Southern Cal's MVP
Chow happy to stay put while leading explosive offense
Posted: Friday December 31, 2004 12:59PM; Updated: Friday December 31, 2004 6:07PM
DAVIE, Fla. -- USC had just wrapped up its practice Thursday afternoon. The Trojans' two most visible assistant coaches, offensive coordinator Norm Chow and defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, were standing about 10 yards apart, talking to clusters of reporters.
Come the morning after Tuesday's Orange Bowl showdown with Oklahoma, the fiery Orgeron, who has mentored three All-America linemen the past two seasons, will move on to his new job as head coach at Ole Miss. The more stoic Chow, meanwhile, will go back to doing the same exact thing he's done for the past four years at USC and nearly 20 before that at N.C. State and BYU: quietly grooming Heisman-winning quarterbacks and engineering one of the nation's most powerful offenses.
Perhaps more than even Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush or Dwayne Jarrett, Chow is USC's most valuable weapon. With an impeccable track record, universal respect among his players and a salary (nearly $500,000) approaching that of many head coaches, Chow carries more clout than any assistant in the country. Yet, attempting to fully understand his influence is nearly impossible because, unlike other so-called offensive gurus, the soft-spoken 58-year-old Hawaiian doesn't buy into the fuss, deflects all praise and usually avoids divulging specifics of his system.
"This is USC's offense," he said this week. "It's not mine."
Many feel Chow's lack of comfort with the spotlight may explain why, almost inexplicably, he remains a coordinator while less accomplished peers ascend to the head-coaching ranks. Granted, Chow has pretty good gig as it is and therefore doesn't pursue just any old opening. However, when Stanford came calling last month, Chow thought he'd finally found his match. He interviewed at length and was one of two finalists, but the Cardinal elected to go with Pittsburgh's Walt Harris.
Then, when USC administrator Daryl Gross took the athletic director job at Syracuse and promptly fired Orange head coach Paul Pasqualoni, many assumed he'd take Chow with him. "I talked to Daryl [Wednesday] night," said Chow, "and it's not a situation either of us would pursue."
So it's business as usual this week for Chow as he prepares his offense for a battle with Oklahoma's acclaimed defense, a daunting task. Trying to describe that offense is nearly as difficult.
"If I could sum it up in one word: complex," said Bush, the multi-threat running back. "It's all about putting people in position to create mismatches for the defense. It's very difficult for defenses to single out one person."
Unlike Texas Tech's five-receiver sets or Utah's unique use of the option, USC's offense is subtler in its complexity. At its foundation is the West Coast style Chow practiced at BYU -- a balance between running and passing, a healthy dose of screens and quick passes, working fullbacks and tight ends into the passing game. But to take advantage of their receivers' abilities, the Trojans throw downfield more often than in a traditional West Coast system. They're also unique in the way they use their players in so many different facets, most notably Bush, who switches between a traditional tailback to a big-play receiver.
"Chow's really creative," offensive tackle Sam Baker. "He does a lot of things a lot of other coaches wouldn't do. He's an extremely intelligent guy, and he sees things a lot of other coaches don't."
Exhibit A of Chow's virtuosity is the Trojans' consistency the past three years -- they averaged 449.2 yards per game in 2002, 447.5 in 2003 and 442.8 this year -- despite massive personnel attrition each year and an unusual reliance on youth.
After losing Heisman QB Carson Palmer and running backs Justin Fargas and Sultan McCullough two years ago, Chow plugged in untested sophomore Leinart and true freshman runners Bush and LenDale White and didn't miss a beat. This year, with the departure of star receivers Mike Williams and Keary Colbert, sophomore Steve Smith and Jarrett, a true freshman, filled the void. When Smith went down with a broken leg halfway through the season, Jarrett immediately stepped up and Leinart simply started throwing more to tight ends Dominique Byrd and Alex Holmes.
"I like our offense, the flexibility and the multiplicity of it and our ability to adapt to our individual players' strengths," said head coach Pete Carroll, who sat down with Chow after their first season together in 2001 to help craft the system. "You can just see the difference, how we use LenDale and how we use Reggie and how we use our tight ends. We really try to style things to our strengths. It allows them to perform at a high level sooner, and we've seen a lot of young kids play in our program because of that."
Many of those young kids will eventually move on to the NFL, but the man pushing the buttons strangely remains in the exact same job. Not that he's complaining. After the Stanford rejection, Chow said he was disappointed for "about two minutes. I enjoy working here."
"Everyone thinks I've been offered all these job opportunities. There's only been one job offer I turned down. It's not like people are banging down the door."
That's almost as hard to explain as his offense.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.