New USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow recently was named to the University of Utah's All-Century team as an offensive lineman.
If one were to assemble college football's All-Century coaching staff, the offensive coordinator spot would arguably be his as well. The 55-year-old Honolulu native is quite simply one of the premier offensive masterminds in the history of the game.
That doesn't mean he's still not a humble man. When asked him about his career as an offensive guard, he summed it up in one word.
"Bad," said Chow. "I was bad. I made that All-Century team only because of my coaching record. I was just a guy. I liked to play and I liked the camaraderie of football."
When reminded that he was an All-Western Athletic Conference and All-American honorable mention selection as a senior in 1967, Chow finally admitted to being ‘okay.'
His understated approach has served him well for so long, it's hard to brag. It's an attitude he learned toiling in the mountain air of Provo, Utah, for much of the last 28 years as he helped the legendary LaVell Edwards churn out championship football teams at BYU. Looking back, Chow is thankful for the opportunities he was given.
"I was really lucky," said Chow, who owns a national championship ring from the 1984 Cougar squad. "I was a high school coach and then I went back to graduate school and became a graduate assistant for BYU. At the time, they asked me if I would help with the receivers, so I said, ‘Yes.' I didn't know much about receivers, but I told them that if they taught me, I would learn.
That was 1973, the first of 27 years at BYU for Chow. Two years later, he was the full-time receivers coach and his nimble mind began absorbing everything it could regarding offense and the passing game.
"I was really fortunate," said Chow. "I worked with the late Doug Scovil, who later went on to coach Randall Cunningham at the Philadelphia Eagles. So I coached wide receivers for several years at BYU and I studied and learned as much as I could. A few years later, the quarterbacks job opened up and I was asked to help there and I've been doing it ever since."
But how did a Utah offensive lineman by way of Hawaii develop one of the greatest offensive machines in college football history for BYU? Chow's answer is as basic as the offense he runs.
"I just learned, adapted and studied," said Chow. "That's all. There's no big, dark secret."
Chow took the always-prolific Cougars' offense to a new level. The BYU quarterback, like the USC tailback or the Penn State linebacker, became one of the elite positions in college football during Chow's tenure. He coached six of the NCAA's top 12 career passing efficiency leaders and was involved with squads that hold 11 of the top 30 single-season passing yardage totals in NCAA history. Among the Cougar players he coached were a number of NFL stars, including quarterbacks Steve Young, Jim McMahon, Marc Wilson, Gifford Nielsen, Ty Detmer and Robbie Bosco. Through it all, Chow's idea of a good quarterback has remained fairly simple.
"A quarterback must have intelligence and the ability to make quick decisions," maintains Chow. "He must have a rhythm, a huddle presence and a field presence. That whole presence about the quarterback is something that Carson Palmer and I have talked about. You are more than just the quarterback. You are the leader. You get all the credit and you get all the blame."
Chow's offenses have historically squeezed as much production as possible out of the talent available. While everyone remembers the BYU quarterback, few remember the BYU receivers or running backs. Yet there they were, catching the touchdown passes and rumbling for first downs when needed. Chow is a master at designing an offense to match the special talents of the players on the roster.
"It's a matter of trying to use the skills of the players that you have," said Chow. "If you have a strength in a certain area, you focus on that. The whole key to teaching and coaching is making sure your young people are given every chance to be successful."
Certainly he inherits a USC offense endowed with plenty of speed, but Chow prefers to remain low key about that, the better to sneak up on opposing defenses.
"We perpetuated the image at BYU that we were slow," said Chow. "But we had some fast guys. You have to remember that it's a team game. Obviously, everyone remembers the quarterback and, in baseball, everyone remembers the pitcher. But there are a lot of other good players who are needed to make a situation work."
After 27 years at BYU, Chow moved on in 2000 to the offensive coordinator's spot at North Carolina State, where he developed true freshman quarterback Phillip Rivers into a legitimate star. The Wolfpack went 8-4 and won the Micronpc.com Bowl. Soon after, he heard the call from newly-hired Trojan coach Pete Carroll. For Chow, it was an exciting opportunity.
"Every kid who grows up in Hawaii likes USC," said Chow. "It's just the way it is. In fact, my high school coach who really helped me get going and taught me a lot of lessons was a USC guy."
How does he feel about implementing a passing offense at a school known for Student Body Right?
"I asked Pete Carroll about that," said Chow. "He said that really didn't come into the picture. The goal is to win football games. If winning football games means lining up in the I formation, then we'll do it. We're going to do whatever it takes to win.
Chow is philosophical about the changes in college football in the last 20 years.
"What's happened in college football with the 85 scholarship rule is that parity has taken over," Chow noted. "Football has evolved in such a way that you can't do the things you did back in the 1970s. Football is like a pendulum. It swings back and forth. USC was very successful with the I-formation, then teams figured out how to stop it. When something else is successful, then they'll figure out how to stop that. It shifts."
It's a safe bet that Chow will continue to stay one step ahead of those shifts.