By Leighton Ginn
One of the top offensive minds in the history of college football, Norm Chow made his reputation on building quarterbacks at both Brigham Young and USC, as well as an impressive short stint at North Carolina State.
Chow spent 27 years (1973-99) at BYU. At various times, he was the Cougars’ assistant head coach, offensive coordinator, co-offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach, receivers coach, recruiting coordinator and graduate assistant (1973 and 1974).
He coached six of the NCAA’s top 16 career passing efficiency leaders and was involved with squads that hold 11 of the top 30 single season passing yardage totals in NCAA history. He coached in 22 bowls at BYU and was on the staff of the Cougars’ 1984 national championship team. BYU went 244-91-3 during his time in Provo.
He was named the National Assistant Coach of the Year in 1999 by the American Football Foundation and in 1993 by Athlon. He was the 1996 Division I Offensive Coordinator of the Year by American Football Quarterly. In 1996, he was a finalist for the Broyles Award.
Carson Palmer drops back to pass / photo courtesy of USC Athletics
CARSON PALMER: Some people think Palmer was the definitive quarterback of all of Chow’s protege. A highly recruited quarterback, Palmer was considered a underachiever prior to Chow’s arrival.
In two years with Chow, Palmer became one of the top quarterbacks in USC history en route to the Heisman Trophy.
Chow said when he got to USC, the playbook was reduced by 75 percent.
“I think we allowed him to be him,” Chow said. “You need to give your guy a chance to cut loose and play. There’s only so many reads you can make and there’s only so much you can do to that. You just let them play after a while. I think Carson took to that.”
“We always laugh about that because there’s only so many routes you can throw anyways.”
USC quarterback Matt Leinart drops back to pass during 23-17 victory over Cal at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Pac-10 Conference football game on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2004 / photo courtesy of USC Athletics
MATT LEINART: The heir apparent to Carson Palmer, Leinart beat out Matt Cassel and Brandon Hance for the starting job as a sophomore.
He would led the Trojans to two national titles and won the 2004 Heisman Trophy.
During their time together, Chow was impressed with how cerebral Leinart was. He remembers during practice how Leinart would call out head coach Pete Carroll’s defensive alignments.
For Chow, he doesn’t understand how Leinart’s success didn’t continue in the NFL.
“That was one of the real mysteries for me, why he’s not in the league. He’s good enough and he’s smart enough,” Chow said. “He was also cerebral as heck. He didn’t have a great arm and maybe that got him in trouble. But he was very accurate and had great anticipations.
“I swore that he would not only take a team to the national championship, but he would also take a team to the Super Bowl. I don’t know what happened.”
TY DETMER: A case of don’t judge a book by its cover.
Detmer didn’t have the physical tools of a prototypical quarterback, which was evident when they were in the locker room before a game at Colorado State.
“I was next to him and he took his shirt off. ‘Holy geez, we got to play a game with this guy who was 175-pounds dripping wet,'” Chow remembered. “But 400 yards later, we put the balls away and went home with the W.”
Chow said Detmer had a father as a coach and his understanding of the game was ahead of others. The only other player who had a mind like Detmer was Jim McMahon.
Detmer was the first player to win a Heisman Trophy for Chow, so many people wanted to take credit for recruiting Detmer.
Chow said it was a what, not a who, that attracted Detmer to BYU.
Detmer was going on recruiting trips to Colorado, Utah and then Los Angeles. In between the trip from Utah to Los Angeles, Detmer paid a visit to the Provo River, which was well-known for its fly fishing.
Once Detmer went fishing, he decided he would go to BYU.
Today, Detmer is following in Chow’s footsteps as the offensive coordinator at BYU.
“I text him after ball games,” Chow said. “To see some of the things he does is fascinating. He’s a tremendously gifted mind in the game of football.”
USC tailback Reggie Bush breaks loose against Virginia Tech as coach Pete Carroll looks on. The Trojans won 24-13 / Photo courtesy of USC Athletics
REGGIE BUSH: One of the most gifted offensive players Chow ever worked with, Bush gave his offense a dimension he never enjoyed before.
“He was ahead of his time in college,” Chow said. “He was so good and so quick.”
Bush won his Heisman Trophy the year after Chow had left to become the offensive coordinator with the Tennessee Titans.
Chow said Bush was another receiver for his offense because of his good hands and the mismatches he created.
Notre Dame learned the hard way, as Chow retold a story he heard from Matt Leinart.
“We were playing Notre Dame and the weak-side linebacker said, ‘I got 5, I got 5,'” Chow said. “Matt Leinart said, ‘Bull (expletive) you got 5.’ He checked off a play for Reggie and he goes 70 yards for a touchdown.”
JIM MCMAHON: Chow was the receivers coach at the time at BYU, but recruited McMahon, who sometimes served as another offensive coordinator.
As the staff would prepare the game plans each week, McMahon would come into the office after watching tape and suggest plays.
“Coach bought in, I bought in,” Chow said. “When he went to the Bears, he did the same thing and (coach Mike) Ditka got pissed at him.”
Chow pointed out that much of what McMahon called worked.
During his time at BYU, McMahon was generally quiet. After games, he would leave Provo for his home in Roy, about 40 miles away.
So when McMahon became the “punky QB” with the Bears, it was counter to how Chow knew him.
“I remember when he came into town for a game,” Chow said. “I asked him, ‘Jim, why do you act so crazy?’ He said, ‘Coach, the crazier I act, the more money I make.'”
STEVE YOUNG: While Young had a great career at BYU, where he was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy and broke 13 NCAA records, he wasn’t the kind of quarterback he would become with the San Francisco 49ers.
“When he was recruited to BYU, it was strictly as an athlete,” Chow said. “I wish we could take more credit for him.”
Chow said Young benefitted from a sure-handed tight end, Gordon Hudson, a former basketball player with a knack for getting open.
“I remember we used to tell him, ‘This is your first read. Look for Gordon, that was No. 2. No. 3, run,'” Chow said laughing. “That’s what we told him and he had a tremendous career because of that. We laughed about that all the time.”
Chow said Young became a great quarterback in the pros due to his time in the USFL and then being the backup to Joe Montana. When Young took over the 49ers, he was the NFL MVP in 1992 and 94, and the Super Bowl MVP after throwing six touchdown passes to beat the San Diego Chargers in 1995.
“He was a very gifted athlete who was as bright as the day is long,” Chow said.
PHILIP RIVERS: Chow only had one season with the future San Diego Chargers star, his freshman season at North Carolina State.
Rivers graduated high school early, so Chow got to work with him during spring football to better prepare him for his freshman season. Chow joked that he needed that time to get used to Rivers’ Southern drawl.
“I told him, ‘You know Philip, I don’t understand a word your saying, and you don’t understand pidgin. We’re going to get along fine,'” Chow joked. “He was 6-foot-4 with an odd throwing motion, but bright, bright, bright.
“He makes things happen. Even as a first-year player, he was in charge. You knew he was in charge.”
Chow would leave for the USC offensive coordinator job, but said that one season was really enjoyable.
“I’ve said this many times, that was the funnest year I’ve had in coaching, coaching Philip Rivers,” Chow said. “He just made the game fun.”
VINCE YOUNG: While the Tennessee Titans had success with Vince Young early in his career, Chow said he saw the former Texas Longhorns star struggling with his transition.
“He just wasn’t ready for all the stuff that came with being an NFL quarterback,” Chow said. “He got by on his athleticism, and that was eventually going to get him into trouble because when you get to that level, everyone is as athletic as you are.”
Kerry Collins was the backup quarterback, and Chow said he had hoped Young would follow his lead, in terms of putting in the work needed.
Chow said on Tuesdays, players were off while the coaches were putting together the game plan for the week.
“Kerry Collins had a fax machine at home,” Chow said. “At 5 or 6 p.m., he starts calling me. ‘Coach, send me what you got, send me what you got.’ Wednesday morning was the installation of the offense and Kerry wanted to know what was going on.
“I encouraged (Young) a lot to come into the office on Tuesdays, but he wasn’t ready for that real serious studying.”
But Chow said he could tell that Young had other issues that were weighing in on him. When Young came to the facility, he would have his head down.
“I said, ‘Vince, with all these people after you, what you should do it go to your loved ones. They care about you,'” Chow said. “He looked at me, ‘Coach, those were the worst ones.’
“It wore on him.”
Despite all the issues, Young was the NFL offensive rookie of the year and a Pro Bowler in 2006, and the Titans reached the playoffs the next season.
ROBBIE BOSCO: He was the right quarterback at the right time for BYU and Chow, as he helped lead the Cougars to the 1984 national title.
“Robbie Bosco is a little different guy. He was a tough guy, but he was also thin,” Chow said. “What made Robbie was there was a lot of players around him that made him look good.”
While Bosco didn’t have the kind of arm of some of the other Hall of Famers, his career was no less impressive as he finished third in Heisman Trophy voting in 1984 and 85.
Matt Cassel attempts a pass against Arizona State/ photo courtesy of USC Athletics
MATT CASSEL: While at USC, fans didn’t see much of Matt Cassel, as he was backup to both Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart.
It was a frustrating time for Cassel, who thought he would be the heir apparent after Palmer left.
“He wanted a chance and he deserved a chance,” Chow said. “But with Leinart playing the way he did, it was hard. There was only one ball.”
Chow said he respected that Cassel never transferred and even played tight end to help the team. He also knew he was very capable quarterback for the next level.
When Chow left for the Tennessee Titans, he made arrangements to sign Cassel as a free agent.
“All of the sudden, in the seventh round, someone comes down to the office and said, ‘someone already took your boy,'” Chow said. “The Patriots had gone out to the Pro Day. The receivers needed someone to throw to them and Matt volunteered. He made such an impression that the Patriots took him in the last round.
“That’s who Matt Cassel was. He was good enough, but he got caught in a tough situation.”
In 2008, Cassel stepped in as the starter for the Patriots after Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury and led the team to an 11-5 record.
MARC WILSON: In 1979, Wilson was a first-time All American, the first for BYU. By the next year, he was the backup to Jim McMahon.
“He had a kind of checkered little career because of McMahon,” said Chow, who was the receivers coach at the time. “I don’t think he was really pleased with the way BYU handled him. They didn’t handle him wrong because McMahon was there. I think later in life, he realized what was happening.
“We still stay in touch, and we’ve done so for a while.”
Wilson had a good run in the NFL, as he was part of the Raiders’ Super Bowl championship teams in 1980 and 84.
Wilson was also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame after breaking nine NCAA passing records.