What’s Eating at Coach Callahan?

Everyone knows that Coach Callahan has blamed himself for the loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game. By now, this has been covered by just about everyone under the sun. One thing I haven’t seen though is a cogent discussion as to why Callahan would point the finger at himself.

After all, he didn’t underthrow receivers, miss blocks, or get beat by Malcolm Kelly. That’s not the role that coaches play. As Brian Billick states, “as a coach, you will not catch a single pass, throw a single block, or score a single touchdown this season. Nor will you, on a consistent basis, make that singularly brilliant play call that wins the game.”

And now, we even see Callahan’s players stepping forward to shoulder the blame.

“We all know it wasn’t his fault,” said Taylor, who threw three interceptions and lost a fumble. “We played the game. I know it’s not his fault that I can’t hit Nate Swift on a seam route when he’s wide open. You’ve got to put the blame on the players. But he’s a classy guy and he’s a great coach, so naturally he’s going to take the blame for it, even when we know that we made mistakes that we shouldn’t have made.”

So all of this begs the question – why is Callahan taking this loss so personally?

My first thought, is that perhaps Callahan is becoming entrenched in the culture that is Husker football. Let’s not forget this is the same guy who so famously uttered the “one game, one season,” remark just two short years ago. There is little doubt Callahan is more invested in the program now. We saw a glimpse of this a year ago, when he emerged teary-eyed following the victory over Colorado, but now his disappointment speaks volumes. Each week the Tunnel Walk echoes the sentiments – “I play for Nebraska”. Perhaps his reaction is simply evidence that Callahan has more fully internalized the notion – “I coach Nebraska.”

A second explanation might be found by examining Callahan’s coaching lineage. A pedigree that is superbly laid out in the following illustration.

Atop that illustration you see Bill Walsh’s name and toward the bottom, Bill Callahan’s. Although Walsh’s connection to Callahan seems somewhat removed, his influence might be less distant than you think. Obviously Callahan and Walsh are linked by way of the West Coast Offense. It is important to note, however, that the WCO is more than a system of plays. The major key to Walsh’s WCO was less in the actual Xs and Os than it was in the innovative approaches he took in preparation, installation and implementation of those fundamentals. The WCO was never meant to be just a series of runs and passes that emulates the success of the San Francisco 49ers during the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, Walsh’s structure was based on specific teaching methods that carried a team systematically from the installation of the offense in Fall camp, to weekly installation of the game plans at practices, to the actual implementation of the game plan on game days. A recurring theme then is preparation, preparation and preparation.

What then does this have to do with Callahan and the blame game? For further help with this let’s look at a Harvard Business Review (January, 1993) interview with Bill Walsh. In outlining his philosophical approach to preparing successful football teams, Walsh states:

“A system should never reduce the game to the point where it simply blames the players for failure because they did not physically overwhelm the opponent…the responsibility for the success of the team starts with the coach, who develops the plan, that is then executed by the players – who are extremely well-prepared.”

In Monday’s conference call, Callahan’s exact quote was:

“I was disappointed in everything I did. I could have done a better job. I just didn’t do enough.”

This sounds as though he is blaming himself for failing to fully prepare his team for everything they might see against OU, or for failing to have a contingency plan in place should they fall behind early, or have difficulty sustaining drives.

Similarly, in the Harvard Business Review interview Walsh is also quoted as saying:

“You need to have a plan for even the worst scenario. It doesn’t mean that it will always be successful. But you will always be prepared and at your best.”

According to Brian Billick, another Walsh disciple, this is important because:

“The more your players can gain a sense of confidence that they are prepared for anything that might come up, the less likely they are to feel ‘physically overwhelmed,’ even if their opponent is capable of doing just that.”

Lastly, Walsh emphasized the importance of thoroughly analyzing one’s opponent and making decisions in the cool and calm of one’s office, rather than on the fly and from the sidelines.

“Making judgments under severe stress is the most difficult thing there is. The more preparation you have prior to the conflict, the more you can do in a clinical situation, the better off you will be.”

Could there be a more stressful situation for a coach than trailing 14-0 in a conference championship game? How might that duress have impacted some of Coach Callahan’s decisions? Might he fault his own preparation for the influence it had on a choice to go away from the run and to throw 20 consecutive passes?

And I’m not questioning these decisions; I’m simply trying to get to the bottom of what is eating at our coach this week. The best I can come up with is that Callahan is feeling more at home with the breadth of his position and the investment of the coaches, players and fans. In addition, it signals an adherence to the roots of his coaching philosophy – one that emphasizes commitment, preparation and accountability.


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