|Callahan escapes shadow of Gruden
By John Clayton
SAN DIEGO -- Jon Gruden breaks down tapes. Bill Callahan takes notes. As an assistant coach, Callahan was like a stenographer. He wrote down everything. Everything.
Callahan's notes are so extensive that last week he dug out notes on the Raiders' practice schedule before the 2001 playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens.
"I wanted to make sure our preparation for the Tennessee game wasn't missing anything," Callahan said. "I felt very confident after reading my notes about our preparation for the Tennessee game."
The Raiders won, 41-24, and the stenographer meets the charismatic motivator in Super Bowl XXXVII. It's Callahan versus Gruden, and as close as the two are, this is sort of an interesting battle between the two. Gruden knows Rich Gannon's audible offense because he created the scheme when he built the Raiders. But Callahan has all the notes. Even better, he has all the Raiders players.
Callahan stood up to leave the interview session early to head over to the Raiders headquarters to do more work on Sunday's game plan. As he arose, a reporter asked him how his notes are on Gruden.
"They are very good," Callahan said with an almost devilish smile.
As one former assistant who worked with Callahan put it, Callahan can get a spiral binder full of notes just on a simple regular-season game plan. He's meticulous. He's always been that way. He's the son of a Chicago cop who taught him that work comes the hard way. You have to earn your living.
"He's a great coach, he's a grinder," Gruden said of Callahan. "That's the best compliment I can give him. He's a guy that works hard. There's not a lot of time he spends on the golf course. I don't think he does the restaurant circuit. This guy is a grinder. He studies tape fanatically. He knows everything about you and your team. He's just a great football coach. He is just a great on-the-field coach. He's got charisma with his players."
A Gruden he isn't, though. A Don King impersonator interrupted Callahan's Tuesday interview session. The imposter tried to loosen up Callahan with jokes about his silver and black colors and asked if he could be his agent. Callahan tried to play with the comedian, but he looked completely uncomfortable. There were no notes for Callahan to refer to in this situation.
To get the brief encounter to end, Callahan had to repeat a monotoned "Only in America" saying. Callahan couldn't have been more deadpanned. Raider fans won't be buying Callahan dolls like they did for the past two seasons because they were in love with Gruden, whose sideline stare resembled the Chucky Dolls from the "Child's Play" movies.
"For myself, I continue to keep a library and an inventory of things that I've done," Callahan said. "I keep it more or less like a diary. I think it's important as you move along in life to capture ideas on paper. You obviously will lose those thoughts from your upstairs file if you don't. I like to go back and look at the history of what I've done and where you are going and how we are proceeding."
Before, he'd write them on paper. "Now, they've got these computers," Callahan said. He started taking notes when he was a quarterback for Illinois Benedictine in the NAIA. He got into coaching and eventually emerged into one of the best young offensive line coaches in college football while at Wisconsin.
The NFL drafted his Badgers and admired his schemes. Callahan may not have been the best technician of blocking, but his schemes were memorable. He designed complicated angle blocks that made average players stars. Being a former quarterback, he understood pass protection better than a lot of his peers. Before long, NFL teams started calling, but it was hard to leave Wisconsin.
One day, a young coordinator from the Eagles named Gruden called and asked if he would be interested in becoming offensive line coach of the Eagles. It was an interesting pairing: Callahan was older than Gruden.
"There was a negotiation," Callahan said. "I was at a point in my career where I was trying to get into the NFL. It was an opportunity. I talked with Jon and it was a positive experience."
In Philadelphia, Callahan professionally and quietly went about his craft of molding an offensive line. It was the perfect marriage between Gruden and Callahan. Gruden knew the West Coast offense. Callahan's strength was developing motion packages, mainly out of two tight end sets.
Former Eagles halfback Charlie Garner didn't have much involvement with Callahan then, but he noticed his style.
"He was very poised," Garner said. "When things got difficult, he'd keep everybody focused."
When Gruden came to the Raiders, Callahan was brought over to be his main assistant coach. First, Callahan worked with tight ends. Former Raiders tight end Rickey Dudley got to know Callahan from his tight end coaching days and felt as though Callahan would be a run-oriented guy if he had the chance to run an offense. Since taking over the Raiders, though, Callahan has overseen one of the league's most prolific passing offenses in NFL history.
"I thought he'd be a successful coach, but all we did was block in the one year he was tight ends coach," Dudley said. "I was very surprised to see that they did so much throwing the ball this year. He's one of those guys if it's working, then he won't change it."
Everyone is surprised what Callahan has become since taking over as Gruden's replacement last February. Callahan sensed that he would get the job. After Gruden left, Al Davis let him be the captain of the remaining coaches. For the sake of continuity, players pushed Davis for Callahan to be given the job.
It wasn't that they liked him that much. They liked the team, and players thought he'd do the best job of retooling a two-time playoff team for one more run. His biggest supporters were his offensive linemen.
"We have been on the verge of where we are now for the past couple of years," right tackle Lincoln Kennedy said. "I felt he was the best candidate for the job because he was in house. He's familiar with the system that we had. It was a real smooth transition."
In many ways, the transition was about as smooth as the one from Bill Walsh to George Seifert in San Francisco. What surprised all was what came out of Callahan's notes. He had some definite plans. Before long, players started wondering if Callahan had been a head coach someplace before.
Perhaps his most surprising analysis was on offense. For an offensive line coach, Callahan had unusual ideas.
"Throwing the football is one of those avenues you do if you have the talent," Callahan said. "You like to have balance with the running game. But I just think where this league is at, there is an opportunity to pass. I think run defenses are so outstanding. On first-and-10, where are you when you have a 2-yard run (compared to) when you get six yards passing the ball and spreading people."
Callahan is willing to listen to change. He went no-huddle against the Steelers and passed the ball the entire game. He keeps incorporating new ideas from his staff and things that he believes might work from watching tape. Callahan is confident enough in his coaching that he will let Rich Gannon audible when he sees fit.
"The whole process with Bill is just so enjoyable," offensive coordinator Marc Trestman said. "I go down Monday to see him and see what he sees. On Tuesday, I stop in and tell him what direction we are wanting to go. If it's sound and it's solid, he'll make it work."
When things didn't work, Callahan didn't panic. He believed in his players during a four-game losing streak. Players responded and came out of the slump losing only one game the remainder of the season.
"He's not the type of coach to holler or showboat or anything like that," Kennedy said. "He is very calm in his demeanor. He knew the veterans would help to turn things around. He knew it was up to the players to make it happen."
Before training camp, Callahan visited former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. He took notes. He had more than two dozen thoughts he hoped Wooden could help him conquer. Wooden gave him concepts such as "What you learn after you know it all is what counts." Wooden told him what winning does to make someone a real winner.
Callahan became a real winner in one season. He had the notes to prove it.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.