- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2002

The Gator Alumni Association is meeting for a few days at the Redskins' minicamp, allowing new coach Steve Spurrier to get acquainted and re-acquainted with his players. Wide receivers Reidel Anthony, Jacquez Green and Chris Doering and quarterback Danny Wuerffel, recent free-agent signees, all played for Spurrier at Florida. Perhaps joining them at some point will be Bears quarterback Shane Matthews and running back Errict Rhett, who wants a tryout. And there might be others; the NFL Draft is a few weeks away.
Spurrier's preference for his old players has been noted with interest, if not amusement, around the league. But he is not the first coach jumping from college to the pros to surround himself with familiar faces. While not exactly a tradition, the idea of establishing a comfort zone has precedent.
Frank Kush did it with the Baltimore Colts and Darryl Rogers with the Detroit Lions. Dennis Erickson and Butch Davis brought in several of their own players to Seattle and Cleveland, respectively, and so, to a lesser extent, did Steve Mariucci in San Francisco.
Then there is Jimmy Johnson, the best of the college-to-NFL breed. Before Johnson left the University of Miami to replace Tom Landry as Dallas' coach in 1989, the Cowboys had exactly one Miami player in the 29-year history of the franchise. Coincidentally, it was wide receiver Michael Irvin, a first-rounder in 1988, who played for Johnson in college.
But Irvin soon would have a lot of company. By Johnson's third year, he had drafted six ex-Hurricanes, adding a total of nine former Miami players.
Johnson had won a national championship at Miami in 1987, but still had to do a selling job. At first, former Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman said, it was a little bit "unsettling" to the non-Miami players because they did not have a pre-existing relationship with Johnson. Eventually, the loyalty of Johnson's former players, including` Irvin, contributed to the Cowboys' success.
"Early on, you heard how nobody had been successful coming out of college," said Aikman, an NFL analyst for Fox. 'That's what Jimmy was facing and he was [determined] on proving he could do it. He brought that collegiate mentality at a time the old guard was saying, 'You can practice that way, you can't work that hard.' Jimmy said to [heck] with that, and the guys he brought in, I think they really helped. There was still some grumbling, but they were so loyal to him they acted as a buffer."
Other than defensive linemen Jimmie Jones and Russell Maryland, few of the Miami imports did much on the field. Dallas won because of Aikman, Irvin, Emmitt Smith and others, not because of ex-Hurricanes Steve Walsh, Randy Shannon, Alonzo Highsmith, Daniel Stubbs, Alfredo Roberts and Mike Sullivan. In fact, when Johnson took Walsh in the supplemental draft in 1989, it was somewhat unnerving to Aikman, who was coming off a brutal rookie season after Dallas made him the first pick in the draft.
"It created a little bit of tension," Aikman said. "We had two quarterbacks competing, and one guy [Walsh] had won a national championship for that coach in college."
But Johnson was smart enough not to let his personal relationship with Walsh get in the way and quickly recognized which quarterback was better. Aikman went on to help Johnson win a pair of Super Bowls.
Erickson followed Johnson at Miami and won two national championships before leaving to coach the Seahawks in 1995. In Seattle's 19-year history before Erickson's arrival, eight ex-Hurricanes had played for the Seahawks. During his four seasons, Erickson added seven more, all free agents.
The best were linebacker Darrin Smith, who had played for Johnson in Dallas, and safety Darryl Williams, who came from the Cincinnati Bengals (Pro Bowl defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy had played for Johnson at Miami and was already there). Smith and Williams started, and Williams even made the Pro Bowl. The list of non-notables includes Coleman Bell, Patrick Riley, C.J. Richardson and Gino Torretta.
Erickson, who has since made a successful return to college as coach at Oregon State, defends the practice. Even the lesser players contributed, he said, on special teams or just by their presence.
"You really know what kind of players they are," Erickson said. "The ones we brought in, we knew how they played. That's the first thing. Secondly, you know they're gonna bust their [butt] for you because they did that in college. You've developed a pretty good relationship with them. They know what it takes to be successful. And you can trust them in the locker room."
Erickson said he didn't have high expectations for most of his former players. He knew what he was getting. But somebody needs to play on special teams and fill out the practice squad. As for Torretta, the quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy in 1992 and went on to have a miserable professional career, Erickson said, "Gino was by default. We got all our quarterbacks hurt."
"The one thing about free agents is, 95 percent of them don't make it," Erickson said. "I'd rather bring in a free agent that I know, instead of somebody I know nothing about. You know they're gonna bust their butts in practice. So, yeah, I played favorites for the practice squad. But I'm not gonna take a guy in the first or second or third round just because I coached him."
During Erickson's tenure, the Seahawks drafted just one of his Miami players, cornerback Carlos Jones. A seventh-round pick in 1997, Jones didn't make the team. Ultimately, said Erickson, there is no room for sentimentality.
"The core [of ex-Hurricanes that played] were guys who could play," he said. "I brought some practice guys in and guys I thought I had some potential, but I ended up cutting them all."
It was easy to bring in former Miami players because for two decades the program has cranked out pros on an assembly line. This has not escaped the notice of Butch Davis. A former Cowboys assistant, Davis replaced Erickson at Miami and coached the Hurricanes for six seasons before returning to the NFL as the Browns' coach in 2001.
Immediately, Cleveland felt the Miami effect. Davis took two of his former Hurricanes, running back James Jackson and wide receiver Andre King, in last year's draft, and added free agents Michael Smith, Richard Mercier and ex-Redskin Derrick Ham. All played for Davis in Miami. Then a few weeks ago, former Redskins defensive lineman Kenard Lang got a $3.4million bonus to sign a free-agent contract and play for his old coach.
Davis has added six of his Miami players to the Browns' roster. In Cleveland's first two seasons, before Davis, there were two ex-Hurricanes.
Talent clearly matters. And because of that, coaches from programs a cut or two below Miami seemed less inclined to renew old acquaintances. San Diego's Bobby Ross (Georgia Tech), Minnesota's Dennis Green (Stanford) and Jacksonville's Tom Coughlin (Boston College) showed little or no sentimentality. Oklahoma was a power under Barry Switzer, but not a major producer of pro material, and Switzer added just three of his former players in four seasons after he replaced Johnson in Dallas in 1994.
Mariucci had a decent team during his one year at California before replacing George Seifert as the 49ers' coach in 1997. Since 1998, the Niners have signed four former Mariucci players or recruits, including defensive end Andre Carter, a first-round draft pick last year.
Some coaches from strong programs have resisted the temptation entirely. Dan Devine imported none of his former players after he left Notre Dame for the Green Bay Packers in 1971. Kush and Rogers, on the other hand, tried to take advantage of the talent they had at Arizona State.
Kush, fired in 1979 after striking his punter, was one of the most successful college coaches ever. For years, Arizona State was a pipeline to the pros. After spending a season in Canada, Kush became the Colts' coach in 1982 and turned them into ASU West. No fewer than nine of his former Sun Devils ended up on the Colts' roster at some point during Kush's three seasons. In the 29 preceding years since joining the league, Baltimore had four ex-Arizona State players.
None was a marquee name, and Kush would last fewer than three years with the Colts, but he insists it was the right thing to do.
"It's a good policy because they set the standards for the other players," he said. "It's a smooth transition, both for the players and the coaching staff. When you have a new staff, the players have no idea of the philosophy. But having your former players, they know what to expect. The transition is a lot quicker and more fruitful for both parties."
Unfortunately for Kush, those who served him so well in college were no more than adequate. The list includes Newton Williams, Bernard Henry, Tony Loia and Kendall Williams. Who? But it wasn't only Kush's former players; the Colts were suffering from a roster-wide lack of talent.
Ex-Arizona Statge quarterback Mike Pagel was forced to start as a rookie in 1982 and continued as a starter in 1983 after John Elway refused to sign and was traded to Denver. Pagel wasn't ready and struggled, although he later became a decent backup with Cleveland. Vernon Maxwell, an All-American linebacker at Arizona State recruited by Kush, was the 29th pick of the 1983 draft but never reached his potential. Meanwhile, Kush was fired late in 1984 after the team had moved to Indianapolis.
"Were they gonna be superstars?" said Kush. "No. But they were quality people. They'd do the things you'd want. If you don't have anybody better, you take what you can get."
Rogers, who followed Kush at Arizona State, parlayed a great, four-year run with the Sun Devils into the Detroit Lions' coaching job in 1984. He got the Lions to sign Maxwell after the Colts released him and kept right on going. In all, the Lions signed eight of Rogers' former players during his three seasons. From 1930 to 1984, the Lions had six Arizona State players.
But a qualifier must be added. Rogers recruited some of his ex-Sun Devils as replacement players in 1987, the strike year. That explains the likes of Todd Hons, Mark Hicks and Jim Warne. The Lions in 1987 also drafted Arizona State nose guard Dan Saleamua, who went to have a fine career, albeit with Kansas City. But Maxwell didn't pan out, nor did cornerback Duane Galloway, who also played for Rogers at Arizona State.
Rogers, now athletic director at Southern Connecticut State, makes no excuses. A running back he got from the Colts, Alvin Moore, "played his heart out," Rogers said. Asked if he got all those Sun Devils because he knew them, he quickly replied, "You're darn right. I knew Dan Saleamua. I knew Duane Galloway. I knew Vernon Maxwell. Nobody else wanted him.
"I knew them all. I'd seen the kid, seen the film, seen them personally. Most of them were special team guys, and I'll tell you what: They were a lot better than what I had."
And that's the bottom line. For Spurrier's ex-Gators to stick around, they will have to be better than what the Redskins had.


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