Saturday, October 25, 2014
View a gallery of images from a day with interim head coach Clint Bowen, who is making a strong case to become the Jayhawks' next head coach.
The sign outside the door of room 140A at the Anderson Family Football Complex simply says “Conference.” But make no mistake about it, the room belongs to Clint Bowen. At least for the time being.
This is not a dictatorship by any means. But Kansas University's interim head football coach clearly is in control of everything related to Kansas football these days. From injury updates and academic reports each morning to installing game plans and inspiring effort at practice each afternoon, Bowen has his fingerprints all over the program that has held a firm grip on a corner of his heart for as long as he can remember.
Three games and four weeks into his new role, the 42-year-old Bowen is maximizing every minute of his shot to prove he's the right guy for the job. And with five games remaining in the audition, there's not much room in the day-to-day operation for wasted time.
Rarely do you see Bowen doing just one thing at a time. While he's watching film, he's taking notes. While he's drawing up plays on the white board in the 18-foot-by-18-foot defensive meeting room known as “the dungeon” — remember, Bowen is still KU's defensive coordinator — you see his mind return to earlier conversations about the situation. And while he puts one foot in front of the other while grinding out yet another 15-hour work day — during the Jayhawks' bye week, no less — Bowen does so with the confidence of a veteran coach and the spirit of a junior high kid, cracking a smile here and there, clowning around with players and coaches, even busting chops. When things drift to distraction, Bowen is quick to bring the focus back to football with simple and direct instructions — “all right, fellas, let's lock back in.”
Last Wednesday, the Journal-World got the chance to go behind the scenes for a look at a day in the life of Bowen. From sunup to sundown, every step the former KU safety took revealed a coach who values hard work above all else and has a darn good time along the way.
Bowen arrives at the office under the cover of darkness. His drive to work is lit by the red and yellow glow of still-flashing stoplights, and the switch he flips once inside the building sparks the first light in several corners of the KU football complex.
After a quick trip to his office, where he'll spend the next 90 minutes getting ready for an 8 a.m. staff meeting, Bowen sets his keys down and heads for the kitchen. Being the first one in has its perks — peace and quiet and time to think chief among them — but it also means you're the one who puts on the coffee.
With his first cup of Joe in hand, Bowen heads back to his office to queue up some film. The first feature in his college football Netflix folder highlights one of Baylor's most dangerous offensive formations and Bowen watches how five other teams attempted to defend it as he scribbles notes and occasionally scratches his head. The Baylor game — 3 p.m. Saturday in Waco, Texas — is still 10 days away on this morning but Bowen already knows he'll need every bit of those 10 days to get ready for the unrelenting Baylor offense.
It's a team effort to come up with the best way to attack the most productive parts of BU's offense, but Bowen spends these first 90 minutes alone with his thoughts. It's one of the few times all day he gets to himself and he takes advantage of each tick.
“At the beginning, that was the toughest part,” Bowen says. “As just the D-coordinator, you know from 9-11:30 you're gonna be in your own world doing your own thing and that doesn't exist any more. It's just non-stop.”
By now, many of KU's assistant coaches have been in their offices for close to an hour, but the gathering in Room 140A marks the first time they're all together at once. Bowen sits at the head of the table and quickly runs through the agenda with Peyton Manning-like precision.
First is the injury update from assistant athletic director for sports medicine Murphy Grant. So and so is fine. So and so needs more time. So and so just thinks he's hurt. After that, Bowen reveals which players had academic issues this week — bad grades, late to class, skipped tutoring — and explains to each position coach what he needs to do about it. It involves a lot of running and something that sounds an awful lot like high school detention.
Next is the practice schedule and Bowen asks for something a little different for the team meeting that kicks off the afternoon session.
“Let's try to find things that can juice that meeting up,” he says. “Because this bye week, you can kind of see it's getting to them.”
The whole staff meeting lasts about 15 minutes. After a quick trip back to his office, Bowen and the defensive coaches head to the dungeon, where they spend the next two hours dissecting practice film and game-planning for Baylor.
This is where Bowen reverts to the old days and functions primarily as the Jayhawks' defensive coordinator. He's joined by defensive backs coaches Dave Campo and Scott Vestal and defensive line coach Buddy Wyatt, along with support staffers Mo Crum, Ty Greenwood and Kaeman Mitchell. Together, they go over a few of Baylor's offensive formations looking for trends and weaknesses they can attack.
Bowen leads the discussion, but the assistants are free to chime in at any time, with any ideas, and they do. Bowen carries himself with a mixture of confidence and concession during the meeting. He asks a lot of questions, but not in a quizzical manner that suggests he's trying to show who's in charge. Instead in an attempt to find the best solution. Sometimes it works. Other times, 12 minutes spent watching one trend play out to their delight is blown to bits by a single play that goes against the grain.
“And there it is,” Bowen yells at the screen hanging from the ceiling. “Thanks a lot Art.”
Art, of course, is Baylor coach Art Briles. And while Bowen sounds courteous in that he's using good manners, he's anything but pleased. Back to the drawing board.
The whole process is very meticulous, almost like putting together a puzzle or playing a guessing game. How many times can they call this? How many times can they call that? What are their averages? What can we do against those? Bowen rattles off such inquiries pretty quickly and matter-of-factly without stopping the flow of film review. Actually finding answers is something that takes much longer.
Throughout the process, Bowen mixes smiles and laughter with anguish. You can hear the frustration build in his voice from time to time, both toward what he's seeing on film and what the KU coaches around him are doing or saying. He also can turn serious quickly if what he's watching isn't right.
“I know. I know,” he says to one assistant who is in the middle of trying to explain why a KU defensive back's drop was so deep. “Tell him that. This is like the 10th time in a row he did it that way. At some point during practice, tell him.”
Bowen, who has eight years of experience as a defensive coordinator, also makes no attempt to hide his disagreements.
“We ain't doing that,” he said to one suggestion. “We'll think of something different.”
A big part of being a head coach is delegating responsibilities and Bowen seems to get that. His staff constantly provides input — in both formal and informal settings — and it's Bowen's job to take it in and decide what they'll tell the players and what the coaching staff will save for its own knowledge and game day. There's a fine line there.
As the assistants offer up thoughts on any particular topic, you can see Bowen think with his eyes. He's listening at all times, taking in information and processing it at an alarming rate. The rapid pace to all this seems to come from sitting in the position of the team that's desperate to figure out something that might work — something different, something Baylor hasn't seen that could give KU an advantage, even for just one play or against one formation.
After everything's on the table, Bowen identifies the “high alert” pieces of information and then steps to the board to make sense of it all.
There's a lot of trial and error going on here. Let's try it this way. Erase. Let's say we did it this way. Redraw. Try again. On and on.
“If we play it like that and they do this, what's our answer,” Bowen asks, a question directed as much at himself as the others present.
You can actually feel the air in the room lighten when an answer is found and satisfaction, relief and appreciation for a job well done come bubbling to the surface.
“That's it, we got it,” Bowen says. “That's our answer.”
That's not the end, though. Far from it. They say a carpenter always measures twice and cuts once. It's the same concept here.
Bowen returns to his office and has 45 minutes to script plays for the afternoon practice, which is set to begin at 4:15 p.m. But Bowen actually spends only about 19 minutes on that task. The rest of the time he entertains four unexpected visitors in a 20-minute span.
Offensive coordinator John Reagan stops by to ask what offenses the defense would like to work against at practice. In and out in four minutes. Running backs coach Reggie Mitchell checks in to talk about an upcoming recruiting trip. In and out in six minutes. Football administrator George Matsakis asks for a five-minute closed-door meeting with Bowen that followed perhaps the most impressive moment of the morning. As graduate assistant Kaeman Mitchell pokes his head into the office to tell Bowen he's finished with the cut-ups he had been asked to isolate, Bowen answers him without lifting his head or his pencil, which he uses a lot because it has an eraser. Without looking up, Bowen knows who's talking, exactly what he's working on and exactly what he wants him to do.
“That's great, Kaeman, thanks,” Bowen says with his right hand and eyes still scripting plays on the notepad in front of him. “Load them onto Buddy's iPad.”
After putting the final touches on the script for practice — or at least getting close enough — Bowen mutters to himself, 'Let's get out of this place for a while,' and steps into the coach's private quarters to change.
He emerges wearing black KU shorts with a blue stripe down the sides and a long-sleeved gray workout shirt. With his ear buds in one hand and his iPod in the other, Bowen heads to the basement to get a workout. With Wyatt on a stair-climber to his left and quarterbacks coach Ron Powlus on the treadmill to his right, Bowen hops onto another treadmill and begins his hour-long routine that he says is important for mind, body and soul, but one far less demanding than what strength coach Scott Holsopple puts the team through on a daily basis.
“I'm not doing much these days,” he jokes.
After the workout, Bowen grabs a quick bite to eat and returns to his office to prep for a busy afternoon.
With the team meeting — his first true interaction with his players for the day — coming quickly, it's back to the dungeon to hash out a lunch-hour revelation for one of the bigger focal points of the defensive game plan.
It could just be a burst of energy from the workout and refueling or it could be the rush of stumbling onto something that might actually work. Either way, the excitement in the room is palpable and Bowen and his assistants are bouncing around the dungeon like seventh-graders on the first day of school.
Bowen loves X's and O's. Always has. But doing it as the head coach, with the fate of the entire team at stake, has elevated the infatuation to a new level.
“It's different in that you get a lot more things coming across your desk that you maybe didn't anticipate,” Bowen says. “But the good part of it is you get to be a part of the whole team and that part's a lot of fun. There are kids and coaches I wouldn't usually have a relationship with that now are coming to you every day.”
Has his short time as interim head coach given him a true feel for what the job of head coach is all about?
“I think so,” he says. “We've had to make decisions. We've had to deal with some issues. We've had to put the same plans together. We got thrown into it in a hurry. It's Monday (Sept. 29) and you play a game on Saturday (Oct. 4) and they're asking you what do you want to eat for pre-game meal and where do you want guys to sit on the plane and all these other things.”
Bowen kicks things off three minutes early and most, if not all, of the Jayhawks have been in their seats for several minutes. As you walk in, you hear and see the replay of KU's 34-21 loss at Texas Tech playing on both drop-down screens at the front of the room, complete with the TV broadcast blaring.
“All right, gentlemen, good afternoon,” Bowen bellows. All eyes are on the head coach.
Just as he did with his staff nearly seven hours earlier, Bowen begins with the academic update, calling out the guys who missed class or were late to tutoring and tossing out a friendly reminder to everyone listening.
“At some point in time you have to grow up and figure out how to take care of your business,” he says with the tone of someone speaking from experience. “Some of you are struggling with that. It's not that hard, men. Those are the little things that add up to us losing football games.”
Less than five minutes later, the meeting is adjourned and several Jayhawks scatter to their respective position meeting rooms while the punt return and kickoff return units stay put to listen to special teams coach Louie Matsakis breakdown the plan for Baylor.
Bowen stays for this, too, and interjects from the front row whenever he's inspired.
“The punter's good, Derrick Neal,” he says to his freshman kick returner.
“What's up, Greg,” he adds in the direction of sophomore Greg Allen, who just learned he may get a shot at returning kicks on Saturday. “Don't fumble the ball, OK. I personally nominated you for that spot.”
With the bulk of the defense assembled in front of him, Bowen gives out detailed instructions and assignments for Baylor that they'll be focusing on at the day's practice. It sounds somewhat like a foreign language but everyone seems to be following along.
Vestal, Campo and Wyatt add in their thoughts for emphasis and it's common for more than one coach to talk at a time, although never to the same player or position.
All of the film clips shown here are what the coaches watched in the morning and, by now, Bowen has seen each of them at least a dozen times.
He mixes praise and criticism and asks a lot of questions. “What do we have here? What are we looking at? What does this mean? What does that mean?”
After 20 minutes, the players are dismissed and Bowen heads to the linebacker room.
With fewer than a dozen players in this meeting, Bowen is able to pick up the pace. This is his group. He's been with these guys since the spring and their comfort and familiarity is evident.
The group has all kinds of rules and codes that they adhere to and they range from catchy sayings about route concepts and run fits — “Something goes out, something comes in,” Bowen says as he quickly scratches X's and O's on the board — to the strictly enforced rule that any newcomer has to tell the room a joke to gain access to the inner circle.
It's here where it really hits home that Bowen is the same person no matter the size of the room or who's in it — same tone, same demeanor, same patience, same confidence, same control. The only place this remotely changes is on the field, and that's only because practice is where he releases all of the intensity and energy that builds within him throughout the day.
With the day's preparations now behind him, Bowen makes his way from his office down to the locker room to meet up with the team prior to practice. He slaps on a blue Kansas visor, slips his whistle over his head and around his neck and tosses his phone onto his desk. Won't need that for a few hours.
As he gets to the locker room, he instantly becomes one of the most popular Jayhawks in it. Several players light up when they see him, others explode with the joy normally reserved for a visit from a favorite uncle. And still more engage Bowen in some rough-housing. He's got a quick jab to the chest for one guy and a playful head-lock for another, but he never breaks stride. By 4:10 he's outside near the bronze Jayhawk and by 4:12 he shouts, “All right, men. Here we go.” Together, the team hits the field, once again three minutes ahead of schedule.
If you didn't know any better, you might think Bowen was leading the team onto the field for a game. The focus is razor-sharp and the intensity is way up. That may seem like a small detail, but it carries over into the first part of practice and pretty much sets the bar that the Jayhawks stay above the entire time.
First up is the fast-paced walk-through, which essentially sets the tone for the next two hours. Next a light stretch followed by some special teams work and then full-on team drills.
After some red zone one-on-ones between the defensive backs and wide receivers, it's on to blitz packages and then seven-on-seven defense, which gives KU's linebackers and defensive backs a true feel for what they'll be up against in Waco.
The last 30 plays of practice are run against the scout teams and the final horn sounds at 5:49.
After practice, there's more film to break down and, in a sense, the whole day starts over again. If it weren't for the windows that line Bowen's office and the east side of the building, it would be easy to lose track of time the way people do inside a Las Vegas casino. Gamblers fill both venues, with money-seekers in the latter and coaches hoping to find a magic formula with which to attack Baylor in the former.
Back in the dungeon, Bowen and his staff look to see if the tweaks they put in during the morning were executed to their liking in the afternoon. That's followed by early installation of the third-down game plan for Baylor. Think of this as exactly the same thing they did for two hours Wednesday morning only with an entirely different set of problems.
After clicking through the final film clip of the day, Bowen makes his way over to team study hall, where a couple dozen players work on academics. Some are writing papers, others preparing for tests and still more trying to get ahead a little so they can spend even more time and energy on football.
The number of Jayhawks in the room fluctuates depending upon performance in the classroom and Bowen almost always checks in for at least a few minutes. His reason for that, even though there are plenty of other things he could do with the time, is consistent with the whole philosophy he's operated with since taking over. It's the same reason he gives when asked why he often runs sprints with his players at the end of practice.
“We're all in this together,” he says.
Just before 9:30 p.m., Bowen decides he's done enough for the day. All that's left now is the 10-mile drive to his rural home on the far west edge of town.
It's funny, but coaching football seems to be one of the few professions where days just fly by and Wednesday certainly did for Bowen. Maybe it's the helpless feeling of never having enough hours to get fully prepared. Of course, it also could be the enjoyment he gets out of every aspect of the grind, good days and bad.
“A lot of things come at you in a hurry,” he says. “And the most challenging part has been keeping up with the defensive responsibilities on top of all the other things. What it's turned into is I just get here a little bit earlier and stay a little bit later. And I try to make sure that by the time I go home at night, I pretty much have everything big for the next day done so when something unexpected comes up I'm ready.”
By the time he puts his white Toyota 4Runner in park outside of his front door and heads in to say good day and good night to his sons Baylor and Banks and wife, Kristie, Bowen has put in a 15-hour work day in which he wore half a dozen hats and did everything from make coffee to swap out personnel on the depth chart and watch Baylor film until the images were burned into his eyes. It's really not that much different than the work he had been doing as the team's defensive coordinator, but the scope has expanded and there's more at stake, both today and for his future.
When he accepted the interim tag, Bowen said being the head coach at KU was his dream job. Four weeks and a couple dozen 15-hour days into it, he still holds onto that belief.
“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “This is a special place. I've seen it at its lowest points and I've seen it at its highest points. And I truly believe it deserves to be at those highest points more than we've been there.”