and beat us. We started it in 1985, spreading in the ball around. We were in the shotgun, throwing it and running the zone read. It just kind of evolved through the years. We fluctuated with our personnel and with our philosophy, and with the defenses we were facing. I think it’s fun; I like how everything has evolved in the game of football. I’m excited about what the future holds, because it’s been a fun journey watching the way everything has transpired on both sides of the ball.
How much has your particular brand of the spread changed since you started running it?
Quite a bit. To some extent, we’re a little more screen-oriented now than we were then. We had more of a vertical passing game then, because we got more single [coverage] matchups than you get now. I’ve always liked a real mobile quarterback. We’ve always had our best teams that way. Even having Kevin Kolb at Houston . He’s fixing to be a star quarterback for the Eagles. You know, Kevin’s a mobile guy. He’s one of only three quarterbacks in college football history to throw for 400 yards and rush for 100 yards in a game. He had that capability; we just didn’t pull it out of them that much because he’s such a precise passer and we had other weapons around him. I like a guy who’s mobile. I like a guy who can move around and make things happen, and create plays for other people. Fortunately, we have a guy like that in Robert at Baylor.
The spread really took off in the college game early in the 2000s. Offenses enjoyed a lot of success for several seasons, but last year, it seemed like defenses found a way to at least slow down the spread. Do you think the spread is here to stay in college football, or will it be like the wishbone or West Coast offenses that were en vogue for a while before fading away?
I definitely think it will continue to change, but I also think it’s here to stay. I think the game has become a lot faster from the standpoint of putting people in space and letting them make plays. I don’t think that we’ll consistently see people lining up with a full house backfield, handing the ball to a guy who’s running downfield. I think that part of the game is definitely valuable. You can have some advantages doing that today, because people don’t recruit defensively to stop teams that pound the ball at you. But I don’t think the spread offenses are going anywhere for a while.
You left Stephenville to become running backs coach at Texas Tech. That was the same year Mike Leach arrived in Lubbock . What was it like working with Mike? How similar is your offensive philosophy to his?
We were on the ground floor of the Texas Tech process. Spike [Dykes] had done a great job there for many years. I think at that time, they had been to a bowl nine of the past ten years. That situation has continued there since then. The thing about Leach and his philosophy – like with Hal Mumme at Kentucky, Al Wesland at Valdosta – is it’s set, it’s patternized, and you do what you do. The thing I was impressed about was they had what they had, they believed in it, and it was successful for them.
After Texas Tech, you moved on to become head coach at the University of Houston . The Cougars had fallen on hard times, but you were able to turn things around very quickly. Did you see any parallels between the situations at Baylor and Houston ?
I think so. There are always parallels with any jobs, whether it’s a rebuilding or maintaining situation. The hard part is you just have to jump in there, and you grind and you believe, you recruit, you work and you expect good plays. I don’t think that ever changes. But it was a job that was extremely down. They had been to one bowl game in the previous 13 years, and were actually 0-11 two years prior to us getting there. It was a fun process. It was fun to get down there, get everything going, and win a conference championship and go to a bowl game for four out of five years. It was fun to have people be excited, be proud and feel good about the university. Like I said, that’s the inspiring part to me about Baylor getting that feeling back to Baylor again.
How long before we see Baylor in bowl games consistently like we saw you do at Houston?
We’d love to say 2010. It’s always going to be now. We’re not in the process of predicting. We just know every year we line up and play, we expect to do outstanding. We expect to win games, we expect to be bowl eligible and compete for championships. That’s never going to change.