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Callahan is the man with plan

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 21, 2003

SAN DIEGO -- He's not Jon Gruden. You must start with that. He doesn't have the charisma or the snappy quotes or the photogenic face. And the difference in personality, you could say, is that Gruden has one.

But the key to understanding Oakland coach Bill Callahan is to get past what he isn't and delve into what he is.

A compulsive note-taker who keeps week-by-week binders in his office and boxes stacked in his garage and thinks nothing of looking back to see what specific preparation his team did for a playoff game two years ago.

A consummate work-a-holic who got up early each day during an April family vacation in Hawaii to plot the minute-by-minute schedule for training camp that started in July.

A relentless perfectionist who has ordered drills redone so many times the players joke that if he could, he'd invoke the power to start entire days over.

A knowledge-starved student of the industry who, after getting promoted, met with legendary basketball coach John Wooden in Los Angeles just to ask questions about coaching philosophy.

Callahan in a word?

"Meticulous," running back Tyrone Wheatley said. "That's kind of synonymous with anal, but I guess you could say anal in a good type of way."

Players on a Super Bowl team usually don't have anything bad to say about their coach, especially not when it's so easy to say something bad about their former coach, who will be on the other sideline Sunday.

But these Raiders rave about their 46-year-old rookie leader, a relative unknown nationally but such an obvious successor that Oakland owner Al Davis didn't interview anyone else when Gruden left.

"A very competitive guy by nature," quarterback Rich Gannon said. "He's very disciplined, very structured. The eam reflects that in our approach, our preparation and our performance. He's been very consistent all season long with the players in what he expects, from what he demands from us in terms of our practice and our performance in the games. The players have responded very, very well."

"There's one face on Bill. Players know what you see is what you get," receiver Jerry Rice said. "He's not going to put on a persona or anything like that."

Callahan grew up on the rough South Side of Chicago, molded by a father who was a longtime city cop, a tough sergeant on the vice squad (now stricken with cancer and living in South Florida; his mother died of breast cancer in 2001).

He was a high school quarterback who went on to play at tiny Illinois Benedictine (now Benedictine University) and was so into the sport that after briefly considering a law enforcement career went straight into coaching at a Chicago area high school.

He worked his way up, as coaches must do, hopscotching the country, working for Mike White (who later coached the Raiders) at Illinois and Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin. It was there, during a Badgers coaching staff visit to Packers training camp, that Callahan met Gruden, then a young Green Bay assistant.

They hit it off, well enough that when Gruden was named offensive coordinator of the Eagles, he brought Callahan in as his offensive line coach then to Oakland as his offensive coordinator.

Callahan is guarded in talking about himself or the experience of his first season as a head coach but allowed last week he owes everything to Gruden, that "I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for Jon."

Because they worked so closely together for so long (three seasons in Philadelphia, four in Oakland), Callahan and Gruden have several similar coaching theories. But there also are many differences, both in style and substance.

"Their offensive philosophies are very similar, but their approach toward coaching is really radically different," veteran defensive end Trace Armstrong said. "Jon is very energetic, very demonstrative. He gets fired up in meetings, and he's that way on the practice field. Bill is more reserved, very calculated in how he deals with the team, how we prepares, how he runs a meeting.

"I think where Coach Gruden relied on emotion a little more, Bill always has a plan. You know when you come into a meeting, he's thought very carefully about what he wants to say and how he wants it to come off."

Football-wise, there is a stark difference, too. Callahan has a penchant to be extremely aggressive offensively.

"He has, like, that killer instinct," Rice said.

With the media, Callahan is stiff, distant and almost always painfully bland. He laughs when someone asks about operating within the Raiders' bunker, but you get the feeling he isn't joking.

He talks mostly in cliches and coach-speak, insisting the success of the team is what's most important, at various times last week mentioning the "two R's" (rest and routine), the "3-D approach" (demeanor, definition and detail) and the use of "LRPs" (limited role players; i.e., scrubs).

Occasionally, players say, his language gets more colorful.

"I don't know what he shows y'all, but he's a totally different person when y'all leave and that gate closes," guard Frank Middleton said. "The horns come out, and the pitchfork comes out. He's an old (offensive) line coach, and all O-line coaches got a little fire to them."

Basically, it's just another example of Callahan doing whatever is necessary. Acknowledging he was a rookie coach, he occasionally would take the unorthodox step of asking veterans for feedback.

Knowing he had an older team, he cut back the length and physical nature of practices. Realizing the season could slip away during a four-game losing streak, he made it a point to stay calm and even-keeled.

"He's not this one-hammer-for-every-stone type of guy," Wheatley said. "He has many different hammers and chisels. He approaches different people different ways."

The quest for perfection surfaces frequently as Callahan abhors practice-field mistakes and will stop a sloppy drill and make players do it over and over.

"He'll start every drill over from the top, special teams, walk-throughs, ... meetings," Wheatley said. "If he could start the day over, he would. "Everyone go home and come back, and let's start the day over from 7 a.m."'

That same internal drive also spawns creativity. The Raiders change blocking schemes and add offensive formations weekly. "He's one of those guys who always wants to give new looks," Middleton said. "We talk about him running out of new looks, but he just keeps making up new things. His brain is far ahead of everyone else. It's like he's been waiting for this his whole life, and he's just pulling things out of his butt right now. And good things."

Callahan in a season?

"I don't know if the Raiders could have done any better," 15-year veteran Tim Brown said. "As a matter of fact, I know they couldn't have."

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