Washburn thankful for UA
It has been nearly 20 years since Jim Washburn turned off the recruiting road, but he’s unchanged on what he thinks is the answer for Arkansas to win in the Southeastern Conference: hit East Texas as hard as possible.
When a reporter recently reached Washburn via telephone, the retired NFL coach was walking his dog on his farm near Santa Fe, Tenn., southwest of Nashville. There are daily thoughts about his coaching career, including one of his favorite stops, a four-year stint with the Razorbacks under Danny Ford that ended in December 1997.
“I always think about my time at Arkansas,” Washburn said. “How could I not? It was the biggest break in my life. It saved my coaching career. I pray and I give thanks for Arkansas.”
Ford, who coached at Clemson, knew of Washburn, who had been at South Carolina. Ford hired his
one-time rival to help rebuild the football fortunes at Arkansas.
Without question, Washburn’s ability as a coach and recruiter was a big part of what got the Hogs going in the SEC. Washburn landed some top recruits in East Texas to help the Hogs win the SEC West in 1995.
Washburn said it’s the fertile recruiting grounds along U.S. 59 from Texarkana to Houston that ought to be the first outside-the-state target for Arkansas coaches.
“Just put every one of your coaches on that highway, 30 miles on either side of it,” Washburn said. “You hit that hard, I think you can win a national championship with that talent. It’s amazing.”
Washburn signed several dozen from that area. He will never forget the commitment of three from that area in January 1996 — while they were on a recruiting trip to Texas A&M.
“Kenoy Kennedy, Randy Garner and Bryan Smith were all picked up on the same jet for a trip to A&M,” Washburn said. “My office phone rang that Saturday afternoon. It was Kenoy. He said he had some news for me. I figured this was going to be bad news.”
It wasn’t. All three had decided on the plane ride to A&M that they really didn’t want to make the trip because they were going to be Razorbacks.
“One of the A&M coaches had left them in his office for a few minutes, so they called me,” Washburn said. “I’ll never forget it. Bryan Smith didn’t stay at Arkansas, but Kenoy and Randy both were great players.
“I still say that Kenoy had the single best high school video I’d ever seen. He hit this guy on the dead run and his helmet popped off and went backward 15 yards. I can still see it. Kenoy was a little Steve Atwater, just a great player.
“You can get a whole bunch like him just going up and down U.S. 59. I know it because I did. Just work the relationships there. You’ll get them to Arkansas.”
Washburn was not retained by Houston Nutt in the transition in December 1997. He says he understands.
“Houston didn’t know me,” Washburn said. “Why would he have kept me? I wouldn’t have kept someone I didn’t know. But, I believe this: I was about to hit a home run in East Texas that winter. I’d been working that ground for four years and I was about to commit the best players in that region. There were about 10 to 15 in the top 100. I could go up against Texas and Texas A&M in recruiting and win. I was winning that year, about to win big.
“But Houston had his staff. He knew his coaches. They’d been with him. That’s what you do.”
It worked out for Washburn. He worked one year at Houston before latching on with the Tennessee Titans, who he coached in Super Bowl XXXIV. There were also stints with the Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins.
“I worked last year with the Dolphins and decided to
come back here to Nashville,” he said. “We’ve got a home there and the farm here in Santa Fe. We are about to sell the house in Nashville.
“A pension from 18 years in the NFL is pretty good. I took the lump sum payment. If I’m smart, I can make it the rest of my life on this.”
Washburn probably doesn’t deserve what he got in his first try in big-time college coaching. He was one of four coaches at South Carolina hit with charges for distributing steroids in a scandal that rocked the college football landscape. He took a plea of three months at a halfway house.
But the real fallout was that he was blackballed from collegiate coaching. He bounced around the Arena League and with the London Monarchs of the World League until Dick Vermeil took up his cause.
“I was defensive coordinator with the London Monarchs and I sucked,” Washburn said. “I’m a defensive line coach, pure and simple. But I got lucky. Vermeil came over to work some of our games. He stayed with us for one week and he liked me.
“Dick was working with Coach (Frank) Broyles on the ABC broadcasts. He told Coach Broyles to take a chance on me. He said, ‘Frank, he’s a convicted felon, but you need to hire him. I’ll vouch for him.’ He did.”
It actually didn’t work out at first.
“The first year they had a job, Coach Broyles couldn’t get it done,” Washburn said. “It happened the next year. Of course, Danny is the one who wanted me, but it took Coach Broyles going to bat.”
Presumably, Broyles had to convince some with both Arkansas and the NCAA that Washburn deserved a second chance.
“I will be thankful to the people of Arkansas — and that starts with Frank Broyles — for the rest of my life,” Washburn said. “I was driving a truck hauling food for hogs. I had gotten in trouble, out of big-time coaching. Frank saved me.
“I owe everything I’ve got to Coach Broyles. Please write that because it’s true. Now it’s also true that Danny wanted me, but he couldn’t make it happen without Coach Broyles.”
Ironically, Ford and Washburn were bitter rivals from their time in the Palmetto State.
“We recruited against each other,” Washburn said. “I didn’t like him and he didn’t like me, but we got over it.”
Washburn gave Ford a “thank you” phone call last winter after retiring.
“I’d gone back to Columbia, S. C., for the funeral for Billy Michael, a former captain for Coach Broyles at Arkansas,” Washburn said. “Billy was one of my mentors.”
Washburn said it’s amazing how Broyles keeps popping up in his life.
“So my wife and I are at Billy’s funeral, guess who does the eulogy?” Washburn said. “It’s Barry Switzer. He started talking about what it means to be a Razorback and telling stories about what happened in Fayetteville. He and Billy were close.”
Michael was on the staff with Washburn at South Carolina.
“When I went through the
steroid deal, Billy spoke for me in front of the grand jury,” Washburn said. “He was about one of the few friends I had in coaching who stood up for me.
“That’s why I say Razorbacks are like no others. My wife and I keep saying that. We were reminded of that listening to Switzer talk at Billy’s funeral. No one else talks about their school quite like a Razorback does.”
Washburn is proud to be a part of the first SEC West title for the Hogs. He still marvels at that 1995 defense coordinated by Joe Lee Dunn.
“Joe Lee was a genius,” he said. “He could have been successful as a doctor or a lawyer, he was that smart. What he did with our defense was remarkable.”
Washburn said Dunn had a unique style.
“He didn’t wear headsets,” Washburn said. “He called it all from the sidelines. He saw things that no one else could see from the sideline.
“What he’d do that was so tough to defend was send two blitzers through the same gap. He’d overload an area.
“Go back and watch tape of what he did to get Steve Conley free on the edge. Steve had 14 sacks, second in the nation in ’95. You couldn’t double-team him because of the other things that were going on.”
It was a style that some thought too risky.
“You have rules in coaching,” Washburn said. “You’ve heard them, stay wider than the widest, deeper than the deepest. Joe Lee broke every one of those rules.”
The magic wasn’t just in Xs and Os, but was what happened in training camp. Dunn’s August workouts were brutal, but his defenses were in wonderful condition.
“Joe Lee called them ‘Packer Days,’” Washburn said. “He fashioned them from what Vince Lombardi did at Green Bay. He started the practice with three minutes of up-downs, then two minutes of 40-yard runs. Then, after a few days, it would be three-and-a-half minutes of up-downs and 1:45 of 40s. He added to it until we’d do 15 minutes of up-downs in fast pace.
“Anyone who ever participated in Packer Days will never forget them. I took them to Houston with me that next year. It worked.” Would it work today? “I don’t think so,” Washburn said. “This is a different day. That was in a day when you could wear out a player. Coaches are afraid of players now.”
Some coaches are afraid of the L word — that stands for love with Washburn. It’s the way he coached, building relationships in recruiting and on the field. He made sure to bring it up when talking about Broyles.
“Do you see him?” Washburn said. “Can you give him a message for me? Tell him I love him and I thank him every day for what I’ve got. It’s because of him.
“Coach Broyles called me that day (in December 1997) and told me to come home from recruiting. I guess someone would say that was tough, that I was going to get fired. I couldn’t be mad at him. He got me started again. I love him.”