One Afternoon late in the fall of 1976, Mike Price, then a 30-year-old Washington State assistant, got a phone call from Jack Elway, a close friend who had left the Cougars the previous spring to become the coach at Cal State-Northridge. Never mind what I'm doing, Elway told Price, you should see the offense my son (yeah, him) is running in high school. Elway breathlessly detailed for Price a wide-open, pass-happy package that spread receivers from sideline to sideline and was almost impossible to play defense against. "They're killing people, just killing 'em," Elway said of his boy John's Granada Hills High team in Los Angeles. "I'm putting this thing in next year."
Price was fascinated. He had always said his team would throw the ball if he ever became a head coach. Five years later he got his chance when he was hired by Weber State. By then Jack Elway was the head man at San Jose State. One of Price's first acts at Weber State was to load his staff into a van and drive the 800 miles from Ogden, Utah, to San Jose to learn the Granada Hills offense. The attack was the brainchild of Jack Neumeier, a lifelong high school coach who installed it at Granada Hills in 1970 and terrorized opponents with it until he retired in '88. Price has been running Neumeier's offense—most commonly called the one-back, though that description damns it with simplicity—for 17 years. He took it from Weber State to Washington State when he was hired as the Cougars' coach in '89, and on Jan. 1, he'll take it to the Rose Bowl, where Washington State will play for the first time in 67 years. The Cougars' opponent in Pasadena will be unbeaten, No. 1-ranked Michigan, which is attempting to wrap up its first national championship since '48.
On the day in 1976 that Price took the fateful phone call from Elway, Jim Herrmann was 15 years old and playing linebacker for Divine Child High in Dearborn Heights, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. Twenty years later Herrmann was named defensive coordinator at Michigan, where he instantly infused the Wolverines with a style and vigor that transformed their defense, in one season, from merely good to one of the most dominant in recent college history. Michigan has given up less than nine points and barely more than 200 yards per game. Herrmann is the new genius, the flavor of the month. But while the Wolverines' defense has dominated most teams it has gone up against this year, it has never seen the likes of Washington State's attack.
This is the way it works on the football continuum. An old passion meets a new one. A 51-year-old coach from one era takes his prized offense and sends it against the newborn defense of a younger man on a larger stage than either coach has ever known. Ideas overlap, generations overlap. Experience meets adrenaline.
There was nothing seriously wrong with Michigan's defense. Under Greg Mattison, who was elevated to defensive coordinator when Lloyd Carr was named Michigan's coach in March 1995, the Wolverines' D gave up 17.2 points and 284.8 yards per game in '95 and 15.6 points and 296.4 yards a game in '96. But when Mattison left last December for a job at Notre Dame, Carr promoted Herrmann from linebackers coach to coordinator, and Herrmann began the task of making the Michigan defense not only functional but also dangerous. Same look, new attitude. It was the difference between Yanni and Steven Tyler; they're both skinny guys with long black hair, but only one of them rocks.
Last winter Herrmann, secondary coach Vance Bedford and defensive line coach Brady Hoke studied every Wolverines defensive play from the 1996 season in search of ways to tweak the traditional Michigan scheme, a 5-2 front with the cornerbacks fairly close to the line of scrimmage and the two safeties playing deep, that had been in place since the Bo Schembechler era. "We wanted to utilize our personnel better," says Herrmann. "We wanted to put guys in a position to make plays." Cornerback extraordinaire junior Charles Woodson was moved to nickelback in passing situations, not only making him a threat to blitz but also giving him more room to roam on pass defense. Senior defensive end Glen Steele was given the green light to freelance his pass rush. All manner of blitzes—zone, corner, safety—were installed. Woodson and junior corner Andre Weathers were asked to hold down receivers in single coverage.
The results were apparent almost immediately. In the Michigan spring game, sophomore safety Tommy Hendricks scored on a fumble recovery and freshman backup corner LéAundré Brown scored on an interception return. "As Charles [Woodson] and I walked off the field that day, I said to him, 'This defense can be something special,' " says junior strong safety Marcus Ray.
With his scheme in place, Herrmann began working on his players' heads, trying to forge unity. Meetings and practice drills that had been conducted by position (linebackers, defensive backs, linemen) were done as a group. A huge cardboard key was hung in the defensive meeting room on the second floor of Schembechler Hall. The key had 12 notches, 11 of them representing the defensive starters and the 12th representing all of the other players on the defense. "All of the notches have to be intact or we can't open the door to our season," Herrmann remembers telling his players. "If one notch gets broken, the key doesn't work."
Each member of the defense was given a metal key. The key lit a small padlock on a maize-and-blue box that was placed in the meeting room at the start of the season. The box contained a single red rose, a reminder of where the season could end if the Wolverines' defenders all performed as one. A fresh rose was placed in the box each week, and the players were encouraged to open the box and smell the rose, stare at it, fondle it, at their leisure. "Sometimes I'd go in there, sit down by myself and just look at it," says junior inside linebacker Sam Sword. To further emphasize Michigan's goal, Herrmann would sometimes burst into the meeting room and shout at the defense, "Everybody in here who's been to the Rose Bowl, raise your hand." It was a trick question, of course; the Wolverines hadn't been to Pasadena since January 1993, which was before any of the current players were at Michigan. Herrmann, however, was a Wolverines linebacker in the early '80s and played in the '81 and '83 Rose Bowls. When the room fell silent, he would slowly raise his own right hand.
"Coach Herm is intense—he's serious, and he's a true Michigan man," says Sword. "Coach Mattison [a graduate of Wisconsin-La Crosse] was groomed to be a Michigan man, but when Coach Herm tells you about Michigan tradition, you listen."