MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- It started to get out of hand when a playbook disappeared a few years ago. It got ridiculous when West Virginia football operations director Mike Kerin spotted a couple of high school coaches rifling through the staff's mail bin.
"It was like, 'Hey, fellas, c'mon.'" Kerin said.
|Rich Rodriguez's scheme -- the read option -- helped the Mountaineers capture the Nokia Sugar Bowl last January. (Getty Images)|
Until you get here. Rodriguez has few company secrets. This spring, it's open house at West Virginia. Coaches from all over the country are finding Morgantown (and it isn't easy) to borrow -- or is it steal? -- from the hottest program in the country.
"I don't see it unlike a bunch of guys being at a ... convention sitting around trading ideas, helping each other's company," Rodriguez said.
Run that last statement by Joe Paterno, and he might choke on his whistle. Jim Tressel might actually emote.
Frankly, West Virginia's native son of a coal miner doesn't care. Rodriguez figures that whatever visiting coaches take away -- short of playbooks and mail maybe -- he will still be able to beat you.
"Schemes are a little overrated," he said.
The scheme in question this spring is the read option. Yeah, you've read and heard all about it. Or have you? All four BCS bowl winners (Penn State, Texas, Ohio State and West Virginia) used some version of it. But Rodriguez's is perhaps the only program in the country to execute a power running game out of the spread.
Freshman Steve Slaton ran for 1,128 yards and 17 touchdowns out of it. More amazing, freshman quarterback Patrick White ran for a Big East quarterback record 952 yards. West Virginia finished No. 4 nationally in rushing.
The open-door policy hasn't changed. The perception of West Virginia has. The program is this offseason's pinup girl, sexy -- and friendly. Expected to start 2006 in the same place it finished 2005, ranked in the top five.
There's much more at work than just copying an offense. West Virginia made a huge case for Big East credibility by beating SEC champ Georgia, which was essentially playing a home game, in the Sugar Bowl.
What's next? Possibly two Big East teams in the preseason top 10. The conference -- and national championship race -- might come down to a November meeting in Louisville between the Cardinals and Mountaineers.
College football is bracing. Urban Meyer has been here. Good friend Jeff Tedford of Cal brought his new offensive coordinator, Mike Dunbar. Texas A&M came through this week. As a professional post-bowl courtesy, the Georgia and West Virginia staffs have exchanged ideas over the phone after the epic meeting.
When coaches from uber-rival Penn State showed up, Rodriguez remembers thinking, "The walls are going to crumble now. Penn State actually coming here. We're talking ball. We're actually sharing ideas."
Eight-hundred-forty high school coaches came for West Virginia's coaching clinic, almost double the number from 2005. They set up in the Mountaineers' indoor facility. When it began to rain, 840 chairs were re-located while the Mountaineers came inside to practice.
"It was wild when I first got here (2001)," said Rodriguez, a former walk-on for Don Nehlen. "There was a debate whether we should even have a clinic. We had maybe 140 (coaches). But you win one bowl game and it's pretty productive."
But what price popularity, success and hospitality? Miami, Rodriguez said, has hired lip readers to scope out coaches on the sidelines during a game. He pulled out a sheet culled from an opposing team's assistant coaches booth labeled "West Virginia Signals 2005."
"That's what we did five years ago," Rodriguez said pointing to one play.
Good, that West Virginia now matters. Bad, that teams are catching on. Still, it's refreshing to find a coach secure enough in his football manhood to allow his peers a peek behind the curtain.
The approach has worked so far. It's not too far a stretch to suggest Rodriguez is the father of the zone read (quarterback keeps, reads the defensive end and either hands off, keeps or passes).
Back in the early '90s when Rodriguez was at Glenville (W. Va.) State, quarterback Jed Drenning kept the ball on a busted play. Rodriguez asked him what happened. Nothing, and everything. The zone read was "born."
It appeared nationally in 1998 when Tulane, with Rodriguez as Tommy Bowden's offensive coordinator, went undefeated. Quarterback Shaun King set the NCAA season pass-efficiency record playing half a season with a broken left wrist.
That success led to Bowden and his OC moving to Clemson, where Woody Dantzler was more of a tailback playing quarterback. That led to Rodriguez taking over his alma mater after only four years as a I-A assistant.
Most impressive: Rodriguez has been able to shape his scheme to his personnel. He has directed wild-eyed passing attacks at Glenville State (where the team threw 60 times a game) and a punishing ground game.
Just don't use the f-word when you see the shotgun and triple-option fakes.
"When I used to see spread, I'd think soft-ass," said West Virginia offensive line coach Rick Trickett, a former Marine. "I became a part of it with Rich. My name is never going to be tagged with soft -- ever."
Northwestern swooped into town after the '98 season and took Tulane's entire offensive package. The spread spread throughout the Big Ten. Clemson continued to run it in the ACC. Rodriguez brought it to the Big East, winning at least a share of the past three conference titles.
Dr. Frankenstein still smiles, confidently. The man who started a garage group now directs U2. Let the cover bands take their shots.
"The more it's out there, the more people learn how to defend it," Rodriguez said. "It was nice when nobody else was doing it. Now, let's face the facts. More people are doing it. You've got to have the next answer."