Sunday, September 9, 2012
G reg Schiano takes great delight in pushing players hard on the practice field but does not allow them to show any signs of being tired. --- No hands on the hips. Don't bend at the waist. Try not to even breathe hard. --- Giving in to fatigue is a sign of mental weakness, and the body language tells an opponent you're defeated. --- Schiano is as physically challenging to play for as any coach worth his whistle, with three-hour padded workouts, nonstop station-to-station drills, and a my-way-or-the-highway mentality that says winning will occur only if you work hard enough. Just don't let anyone know you're running on fumes. --- "I think what happens is when you're playing a team that doesn't show fatigue," Schiano said, "you start to wonder, 'Are these guys human?' "
Schiano's message was amplified during the offseason, when he jettisoned three players he believed would not buy into his approach: safety Tanard Jackson, tight end Kellen Winslow and defensive tackle Brian Price.
Jackson was released, signed by the Redskins and last week suspended indefinitely by the league for his third positive test for a banned substance. Winslow was traded to Seattle for a seventh-round pick, a deal voided when he didn't make the team. Price was dealt to Chicago for a seventh-rounder but released.
Schiano's approach wasn't any different during his 11 seasons at Rutgers, where he transformed one of the historically weak Division I-A programs into a perennial Big East contender. He changed the culture, weeded out the nonbelievers, taught players how to work and how to always do things the right way and pushed them to a breaking point — and beyond.
"I went home from practice and wanted to transfer," said quarterback Mike Teel, who led Rutgers to an 11-2 record in 2006. "I hated the guy.
"As time goes on, he's going to push you to the max and get everything out of you — good and bad — and you're going to learn a lot about yourself. He weeded out the guys who weren't going to buy into the vision."
Schiano admits he wasn't sure what he was getting into when he interviewed with the Glazer family for the Bucs coaching job, but he knew he wanted the challenge. After turning down college jobs at Michigan and Miami, he figured he would be at Rutgers for the long haul.
But when he heard Oregon coach Chip Kelly had been offered the Bucs job, he grew angry.
"I didn't know what was going on with my candidacy. Then I heard in the evening that Chip was going to get the job," Schiano said. "That's when I realized I really wanted the job because I was mad I wasn't getting it.
"All the other jobs that came down the road, I pulled out because I didn't think it was the right thing or for whatever reason. That showed me this was something I really did want. This one, I was not as much sick as I was angry because I wanted that job."
Coaching wasn't the direction Schiano was headed after he graduated from I-AA Bucknell, the linebacker having won the Bison award as the team's most valuable player. He was offered a tryout by a Canadian Football League team while preparing to attend law school.
"I said, 'You're young. You're single. Now is the time to test the waters," said Mike Miello, Schiano's high school coach and the first assistant he hired at Rutgers. "You're going to take the LSATs anyway. If the worst-case scenario is you come back, you coach with me as you prepare for law school and go on your way.
"He made it to the last cut (in the CFL), comes back and coaches. I came home the first day of double sessions and told my wife, 'Guess what? This kid is never going to see a day of law school.' I said he's out there like he's been there 20 years. He's a natural.
"And she starts giving me hell because, 'Don't you influence him! Leave him alone!' I said, 'I'm not saying a word. I'm just telling you.' "
Looking back, even Schiano isn't surprised he wound up in coaching.
"As a kid, I was the one usually organizing the kickball games or picking the teams or raking the field so we could go play baseball or whatever season it was," Schiano said. "I look back, and it's probably not a shock this is what I'm doing."
Schiano's rules don't stop with telling players not to look fatigued. Upon arriving in Tampa Bay on Jan. 27, he asked players not to text, insisting they engage in oral communication while at One Buc Place.
He completely reorganized the locker room, mixing positions and personalities with a seating chart that paired quarterback Josh Freeman with guard Ted Larsen and veteran Ronde Barber with third-year running back LeGarrette Blount. Players conduct warmups in a perfectly straight formation ("Toes on the line!"), like a marching band in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
He insists quarterbacks wear a knee brace on their front leg (left for right-handed throwers), because it is the one extended during pass plays and the most vulnerable to injury. He controls the thermostat in team meeting rooms at hotels so players will stay alert. He hung a digital clock in the locker room to count down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the next game.
"Coach Schiano has a vision," Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "Here's a straight line, and if you're not on it, he's going to make sure you get back on it."
Although one of his mentors is Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the style is more Lombardi.
"He's not being tough to make himself look like a bully," Miello said. "He's being tough so they realize that the results will benefit them. If he toughens them up mentally and physically and teaches them how to give their maximum effort all the time — which is not an easy job on any level — they have a (really) good shot."
There's news for any Bucs player who hopes Schiano won't rule with such an iron fist in years to come.
"As far as from a mental standpoint and challenging them every day, that's not going to change," Schiano said. "I tell the guys all the time that we're chasing an unattainable goal, and that's perfection. You're never going to get it. I think that's where maybe there's a little bit of a learning curve. What does this guy want? And it's not that I want anything, it's just that's how we do it."
There have been many heavy-handed, disciplinarian coaches in the NFL with mixed results — from Belichick, Bill Parcells, Tom Coughlin and Ray Perkins to Frank Kush and Les Steckel.
But two things about Schiano don't get enough attention. He spent three seasons as a defensive assistant with the Bears and faced a much bigger challenge than turning the Bucs around when he built Rutgers.
"I won't have the time to do what I did (at Rutgers) here. But quite frankly, I've been down a road that was much more uphill than this one. Not that this one is easy by any means, but I think we have some talented players here. I know they believe they can win, and I believe they can win."
Trust. Belief. Accountability. That's what Schiano has preached since his introductory news conference. But for the hard exterior, there is a well-documented soft side to Schiano.
His devotion to former Rutgers defensive lineman Eric LeGrand, who was paralyzed in a game against Army in 2010, how he coached the Scarlet Knights by day and relieved LeGrand's mother at the hospital by night.
"Every time I would visit Eric, Coach Schiano was there," Teel said. "I don't know when he had time to coach his team."
Nor is Schiano a one-dimensional, career-obsessed coach who rarely has time for his family. His wife, three sons and daughter are supportive of his career, but any spare moments are reserved for them.
"My job is my hobby," Schiano said. "So other than working at my job, all I do is spend time with my wife and kids. I don't golf. I don't fish. I don't do any of that stuff. I have kids who are old enough to know what's going on. I like being with them.
"It isn't enough. I'm as guilty as the next coach in that I need to spend more time with them. It is a constant challenge. But recharge is the word. You get to hang out with them. They don't care if you've won or lost. It's just you are who you are to them, and that's the best."
Whether Schiano can bring the best out of NFL players with his strict discipline and controlling ways remains to be seen. But those who have played for him believe the hard work will pay off.
"Obviously, it's a lot different when you're telling an 18-year-old on scholarship to put his toes on the line instead of a five-time NFL Pro Bowler who is making millions of dollars," Teel said.
"It's going to be different. It's a business and all that stuff, but he'll find the guys who are going to buy in and do it the same way he did in college. He'll find guys willing to pay the price and do it the right way."
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected]