GREEN BAY – The phone rang in Barry Alvarez’s office just about this time last year. At the other end of the line was Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery.
It’d been 20 years since Alvarez, the University of Wisconsin athletic director, had coached the flat-topped, slow-footed gym rat of a quarterback Emery was calling about – Darrell Bevell, who’d helped Alvarez revitalize the long-dormant UW football program in the early 1990s. But after a second interview with Bevell, Emery was struggling with his decision on who’d be the Bears’ next head coach.
To hear Alvarez tell it Wednesday during an appearance on Green & Gold Today on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com, Emery had narrowed the list of candidates to two: Bevell, and former Canadian Football League coach Marc Trestman.
“(Emery was) talking about how impressed they were with his interview, and they were about to make a decision between he and Trestman,” Alvarez recalled. “And he just wanted to visit with me and talk with some other people before they made the decision. I thought he had a real good chance to get the Bears job a year ago. I think it’s just a matter of time before he’ll land a head-coaching position.”
Bevell, of course, ended up losing out to Trestman for that job, so he returned for a second year in his current gig: Offensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks, who’ll face the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on Sunday.
The 44-year-old Bevell remains a hot commodity in NFL coaching circles, although the Seahawks’ playoff run didn’t help his short-term chances. He interviewed with the Minnesota Vikings and Washington Redskins earlier this month, and in addition to his candidacy in Chicago last year, he also interviewed with the Arizona Cardinals before they hired Bruce Arians. This time around, Bevell watched the Vikings hire Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and Washington hire Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.
At Wednesday’s media availability session with the Seahawks at the Westin hotel in Jersey City, N.J., Bevell said he was at peace with how things have played out so far.
“It is what it is. It’s what we’re working with so we just go with it. I couldn’t be more excited to be here. It’s a great opportunity and a great experience,” Bevell told reporters. “I know this sounds cliché, but I just try to do the best job that I can at the job that I have. I love Seattle. I love working for coach (Pete) Carroll. We have great players. We have a great staff that I’m working with. So it’s a blessing even to be in this position right now. Something will happen down the road, but I’m not looking past this job. I just want to do this as best as I can.”
Certainly Bevell’s road to this point has taught him not only patience, but appreciation for the job. After all, coaching was in his blood.
One of eight children, Bevell grew up watching film with his father, Jim, a prominent Arizona high-school coach. Long before starring at quarterback at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., playing for his dad, Bevell was learning the game.
“I used to sit there with my dad all the time and watch tape. I enjoyed it. I learned a lot from him,” Bevell recalled earlier this week. “I would sit there and ask all kinds of questions – ‘What he was doing? Why he was doing it?’ It’s been fun.
“He still gives me advice. He tells me I passed him a long time ago in the football stuff, but he still loves to give me advice.”
An injury his senior year of high school limited his scholarship offers, so Bevell ended up at Northern Arizona, where he redshirted before going on a two-year Mormon mission to Cleveland. While he was serving the church, the coach who’d recruited him to NAU, Brad Childress, had been hired by Alvarez as the Badgers’ offensive coordinator. When Bevell’s mission ended in 1991, Childress called him and re-recruited him to Wisconsin.
Well, sort of.
“I’ll start with the recruiting: There really wasn’t any,” Alvarez said with a laugh. “Brad knew him, he went on his Mormon mission and Brad came here but stayed in contact with him. And the one position in ’92 that we were lacking, we really lacked a quarterback. We really felt we’d recruited very well at all the positions, but we needed a quarterback.”
Bevell transferred and while Jay Macias opened the 1992 season as the Badgers’ starter, Bevell quickly overtook him. As a redshirt sophomore in 1993, he led Wisconsin to its first Rose Bowl since 1962, and his stunning touchdown run keyed UW’s 21-16 victory.
He would leave Wisconsin after his senior season in 1995 as the school’s leader in virtually every passing category – he’s still the Badgers’ all-time leader in attempts, completions, yards and touchdown passes, although current Green Bay Packers backup Scott Tolzien holds the school records for career passer efficiency and completion percentage – but went undrafted. After brief tryouts with the Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders, he gave up his dream of playing and went into coaching.
He began as the passing game coordinator at tiny Westmar University in Lamars, Iowa, then spent a year as a graduate assistant at Iowa State. He moved on to the University of Connecticut, where he coached wide receivers for two years, before Packers coach Mike Sherman, at Childress’ urging, hired him as the Packers’ offensive quality control assistant.
After three seasons in that role, he was promoted to quarterbacks coach, a job he held for three more years – coaching both Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers – before Sherman and his entire staff were fired following the 2005 season.
“I obviously jumped at the chance to be back in Wisconsin again,” Bevell said of Sherman’s offer. “It was really a learning experience. I was able to sit there for three years (before being promoted) and really learn the offense and learn from really good coaches in Mike Sherman and (offensive coordinator) Tom Rossley. I learned the offense and learned how to be a coach.”
Childress was hired as the Vikings’ head coach in January 2006 and quickly hired his former recruit to be his offensive coordinator. Bevell wound up coaching Favre again as the Packers-Vikings rivalry reached unprecedented intensity, and held that job through the 2010 season – even after Childress was fired midway through the year – before Carroll hired him in 2011 to replace Jeremy Bates, who’d been Carroll’s offensive coordinator during his first season in Seattle.
“I came in, and it was a great interview. It was a true interview,” Bevell said of Carroll’s hiring process. “I got to sit down with him at dinner and answer all of his questions that he needed. He’s asking about your philosophy and things that just aren’t Xs and Os.”
While Childress called the Vikings’ plays, in Seattle, Bevell calls the offensive plays, although he and assistant head coach/offensive line coach Tom Cable, the former Raiders head coach, share installation duties and talk through play-calls on game day.
“Bev, he does the offensive pass install. Cable does the run install. Then they just kind of feed off each other,” Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin explained to reporters Wednesday. “The game plan is complicated, so they’ll do something in the run game similar to what we’re doing in the pass game and vice versa. Those guys are communicating on various levels. They work really well together.
“Communication is key for them. They always talk about that. They want to have great communications, especially on game day, so that when it comes down to them trying to figure out what to run – whether a run play or a pass play – they figure it out pretty quickly.”
Added Carroll: “We’ve developed, really, a tremendous harmony on that side of the ball. Everybody trying to contribute the best that they have to offer to the effort, and those guys do a great job. Game day, they talk regularly about what’s going on, the adjustments and the adaptations, and that’s all I could ask for. They really fit together well, and they really complement each other very well.”
Although the Seahawks’ offense is predicated on running the ball – Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson attempted just 407 passes, and only the San Francisco 49ers threw the ball less than the Seahawks did this season – Seattle finished the season with 417 points, tied for eighth in the NFL (with the Packers) but the third-most in franchise history. Only Mike Holmgren’s 2005 Super Bowl team (452 points) and the 1984 team (418) scored more.
“We’re definitely a run-first offense. When you have a back like Marshawn Lynch and the offensive linemen that we have, we’re kind of built for that,” Bevell said. “But we also pride ourselves on being an explosive offense and trying to get the ball down the field. We do it various ways. There are times when Russell is able to extend plays with his feet and we are able to make big plays down the field, like Doug Baldwin’s last week. We also will take our shots when we get the opportunity.”
Which come to think of it, sums up Bevell’s coaching career to this point. While he admits he has head-coaching aspirations – “Somewhere down the line, would I like to be a head coach? Yes, I’d love to do that,” he said Wednesday – he’s perfectly happy for now, doing what Alvarez always knew he was meant to do.
“Much like Russell, he prepared very well, understood the game,” Alvarez said, comparing the two ex-Badgers quarterbacks who he’ll be watching on Sunday. “He did not have near the athletic ability and all that that Russell has, but he understood the game, he saw the big picture, he always knew where to go with the ball. He was so important to our program because he was the cog that we needed to get the ball to some of our playmakers. So he was very important to the next step of our program.
“You knew Bev was going to be a coach. I said all along he was a gym rat; having a father that was a high-school coach, you’re around it all the time. He understood the game, he was going to put the time in to study and be committed to it. You knew he was going to do that.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.