ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell, when he feels like it, can be a great storyteller. He has yarns from 40 years in coaching and from the wisdom of 62 years of life in America and as a football coach.
On Thursday afternoon, when asked about the impact of former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler on his coaching philosophy, Caldwell opened up a little bit about his own coaching influences and philosophies. In the past he's mentioned the late Dennis Green and Joe Paterno, but the following is how a trio of three other legendary college coaches influenced him and crossed paths in his life.
"During my early days in coaching, I studied everybody, from Bear Bryant, talked to Bear Bryant on the phone when I was a young coach at 22 or 23. Just peppered him with a bunch of questions. Wrote Tom Osborne a number of different letters. I used to always kind of just pick the minds of individuals that were great coaches," Caldwell said. "Woody Hayes, I played when those guys were coaching in the league. The interesting thing with coach Schembechler is I actually had a chance to work in the football camps. Back in the old days, they used to, I don't know if they still do or not, but they still have a vibrant camp, I'm sure.
"They used to invite coaches from smaller schools, I was at Southern Illinois at the time, I came up and worked their camp a couple of different times. After practice was over with, we would typically in the evenings kind of sit around and coach Schembechler would kind of come in and tell us some stories and talk about football. He and Jerry Hanlon would get into an argument about blocking scheme and Tirrel Burton and all those guys. That's kind of the way coaching used to be back in the old days and you may be there until the wee hours of the morning arguing about how the power should be run and the steps they are taking, et cetera.
"Along with that is there was always a lot of philosophy that was shared during those times and most of us that started coaching back in those days kind of gravitated to some of those ideas and philosophical things that we could sink our teeth into. I still go back a little ways, showing my age a little bit, too, with a number of those old great, great coaches throughout the country."
How did you get Bear Bryant on the phone?
Caldwell: It's kind of a long story. What happened was when I was working at Southern Illinois, there was a guy, there was a guy, I can't think of his name, I'll think of it before I finish, hopefully, I know his first name was Wes. He worked in the athletic department and then he was also teaching a couple courses. He actually lived in an apartment building next to mine and had gotten to know him a little bit. He had come from the University of Alabama and he told me he knew coach Bryant. They had kind of a ritual, every week, they would go through, the both of them, perhaps enjoying maybe the same beverage. So he was telling me this story and as inquisitive as I am, I've always been curious and am still curious today.
I said, "Hey, do you think you can get him on the phone for me? I could ask him a few questions." It just so happens that one day he comes running down to my apartment, knocks on the door and says, "Hey, I got coach Bryant on the phone, would you like to talk to him?" And so I ran to his, this was before cell phones. ... So I had to run upstairs and sat down and had an opportunity to talk to him on the phone and ask him quite a few questions and he was very accommodating. That's one thing I learned about coaching, you sometimes get young coaches and visiting coaches that come in. Every guy that I've ever been associated with, took time to talk to me, ask questions. I had millions of them. They treated me with such kindness and civility that I, in turn, try to do the exact same things.
I could tell you countless people that have done things for me that still resonate with me today. But that was one of them.
Do you remember what you asked him?
JC: There were a thousand of them. Always have them ready to go and I always basically tried to find out what they did best in their organizations and tried to learn from that, but a guy like him who has done it all. He's one of the few guys, a lot of coaches stuck with the exact same system and ran it the exact same way, he adjusted his from year-to-year depending on his personnel. I can't remember exactly what I asked him but I still have the notes. So I have to go back and look to make sure. That was then. This is now.
Did Tom Osborne return your letters?
JC: Yeah, yeah. Interesting, I think I told you, I wrote him a letter asking him what was the difference between being a head coach and an assistant coach, because he was there under Bob Devaney for a long time. So he gave me his thing. Then the other question I asked him was, "How do you handle the media?" Did I tell you guys this one before? He said don't spend more than five or 10 minutes with the media. And never let them record ya.