Thursday August 1, 2013The Law of Lawing: Gators Assistant Brad Lawing Brings Old-School Ways to New Adventure
Brad Lawing’s decision to move about 350 miles south didn’t pass by quietly like a mouse in the night.
There were some raised eyebrows and questions. After all, success was suddenly his best friend, no easy accomplishment in his chosen profession.
Armed with a coaching career on a brisk pace north following a recent streak of success as South Carolina’s defensive line coach – six Gamecocks defensive linemen have been drafted since 2010 -- no one could argue Lawing had a good thing going in Columbia.
If Lawing had remained on Steve Spurrier’s staff, he could have coached Gamecocks junior defensive end Jadeveon Clowney for another season. Clowney is being billed as college football’s most dominant player and a contender to become the first defensive lineman to ever win the Heisman Trophy.
If he had stayed at South Carolina, Lawing could have continued to coach at a place where he has spent 17 of the past 24 years over two separate stints, the latest stop producing school records and other achievements unfamiliar to the Gamecocks and their fans.
If Lawing had opted not to come to UF, he could have helped the Gamecocks in their quest to win that elusive SEC title, an ongoing pursuit that came up short in 2010 when the Gamecocks won the SEC East but lost to Auburn in the conference championship game.
But he chose to take the road less traveled in search of a new adventure.
When an opportunity surfaced to join Will Muschamp’s Florida staff in January following former Gators defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s departure, Lawing’s interest was piqued. He and wife Laura discussed uprooting their home once more on a coaching journey that has taken Lawing from Havelock (N.C.) High to Appalachian State, to South Carolina, Michigan State and North Carolina, and seven years ago, back to South Carolina.
As a first-time grandfather only weeks prior to Muschamp’s offer, the 55-year-old Lawing and his wife decided the time was right for a change.
“I looked at my career and I did everything that I said I would do when I went to South Carolina,’’ he said. “I told them, ‘We’re going to change the DNA of the defensive front,’ and we did. I said we’re going to do our best to play for championships, and we did. And we’re going to recruit at a very high level and try to keep the in-state kids home, and we did.”
Fulfilled by what he accomplished with the Gamecocks, Lawing ensured Muschamp that he had plenty of coaching left in him. Convinced he had found his man, Muschamp then hired the SEC veteran as the Gators' defensive line coach and assistant head coach, a surprising move by Lawing to some observers.
He had his reasons and they start with the chance to win consistently in the nation's most difficult conference.
"It’s a great opportunity here. You can recruit at a very high level,'' Lawing said. "There’s really no kid that we go after in recruiting that is not going to look at us. They are going to look at Florida because of the reputation and tradition here. Being able to recruit at a very high level across the board and having the opportunity to win championships, that is very appealing here.”
Muschamp's presence played a huge role, too. They are kindred spirits in some ways.
Lawing grew up in Hickory, N.C., the kind of southern town not that much different from Muschamp's childhood homes of Gainesville and Rome, Ga. Lawing remains deeply rooted in the vernacular and ways of his small hometown.
When it was time for college, he played college football at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory.
An undersized linebacker with more zest for the game than talent, Lawing had already decided he wanted a future in football. And he knew it was on the sideline rather than the field.
"That was a good place for me to go,'' Lawing said. "People ask me all the time, ‘did you play Division I football?' Most certainly I did. I played NAIA Division I football. That was the league I needed to be in. I got to play a full four years. That was a great experience for me.”
Once he finished as a player, Lawing began his coaching career in 1980.
Lawing's ties to Muschamp, like others Muschamp has hired at Florida, weave through Alabama coach Nick Saban. Lawing was an assistant on Saban's final Michigan State team in 1999. After Lawing's first season there, Saban left to become head coach at LSU, where he later hired Muschamp.
Texas coach Mack Brown, who hired Muschamp as the Longhorns' defensive coordinator in 2008, also connects Muschamp and Lawing. Lawing, after three years as a football/baseball coach at Havelock (N.C.) High, got his break in 1983 when Brown, then head coach at Appalachian State, hired Lawing as an assistant. Brown left after one season to join Barry Switzer’s staff at Oklahoma as offensive coordinator but Lawing stayed.
Lawing eventually landed at South Carolina and spent 10 years there until Saban came calling. He remained at Michigan State until leaving after the 2002 season for a three-year stint at North Carolina. Finally, he returned to the SEC when Spurrier came calling and over the past seven seasons helped build the Gamecocks' defensive front into one of the nation's best.
South Carolina set a school record with 41 sacks in 2010 and last season led the SEC with 40 sacks, topped by Clowney's league-leading 13.
The emergence of Clowney cast added attention on Lawing, who was already considered one of the top defensive line coaches in the country but saw his reputation grow with each Clowney highlight.
Still, despite Clowney's enormous ability and oversized persona, the old-school Lawing coached him like a walk-on freshman trying to make the team.
That's Lawing at his core.
"I learned a lot from Brad Lawing,’’ Clowney said at SEC Media Days. “He really taught me how to use my hands. He showed me a lot of movements -- joint movements and things -- that helped me, and I think he’s going to teach the Florida guys some things, too."
The morning after Clowney's celebrated ESPY-winning hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl, Lawing called Clowney.
"I told you my drills work,'' Lawing chuckled.
"That guy pushes all my buttons,'' Clowney later told reporters.
Lawing's hard-nosed, no-nonsense approach to coaching was developed early. He played football and baseball growing up and said, "I always had the coach that nobody probably wanted to have. That was the way I was raised."
He carried that same mentality into his first coaching job at Havelock High and 33 years later, the song remains the same.
"I tell kids all the time in recruiting, ‘I’m not afraid to coach a great player.’ There are some coaches out there who are,'' Lawing said. "They will just let kids do what they want to do. I told JD [Clowney] that when we recruited him. 'I’m going to make you do what you are supposed to do.' That’s how they get better. And the good players, they want that, they really do. They don’t want somebody who is telling them they are doing good when they’re not. They want somebody who is actually coaching them.”
Muschamp is the same way. One of the first things he reminds newcomers is that he does not care how many stars they had on the recruiting trail.
Their shared philosophy and old-school ways prompted Muschamp to pursue Lawing. His success was hard to ignore.
"I always felt as an assistant coach your tape was your résumé,’’ Muschamp said. “You can get up on of the board and draw fancy X’s and O’s, but at the end of the day, what you put on the field is who you are as a coach. I really watched South Carolina’s [tape] and the job that Brad Lawing did there. You talk about developing players. After 15 days of spring practice, I totally understand what he did there."
Lawing was unable to bring Clowney with him to UF, but he inherits a talented defensive line led by senior Dominique Easley and sophomores Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler Jr. Interior linemen Leon Orr, Darius Cummings and Damien Jacobs and outside rushers Ronald Powell and Bryan Cox Jr. add to a talented nucleus for Lawing to mold in pursuit of an SEC championship.
In his first time working with the group in spring practice Lawing saw a unit that needs to build depth. After nearly two decades in the SEC, Lawing said there is one ingredient that is a must for a team to make it to Atlanta.
"In this league you need to be able to run eight, nine, 10 guys on the defensive line,'' Lawing said. "When you can do that you can play at a high level. Little guys, skill guys, their tank can run out of gas and you can get them back sometimes in the fourth quarter, but when a big guy runs out of gas, you are not going to get them back. They’re done.”
Lawing may come across as a dirt-kicking, loud-barking coach cut from a 1960s novel, but he is a modern-day football junkie who has made a pair of DVDs about coaching defensive linemen you can find on Amazon.com.
First-year Gators defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin was impressed by Lawing's knowledge and approach in the spring.
"He brings a wealth of knowledge of the position, a wealth of knowledge and experience,'' Durkin said. "He's done a great job molding some of the things he's done for a long time into what we do, putting it into our terms of our scheme. We also changed some things up a little bit how we do it because of how he coaches it."
At South Carolina Lawing developed a "rabbit" scheme on obvious third-down passing situations. He would pull the defensive tackles and replace them with another pair of more athletic ends -- Aldrick Fordham and Chaz Sutton -- to join Clowney and Devin Taylor up front.
All the linemen were 6-foot-4 or taller and none weighed more than 270 pounds. The increased athleticism played an important role in the Gamecocks' success in defending the pass on third-and-long situations.
The decision to leave one SEC East contender for another is one Lawing is excited about. The location has changed, but the goal is the same.
"This is a new adventure right here and hopefully it may afford me to do some things in coaching that I wouldn’t ever be able to do,'' Lawing said. "I haven’t looked back.”
For more on Lawing, here is a Q&A:
Q: What was your relationship with Muschamp prior to joining his staff?
A: We both had Nick Saban in our background. We had spoken from time to time. I look at him and in my opinion he is one of those up-and-coming top coaches in the SEC and in the country -- a young guy who’s got a lot of great things ahead of him.
Q: You guys seem to be cut from the same cloth in some ways. Would you agree?
A: Most definitely. Ball is ball. When you coach kids you don’t try to coddle them, you don’t try to sugarcoat anything. You tell it like it is and I think players appreciate that in the long run. I do understand that in football you are going to get what you demand – you better demand a lot in this league.
Q: Who had biggest influence on you to enter coaching?
A: When I grew up I had a couple of high school coaches who were really role models for me and played an instrumental role in me wanting to be a coach. My high school football coach and my high school baseball coach were guys who I really admired. I think I was probably a sophomore or junior in high school when I realized that’s what I really wanted to do. I’ve been very fortunate to be around a lot of good people. I’ve been around several guys that are either in hall of fames or they’re going to be in hall of fames.
Q: Biggest change in the game you have seen in your time as a coach?
A: I think the biggest difference is that a lot of the offenses have gone away from tough football. It’s become basketball on grass. But I will say that most of the teams that do that are not very good on defense. It’s hard to rely on that. When you can rely on a good, tough defense week in and week out, you’ve got a chance to win championships. When you’ve got to rely on scoring 40 or 50 points, there is going to be a glitch in there somewhere and you don’t win championships. I’ve seen football evolve more into a finesse game, but the one thing that I have noticed over the years is that the teams that win championships still have a two-back mentality.
Q: What do you do away from the game?
A: I’ll be 56 this season and when Will hired me, he asked me, ‘How much longer do you want to coach?’ I said I’ve got no hobbies. I want to coach another six or seven years and then re-evaluate. But I want to say this right now, there’s nothing else I do. I’m not a golfer. I’ll go stick a line in the water every now and then and fish. I don’t go hunting. There is nothing else I do. My wife, I’d probably drive her crazy if I got out of coaching.
Q: What would you be doing if you were not a coach?
A: I’ve got to think for a minute on that one. I guess I would run a barbecue restaurant and we would have mustard-based, ketchup-based and pepper-vinegar base. All three. It’s western North Carolina; it’s eastern North Carolina and South Carolina. Those are the three regions. I did a documentary back in the ‘90s on that at Appalachian State.
Q: What’s a perfect meal?
A: It would be a filet mignon with some lobster.
Q: What’s your favorite movie?
A: "The Outlaw Josey Wells." And I like "Forrest Gump" too.
Q: Anything we don't know about Clowney at this point?
A: His upside is tremendous. I think he is probably going to be the first guy who was the number one guy coming out of high school that can actually be the number one guy in the draft. Jadeveon is a great kid. I’ve got nothing but great things to say about him.
Q: Your best day in football?
A: I’ve got a couple of them. One of them was when we beat Florida in the Citrus Bowl when I was at Michigan State. I had been in the SEC and I knew. I had a very high regard for Florida, and when we won that game, that was a huge win. The other one, and I’m going to say it again, was when we [South Carolina] beat Florida to win the SEC East here in The Swamp. I understood how hard that is to do. I have a very high regard for the University of Florida, so those two wins were very special to me.
Q: You read any good books lately?
A: "Bleachers" by [John] Grisham. It’s about an old high school football coach on his deathbed. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.