The last time he backtracked into college football from the pros, Tim Lappano thought the guy who hired him was crazy.
Not that he confided as much when the call came.
You may have shared that opinion at the time. It was six years ago, after the Seattle Seahawks had pulled the plug on the Dennis Erickson era so they could move on to the unbridled success of Coach Backdoor – or is that Backstab? – and his merry dysfunctionals. Erickson looked long and hard at the landscape of his profession and decided his next stop would be … Oregon State University.
Where there hadn’t been a winning football team in 28 years.
“Honestly, I thought he was out of his mind,” said Lappano. “I go down there and look at the place and I’m thinking, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me – what are we doing here?’ I wasn’t exactly jumping up and down. I realize my ego was a little hurt – I’d worked myself into the National Football League and here we were back at a place that hadn’t been successful for decades.
“Of course, it turned out to be a great move.”
It was the next move that proved to be the face plant, which led directly to this latest move – to the University of Washington to be Tyrone Willingham’s offensive coordinator. Here Lappano finds a beaten-down bunch coming off a 1-10 season, four quarterbacks on an Oz-like quest for their various missing parts and a high-maintenance fan base increasingly inclined to think of the place as a basketball school.
Nonetheless, the opportunity would have Lappano jumping up and down, if that were his new boss’ style.
But Ty is to taciturn what the ocean is to wet. So Lappano leaves it at this:
“I stood on this sideline and got my brains beat in many times,” said Lappano, whose coaching stops at three other Pacific-10 Conference schools have demanded detours through Husky Stadium. “I know the tradition here. It’s been done. It can be done again.”
But it’s tough to do without a quarterback, and so Lappano’s priority during UW’s ongoing spring drills is to winnow the Gang of Four – Casey Paus, Carl Bonnell, Isaiah Stanback and newcomer Johnny DuRocher – at least in half. He must retool the offense into one of those do-everything hybrids with as much or more emphasis on two-back formations as one-back. He must mine some physicality and toughness out of an offensive line that betrayed neither last season.
“People ask me if we have the people to do this,” he said. “I think we do.
“Being able to get into two backs and come downhill on a defense creates an attitude. That’s what we’ll be trying to do with this football team. We have a lot of work to do, but I think we’re capable of it.”
The man sees nothing but possibility at the moment, and why shouldn’t he?
“I go back to my year at Purdue,” Lappano said, “when we inherited a wishbone team that had won three games. We come in and spread the field, pass the ball, went to a bowl game and won it. It shows you what’s possible.”
There is a small knot of guys from Spokane who continue to make their way in the world of Division I coaching, Lappano among them. A few years ago, it seemed like every one of them had ascended to either head coach or a coordinator’s position. We were the cradle of coordinators.
“It was unbelievable, really,” said Lappano. “We all came out of an era of guys who loved the game and had a passion for it, which is what you have to have if you want to coach.”
But this past winter more than half of them changed jobs through choice or necessity, the everyday peril of the college/pro coach. No one should know the routine better by now than Lappano, who is 24 years into the chase.
He was on his sixth different coaching job before he and his family bought their first house – which they wound up putting on the market less than a year later. This was after he’d followed Joe Tiller (“he gave me a job when I didn’t have one”) to Purdue, only to have Erickson call with that first NFL opportunity. He’s on his fourth different job since.
It’s not because he’s bad at it.
His new gig more or less serves as his stab at “getting off the carousel,” surely a relative concept in the carnival that is the coaching profession. When Erickson and his staff were fired last winter after their second at-bat in the NFL with San Francisco, Lappano faced a choice.
“I had to make a decision for my family,” he said. “I had a chance to go back to the NFL and chose not to. You have to be willing in the pro game to get on that carousel and live wherever. That might be New York one year, Dallas the next, Seattle the next. You’ve got to be willing to move around. I wanted to go somewhere and let my kids enjoy the same high school. They need that stability and they deserve it.
“If I want to go back to the NFL, I’ll do that when they’re out of high school. I’ll be old and crusty then and I can move around and do that.”
That didn’t make getting fired any easier, especially when he felt that the Niners organization hadn’t given the staff either the tools or the autonomy to be remotely competitive.
“I’ve been doing this for 24 years and that was the hardest season I’ve ever had in my life,” he said.
“I don’t care if you get Vince Lombardi in there, they’re going to struggle. Steve Mariucci wasn’t the problem and Dennis wasn’t the problem.
“I couldn’t do that again. It’s too hard on you. You’re working 15, 16 hours a day – you’ve got to be able to compete. It’s no fun. You’ve got to be able to enjoy it. There’s nothing fun when you’re 2-14 in the NFL.
“But I don’t imagine going 1-10 in this town was much fun, either.”
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