"You wanted to put your neck on the line for him."
-Jeff Cavender, former Boise State OL who worked with Sean Kugler in 2006
The big news in Steeler Land is the hiring of Sean Kugler to be the new offensive line coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He of course replaces Larry Zierlein, who was fired last week after three seasons in the Burgh. By now, you've surely read the cookie cutter briefs about Kugler's resume written over the course of the last few days by bloggers and other media outlets: he coached up Jason Peters in Buffalo to Pro Bowl status; and at Boise State, he helped future 1st round draft pick Ryan Clady get his technique catch up to his extraordinary natural physical abilities.
If you just look at the NFL teams he's been involved with in the past - Buffalo most recently and Detroit earlier last decade - than you might think this was a bad hire. Buffalo did after all give up the fourth most sacks in the league last year (46) while posting mediocre records the three seasons he was there. And of course, no need to explain the Lions' mishaps all decade, including during the five seasons he was working under Matt Millen from '01-'05.
That's lazy analysis though. I won't waste time explaining why, but injuries and front office mismanagement had as much to do with the poor records of his teams than did anything else. For instance, Buffalo traded away their one stud along the line Jason Peters prior to this season, and started this year with two rookies at guard and two inexperienced projects at each tackle position. So, is it really a surprise that Buffalo gave up 16 sacks in their first four games of the 2009 season? They only gave up 29 the remaining 12 contests, which really isn't awful. It's not good enough, but that's not what matters. What matters is the easily identifiable evidence that the unit improved as the season progressed.
Buffalo was also fairly solid running the football. Their 4.4 yards per carry as a team was the 8th best mark in the league, behind teams like Tennessee, New Orleans, New York Jets, Baltimore and Dallas. Not bad company to keep. The problem was Buffalo was playing from behind more often than not, forcing them to the air more than they probably would have liked. The result? A high number of sacks.
Anyway, I haven't sat down with the guy or phoned anybody who might now him personally in an attempt to get a better feel for Kluger as a person and coach. But I am pleased to have spent some time digging around to learn a bit more about the guy. And after doing so, I am 100% confident that the Rooneys, Mr. Colbert, et. al have done a great job with the hire. Many fans or writers might be disappointed to have not gotten a bigger 'name' who coached on Super Bowl winning teams, but that's not where the great ones are always plucked from. It's not where Noll, Cowher or Tomlin came from when they were hired by the Steelers. To think that our offensive line coach must come from a regular winner is fallacious reasoning. The Cleveland Browns and Notre Dame Fighting Irish went down that route with the hirings of Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis. How'd those turn out?
Point is, to me at least, we need a teacher in there coaching our OL. A gifted motivator and communicator; a tireless worker; someone who's spent their entire football life working with offensive linemen. I suppose every positional coach matters on an NFL team - from the tight ends coach to the 'running game coordinator' - but considering what's plagued the Steelers most frequently in recent years - i.e. inconsistent and/or downright shoddy offensive line play - hitting a homerun with this hiring carries extra importance.
I didn't learn anything too groundbreaking about Kugler during my research of this post, but I did dig up some things from years past that most certainly cast a very, very positive light on him as a person, teacher, motivator and hard worker.
Click through the break and read on about Sean Kulger, the new offensive line coach of the six time Super Bowl champion Steelers, but my initial reaction is well done Rooneys, Mr. Colbert and whoever else was involved in the decision making process!
To begin, an overview of Mr. Kugler's resume.
Buffalo Bills: Offensive Line Coach (2008-2009) Assistant Offensive Line Coach (2007);
Boise State Broncos: Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Line Coach (2006)
Detroit Lions: Assistant Tight Ends & Offensive Line Coach (2001-2005)
UTEP Miners: Various Assistant Positions (1993-2000)
Great, now that that's out of the way, let's think about some less obvious aspects of Kugler's young coaching career. Here's one thing that I really like for starters - in his first year at the helm of Boise State following Dan Hawkins' departure for Boulder, Chris Peterson hired Kugler in 2006 to coach the Broncos offensive line. Why does that impress me? Well, I respect the heck out of Chris Peterson's abilities as a coach and evaluator of talent and character. By 2006, Boise was already on the college football map. Not as prominently as they are today, but they'd fared pretty damn well to begin the decade under Dan Hawkins' watch, meaning Peterson inherited a program perfectly capable of recruiting top notch, up and coming assistants to come work with him.
Peterson wasn't distracted by the poor record of the Lions' teams Kugler was associated with in the early '00s. He did his due diligence and most likely got glowing report after glowing report about the work ethic and teaching ability of Kugler. If nothing else, we know Peterson wouldn't hire a shady personality. Boise's remained a squeaky clean program throughout their ascendency to prominence. Despite working with limited resources, you've not once heard of an infraction by them in an attempt to catch up to the big boys in the power conferences.
In 2006, Kugler's first and only year out west, the Broncos finished 13-0, capped by a Statue of Liberty 2-point conversion to edge Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. During halftime of that game, with Boise leading the juggernaut Sooners, Kugler rallied his team and told them to expect a surge from OU in the 2nd half.
"They're going to come with fire; they're going to come at you with the heat," he says. But you know what? We're going to shove it up their asses. Play the way you play!"
- Sean Kugler, speaking to the Boise State players during halftime of the 2007 Fiesta Bowl
Who cares about Boise's record that year though, or for that matter, the record of any of the teams he has been associated with. What jumped out to me was the lavish praise he received from his former boss and players (like the quote that began this post) at the mid-major powerhouse. When Kugler was lured away by the Bills, Peterson, who believe me, is not a man known for hyperbole, had this to say about his offensive line coach and assistant head coach:
"There's absolutely no question that he's the best football coach I've ever been around."
- Chris Peterson, current Boise State head coach who worked with Kugler during the 2006 season, told ESPN's Tim Graham last month.
Needless to say, Peterson was disappointed but understanding of Kugler's decision to move on. Why did he leave? Money, I imagine, played a role. Even though he was the top paid assistant at BSU that year, Kugler's salary was just $150k - hardly chump change, but not exactly approaching the upper thresholds of his earning power. He also was born in Lockport, NY, a mere 30 miles from Bills headquarters in Buffalo. Upstate New York is 'home' for him. Perhaps it was also the frustration of knowing you could help guide team to a perfect record and still have no shot at the ultimate glory of a national championship at a non-BCS program like Boise.
Boise's loss was Jauron's gain. He had this to say about him after hiring him in 2007:
"He's a unique guy in terms of his talents, temperament and attitude. I believe he has a great future here with the Bills," Jauron said. "Sean is a very bright, hard-working guy."
Good to know he's not just the 'barking' chest thumping type of motivator or leader as his halftime quote might suggest. That kind of leadership doesn't work - at least not all the time - at the NFL level.
Tireless worker, thoughtful, smart, passionate, fiery and a guy that has inspired and impressed people above and below him on the proverbial totem pole at each stop thus far in his career.
Getting hired again by Jauron is another plus in my book. Despite Detroit's struggles when Jauron and Kugler were on the Lions staff, the recently fired Bills coach hired him to coach in Buffalo back in '07. Some might say that might be why Jauron's out of a job - making the same mistakes and expecting different results. I don't think that's fair. Jauron might not be the league's greatest coach - both in terms of talent evaluation, in-game strategy, or as a talented motivator of young rich dudes - but he's always been thought of as one of the truly good guys in the game. Always fair in his treatment of players and never one to pass the blame on to somebody other than himself.
This is fairly trivial admittedly, but I also like that Kugler was, hey, an offensive linemen! Larry Zierlein was not, though he did play defensive end back in the late 1960s at Division II Fort Hays State. Kugler didn't have the physical abilities to play at the NFL level - he quickly realized that after playing one year in the WLAF and instead got into coaching at the high school level.
Perhaps much more importantly to me, Kugler is a good 20 years younger than Zierlein. I can't find his exact date of birth - come on Wikipedia peeps, get on it! - but he commenced his time at UTEP in '84, meaning if he was 18 when he was a freshman (as most kids are), then he was born in 1966 or '67. By my count, that puts him in his early to mid 40s. To me, that's an ideal age for aspiring, upwardly mobile assistants who've had some success in their profession but still have plenty of things left to accomplish professionally. He's young enough to be energetic and able to relate to and communicate with today's players, but old enough where he's learned a thing or two over the years, not to mention motivated to make the most of his first truly prestigious, bigtime job.
This is not to be overly critical of Zierlein for the sake of it - I've heard he's a really nice and likable man. Hell, if he didn't get fired for his porn gaffe, I imagine he was in pristine graces with the powers that be. Zierlein was also a corporal in the Marine Corps and served in the Vietnam War. A salute on behalf of Steeler Nation for his service. One just has to wonder if Zierlein was able to change his philosophy, teaching style and work ethic at his age after decades of bouncing from gig to gig.
Back to Kugler as I wrap this up. I like that he's had some longevity at his few coaching stops in college and professional football. His three years of high school coaching fell just one year shy of Z's second longest tenure in his nearly 40 year coaching career (at the Univ. of Cincinnati where he coached for four years). Outside of his nearly decade long stint at the University of Houston from '78-'86, Zierlein has repeatedly bounced from job to job every two or three years. Kugler on the other hand spent eight straight years at UTEP through the end of the '90s before joining the Lions staff in 2001. He'd stick around the Motor City for five years before getting a top assistant gig on Peterson's staff at Boise.
To me, Kugler has the right mix of competitiveness and drive to hone his craft, natural ability and talent as a teacher and motivator, loyalty, and perspective about how best to go about accomplishing short and long term goals. Will he transform the Steelers offensive line over night? Probably not. You've got to have horses in the stable so to speak to get things done in the National Football League. But coaching most certainly matters, particularly along the offensive line where elite performance is predicated as much on technique, intelligent preparation and mental acuity as it is on talent.
I do expect the line to be even better next year, regardless of what personnel changes are or aren't made this spring and summer. Frankly, I think it's just a matter of time before Kugler transforms Pittsburgh's offensive line back in to one of the more formidable units in the league. As that happens, I also think we'll see the team's offense shift back to being more run-oriented and physically imposing than it has been since the middle of last decade when Russ Grimm packed up his bags to join Ken Whisenhunt's staff out in Arizona.
For the first time since then, I'm confident the Steelers have the right man coaching up the most important position (besides QB) in football.
A Steeler Nation sized welcome to Sean Kluger and his family!
Now get to work! There's plenty to be done!