I chatted with Louisiana-Monroe coach Todd Berry today. It’s always fun to talk with a fellow Class of ’79 grad from an Oklahoma high school (him, Miami; me, Norman; count Barry Hinson, Marlow, in that group, too).
I talked with Berry last September after his Warhawks upset Arkansas and wrote a column, which you can read here.
Now Berry brings his Louisiana-Monroe squad to Norman for the 2013 season opener. Here was our conversation.
With a full year to gauge the impact of your victory over Arkansas, what did that game, plus the near-misses against Baylor and Auburn, do for your program?
Berry: “I think it did a lot of things. Now, when I go through airports, if I have a ULM shirt on, two things will happen. One, ‘y’all beat Arkansas.’ And two, ‘hey, do you know Willie Robertson on Duck Dynasty?’ It’s extended a little more of a national profile, which we didn’t have much of. But the biggest thing for us, when you’ve had so many losing seasons, there’s a mentality that starts to develop that it’s never going to happen. Obviously, these kids have heard, ‘you can’t win on the road, can’t beat a top 10 team, can’t go to a bowl game.’ For us, last season, some of the things that happened during a season, they broke down those barriers, people started recognizing that it could happen. I think it created a sense of pride within the university and within the community. All those things are very, very important from a program standpoint.”
What are the ingredients for pulling such an upset?
Berry: “It requires a little bit of maturity in terms of understanding hostile environments. The crowd noise, all the things that go along with playing in one of those types of venues. You have to conquer those first before you can conquer the opponent. This group had played in so many games against highly-ranked teams, against really good players in those kinds of venues, that I don’t think it was nearly as intimidating to them. This group last year , and it’s really the same group this year, they handled that thing really well. We got 21 points down, and a lot of time, when you’re a program like ours trying to spread its wings, it’s difficult to overcome a 21-point deficit. One thing we have is our quarterback (Kolton Browning) is a pretty good player. He provides hope. Hope’s a powerful thing. As long as he’s in the game, there’s hope. Just play hard, keep playing, Kolton’s going to find a way to make a play. Obviously, that happened against Arkansas. He’s really that type of player, who likes those pressure situations. When it happens, it becomes even more impactful. It resonates with your team. They don’t have just the hope anymore, they have the belief. That’s how the early games played out. Then we got banged up. Kolton went out, we lost two games. I don’t worry about us getting distracted by the peripheral.”
You talked last year about how the spread offense is the great equalizer. I assume you still feel the same way?
Berry: “That’s part of the reason we’re in the systems we’re in. We’re a different type of spread team than most everyone else. We need to find ways as coaches to give our players some opportunities for differential advantage. What can we do that’s hard to prepare for? So both on offense and defense, where we have some strong uniqueness on defense, trying to do everything we can to give our players a differential advantage. I think it does help us. The players believe in the system. We’re a little bit outside of the box.”
How is your spread different?
Berry: “Some of it has to do with the run game. We have a significantly higher time frame we spend in empty. We get into a lot more formations than most spread teams do. We still try to run at a high tempo. We’re going to run a lot of personnel on the field. We tend to be more much more personnel- and formation-oriented. Lot of those things haven’t changed. With the maturity of this group, really your whole two-deep has played a lot of football. You can only go as fast as your slowest learners are going to go. If your guys in the two-deep can’t learn it, all of a sudden, all the things you’ve been working on, the project is dead, because they can’t function. This group has been fun coaching, allowed us to do so much more than we’ve done in the past. We’ve always wanted to do more, just didn’t have the experience, the maturity, to do ‘em. I’m anxious to see how we handle all this stuff.”
You grew up in Miami, which is an OU town because of Steve and Tinker Owens.
Berry: “Certainly a lot of Sooner fans. Don’t know that my household was like that. My father (Rube Berry) was head coach at NEO. He was always a big Arkansas fan. We’d also go down to Tulsa an awful lot, watch Jerry Rhome and Howard Twilley. Oklahoma was a lot farther drive. And sometimes he played on Saturdays. I don’t know that I grew up being a huge OU fan. Got a bunch of classmates actually going to be at the game. They wanted tickets, but I was afraid they’d show up in OU stuff.”
What do you remember about playing at OU as a Tulsa freshman in 1979?
Berry: “Came to Oklahoma, second ballgame of the season. John Cooper’s second or third year there. We played Oklahoma, probably two of my more memorable moments in college athletics were on that field that year. I did the Coach Switzer; he had been known for falling when he came out of the tunnel. I had one of those exact same moments. I was potentially going to be playing in the game. I was pretty juiced up before taking the field. Coach Cooper and Coach Switzer had the staredown on who was going to take the field first. Oklahoma finally went, and we come flying out, they’re playing ‘Boomer Sooner’ and I’m kicking my heels up. We had a defensive lineman, kind of a prankster, I heard him laughing, should have been my first cue. He catches my left heel, I go into a forward roll. Fortunately at Tulsa, we work on forward rolls. I pop right back up. I’m embarrassed, but I was cerebral enough to get into the biggest crowd, so I could hide my name and number. Third quarter, Kenny Jackson was our quarterback, he had had gotten banged up. Chuck Majors was our other quarterback. Coach Cooper yells, ‘Berry, Majors.’ I come running up. I look good. Had the eyeblack, I was ready. Come running up with the clipboard. He says, ‘Where’s your helmet?’ I recognized I might be going in, I grabbed my helmet. He looks at my eyes, looks at Chuck Majors’ eyes and says, ‘Majors, get in there.’ I almost played in that game. Didn’t. But Chuck proceeded to go out , fumbles on the 1-yard line, puts some life in Oklahoma. I probably would have fumbled also.”
What do you make of this OU team?
Berry: “Obviously, we know it’s going to be extremely talented. Look at the matchups all the way across the board. A bunch of highly-ranked, recruitable guys. Bigger, faster. Me and Bob (Stoops) are the same, but he looks a lot better than I do, so they’ve won that matchup. One thing we can fall back on, this is a relatively mature team here. I think in those first ballgames, when you don’t know what you’re going to be getting, you have to make those sideline adjustments. When you’ve got a young team, you’re not making adjustments, you’re making suggestions. With this group, we can transition pretty easy. We’ve practiced older players and younger players in separate groups. Started going back to old gameplans, didn’t tell players, just going to do it. Just see how they were going to deal with it. I was really proud of our players, how they handled that. I’m hopeful as we see new things from Oklahoma, we’ll be able to get to the sideline and make adjustments. Obviously, with a lot of new faces that are playing for Oklahoma, and maybe not as experienced players, I’m hopeful we’ll be able to make those adjustments a little faster than they will.”