Had an interesting conversation with Doug Plank on Monday afternoon after Joe Novak’s retirement at Northern Illinois was announced. Plank mentioned earlier this season he was interested in exploring a head-coaching position at the college ranks when he was in town to cover a Bears game for Sports USA Radio Network.
Plank has been the head coach of the Georgia Force in the Arena Football League for the last three seasons. He’s won more games in that span than any coach in a three-year stretch in league history and twice has been named coach of the year.
The former Bears safety had some interesting ideas. Here’s a portion of the interview:
Q: Earlier this fall at a Bears game, you expressed interest in becoming a head coach at the college level. Does the Northern Illinois opening make sense for you?
I think it would be a great step for me, instead of taking a position coach as a D.B. coach in the NFL, I think this makes so much more sense.
Q: When is the last time you recruited someone for anything?
We don’t have a draft in Arena football. We recruit players every year. We recruit our whole team, in fact. We have to deal with free agents so when they come in, this is truly like a college recruiting trip. We take them to dinner, we show them the facilities, they meet the staff.
Q: What else qualifies you to be a Division I college coach? There’s a lot that goes on here that is well beyond the scope of a playbook?
I’ve been doing public speaking ever since I left the Bears, with corporations. I’m a motivational speaker, I’ve worked with a lot of home building companies, Motorola, lots of big companies. I know how to do this. I’m not a knucklehead X’s and O’s guy. In fact, I think being the head coach has less to do with calling plays than it does being managers of people.
When Arthur Blank hired me for this job, he said, `Well, Doug, what coaching have you done?’ I said, `Well, I’ve been coaching at Burger King for 20 years.’ He laughed. But I said, `Think about this, Arthur: It’s hiring and it’s firing, it’s training and it’s managing, it’s motivating and inspiring.’ I’ve worked with people my whole life. I guarantee you put me in front of a crowd or a mother and a father in a living room, I’m going to close the deal. I’m telling you right now, recruiting is my strength. Can I call some plays? Yeah, I can call some plays. I can identify some combo coverages, soft zones, zone blitzes, and all that. But I really look at my asset and my strength, and it’s people.
Q: How does having worked in the Arena League translate to a field that is 53 1/3 yards wide?
People say I’ve only coached Arena football, but I’ll say this: All I knew was the big field my whole life. It was more difficult than going out and coaching technique and tactics on the big field. I had to change. This was more challenging. I had to modify what I knew. Here’s what I learned from Buddy [Ryan] was that you take the people that you have and you use their skills and abilities, you don’t try jamming something down someone’s throat and say, `This is my system and it’s going to work.’
Q: For a college job, you’re an outsider. Is it going to be tough to get a serious look?
Because I don’t have the network of friends that have been in the business, yeah. It doesn’t take me long to make friends. I’m a fast learner. I guarantee you. Look at Arena football. I didn’t play Arena football. I went from being a broadcaster. Now, I’m broadcasting games every weekend meeting coaches and players. What do I have to learn? I’ve got to go back to school to learn how to do this? I’m not saying this doesn’t mean anything, being voted coach of the year two times in three years, I think that’s significant.
Q: The aspect of the college job, it’s about student athletes. Are you prepared to make sure your players are on top of the academic side of things? That’s one reason some NFL coaches have zero interest in the college game, they don’t want to chase kids to the classroom.
That’s nothing to me, I promise you that’s nothing for me to tackle. You know the restaurants I ran, we used to open at 6 a.m. and close at 2 a.m. Try running 13 of those at one time. You say I’m responsible for the whole team, the players, I’m not saying that isn’t a huge responsibility. It is. I’m up for the job. OK, I might be 54, but I’m not a 50-year-old. People say, you grew up in a different era, you don’t know how to react to these guys. I guarantee you, you talk to our players, they have respect for me. I’ve been where they’ve been. I don’t talk down to people. I get everyone on the right page.
Q: How did you get started in coaching after being out of the game for so long?
I was driving to a Burger King I owned in Tempe, Ariz., one day in 1994, and they announced on the radio that Buddy Ryan was hired as the head coach and general manager of the Cardinals. I said, `Should I go down there and congratulate him at this press conference?’ We were short for lunch that day, I probably needed to get there to help out, but at the last second I decided to just pop in there and congratulate Buddy. He and I were talking in the press room after the announcement was made and the radio station that does the Cardinals games walked up and said,`Hey, you’re Doug Plank, the 46 defense?’ I said, `Yes, I am.’ They asked me if I was willing to do a pregame and postgame segment for their broadcasts, join their staff, `I said OK.’ I did that that year and they were happy with me and then they became the carrier of the Arizona Rattlers games in the Arena Football League. They asked me if I’d like to be an analyst. I said, `OK, fine.’ I started as a radio analyst and that’s how I got to know Danny White, the head coach.
Danny asked me five or six times over the years if I would ever think about coaching. I always said no, I was running restaurants. It wasn’t until he fired his defensive coordinator. He asked me again and I finally said yes. We went to the championship game the next year and we had the No. 1 scoring defense. I said, `I can do this.’ I started building loyalty on the team. We went to three championships and unfortunately we were the Buffalo Bills of the Arena League. Now, I’ve won more games in three years than anyone else in the history of the game. Does it mean as much as if it had been in the NFL? No, it doesn’t. But you know what? At least it shows consistency. It shows this wasn’t an accident.
Q: What is another appeal to you of the college ranks?
Everyone always wants to be challenged. I’ve always done better in my life when I was trying to get to the top. Whether it was playing on a team, being on the second team, or whatever. Everyone wants to feel like they’re challenged and I feel like I’m more than capable.
Q: What can you draw on from your college experiences about the college game?
I learned one thing from Woody Hayes, the most important thing about being a college coach is you have to recruit. He was talking to us and he said, `My most important job here is to get the best players here. You guys are the best players here, so now I can run any play and make it work.’ That was until we got to the Rose Bowl and played USC and they were just as big and just as fast as we were and that off-tackle dive play didn’t work very well. Like I said, I can recruit. I work with people.
Do I think I have good background? I’ve been a college player. I’ve been to three Rose Bowls. I know what it’s like to be in the NFL. I know what it’s like to be down and have to fight for something. I know all the coaches in the NFL. I know what kids have to do to get there. I’m not saying that’s what I have to tell kids, but I think you have to let them know, `There’s nothing you’re going to try to do that I haven’t already been through.’
I learn extremely fast. Whatever it takes, I will get it done. Any team I’m with is going to play with a lot of passion. No. 1 with me is passion. Forget about X’s and O’s and execution and all that, it’s about showing up and being accountable and playing hard first with me.
Also had a brief conversation with affable NIU athletic director Jim Phillips. While he didn't want to discuss individual names, he was asked if it would take outside-the-box thinking to consider a candidate like Plank?
Phillips: One of the things I think is very important over these next few days is to cast the net as wide as possible, and I think you have to look at a variety of coaches and backgrounds. Specifically, you look at traditional coordinators from the BCS conferences and who is ready to take over their first head-coaching job. I think you have to look at the current head coaches who are out there at I-AA, I-AAA. Jim Tressel comes from Youngstown State to Ohio State, so I think you look at that. I think you look at the pro level. You look at both the NFL and the Arena league, and who has experience in college, or who has experience in this area that would make a lot of sense. Until you get to that juncture, it’s too premature to list leading candidates or a specific short list because we have to do our due diligence to make sure we do have the right set of candidates put together.