Giving up play-calling reins hard for some coaches

Some collegiate head coaches with offensive backgrounds, like USC's Lane Kiffin, prefer to call plays. But often it's better left to coordinators.

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 Lane Kiffin

USC Coach Lane Kiffin isn't about to delegate offensive play-calling duties to one of his assistant coaches. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times / September 7, 2013)

Hiring a staff and schmoozing with boosters was not the toughest thing Mike Bellotti had to do after he was hired as head coach at Oregon in 1995.

The toughest part was replacing the offensive coordinator, Mike Bellotti.

It meant giving up the thing he loved most about his job.

Bellotti had called plays from his days at Cal State Hayward in the early 1980s through his tenure as Oregon's coordinator under Rich Brooks.

"It was hard," Bellotti said this week. "It's the most fun. It's a rush when you call a play that works. You don't want to give that up."

Bellotti did give it up because he believed the Ducks would be better served if he acted as coach of the whole team. He didn't want to be so consumed with the laminated play sheet that he became disconnected from managing the game.

For example, he remembers that, when he was head coach at Chico State in the mid-'80s, he once forgot to call off a punt block because he was talking with his quarterback.

So when Bellotti got the Oregon job, he subjugated his ego and hired, over 14 seasons, the brightest offensive minds he could find. The group of coordinators included Jeff Tedford, Dirk Koetter, Al Borges, Gary Crowton, Andy Ludwig and Chip Kelly.

Bellotti led the Ducks to their first four 10-win seasons and to the brink of a national title in 2001, when they finished No. 2. He took the baton from Brooks and set the program on course to its present-day, Nike-fueled, uniformed-crazed greatness.

"I trusted the guys I hired," Bellotti said.

Kelly continued to call plays after he was promoted from offensive coordinator to replace Bellotti in 2009, and he nearly led Oregon to the Bowl Championship Series title the next season. But after Kelly left to take over the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, Mark Helfrich took over at Oregon and deferred the calls to assistant coach Scott Frost.

Bellotti says it is obviously possible to handle both duties, but he says coaches who do "give things up."

Many USC fans who watch Lane Kiffin with his nose glued to what looks like a Denny's menu hoped the Trojans coach would delegate some duties. Some thought handing in his own playbook would be part of Kiffin's major off-season overhaul in the wake of last year's 7-6 finish.

Kiffin, though, decided to keep calling plays. He loves it too much, and he's not alone.

A survey of this week's Associated Press poll showed that five of the nation's top 25 teams have coaches who call their own offensive plays: Jimbo Fisher for No. 8 Florida State, Steve Spurrier for No. 12 South Carolina, Steve Sarkisian for No. 17 Washington, Hugh Freeze for No. 21 Mississippi and Kliff Kingsbury for No. 25 Texas Tech.

Kingsbury, 34, has not yet finished his first month as a first-year head coach after coming over from Texas A&M. He said the early transition to head coach/play caller has been smooth.

"I have a defensive coordinator I completely trust," he said. "I would say I'm more in tune to what's going on. Instead of going over to my quarterback while my defense is out there I'm paying attention to that now, but not much else has changed."

Some top coaches don't call offensive plays because their expertise is defense. That group includes Alabama's Nick Saban, Florida's Will Muschamp, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Arizona State's Todd Graham, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Louisville's Charlie Strong.

Stanford's David Shaw and his staff have a nebulous play-calling-by-committee approach.

Barry Switzer, who won three national titles at Oklahoma, said there's a good reason head coaches should not call the offensive plays.

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