Jan. 15, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – It’s the early days of the spring semester, and a decent percentage of the Marshall football roster was lined up in the Shewey Building football offices Tuesday to meet a new professor.
Into a corner office they marched, one-by-one, morning and afternoon, to meet new Thundering Herd defensive coordinator Chuck Heater.
These are now Heater’s guys, especially the ones he will coach in the secondary. Coach Doc Holliday brought in his former national championship staff mate from Florida to fix what one of the nation’s worst defenses in 2012.
It’s a tough job, but Heater has the right surname and resume for it.
Heater, 60, has coached in 25 bowl games. Some of the Herd players have been to one (2011 Beef ‘O’ Brady’s).
He isn’t the wise old owl just because he came to Marshall after two seasons at Temple. He’s played and coached at the pinnacle of his sport. Marshall is his 12th coaching stop. Conference USA is his 11th league.
Heater is known as an aggressive teacher. Urban Meyer, his former BCS-busting and BCS-winning boss at Utah and Florida, respectively, used to sit in Heater’s position meetings to watch the veteran teach.
Here, he’s asking questions, looking at video – he had watched three Herd games from last season by noon Tuesday – and he says the answers aren’t difficult, if the players pay attention.
“I never liked confusion,” Heater said in a 20-minutes interview when asked if he feels like he coaches or teaches different from others in a game he loves. “I wanted clear concepts and precise teaching. And so I’ve always believed in keeping it really clear and clean. It shouldn’t be geometry and calculus; it needs to be clean for these guys.
“My taste has always been that way, probably too much to a fault. So when I teach, I teach in concepts, and I work really hard to get carry over. I try to not teach aberration, I try not to teach things that are so much different that require so much time. Sometimes there’s something you think you really like that’s a great idea and it represents about 5 percent of what you’re going to do and it takes up 50 percent of your time because it’s so different.
“I really work hard to try to keep things in concepts, regardless what package we’re in, nickel or dime or base or whatever, the concepts. And I don’t assume too much on what players retain, on what players can function with, in that 20 seconds (on the field) when things all happen, so I have a lot of respect for that. I kind of teach from that perspective, maybe sometimes to a fault.”
Heater has played and coached for legends. He has developed oodles of NFL players. And after years under the big top, at places like Notre Dame, Colorado, Washington, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Florida, he went to Temple in 2011 for the same reason he has moved to Marshall – he knew who was in charge.
It was former Florida assistant Steve Addazio – he just moved to Boston College as head coach – at Temple. Here, it is Holliday.
“The reason I went to Temple was I kind of made a clear directive in my mind a few years ago that if I could, I’d try to work with people I knew,” Heater said. “That’s why I went there. Here, Doc was a guy I worked with at Florida, so that piece was in place. And my sense is that we have good enough players to have success, and that’s important.
“The thing I know about Doc is he’s going to recruit good players. He’s been a sensational recruiter wherever he’s been, including Florida, so I felt like, OK, I did as much research as I could … I’m not sure of the dynamics that were here, not sure why they struggled on defense like they did. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that, but I think with what’s here, we can have success.
“I enjoy winning a lot more than that other part, and I felt like we could win here, and I wanted to play my role in it.
“And when you work with someone you know, you like to think there’s a mutual trust, a respect, he’s been with you in that arena before, with all of the pressures, all the moments you have, managing the problems you face, as things unfold things happen and they happen unexpectedly. Decisions come quickly, trying to solve problem. So, when you’re working with someone you know, there’s a comfort zone.”
He said that while Holliday’s presence in the big office next to his was crucial in the move, the Herd coach didn’t have to go into one of his patented recruiting pitches.
“I know Doc; he didn’t have to sell me,” said Heater, a star running back at Michigan for Coach Bo Schembechler in the early’ 70s. “It was more about did I want to trust what I think I’m seeing … trust my eyes.
“Doc is good at recruiting players. I trusted I can come in here and help him get this thing turned around on defense, because you’re never really going to win at any great level until you play defense. That’s every level, every league, and that’s the challenge we have. I’m a little bit encouraged that there’s enough here and there will be enough here to get that done, but proof is in the pudding.”
Heater, born in West Virginia (Weston) and reared in northeast Ohio (Tiffin), said he was interested in the Temple head coaching job when Addazio left in early December.
“I interviewed for it, but (head coaching) is not a passion for me,” he said. “I’m at a stage of the game where …. There was a time when it would have been a passion for me, but the reality is I enjoy coaching defense.
“I enjoy coaching players that I feel I can develop and have success, getting better from what the starting point is. I get great satisfaction from that, from just coaching, helping guys with their aspirations. And helping a good friend (Holliday) have good success.”
Heater certainly hopes the results are better for him than the last time he was involved in a football game in River City. In 1979, he was starting his third season on the Toledo staff (and first coaching the secondary). The Rockets visited Fairfield Stadium for a night opener and fell to the Herd, 31-14, before a then-record crowd (17,240) in Coach Sonny Randle’s MU debut.
That was the only game that Herd team won (1-10). Toledo finished 7-3-1.
“Yeah, at Toledo we had new staff, my first two years we were 2-9, 2-9 (in 1977 and ’78),” Heater said, smiling. “My wife drove down for that game (from Toledo) and I told her we might struggle after that. We ended up having a good season. We turned it around, and in ’81 we had a really good year (7-3-1), lost the game, we’re going to struggle, we turned it around, ‘81 really good year (9-3 with a California Bowl win, Heater’s first bowl as a coach), and Coach (Chuck) Stobart went to Utah.
“That was the only game (the Herd won). It was a strange occurrence, amazing really.”
What wasn’t a stunner to Heater was Temple’s 2012 season, when the Owls (4-7) had a dropoff in total defense from 13th nationally in 2011 (New Mexico Bowl victors) to 92nd, allowing 125 yards per game more than in Heater’s first season as coordinator.
“We were rebuilding (after losing three NFL Draft picks and seven others who signed free agent deals),” Heater said, “plus we were going to be in the Big East. We went from having the upper half of talent (in the Mid-American Conference), some would argue top couple of talent teams in the MAC, to arguably being one of the -- at least in conversation -- certainly in the second division of the Big East. We woke up one day and we were in a better conference.”
So, what is the Herd defense going to look like under Heater’s guidance? He said that, depending on personnel available, it will be “different structurally … significantly, from all indications” from the “quarters team” the Herd was under former coordinator Chris Rippon.
“I like to play early down, four down linemen, a lot of man coverage, like to zone blitz,” Heater said. “Third down, a three-man front structure, that’s kind of been what I’ve done in years at Florida, at Temple. But we’ll see. I’ve spent all my time here so far getting to know these players, to some degree, and you have to build the system and scheme around the players you have.
“You can’t fit a round peg into a square hole, and I don’t know some of these guys yet, so there may be adjustments based on what we have. But I’ve watched us play a little bit (in particular the video of the season-ending loss at East Carolina, he said) and I feel like we’ve got some guys on the back end who can cover. So, we’ll see how it unfolds.
“What I’ve done is more geared to stop the run on early downs, then on third down, try to get off the field.”
And when it doesn’t happen, as the Herd learned in 2012?
“Yeah, it’s a helpless feeling,” Heater said. “But what I’m watching, I’m watching it for personnel evaluation. It’s difficult to evaluate somebody else’s scheme. I just look at players, can they run, can they tackle, those kinds of things.”
Holliday’s hire of Heater resonates throughout the sport, because Heater has been there, done that. And coaching the Herd will be – for him – a lot like coaching the Lumberjacks (Northern Arizona, where he started coaching in 1976), Rockets, Badgers, Buckeyes, Fighting Irish, Rams, Buffaloes, Huskies, Utes, Gators or Owls.
“Football’s a hard game,” Heater said. “It’s really hard. I have more respect for it today than when I played, and I played college football at the highest level. I respect guys that play, I respect the difficulty of it.
“I realize not everybody loves the game; A lot of guys play it, not everybody loves it. You’ve got bring guys down that continuum, with guys who don’t like it very much at all to they love it, wherever they are on that, you’ve got to keep moving that way, because that’s how you win football games.
“I just try to develop players. You might assume because they’re here and they’re on scholarship they were good players in high school. But at some point you’re going to get hit in the mouth by another guy who was a good player on his high school team. And now he’s got to decide how he’s going to respond to that.
“So, I don’t assume too much about where they are right now, with respect to the fact that it’s a really, really hard game to play the way you should play it. And when someone plays it the right way, you’re should be impressed by that certainly. At least I am.”