—— You’ve got some interesting ties to both San Diego and Japan, would you mind sharing some of them with us?
Well, my brothers and I all grew up here in the North County…Encinitas… so I’ve spent most of my life in San Diego. This is where my parents met too…they were both working here. My mom is Japanese-American and my father was German-American, so we all basically grew up like typical American kids. After my NFL playing career, I had the opportunity to coach both here and in Tokyo…and a bit later by chance I met my future wife Kayoko who’s Japanese, on a flight to LA.
—— So did you grow up eating a lot of Japanese food?
No, not really. Sometimes my mom would sneak some of that in, but for the most part my dad was a “meat and potatoes” kinda guy, so that’s what we had. It wasn’t until I lived in Japan that I started to eat more Japanese food. Now thanks to my wife we eat it all the time.
—— You’ve had some great success…Junior College All-American, All PAC-10, the NFL, when did you start playing organized football?
I was always active…growing up with two brothers you had to be and we always loved football. I started playing in the Pop-Warner league when I was eight-yesrs old, and I continued to play when I went to San Dieguito High. Back then I played wherever they needed me…offense, defense, running back, wide receiver or defensive back.
Eventually, I went to Palomar Community College…that’s when I first met and played for coach Tom Craft. He was Palomar’s head coach then, now he’s San Diego State’s head coach and I’m his defensive coordinator.
—— After that, you went on to play for a big-time program in the PAC-10, with the “Ducks” of Oregon University.
Now it’s a big-time program, but when I got my scholarship to OU their program was just starting to turn around. We were starting to build what everyone sees today… and beat some pretty big teams…USC, Ohio State in the process. There were a lot of positive changes taking place at OU then and that’s similar to what’s happening here at SDSU now. As players we built a winning program at OU and as a coach I feel we can do the same thing here. Like coach Craft says it’s a building process.
—— After 2 great years at Oregon, you made it to the NFL when you were drafted by the then Los Angeles Rams in 1989. What was that like?
Well, a few teams had contacted me and told me they were interested if I was still available when they picked, but the Rams weren’t one of them…so I was a bit surprised. It could’ve been because the Ram’s coach John Robinson was a former “Duck” but I’m not really sure. I do remember on draft day when I got the call from coach Robinson and he said “We’re gonna draft you…we like the way you play. Do you want to play for the Rams?” Of course I said yeah! … then Mrs. Frontiere (owner of the Rams) got on the line and welcomed me to the team. It was pretty exciting. The thing is they already had a lot of talent at my position so before the regular season even started I was in Seattle with the Seahawks. Things can change fast in NFL.
—— Was making the jump from college football to the NFL a difficult transition?
As a player the difference was huge. Everybody in the NFL is talented, strong and fast…so you have to take your profession seriously. As a coach there’s a big difference too. In the pros you can’t just tell people what to do…you’ve got to be more tactful in getting them to see your point of view. In some ways now, if you come from a big college program, the transition isn’t so great because most of the players are used to traveling across the country, coaching and training at a high level.
—— So how did you get started in coaching?
Well, after playing with the LA Rams and the Seattle Seahawks I ended up playing for Dan Reeves and the NY Giants. During the first season, I got hurt and was placed on injured reserve, so I came back to SD to rehab my injury. At the time Coach Craft was head coach of Palomar Community College, and he invited me to come by and help out. That was my introduction to coaching and from that I realized I loved teaching and working with the kids. I still wanted play in the NFL though, so the next year I was back in camp with the Giants. As fate would have it, I blew out my knee in training camp, which basically ended my NFL playing career, but was the beginning of my new career as a coach. A few weeks later coach Craft hired me as an assistant. That helped make the transition to life after playing so much easier and it was great because I could still be around football. Then when coach Craft left to become SDSU’s offensive coordinator in ’94, I took over as head coach of Palomar.
—— You also coached in Japan, not many people do that. What brought that about?
I was the head coach of the ’95 and ’96 Onward Kashiyama, a team in Japan’s Pro-league. To make a long story short, years before they were looking for an American head coach for their team and a friend of mine took it. While he was there coaching, I was there playing, because for 3 straight years, by chance, I played in Japan…the first when I was in college “the Japan Bowl”, and then two subsequent preseason American-Bowls… one with the Rams and one the other with the Seahawks. So we kept in touch and when he eventually decided that he wanted to come back to the states I took a chance and headed to Tokyo for a couple of years.
—— San Diego’s a bit different than Tokyo, how was life in Japan?
I lived in a little place in Harajuku…it was convenient but really small. It was a big change from San Diego…not having a car and taking the trains or subways…trying to get home before the last train. Still I really enjoyed the people and the food. I ate everything sushi, ramen… Mos Burger, but I have to admit to regularly having a few corn dogs at Lawsons. As far as football in Japan is concerned, it is not the biggest attraction, partly I think because they don’t promote it. That and the fact that no foreign players are allowed…so there are no stars. I think if they handled it the way that they handle baseball, eventually, the level of competition would rise and you’d see football players achieving success like Nomo or Ichiro have.
—— You coached in the NFL too for the Atlanta Falcons, how did that happen?
Ironically, the same person Dan Reeves, who released me as a player from the NY Giants when he was head coach there, hired me as a coach in Atlanta. Coaching with him, there at that level, was a great learning experience…it also reunited me with Rich Brooks who was my coach at Oregon.
—— And now you’ve come full circle...back in San Diego once again as Defensive Coordinator at SDSU. What do you and head coach Craft want to accomplish with the Aztecs?
We want to get everyone believing in this program again….the players, coaches, fans, and media. We want to establish a winning mindset…as Coach Craft says we’re not selling anything so we don’t want you to buy-in. We want something more….we want a commitment… from top to bottom.
Our goal and philosophy is to get the most out of the players we have…our task as coaches is to find the best system to accomplish that. A player doesn’t flourish unless he’s in the right system… so flexibility is vital to our coaching success because you won’t always get the talent to run the system you want to run… so you’ve got to be creative enough to adapt your system to the players you have…to maximizes the talent you do have ! Football is no different than most things, it’s about heart and desire so our goal is to always outwork our opponents. On defense it’s all about running to the ball...if we do that the results are going to take care of themselves. So we run a drill called the “effort drill” and it’s not so much about getting to the ball…as it is about how you get to the ball. Good things happen when people are hustling.
Lastly, we want to get people excited about this program again and let people know that we’ll be putting out the effort. When everyone sees that we know they’ll come around and support us even more !
(10-1-2002 issue, Interviewed by Terry Nicholas)