by Rob Moseley
In the waning minutes before Oregon and Utah kicked it off last week, there was little indication in the coaches box of the chaos about to ensue.
Sitting on the far left of the front row, in the small slice of Autzen Stadium's press box reserved for UO coaches, sat graduate assistant Joe Bernardi. Suddenly he perked up, twitching his nose: "Who got popcorn?" Bernardi asked, looking back over his shoulder. "That smells good."
Up on the right-hand side of the second row sat graduate assistant Cha'pelle Brown. He was calmly munching on a tall cup of popcorn as the final minutes ticked off the pregame countdown. Offensive coordinator Scott Frost, meanwhile, was lightly busting the chops of a junior staff member who asked to borrow a pair of binoculars — not for the first time, apparently.
Over the headset — a two-channel setup, one for offense and one for defense — came a voice. "Anybody home up there?" offensive line coach Steve Greatwood asked from Oregon's sideline. Frost, seated to Bernardi's right in the front row, answered in the affirmative.
Farther down the row sat defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who was taking roll of his assistants. As he checked in with each man — line coach Ron Aiken, linebackers coach Don Pellum, secondary coach John Neal — the clock counted down, and the tension ratcheted up.
Finally, the scoreboard clock hit zero. The kickoff, to be received by Oregon, was in the air. Unable to sit still any longer, Aliotti rose to his feet.
"All right," someone said. "Here we go."
A 2010 STUDY BY THE WALL STREET JOURNAL suggested that, in an average football game — some 210 minutes of real time — there's about 11 minutes of actual action.
This does little service to the men in the coaches box.
Just the first half of the Utah game revealed the UO coaches box to be a nerve-fraying den of unrelenting exhilaration that didn't end until halftime.
Once one play ends, coaches immediately begin identifying opposing personnel for the next, communicate a call down to the sideline, watch presnap movement and break down the action as it happens.
Then they do it all over again, play after play after play.
For the uninitiated, it was like watching a game with a peerless set of expert commentators chiming in on every snap.
Watching the second half back on press row might have been easier on the blood pressure, but it was also much less visceral; it was back to watching a game, rather than being immersed in it, feeling it — living it.
WHILE THE TENSION IS FELT BY EVERYBODY, Oregon's coaches have different demeanors in the press box. The two coordinators, Frost and Aliotti, hinted at theirs when the idea of a reporter watching a game from the coaches box was proposed.
"Cool," Frost said, "although I'm not sure it will be as exciting as you might think." Indeed, Frost spent the entire first half of the Utah game in his seat, never raising his voice.
(His legs, on the other hand, pounded away like a heavy-metal drummer with a double bass pedal — Frost was the proverbial duck in water, calm above the surface and paddling like heck below.)
Aliotti, when first told of the idea, smiled mischievously; "You're gonna watch from the 'stress box,' eh?" Come Saturday, Aliotti could barely keep his seat when his defense was on the field.
The tension boiled over at least twice, once on a broken coverage that gave Utah its first touchdown, and once when an assistant hadn't heard Aliotti make a call. Aliotti angrily repeated the call, then apologized moments later.
"Don't worry about it, let's go," came the reply from Neal; coaches said later it was but a mild example of the stressful interactions that can take place between coaches during a game.
Neal, as it turns out, is somewhat of an emotional counterbalance to Aliotti, a dynamic that exists across several relationships in the box.
There's Frost and Aliotti, for starters, though they don't interact much. On the game's first series, before Aliotti's defense had taken the field, he passed along to Frost something he noticed in Utah's coverage. But that was it for the rest of the half.
Bernardi is like Aliotti, his exuberance boiling over regularly; "Sometimes I have to tell him to shut up," Frost joked later.
Graduate assistant Mike Keldorf, meanwhile, is another yin to Aliotti's yang. He sits to Aliotti's right, next to the wall on that side of the box. Keldorf is naturally more buttoned down, and tries to remain especially so while working next to Oregon's fiery defensive coordinator.
One could only imagine the dynamic were Bernardi and Aliotti to work together. The only thing for certain: It would happen at full volume, and with much pounding of the table.
THE MOST STARTLING REVELATION FROM A HALF spent in the coaches' box is just how often they know what's coming. Such is the fruit of hours and hours of film study, picking up play-calling tendencies based on personnel groups and formations.
That's why the men in the box — and particular the defensive coaches — are so fastidious about identifying substitutions. Against Utah, Aliotti and Keldorf were particularly focused on tight ends, as well as No. 38 — they speak in numbers, always — since the presence of Utah fullback Karl Williams could indicate a two-back formation.
Once personnel has been identified, Aliotti takes into account down-and-distance and makes his call. From there, it's up to his players to react to what they see from the formation.
Aliotti, meanwhile, predicts aloud what will come from the Utes. He does so with uncanny accuracy.
"You're 100 percent right now," a staff member tells him after Utah's first possession. "Every play they've called, you called it."
Frost is no different.
"Hit the vertical," he says after surveying a coverage in the second quarter. As if Frost were operating a video-game controller, Marcus Mariota finds Bralon Addison streaking up the sideline for a 57-yard completion.
Two plays later the Ducks are at the five, and spread the field. "Should be the 'R,'" Frost says, predicting a pass to a slot receiver. "Nice," he says as Josh Huff hauls in a touchdown pass.
WHEN FROST, ALIOTTI AND COMPANY ARRIVE IN THE BOX before kickoff, arrayed before them are a number of laminated sheets featuring play calls, depth charts and tendencies. Also in the box are staff interns, logging plays.
Over the defensive headsets, Aliotti provides something close to a monologue while his unit is on the field. Keldorf, seated next to him, keeps his eyes focused mostly on the tackle box, identifying blocking schemes. Between possessions Aliotti and Pellum connect, so that Pellum can relay substitution patterns to the outside linebackers from their position coach, Aliotti.
The offensive chatter is a bit more collaborative. Like Keldorf, Bernardi is watching the tackle box, identifying blitzes — something that gave Oregon particular trouble in the first half against Utah, but which the Ducks handled much better in the second. Receivers coach Matt Lubick chimes in with coverage details he's picked up.
(About the only time Gary Campbell talks over the headset is to tell Frost which running back will be on the field for a given series; Aiken is similarly reserved.)
But primarily, Frost is interacting with his predecessor, Helfrich. While Frost called most of the plays against the Utes, at one point Helfrich liked something he saw — "Do that again, same thing," the head coach said.
Before a third-and-short play in the first quarter, Frost had already checked with Helfrich to see if he planned to go for it on fourth down. Told no, Frost called a running play.
"Short, or no?" Helfrich asked, before the play had even been whistled dead.
"Short," Frost responded.
"Kick it," Helfrich said.
The field goal was good. Everybody in the UO coaches box took a moment to celebrate.
But only a moment. Soon enough it was as intense as ever again in "the stress box."