On New Year’s Day, 1988, Dave Campo walked into the Orange Bowl, ready for a battle. Campo, 40, was a first-year defensive backs coach for the Miami Hurricanes, and he’d never been in an environment like this. More than 70,000 fans packed into the Miami night. And as broadcasters Don Criqui and Bob Trumpy set the scene in south Florida, Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer led his No. 1 ranked Sooners into the swampy maw.
For weeks, the Hurricanes had prepped for Oklahoma’s vaunted wishbone attack, the run-heavy system that had turned Switzer’s program into a feared juggernaut. The Sooners would run, and run and run again, a mesmerizing force that churned out more than 43.5 points and 75 plays per game.
It wasn’t quite fast-break football, but for the era, the Sooners were college football’s equivalent of a well-oiled assembly line: fast, efficient and relentless. To stop Oklahoma, you had to control the pace.
On that night in Miami, with the national championship on the line, the Hurricanes held Oklahoma to just 179 yards in 53 rushes. The Sooners ran just 66 plays, nine fewer than usual.
As Miami coach Jimmy Johnson celebrated the title, Campo blended into the crowd. In his first year on the job, Campo had helped the Hurricanes solve one of college football’s greatest mysteries: They had slowed the mighty wishbone.
But nearly 25 years later, when Campo returned to a college sideline for the first time in two decades, he came to a rather jarring conclusion:
The past was not actually all that fast.
Maybe the realization came in Norman, Okla., where on a mild night last October, the Sooners put up 52 points on Kansas in just 51 minutes. Or maybe it came in West Virginia in early December, when the Mountaineers seemed to run a play every 15 seconds. Or maybe it came on a football field in Waco, Texas.
When Campo arrived at KU last year, hired by Charlie Weis to be the Jayhawks’ defensive coordinator, he began to hear about the blinding, overwhelming pace of Big 12 offenses. They played fast — and if you let them, they played even faster. But on Nov. 3, when the Jayhawks visited Baylor, Bears coach Art Briles appeared to push the limit of offensive football. The Bears ran 91 plays, piled up 666 total yards, and rolled to a 41-14 victory.
“The game of football is not football,” Campo says. “It’s fast-break offense.”
It is a mid-August afternoon, and Campo is sitting inside the Jayhawks’ Anderson Family Football Complex. He is 66 now, and in his second season as Kansas’ defensive coordinator. He wants to make it clear that’s he not complaining, and given the generally upbeat nature of his personality, it doesn’t sound like that.
Still, last year, Campo heard Alabama coach Nick Saban say that all these Mach-3, turbo offenses are destroying football. And for a veteran coach like Campo, that sentiment hit home.
After more than two decades in the NFL, including a three-year stint as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, Campo was stunned when he returned to the college game: This football word had gotten itself into a big (darn) hurry.
“I think they’re cheating,” Campo says, a facetious smile forming on his face. “I’m a Nick Saban fan; Nick Saban says it’s ruining football. Well, for the fans, I think it’s great
“But as far as defensive coaching, it’s not real good, because it kind of negates some of the technical part of the game that coaches have prided themselves on for the whole time I’ve been in the business.”
All across college football, the numbers suggest the sport has never been faster. Last season, as scoring reached record levels, 18 of 124 major Division I teams averaged at least 80 plays per game. While the game has evolved, the Big 12 has become of a Petri dish of offensive innovation, with schools such as Baylor, West Virginia and Oklahoma State pushing the tempo to the limit. The trend, though, is not just limited to the heartland. In 2012, according to a Sporting News study, there were 50 major D-I teams that averaged more plays per game than the New England Patriots — the NFL’s fastest team.
“In the NFL, first of all, you have less players,” Weis says, explaining the differences. “You have many more college players that are dressed for a game than the pros.
“That’s why you see games like 60-53. Who plays 60-53? I mean, it’s because you’ve got fastbreak versus fastbreak with no concern about how fast the defense has to be back on the field again.”
During the offseason, as Weis and Campo assessed Kansas’ defensive struggles, it was easy to see where they needed improvement. The Jayhawks, who finished 1-11, had ranked 113th in the country in total defense and 114th against the pass. They had allowed at least 41 points in six games. But this wasn’t just a surface problem; KU’s cracks ran deep into the foundation.
To combat the speed of Big 12 offenses, KU first had to learn how to simulate it. Weis devised a rapid-fire drill in practice. Sometimes there had to be two offensive units to pull it off. The scout team would run a play, Weis says, and then, just 12 seconds later, another 11 players would be in position to snap the ball.
“It was pretty funny to watch, to be honest with you,” Weis says. “We were trying to simulate the snap of the ball as fast as you could possibly snap it, and be legal. And that’s something I’ve never had to practice before. You realize you actually have to practice how to practice.”
Kansas could start as many as six junior college transfers on defense this season, which begins next Saturday against South Dakota, meaning the speed drills were essential. None of the newcomers have ever lined up against a Big 12 offense, so the KU coaches staff had to show them.
In addition to simulating speed, Weis has also leaned on KU linebackers coach Clint Bowen, a former defensive coordinator under Mark Mangino who has spent years watching Big 12 offenses turn up the speed.
“They’ve pushed the envelope as far as you can,” Bowen says. “You watch them, I don’t know if people notice it, but if you really watch a lot of those teams, you can see (offensive linemen) holding a block. They’ll fall down, they’ll do a (barrel) role and run to the line of scrimmage. And I don’t know how you can get them to go any faster.”
In 2008, a few weeks before Oklahoma and Florida were set to play in the BCS Championship Game, Bowen received a phone call from then-Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong.
Strong had begun to do research on Oklahoma’s tempo system, which featured quarterback Sam Bradford and an offense that ran 79.5 plays per game. And now he was curious: Was Florida going to be able to substitute on defense like it usually did?
“If you’re even thinking about that,” Bowen told him. “You don’t understand how fast this is going to be.”
On Jan. 8, at Dolphin Stadium in Miami, Strong and the Gators slowed Oklahoma just enough to claim the BCS title in a 24-14 victory. A few days later, Strong called Bowen again.
“That was unbelievable,” Strong would say.
One year after his first run through the Big 12, Campo was saying many of the same things. You can’t understand the speed until you see it, Campo says, and now he has.
“Right now,” Campo says, “we have a total understanding of the game that we’re playing.”
In a coaching life that has stretched into five decades, Campo has experienced plenty. Super Bowls. National Championships. Heck, even the Jacksonville Jaguars. But as Campo retraced his first year in the Big 12, the offenses began to remind him of that Oklahoma wishbone he saw 25 years ago. The spread, Campo says, is kind of like an open version of the wishbone.
“I’m not gonna complain about it, because it’s what we have to do,” Campo says. “(You have to) move with that same pace, and we’ve gotta be able to keep up with it. And that’s really the way it is. We have no choice.”