Garrison’s Road to Redemption: From Player Agony to Coaching Ecstasy
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John Garrison has experienced Nebraska football from one side up and another side down. As a true freshman in 1999, he was the starting long snapper and lettered for a Husker team that finished 12-1. Nebraska's only loss that season was 24-20 at Texas - a result that was avenged with a 22-6 win over the Longhorns in the Big 12 Championship game in San Antonio. The '99 team went on to beat Tennessee, 31-21, in the Fiesta Bowl. As a senior captain three years later, Garrison endured the agony of losing four of his final five games in a Husker uniform, including a 27-23 setback to Eli Manning-led Mississippi in the Independence Bowl. Garrison has waited to replace that memory with new ones in his first season as an official full-time member of the Nebraska coaching staff. He will join fellow first-year Nebraska football staffer Ross Els as a presenter at the Nebraska Coaches Association's annual clinic in Lincoln on Wednesday.
Q: You were one of three true freshmen to play at Nebraska in 1999. This year, Nebraska has a group of freshmen that should vie for immediate playing time. One is quarterback-turned wide receiver Jamal Turner, and another, Tyler Moore, is one of the first student-athletes you will coach in college. Tell me how Tyler has positioned himself to play this fall by graduating a semester early and earning his stripes last spring.
A: Both of those guys are expected to play this fall, and there might be more. One of the big concerns going into fall camp is depth at center and being able to have someone behind (Mike) Caputo. We're only one play away from anybody going down, and I certainly don't wish that on Mike because he does an outstanding job for us. But we have to find that backup center, whether it be (Cole) Pensick, (Mark) Pelini, (Ryne) Reeves or (Ryan) Klachko. Those last two are true freshmen, and they're coming in with the opportunity to win that spot. It's extremely rare for an offensive lineman to come in and play as a true freshman.
Q: Tyler Moore grew up in a house where his dad, Brian, lettered as a Husker tight end and his cousin, Jay, lettered as a defensive end. He's 6-6, 300, and spurned home state offers from Florida, Florida State and Miami, as well as Ohio State, Michigan, Stanford, Cal, UCLA and others. He's been committed to Nebraska since October of 2009. Why is Tyler an exception to the general "true freshmen don't play" rule?
A: He has a lot of God-given ability. Not too many true freshmen walk in and look like they've been on James Dobson's workout program for two years. Tyler and Klachko and Reeves are all coming in as true freshmen at almost 300 pounds, and it's just wild. It wasn't like that when I came in. I was talking to Brenden Stai. We both came in at 240 or 250. Now guys are so much bigger and are expecting to contribute right away.
Q: As their coach, what do you tell guys who look like they're ready to play, but have yet to grasp the mental skills required?
A: The mental part is actually the most important part. Physically, in a lot of ways, they're there, knowing what they need to do. But mentally, they're nowhere close. They have a long, long way to go. Right now, it's really important for them to learn the offense, so when they're ready to get going, they can use what they've come in with and have worked on. Things happen really fast, so one of the worst things an offensive lineman can do is think instead of react. You have to mature as an offensive lineman. It's all about technique and skill. You can't just say: "Here, go out there and do it." Being an offensive lineman is a trade, like a carpenter. You don't become a carpenter overnight, and you don't become an offensive lineman overnight either. We want to develop these guys who are coming in with the physical ability and get them to take it to the next level as quickly as possible.
Q: You camped out in a film room day and night to earn your opportunity as both a player and a first-year head coach. Were you a sponge that soaked up everything you could get, and are some of these talented freshmen gearing themselves with that same kind of mindset?
A: The only reason I got on the field as a freshman was because I was smart. I had some athletic ability, but I was not even close to as big as these guys coming in as true freshmen. What these guys have to figure out is how to get the job done. It's not about being 300 pounds and looking the part. Results are the bottom line. No one ever confuses looks for results. They'll learn the offense, and they'll learn how to do things. They'll feel comfortable in that 300-pound shell of a body that some of them have.
Q: Go back to your high school playing days in Blue Springs, Mo. Who else did you consider before deciding on Nebraska?
A: I was recruited by a lot of the Big 12 schools and Notre Dame. Shawn Watson was at Northwestern at the time and recruited me to play in the Big Ten. Interestingly, I never played offensive line in high school. I was a defensive lineman. I knew there was a possibility I would change in college. Because of the scheme Nebraska was in at the time, if there was a defensive lineman that could switch to offense, Nebraska was it. They were a good fit for me because of what they asked you to do. You didn't have to be 300 pounds, and I never played at that weight. I played at 285-to-290. I could play at that weight because I had two really good guards playing next to me. Some of the things that Milt Tenopir and (the late) Dan Young asked me to do, scheme-wise, were different. They didn't need a 300-pound-plus center. They were looking for an athletic, fast, smart center, and Mike Caputo is probably a great example of that right now. He's a guy that does everything right. You can take everything he does during individual drills and make a highlight out of it because he's that good of a technician. You can't play in the Big 12 like he did last year without the skill set he has. He's just mastered the fundamentals of playing center. It doesn't take long for every lineman to play hurt, and he's shown how tough he is. Two or three weeks into camp, every offensive lineman will be hurting.
Q: Stai is on the strength and conditioning staff now. When you two communicate, do you see this team having the same kind of individual/team mindset you guys played with?
A: When I first came in as a freshman, I was in awe of the size of guys that had been recruited here. My goodness, in my day, we had the 300-plus pounders, but we also had the 6-foot-tall, 280-285-290 and even some at 260 that came in and played. It was more of a mindset that we thrived on. As time has gone on since joining the Nebraska staff - from my first year here to what's now going to be my fourth year - I really started seeing a changeover in that second and third year. The change was so drastic that I almost felt like, this is the way it used to be here. They're starting to get this mentality of policing one another and then taking care of business amongst the team, so to speak, and that's what we had. When I was here and when Stai was here, the Unity Council took care of any problems that came up. Coaches very rarely heard about anything because the seniors - the guys who had been there - policed the team. There was an order that you had to eventually graduate through. Expectations were set, and everybody had to follow. It really kicked in last summer. Guys were doing things afterwards. We didn't ask them to do anything. They were doing things on their own. They're running drills. They're coaching each other. They're taking control of themselves. That's how summers were at Nebraska. Our strength staff would work us out and as soon as conditioning was over, we took it on ourselves. The first and second groups were running plays, and it was all policed just with players. There was no strength staff or anything. You know what? The first two years, it wasn't that way here. But now, guys are working on pass sets by themselves. They're asking defensive linemen if they can work on this or that. They're not doing it just to do it or get through it. When the whistle blows and James Dobson addresses them, you don't see 150 guys out the door. They're sticking around to work on certain things. I think that's the big difference. When the guys start policing themselves and taking on extra work themselves, that's when you know you have a team.
Q: There's nothing like self-motivation. Tell us how the new offensive system that Tim Beck unveiled last spring is adding fuel to the fire and please feel free to describe that system and why players are embracing, understanding and showing unbelievable support for that system.
A: You look at the roots of the system and where Tim comes from. He came from high school football. In high school, you coach at the most minute detail. You have to keep things really simple, and you have to make it fun for the guys. Having coached high school ball myself, I can see the way Tim coaches and what schemes he's introducing here. They are things that are easily grasped and can be picked up by a true freshman like Jamal Turner, who wants to come in and play right away. We saw that in the spring game. You could see how much he enjoyed it and how much fun everyone else was having. Tyler Moore was the same way. He's not a freshman anymore. He's like a sophomore, and we need to push him to the next level.
Q: Let's bounce back to when you were their age. How fun was playing football at Nebraska, and what was your most memorable moment?
A: I don't think of any specific game or any specific block. What it really came down to was the memories you had with your buddies and the other guys around you. I knew when I left here and finally got cut in Tampa that my football days were over, and I didn't want that. You don't always get along with everybody, but there is always a team concept, and you always respected everybody on the team. I was going to miss that, and I knew I couldn't have that void, and the only way it could ever be met was through coaching. I knew that in college. That's why I majored in education, so I could get into coaching. I remember the guys that I played with more than anything else ... guys like Jon Rutherford, who was a guard a year ahead of me. When I got this coaching job, he called and congratulated me. So did Toniu Fonoti on Facebook. They were so excited. We had a lot of fun, playing together and winning together.
Q: When Bo asked you to join his full-time coaching staff, were you surprised, especially when you had done so much grunt work breaking down film in your own little cube that's on the same floor but a world apart from where you are now?
A: I was very surprised, but I had to keep it quiet. I had to pace around this whole facility elated but unable to tell anybody about why. I knew they were working on making changes here. I knew I had paid my dues and that Bo respected me. I had interviewed some other places. I had two other opportunities. They weren't BCS schools, but they were great opportunities for coaching. Even though I knew changes were coming, I didn't think a major overhaul would include me. No one knew what Bo had in mind. In my three years here as an intern, I think I showed that I'm a guy that works hard. I'm not very flashy. If I'm told to do something, I'm going to get it done. Nebraska's all about working hard, doing what you're supposed to do and getting it done. Results are the only things that matter. My favorite line that James Dobson uses is never confuse effort with results. There's a fine line between both. Bo knows he'll get effort out of me, but I believe he will also get results. This is an exciting time, and I'm thrilled. To be honest with you, it's almost surreal. It has sunk in, but I don't know if it's complete. My wife and I were living in a one-bedroom apartment with a little baby and another one on the way, so it was time to make a move one way or another. I didn't want to leave here because Nebraska means so much to me. I give all the credit to Bo for asking me to come back and be a part of making things right. I was prepared to go somewhere else and support my family at home, but it was really going to be hard leaving here. I have a great wife. She was willing to stand beside me no matter what. Every married coach in America has a wife who sacrifices, and she was willing to do that. It's not easy when we're not around and diapers are full and kids are screaming. It's a full-time job and then some.
Q: You're catching Nebraska in a Renaissance period - an historic intersection of joining the Big Ten Conference at the same time your alma mater is trying to restore the order as a championship program. Perfect timing, isn't it, to replace that 2002 memory with something better?
A: I remember leaving here with just an awful feeling. We were 7-and-7 my senior year. I have so many great memories of my years at Nebraska, but that senior year left such a bad taste in my mouth. To come back here now and be on the other side of it - the coaching side of it - and be a part of that change is really special. Obviously, I felt a lot of heat after that 7-7 season, especially being a captain on that team. It wasn't self-pity. I just felt bad. I felt like I let down Nebraska. I felt like I let down Dan Young and Milt Tenopir. I just thought that they deserved to go out better than that. I remember telling them how sorry I was and I still hold some of that responsibility to myself. It wasn't a good feeling, and I took it hard and I took it personally. When you feel like you were part of a team that let down all of the players before you and with you at the time, you never forget that feeling. When you go from playing in a national championship to playing in the Independence Bowl, it's a lot of stress for everyone.
Q: Failure certainly takes a toll on everyone, yet failure also has proven to be a great teacher that can provide life lessons like nothing else. When you felt like you had fallen to the bottom of the performance chart, how did that experience touch your heart?
A: Now that I can look back on everything that happened, I can honestly say that I learned more in that bad year than I learned in those first three years combined. We went from winning the Big 12 and the Fiesta Bowl as a freshman to a 10-2 season and beating the co-Big Ten champ Northwestern (66-17) in the Alamo Bowl and then an 11-win season that ended in the national championship game against Miami in the Rose Bowl to that 7-7 season as a senior. I learned all about adversity and how when things go bad, you know who's in the ship with you and who isn't. Truly, I didn't see what I learned in that 7-7 season until I came here and started working for Bo. I knew it was important, but Bo really taught me why it's all about the process and competing every day to get better. He has a certain way to do things. When you wake up at 5 a.m. and lift weights, you know you're going to be a champion from that point on. It goes from the weight room to the class room. That's what we were then, and that's what Bo has brought back to Nebraska now.
Q: Nebraska hasn't had a championship in a long time. How badly do you want to be part of a conference championship as a coach and experience what you remember as a player?
A: We have a ways to go, but I also feel that we're really getting close because of what you see in this team. It's all trickled down from him to our assistant coaches to our leaders and everyone else, including the freshmen who have just come in. We're really close, and I really do believe that.
Q: In your mind, why is Bo such a great leader?
A: He's a straight shooter, no matter what. A lot of people might think that he's rash or abrasive, but he's also a really caring person, and that's part of him that so many people don't see. The biggest reason I wanted to work for him is because he's a family guy. Mary Pat and their three kids are more important to him than anything. I think he treats this team - the coaching staff and the players - like an extension of his family. I wouldn't be surprised if his house is very similar to the ways things are in the football office - very straightforward, but very caring and loving. That's the way Bo is. He cares about people. He's black-and-white. There is no gray area. That's how I was brought up, too. I grew up in West Virginia and lived in Pittsburgh before we moved to Missouri. I don't know what it is in that area - whether it's the coal mining, the lumber business or what. It's blue-collar, it's tough and it's say-it-as-it-is. The state of Nebraska and our best football teams seem to take on the same persona. Okay, it's snowing outside, but we're all still going to work. Nebraska farmers are hard-nosed, too. They get up and do what they're supposed to do.
Q: You're going back to the Milt Tenopir-Dan Young days where there will be two offensive line coaches with you joining Barney Cotton. Why are you looking forward to working with Barney, who has that same blue-collar work ethic as your two college coaches?
A: I think we're a lot alike. When you look at it, oftentimes coaches will coach how they were coached. Milt coached Barney and brought him up in his Nebraska ways, and so was I. The only difference is the years between us. What we have is someone who has been in the game a long time, is extremely intelligent and has been an offensive coordinator here before and sees the big picture extremely well. Barney does a great job communicating with our guys, too. I come in as a younger coach who can relate to guys from a recruiting and coaching standpoint as well. I think having two sets of eyes is good. We're alike but we're different. We may not walk into a room with the same idea, but we'll walk out of it on the same page. We iron things out and will do whatever we need to do to succeed. Barney and I will combine to coach the offensive line, and Vince Morrow (a first-year Nebraska graduate assistant) will help me concentrate on tight ends. Whenever we have two tight ends, that means seven of the 11 guys out there can be primary blockers. That's a lot of responsibility, and last year we had one full-time guy coaching the line. It's hard to coach center, guards and tackles by yourself. I don't care how good you are at it - and Barney is really good at it. Getting seven together in the same blocking scheme is difficult. Bo's idea behind this change is 65 percent of your offense is trying to block together and having more eyes on that group really helps. In practice situations, we can have three groups getting reps rather than just one group and a bunch of other guys watching. We're getting really close to the days where a lot of guys are getting a lot of reps in practice, and that helps create a lot of depth. My sophomore year, I'm backing up Dominic Raiola, and he decides to turn pro early. There was no "oh my gosh, what are we going to do?" Don't get me wrong. There's always concern when you lose an All-American center, but by spring time, after he'd made his decision to go pro, I was ready to go. I was plugged in. I knew the offense right away because of the way Coach Young and Coach Tenopir had brought me along within Coach Osborne's system. I learned it was my time. It came a year earlier than expected, but I was ready, and there was another guy right there competing with me to make sure we didn't drop off. In fact, there were two or three of us, and that's what you want to have. That's what we're getting close to - daily competition. As a coach at the high school level, I would run into some really talented players who were not very motivated. One of the hardest things that I've had to figure out is how to motivate an unmotivated kid. It's extremely difficult. I've had very talented kids who were very good football players, but were not very motivated. At the high school level, you usually don't have anyone sitting right behind you to motivate you. At the college level, you do. It's hard. As a coach, you want somebody pushing the guy in front of them every single day. If you have that, you don't have to worry so much about the psychological part of coaching.
Q: Share your thoughts about Nebraska making its historic switch to the Big Ten Conference.
A: It's going to be a physical league, and that's an easy statement to make. The linemen in the Big Ten are huge. I've always liked to study offensive lines, Part of my job is breaking down film, and whenever I have the opportunity, I like to check other lines out. Two of the lines that I've always liked to look at and watch were Iowa's and Wisconsin's just to see how they did things and how they were taught. I've always really respected them fundamentally. Ohio State's another line that fits into that category. During the off-seasons these past three years, whenever I had the chance, I would study those offensive lines. I'd open the computer at home or at work just to see what they were doing. In coaching, I don't know, probably 90 percent of what you do, you steal from somebody else. I'm not that imaginative to come up with all of these ideas. You like to come up with your own, but a lot of times, you look and just say: "Hey, that's a good idea. We should look into doing it that way ourselves."
Q: Talk about ideas and learning how they tie into coaching. What's going to be the thrust of your message at the Nebraska Coaches Association's annual clinic Wednesday?
A: I'll talk about the fundamentals of offensive line play. I started coaching in 2004. Whenever I was in the audience, I tried to absorb as much as I could. I would absolutely wear out tapes. Every tape that was ever produced, I would try to find it, buy it or get a hold of it someway. Whenever I would hear some of those great offensive line coaches like Howard Mudd, I would pick their minds as much as I could. I loved studying their tapes and stealing their ideas. In today's media, it's so different. You can get tapes from different clinics all over the place. We have YouTube, so you can just wear yourself out in the off-season. But the big thing is, and I'm going to stress this in my presentation, as much as you absorb and you learn, make sure it fits what you're doing because there are a lot of great ideas out there. You can throw a lot of great ideas at your players, but it has to make sense with what you're already doing. This off-season, I found some drills I really like, but I decided they don't really fit into what we're doing, You have to find what's relevant and once you do, you have to be really good at it. Coach (John) Papuchis and Coach Carl (Pelini) talk about how what they do is extremely boring, but we do it all the time. I think when you can say that, that's a good thing because it means you're getting better. Look how our defensive line has evolved over the past three years.
Q: You talk about how hard it is to motivate great athletes who aren't self-motivated. Your office is close to Ron Brown, one of the most motivating coaches Nebraska has ever had. What does he bring to this offense and how will his strengths play into what you want to get done overall?
A: He's a tremendous teacher and a fundamental guy. In my talk to the prep coaches, I will not be talking about schemes. This game is all about fundamentals. That's what wins games, and that is what he is all about. He's about contact, collisions, using your hands and being physical. If you look at all of his individual drills, that's what it's all about. That's what football is all about. There's not a drill that Ron Brown does that doesn't carry over to the game. That's another good tip. Make sure whatever you do has relevance to the game. If it doesn't, don't do it. His ability to speak and the way he can motivate athletes are in a league of their own. It's not a skill that I have, but it's a skill that God has given him. He's really been blessed, and he does a tremendous job of communicating to our players. Watching him coach over the last three years, I saw how he preached the fundamentals of the game. He shows them how to do it and explains why they need to be physical and fundamentally sound. That's what we want throughout our football team - to be physical and fundamentally sound.
Q: How about the guy all of the offensive staff works for - first-year coordinator Tim Beck? What vision does he bring to an offense that has struggled over the past two seasons?
A: He exudes a lot of confidence, and I think that's extremely important. It's a tough situation to come into. He is extremely confident in what he believes in. He likes to keep things simple, fun and fast. He started at the high school level. He was a grad assistant at K-State and the pass game coordinator at KU. He's never been a coordinator, but I think what he did at the high school level really has propelled him. He really can coach the smallest detail all the way up to a level like this. One other thing that strikes me about Tim is that he's extremely intelligent and always coming up with new ideas. He always keeps things within the scheme. Whatever he adds is window dressing to what he's already committed to. He might do something and then the next week, do the same thing from a different formation with a different motion. He really can create and recreate. I've already said how I might steal 90 percent of my ideas and come up with the other 10 percent. Well, Tim might be the other way around because he's very creative in his thought process and very multi-faceted in his overall approach.
Q: Who has influenced you most in coaching?
A: Milt and Dan,obviously. I would be remiss if I didn't mention them in the same sentence. Plus, my father and the way he brought me up. There were expectations, no matter what I do. He's still working (for Missouri Gas and Energy), but I always thought he should have been a coach because he communicates with people so well. My dad was always very clear about what his expectations were. He's about results, and that's what football comes down to. I think I learned a lot from him about personalities and communicating to people. My mother is a great communicator, too. She's a psych nurse, so she's definitely had to communicate over the years. So I had the understanding mother who's seen everything and the Type A father who was very strict about how to do things. It was a good balance, and I've learned a lot from both of them.
Q: Since you're so well balanced, you should be able to answer this question. Nebraska's defense has developed this national reputation, and many believe that if the Huskers had delivered on offense, they would have left the Big 12 with back-to-back conference titles. Some of these Blackshirts are already raving about the speed and physicality of this new offense Are those two traits going to jump-start this new attack?
A: We started this conversation talking about speed and being more physical. We want to play fast and doing that is the result of knowing what you're doing and being confident in what you're doing. If we can tap into that mental part, we will be able to think and execute the right changes within the speed of the game. If we're thinking about lining up right or thinking about stance, we're going to play slow. We have good athletes here, and their ability to play fast will be based on their ability to process the information off the field as well as on the field. Once they see something or hear something, they should know exactly what to do. When everything becomes second nature, we will play fast. You can make a 4.5 or 4.6 running back look fast if he knows where he's going. People talk about football speed, which is really nothing more than a good athlete knowing exactly what he needs to do and go where h needs to go.
Q: Football starts up front. It always has and always will. That's what wins games. What kind of weapons will line up with you and what can they do if you pave the road for them to go where they haven't been for awhile?
A: Rex Burkhead is a proven guy for us. To be honest with you, I don't know his 40 time, but he has that football speed we just talked about. He lines up at running back and has played quarterback out of the wildcat formation. Obviously, he's special. I don't want to toot too many young guys' horns because they haven't done anything yet, but it's very exciting to have three young running backs all coming in at the same time with incredible speed - Aaron Green, Ameer Abdullah and Braylon Heard. Every report that I hear from James Dobson is our guys are doing some really neat things. I've talked about Jamal Turner, but there's Brandon Kinnie, Kenny Bell and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. Kinnie can block, catch,run and stretch the field. Kyler Reed is a weapon not many have, and I think Ben Cotton is very underrated with his ball skills. We have the tools. We just have to put it all together. It really does start upfront, and we have to let those guys showcase what they can do. I'm really excited about being a part of the process. To have this opportunity after what I experienced in my last year as a player is, I think, a one-in-a-million shot. I'm extremely grateful to be back here helping coach this football team. I have a lot of pride in Nebraska. This state means a lot to me. It's a huge responsibility, and I'm excited about it. I'm ready for vacation to be done so I can hit the ground running. I'm ready to get to work.
Voices from Husker Nation
Thanks for a great article and interview on John Garrison. Your questions and John's answer's gave some of the best insight not only from some of the great years NU has had (and, unfortunately, some of the bad years) but also gave us some of the most informative answers as to what we can look forward to in our first year in the Big Ten. I read your articles all the time, but this one was especially fulfilling and interesting for me, and I look forward to the next one. By the way, I grew up in Iowa and Texas and now live in West Omaha. I'm a longtime Husker fan, not just football, though it's my favorite, but most all sports. I became a fan when Bob Devaney came to Nebraska from Wyoming. I actually had lived in Laramie and knew of Coach Devaney before he left Wyoming. Best decision NU ever made! Thank you again. Dan Johnson, Omaha, Nebraska
To all, particularly the football team, including Coach Garrison: Good luck in your first season as a member of the Big Ten. I do hope you enjoy what should be an exciting football season for the fans and an extremely stimulating season for the players and coaches. Enjoy the Big Ten! Even though I live near Sacramento, I spent a tour as the spouse of a Michigan graduate student during Coach Carr's final years in Ann Arbor. It was a great experience and even though I'm not a Michigan Man, I can sing the Michigan fight song with some gusto. I hope Nebraska takes its entire band, entire cheer squad and transports as many boosters as you can to the Big House. I promise that game will break an attendance record. I expect Nebraska will be respectable member of the glorious Big Ten! James Bonner, Sacramento, California
Living in Blue Springs and being an NU season ticketholder, we are very happy that John Garrison is now one of the coaches. Nancy Baker, Blue Springs, Missouri
Mizzou fans wonder why their state's best players, including a Hall-of-Famer like Grant Wistrom, would choose Nebraska over Missouri. I think John Garrison describes the intangibles that Nebraska has and others only wish they had. One of the big ones is being able to see a .500 season as a life lesson, even if it was an anomaly in a sterling football tradition over half a century. Only a Cornhusker can use a program low as a carrot stick for a return to greater heights. Nebraska - there is no other place like it, Matt Miller, St. Louis, Missouri
With the Big Ten season approaching, I am a South "O" (Omaha) guy living in Des Moines. Whenever customers come into my store wearing a Hawkeye shirt, I tell them that I predict the score (for the day after Thanksgiving game) to be 27-7. They all laugh and say: "The Huskers are going to beat us worse than that!" Bill Diaz, Des Moines, Iowa