BERKELEY -- When the current California football staff came to Berkeley, collectively, the vast majority of their experience had been in the South. Football culture in Texas and the southeast is, to say the least, markedly different from what one finds on the West Coast, California in particular. Football is a way of life, a calling, and, as Bears head coach Sonny Dykes said when he first took the job: “When you grow up in Texas … you think we invented football and we’re the only ones who know anything about football and everybody else is an imposter and we’re the only ones who have tradition and all that.”
But, Dykes then altered course: “Then, you get out here, and you say, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of tradition here and there’s a passionate fan base and there’s people that have been attending Cal games for generations.”
Still, the fact remains: In some regions of this nation, position coaches are the bishops, coordinators the cardinals and head coaches, pontiffs.
Their words, commands and orders take on the trappings of Papal bulls. Their word is nothing short of The Word.
“My earlier jobs, before I got there, being a coach was a little bit different, a little bit more – I guess – militant: Disciplinarian types,” says newly-hired Bears defensive backs coach Greg Burns.
That’s not the case out West. For all the innovation that the West Coast has developed in the game of football, the roots of those innovations have come from a singular question: Why? Why does an offense have to go three yards in a cloud of dust? Why does an effective passing game have to be completely vertical? Why is speed solely the province of receivers and running backs? Why not go faster? Why not be quicker?
According to several sources, personality clashes from last season, which led to some players transferring and others to declare early for the NFL Draft came from a disconnect between the way the current staff was used to doing things, and the way that a team comprised of mostly West Coast players operated between the ears.
In that great West Coast tradition – and indeed, in the tradition of the University of California, Berkeley – Dykes and his staff asked themselves, ‘Why?’
[READ MORE: Transcript of Cal Coaching Roundtable]
Dykes spent the holiday break watching every single practice from spring and fall, and every minute of every game, no matter how painful the experience. That led to some revelation.
“I kind of felt like I needed to do that, to be able to make some of the decisions – some important decisions – regarding the program,” Dykes says.
One of those decisions was to change up the defensive coaching staff. Enter: Burns and defensive coordinator Art Kaufman. Exit: Randy Stewart and Barry Sacks.
When Dykes began searching for a new defensive backs coach, he didn’t look for coaches he’d coached with. He looked for coaches who frustrated him.
“These are important hires,” Dykes says. “It’s kind of a make-it-or-break-it deal for us.”
So, Dykes went back, and looked for coaches who frustrated him the most in the past. He remembered his time going against the Arizona State defense while with Arizona – a defense coached by Burns.
“Greg just had a lot of experience in this league and I had a lot of respect for the way […] I played against his teams at Arizona State when he was there, and they were a pain in the ass,” says Dykes. “They just played good, solid, fundamental football and kept the ball in front, tackled, played with attitude – all the stuff you want a secondary to do.”
Before Burns coached in Tempe, Ariz., though, he was a part of some of the most storied USC teams in recent memory, coaching the Trojans defensive backfield from 2002-05 under Pete Carroll -- the same Pete Carroll who just won the Super Bowl, and the same Pete Carroll who Dykes met with in person during Cal’s trip up to Seattle this past season to face Washington.
With Burns in his sights, Dykes went to Carroll.
“I talked to Pete Carroll, and he had some great things to say,” Dykes says. “It was via text message. It was actually before the week I think they played the 49ers, so I thought that was pretty impressive. I thought, ‘The guy must really like this guy,’ (laughing). He’s texting me stuff the week before [the NFC title game].”
Burns was as much Carroll’s pupil in the bushido of defense as the players, but what he learned most of all from Carroll was that there is more than one way to coach.
“You can be successful doing it a little bit different,” Burns says. “Pete was the first time I had an opportunity to see the complete opposite [of disciplinarian coaching], to where you’re having fun, yet, you’re teaching and still requiring them to be successful and do the things they’re supposed to do.
“I think one of the other things that I’ve learned, from a professional standpoint, is to better understand myself, which, in turn, will get the players to understand who you are and what you’re about, which gives them the ability to play for you. Nowadays, kids are not just necessarily doing what a coach asks; they want to know why. The ability to communicate with them and make them understand that they’re a part of the progress, versus they’re just sitting there and being the ‘Yessir, no sir’ guys. That was something that was a little bit different for me.”
Instead of giving orders, Burns prefers to have a dialogue, so that all parties involved – players and coaches – collaborate in the task of winning football games.
“The way I teach players is, it’s not as simple as, ‘Alright, this is cover-3, this is what you do.’ I try to teach concepts,” Burns says. “I try to teach them so that, when it’s all said and done, we can have conversations and use trigger terms, so that we can understand each other faster and better.”
Where will Burns start?
“One of the biggest things is just to initially create an identity, in general: What do you want people to think about you? Your actions are what you have to show for it,” he says. “The biggest thing is, I’m not necessarily worrying about the opponents, right now. It’s, ‘Let’s create our identity, whatever that is, and force other people to deal with us.’”
Self-discovery? Understanding? Talking things out? Now that sounds like it belongs in Berkeley.