|Norm Chow remembers clearly the day he learned that college football players were of a different breed.
It was a handful of summers ago when Chow, then the offensive coordinator at BYU, was recording the voice overs for a video playbook each player was to study. Realizing the boredom his players would face watching the video, Chow inserted a message toward the end of the tape: any player still watching should call Coach Chow for a $100 reward.
"And guess how many guys called me. Just guess," Chow recalls. "One. And he was the center, the all-American boy who went on to medical school, married the cheerleader, all that stuff. Now what does that tell you?"
It told Chow to simplify. And that's just what he's done this summer at USC, installing his wide-open, pass-happy offense with a playbook about half as thick as the one used by former coach Paul Hackett. Instead of worrying about precise footwork and perfect mechanics, Chow is instructing junior quarterback Carson Palmer to merely relax and find the open man.
It's worked before. In 27 years at BYU and last season at North Carolina State, Chow's series of short to mid-range passes, thrown to each and every eligible receiver, has produced some of the greatest offensive seasons in college football history. Yet doing this at USC, at a school that cherishes its Heisman-winning running backs like Harvard does its Rhodes Scholars, is something entirely different.
"I worried about that before I even took the job," Chow said. "But because of what's happened here over the past couple years, the fans are hungry for something positive to get behind and support.
"I'm not naive enough to think that if it doesn't work they won't be all over us, but these people are clamoring for the success of the old days. No matter what it takes."
When defensive-minded Pete Carroll took the USC job in January, he made it his first priority to pry Chow away from N.C. State. He barely knew Chow, but Chow's track record and conversations with a handful of NFL quarterbacks spoke volumes.
In 18 seasons as offensive coordinator, Chow coached six of the top 12 career passing efficiency leaders and 11 quarterbacks who rank among the top 30 in NCAA history for single-season passing yardage. The Cougars scored 30 or more points in 106 of 181 games. His list of pupils include Robbie Bosco, Steve Young and 1990 Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer.
Chow coached Philip Rivers, who broke seven school passing records and was named ACC Freshman of the Year last season. The Wolfpack offense finished second in the ACC behind Florida State (396.2 yards per game), with Rivers throwing for 3,054 yards, 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
"I really didn't know much about Coach Chow until he got here," USC quarterback Carson Palmer said. "But when I saw his bio, I was like, 'Wow.' I couldn't wait to work with him. I had no idea."
For Carroll, who was looking to give autonomy to his offensive coordinator so Carroll could concentrate on defense, Chow was the perfect fit.
"He is arguably the best offensive coordinator in the history of college football, certainly in terms of championships and wins and people he has coached," Carroll said. "He is not only a great attraction for us in recruiting and a great asset as a coach, but he allows me to do what I want to do."
It isn't like the USC offense needs that much tinkering. Under Paul Hackett last season, the Trojans led the Pac-10 in total offense (415.9 ypg) and ranked 23rd in the nation in passing offense (262.3 ypg).
Still, improvement is expected out of Palmer, who has yet to live up to lofty expectations in two years with USC. Last season, Palmer's 16 touchdowns were overshadowed by his 18 interceptions.
|Norm Chow's offenses have produced record numbers at BYU and N.C. State.|
"He is the most physically talented quarterback I have ever been around," Chow said. "But he's been ragged on a bit around here, so my job is to make him believe in himself and believe in what we're doing."
Palmer says Chow's simplified approach is working.
"The thing with the offense is once you've got it, you've got it," Palmer said. "It doesn't keep going like the old offense. It isn't so broad. The key is taking what the defense gives you. I've been greedy with the long ball when there's a guy 5 or 6 yards in front of me open. So he tells me to be more patient.?
The path that has brought the 55-year-old coach to USC has been anything but normal. The grandson of a Chinese immigrant, Chow grew up in Honolulu and was an All-WAC guard at Utah. After one season in the Canadian Football League, a knee injury ended his playing career.
Chow then coached two years of high school football in Honolulu before joining the BYU staff in 1973 as a graduate assistant. At BYU, he worked on a master's degree in special education and later a doctorate in educational psychology.
While at BYU, Chow worked with not only head coach LaVell Edwards, but also a handful of talented assistants, including current Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick and Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren.
In 1982, it was Chow who gave an unknown Holmgren -- then the quarterbacks coach at San Francisco State -- his first big break.
"LaVell was bringing Mike in for an interview, but he had to go on a cruise that he couldn't back out of," Chow said. "So he tells me, 'You interview this Holmgren guy and if you like him, hire him.' Mike comes in, and we had laughs for about two hours. I still kid him that he owes his career to me."
Though a handful of head coaching opportunities presented themselves over the years, Chow stayed at BYU for three reasons: his allegiance to Edwards, because he didn't want to move his family and, well, he felt comfortable.
He considered the idea of someday replacing Edwards, but a change in BYU's administration changed that.
"It was a nice run, a real nice run, but I stayed too long," Chow said. "And I knew that. It was a case where there were some awfully loyal guys on the staff but the new administration felt it was time for a change."
So Chow headed for N.C. State, where he worked his wonders with Rivers. And then Carroll came calling.
"I didn't know Pete that well," Chow recalls. "And I told him I really wouldn't consider (USC) because I had a great job where I was. But he laid out the challenge, the tradition and how badly he wanted me to join him. It was on offer I couldn't refuse."
Which has brought Chow to Los Angeles, the home of Student Body Left and Student Body Right, to educate a run-oriented team on taking to the air.
What could be simpler than that?
"To give them a thick playbook and tell them to study every page, over and over, we're fooling ourselves," Chow said. "And besides, I'm not that smart anyway. So I have no choice but to make things easier."
||He is arguably the best offensive coordinator in the history of college football, certainly in terms of championships and wins and people he has coached. He is not only a great attraction for us in recruiting and a great asset as a coach, but he allows me to do what I want to do. "|
||— USC head coach Pete Carroll on Norm Chow|