The talent level was always really good. What we always had was plentiful. I'll tell you what made us different. You could see it when they were running sprints after practice. When the defensive backs and the wide receivers ran, when the linebackers and the tight ends and running backs ran, when those groups ran, there was so much speed on that field it looked like an Olympic track team. They all came in kinda lean and fast and they just worked so hard and competed so hard that they became pro athletes before the left. Where we were considered average was on the offensive line. What helped us was that every day in practice, we were going up against some exceptional defensive lines – some of the greatest in the history of college football – Jerome Brown, Dan Sileo, Warren Sapp, Russell Maryland, Billy Hawkins, Greg Mark, Rusty Medearis, Danny Stubbs, we had some phenomenal guys, Jerome McDougle. Blocking those guys every day wasn't easy. We always had good offensive linemen but a lot of them weren't pro types. Towards the end of our tenure there, we started to really develop them. When we won the national championship at the Rose Bowl, I think because of the myriad of talent at every position, that was one of the best teams I've ever seen in my life. I was fortunate to be a part of a great run in college football. Twenty seven years. I can't imagine that anyone could have a better 27-year period than that. In a 22 year span, we played for 11 national championships. There's no doubt our talent and the competitive nature of the kids from Florida factored in unbelievably. All along the way, we had some damn good coaching too. I don't want to say it had anything to do with me but the effort, the recruiting, all of it was amazing. I was lucky to have been involved.
Who's the best player you've ever been around as a player or a coach?
I can't really say because to me, how do you say. One of my favorite quarterbacks was Craig Erickson. If you wanna compare him to Kelly or Testaverde or Gino Torretta or Bernie Kosar, then you can make a pick at who's the best. But how do you say he's better than say a Greg Mark or Jerome Brown or Jessie Armstead of Darrin Smith or Dan Morgan or Ray Lewis or Sean Taylor or Ed Reed. I would rather pick them by position. Look at the last few tight ends we had. They were some of the best in the NFL. Bryant McKinnie was unbelievable. Leon Searcy was exceptional. I thought K.C. was great. Eric Winston was a fabulous player. At receiver, I thought Michael Irvin and Reggie Wayne, because of their work ethic and toughness, were unbelievable. Eddie Brown went to the NFL and he's still the second-leading receiver in Cincinnati history. He was AFC Rookie of the Year. He was a dynamic player. He's one of the best players I ever saw. The list goes on and on.
Who gets your vote as the best offensive lineman you ever coached?
I would pick K.C. Jones because he was an unbelievably tough, bad ass, ass-whipping machine. Next would be Searcy, Winston, or McKinnie. Look at Richard Mercier. He started 48 games for us. Him and Mike Sullivan were terrific players. They were more leaders and tough guys but because of their size and athletic ability, guys like McKinnie and KC Jones and Winston were superior to them. They were definitely two of the better players though. Searcy was a dominant player in the league. At one point, he was the highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL. McKinnie will make over 100 million before he's done. Eric Winston's gonna be a good one. Like I said, though, those defensive linemen were amazing. They really helped us. Look at Warren Sapp. He came in as a tight end. In fact, he played tight end as a freshman. Gino thought he was gonna be a fabulous tight end. He could run. He was like 250, probably only 6-1, but he could run a 4.6, 4.7. Jerome Brown came in the same way. I remember when Sean Taylor came in. We talked about moving him to linebacker. When he got on the practice field, he was a freak. That's another thing about Miami. A lot of our players weren't ballyhooed. Our coaches did a good job of finding them and coaching them.
Going back to that first recruiting class in 95, when something like 4 of the 12 you signed were eventually first round draft picks, Butch's classes were incredibly strong. What do you think the biggest reason for that is?
Butch garnered a lot of his expertise from Jimmy. Butch honed his recruiting skills under him. The thing with Butch is that he knew what he wanted. He was truly selective. He watched film very closely. You can't argue – what he did was nothing short of remarkable. The way he handled his staff, too. I remember we got guys like Santana Moss and Dan Morgan and guys like that when we were on probation and they ended up stabilizing our recruiting efforts when we came off probation. Butch was very good and very detailed.
What's the most interesting recruiting story you can share during your days at UM?
I remember Edgerrin James when I was recruiting him from Immokalee. I'd be talking to a lot of schools near him – Labelle, Moore Haven, Desoto, all those schools. Any guy who played Immokalee, wherever I went, would tell me that I better get this kid. When I first saw him, he had a good build. He had an ice-skating running style. He could run through tackles. His senior year, everyone kinda got off him because his grades weren't that good. All of a sudden, they had a coaching change and I knew a guy named Darryl Bullock, who I believe was working in our business office at the time. He was a big guy, an ex-ball player. I'd talk ball with him sometimes. He ended up getting the Immokalee job during Edge's senior year. He called me up and told me how much he loved this Edgerrin James kid but that people are backing off of him. Darryl told me that he thought he was gonna make it (academically). I took it to our people. We formulated a game plan. We didn't sign him on signing day. With his SAT score, he took a prep course and whatever he had to do, if he did it and we had a scholarship, we'd take him. He did absolutely everything we wanted from him. We ended up taking him a few months after signing day and I'm very glad to this day that I stayed on him and we were able to get him in. He even had some injuries his senior year, I think an ankle injury. When he first got to campus, I told him that his talent isn't in question. I told him that all he needs to do is take care of business here, go to class, and work on your grades. He left after three years and even when he was making millions, he came back and tried getting his degree. He left with 97 credits and a 2.78 GPA and never failed a course. We never had a problem, ever. All he did was relentlessly work and compete his ass off. He did everything we asked him to do in order to sign with us and then he came in and busted his ass for three years. What he did for our program, I'm so proud of him. He came from nothing and has given back to his family, the community, and the university. He's an unbelievable kid. I recruited Javarris too and he's a lot like Edgerrin.
Who are some of the top guys you personally recruited to UM?
Oh, I recruited McKinnie, Phil Buchanon, Edgerrin, Jammi German, Javarris James, Sam Shields. I never had an area. I never really had an area in Florida for a long time. Guys we were recruiting in Pennsylvania, I helped out a lot. Line wise, I recruited Brett Romberg and all those Canadian guys, Joaquin Gonzalez, Chris Myers, those guys. From Down & Dirty, I recruited guys like Courtney Harris and Spencer Adkins. The only thing about recruiting that I've figured out is that I haven't figured it out.
You always seemed to like recruiting kids from Canada. Why is that?
Rich Mercier kinda fell in my lap. His father had a business here in Miami. I got a film on my desk and I liked him. He had come down and stopped by for a practice. We were kinda in between whether or not to offer him. He was committed to Syracuse and when we decided to offer him, he changed his mind and came here. I liked him right away. I started going up there and I started to meet people. Ron Diaz is like the Vince Lombardi of Canadian football. He ran all those camps. That's how I found Romberg, Joe McGrath, Sherko, all those guys. I worked these camps and met so many coaches there. I was single, young, and I knew when I was going there that I was meeting the right people. I wanted to make a reputation for myself. I know now that I have people from the Junior Colleges and prep schools and Canada that I can all on for a wealth of experience and they can trust me.
You always seemed to put an emphasis on making strong evaluations during (full contact) camp settings like Down & Dirty and the ones you can in Canada. Why is that?
Those camps could give you a chance to see what a kid's all about under pressure. It gives you an unbelievable chance to evaluate a kid. You could evaluate them when they're eating dinner. Sherko, one year we were walking back to the hotel and he tells me that he wants to be a Hurricane. I told him there's no chance. I told him he'd get me fired if I took him. I told him that he's a smart and talented kid but he goes three plays and takes one off. I told him, ‘You're not a bring it type of guy'. The next year he came back and put on a clinic. I was so impressed with him. He had learned his lesson. You never know when the light's gonna come on for these kids. I've made some mistakes, too. One kid (Nick Kaczur), he's playing for New England now. This kid was a beast. He was average on his grades and I didn't know whether to go after him. Well, he ended up starting four years for Toledo. He got drafted in the second round. You need to trust your instincts when making evaluations. If there's anything I regret, it's that if you really like a kid then go get him because there are so few of those guys out there. This kid was the MAC Freshman of the Year and he's the only offensive lineman to ever win that award. Another guy I wanted to go for is Jamaal Westerman, who's now at Rutgers. I had him in camp and nobody could block him. He was a little undersized but he was a great kid with a great family. He ran like a deer and he was tough as dogshit. I didn't trust my instincts, though. I didn't pull the trigger and now he's doing well there.
It seems like a lot of college football's best offensive linemen every year were also defensive guys in H.S. -- even guys like Bryant McKinnie and Chris Myers and Martin Bibla played defense in high school. What are your thoughts on that?
Bibla, that's another kid I forgot to mention. He was a real good player for us. He played both ways in high school and he actually was committed to Pitt. Then Johnny Majors got fired. We called him and he said hell yeah. When I get to be a head coach someday, one of the first things I'm gonna do is go after tight ends. I want 6-4, 6-5 guys that are 230, 240, 250, 260, 270 – tight ends and defensive ends. You should always look at guys like Vernon Care who are damn good offensive linemen. They're exceptions. I think the best offensive linemen are probably guys that played other positions as well. Here at Ole Miss, Andrew Wicker was a defensive lineman from Louisiana. He's my best offensive lineman. The guy is smart, athletic, and when they leave the defensive line being a step too slow, he's usually a step ahead of the rest of the offensive linemen. In general, defensive linemen are two to three tenths of a second faster than offensive linemen, probably had three to six inches higher on the vertical leap, and run the short shuttle probably one, two, or three tenths of a second faster than offensive linemen. You should always recruit a lot of two-way players. Eric (Winston) was a perfect example. As a tight end, he did a good job. I think he can play tight end in the NFL for teams that use two or three tight ends. Jason Fox, I recruited him. He came and visited us. We saw his film and saw a great athlete. I love watching them play basketball. You can see how they bend, how they use their feet. Bigger, taller guys, their core muscles are so later developed than smaller guys and that's something you have to keep in mind.
When you're on the road evaluating players, what are the most important things you look for in them?
I wanna see, when I go into a school, the first thing I ask the coach is he a tough SOB and does he work his ass off? The other stuff, I can get. Does he like football? Is he a leader? Those are things you wanna find out. On film, I wanna see a guy who will put his face right in there, likes contact. Does he do it a lot? I honestly believe if a kid will mix it up, I can teach him how to pass protect. I don't want it the other way. I want a guy who will finish blocks and get after people.
Why does it seem like coaches make more mistakes when evaluating offensive linemen than any other position?
One of the greatest things I learned was that we were Miami. We had so many good players but everyone will make mistakes in this business. When you think about it, the amazing thing is that you're working with 17, 18 year old kids. We might have a couple films for evaluation. He may have come to a camp. In the NFL, they're working with 21, 22, and 23 year olds. They have every possible evaluation tool known to man. They make mistakes. They spend millions of dollars doing it. So you know you're going to be making more mistakes on kids who aren't physically matured yet.
Is it true you can make a partial evaluation of a kid just by looking at his stance? If so, explain.
I just came off the practice field at Milford (Academy) and I was watching the offensive linemen. They got a bunch of prospects. I guarantee you there are two or three kids that are kinda tweeners (as prospects) but they're good ass football players. The first thing you notice in a stance is the square ness, the bend in their stance. Is everything smooth? Is it a stance that you could see them propelling themselves into another player with ease? With a combination of good coaching and athletic ability, most kids can have good stances. K.C. Jones, when he came to me, he was the most advanced of any lineman I coached. Him and Eric Winston were both from Midland Lee. They were the most well-taught high school football players. Whatever I threw at them, it stuck. They were amazing – their steps, their stances, their savvy, everything. That gave them a big advantage. In 27 years of coaching, the two best-prepared offensive linemen I ever coached came from the same high school. Whoever that line coach is, I need to shake his hand one day because he did a marvelous job with those two.