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Nebraska Prepped Taylor Well for NFL Job

By Brian Rosenthal

He’d sit in his accounting class, admittedly confused, or in his economics class, unclear of exactly what was transpiring.

All Zac Taylor cared about was diving into his Nebraska football playbook.

“I can remember those thoughts throughout the course of my college life,” Taylor said, “where I’m sitting in a class, I’m in over my head with whatever’s being taught, and all I want to do is get ready for practice.”

Without realizing it on the surface, deep down, Taylor surmises that’s when he knew he’d someday be a head coach.

“When you have that mindset,” he said, “it tends to steer you down this path.”

Fast-forward 14 years. We don’t know if Taylor keeps a balanced checkbook or can explain what affects gas prices, but we’re about to eagerly watch a 35-year-old former Nebraska quarterback embark on his first career head coaching job.

Taylor, in a phone interview, took time out from his search for a defensive coordinator to discuss his decade-long journey to becoming head coach of the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, a hire made official on Feb. 4.

Taylor, a native of Norman, Oklahoma, started at quarterback under former Husker coach Bill Callahan from 2005-06 and earned Big 12 Conference Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2006, when Nebraska won the Big 12 North Division. In 2017, Taylor was inducted into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame.

Without question, Taylor says his time at Nebraska influenced his desire to coach and laid the foundation for a career that began as a graduate assistant at Texas A&M in 2008, and continued as an NFL assistant with the Miami Dolphins and the Los Angeles Rams, with a stop in between as offensive coordinator at the University of Cincinnati.

Throughout all of his stops, Taylor has learned one important common thread: The importance of establishing a positive culture.

“I think I’ve learned it from every person I’ve played under and coached under,” Taylor said. “The way that Bill Callahan would build me up in front of the team, even when I think I wasn’t playing very well. He would say, privately, things to me that would let me know where I stood, but publicly he was always quick to praise and build you up in front of the team so that the team had confidence in you.

“That is something that has always stuck with me, was the way that he handled the quarterbacks. I’ve always felt a great deal of gratitude because I think he got the best out of me.”

Taylor also built a strong relationship with his offensive coordinator at Nebraska, Jay Norvell, who was equally positive.

“I always loved Jay’s passion,” he said. “Jay’s wife, Kim, would always call me on Sunday morning after every game. I’ve never forgot that. She’d call after a loss or a win, and just show her appreciation.

“You always felt Jay had your best interest in mind. We built a relationship in recruiting, but we built one much closer as he coached me.”

Taylor also admired strength and conditioning coach Dave Kennedy -- “you talk about mental toughness,” he said – and remembered volleyball coach John Cook periodically visiting the weight room and talking to football players, sometimes gauging their opinions.

“That always stuck with me,” Taylor said, “that John Cook would come in there and have those conversations with us.”

On the field, Taylor’s most memorable moments were victories over Colorado and Michigan to end the 2005 season, and the 2006 victory at Texas A&M, when Taylor guided the Huskers to a winning touchdown drive in the final minute, capping it with a fade pass to Maurice Purify with 21 seconds to play.

But Taylor’s lowest moment as a Husker has probably had more influence on his coaching career than any of those victories.

To this day, Taylor has never watched tape of Nebraska’s 21-7 loss to Oklahoma in the 2006 Big 12 Championship game in Kansas City. He doesn’t have to. He says he can recite every single play from memory.

“Trust me. I can remember every throw. I can remember them all,” Taylor said. “I coach my quarterbacks now off of mistakes I made in that game, to be honest with you. They probably get sick of hearing it.

“But those are things I’ve taken with me, and I don’t want anybody else to feel that regret. So I make sure they’re aware of my mistakes.”

In that same manner, Taylor learned more about himself as a coach in one bad season at the University of Cincinnati than he did in any of his successful NFL seasons, including this year’s Super Bowl trip as the Rams’ quarterbacks coach.

In 2016, Taylor coached an offense that ranked No. 99 among FBS teams. The Bearcats finished 4-8, and the school fired head coach Tommy Tuberville.

Taylor calls it “the best experience” of this coaching career.

“I needed that more than anything, because you learn more from the adversity and who you are and who you need to be,” Taylor said. “I think if everything’s easy, if you’re winning championships every year of your career, and you’ve never faced real adversity, then you don’t know how you’re going to respond when you face it.

“That stop at Cincinnati was just part of my journey. I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot of things I needed to change from a coaching standpoint, how I coached the players, how we installed. The standards that we had were not high enough, and so you learn from that and you build on it.

“I’m not the coach I’m going to be 10 years from now. I can promise you that. You just have to make sure you learn from everything and try to gain your experience that way.”

He’s learned from Sean McVay, head coach of the Rams. He’s leaned on his father-in-law, Mike Sherman, the former coach at Texas A&M and Green Bay. From his time with the Dolphins, Taylor formed a strong connection with assistant Ken O’Keefe, who’s since returned to Iowa as quarterbacks coach, and views him as a coaching mentor.

“I’ve been lucky,” Taylor said, “to be around a lot of good people in the last 10 years.”

Taylor is currently hiring the remainder of his coaching staff. He’s careful to select people he knows and trusts, coaches who will fit his positive culture and relate well with players. He wants good teachers and good communicators who create a lot of positive energy. Among his current assistants is Brian Callahan, son of Bill Callahan.

Taylor himself is working on building relationships with current players.

“I’m not going to come in here and rip into a guy when there’s no trust there, there’s no relationship there,” Taylor said. “They don’t know anything about me, and I don’t know anything about them, and just making this black and white statement about something they didn’t do well, I don’t think that’s the right way to build a team or a culture or a foundation for growth.”

“It starts with building a relationship, and once you build a relationship, you understand what they’re being asked to do. Once you build that relationship and that trust, then you’re able to coach the way you need to coach.” 

Throughout the years, Taylor has appreciated being able to reconnect with other former Huskers in the coaching profession. He played with offensive lineman Greg Austin, now Nebraska’s offensive line coach, and Joe Ganz, the quarterbacks coach at Youngstown State. Taylor speaks often with Daniel Bullocks, defensive backs coach with the San Francisco 49ers, and Cody Glenn, a high school coach in Houston.

“That just speaks to the people that come through that program, honestly,” Taylor said. “It’s guys who do things the right way and are good football people, so they get into coaching.”

Taylor first met Scott Frost when Frost was a graduate assistant at Kansas State and would return to Nebraska. He coached against him the year Taylor coached at Cincinnati and Frost was at UCF.

“I think the world of Scott,” Taylor said, “and I’m very happy with where Nebraska is at with him.”

Likewise, Frost thinks highly of Taylor, who married Sherman’s daughter, Sarah, when Sherman coached the Green Bay Packers, and Frost was a member of the team.

“It’s kind of a Nebraska quarterback brotherhood that exists with most of us,” Frost said. “All I know about Zac is that he is a football guy. Everything I’ve ever heard about him is how much he loves the game, so he would be a reason to try and root for him and Cincinnati a little bit, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

After completing his staff, Taylor will zone in on the NFL combine, then free agency, then the NFL Draft.

His goal for his first year as head coach?

“Establish our culture,” Taylor said. “Once the players walk through that door, let the players feel that energy and what we’re about and the standards we’re going to set and the communication we expect to have, what they should expect from our coaches and what we expect from them. That’s priority number one.

“Right now, we’re evaluating our own roster, just making sure we know the strengths and the weaknesses. Things will always change from year to year and we need to make sure we have total ownership on the players in this building and that we’re making the right decisions going forward.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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