Friday, January 20, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

After a whirlwind week that has taken him from Florida to California to Arizona, Scott Linehan has finally landed in St. Louis to stay.

A 17-day coaching search that actually began before the end of the regular season came to its official conclusion when Linehan signed a four-year contract to become the new head coach of the St. Louis Rams.

After getting his bearings upon arrival in St. Louis last night, Linehan was back at the grind Friday morning when he was officially introduced as the new coach. Upon that introduction, Linehan vowed that a new era was about to begin.

“It feels kind of like kickoff,” Linehan said. “I’ll tell you, I’m pretty excited about this opportunity. I believe this is a new Rams era within, what I believe, is a great tradition. We want to be that kind of team that has that dominant personality and continue that tradition.”

Soon after his introduction to the media, Linehan made the rounds for one on one interviews over the course of the next three or so hours. Tonight, Linehan will return to Florida before coming back to set up shop permanently in St. Louis.

Linehan comes to the Rams after spending a season as the offensive coordinator with the Dolphins. But before that, he spent three years in the same role with the Minnesota Vikings and bounced around the college ranks for 13 years before that.

Still, in a year when most of the coaching openings around the league have been filled by young coordinators around the league, many have expressed concern about Linehan’s lack of head coaching experience. In his time coaching, Linehan has never been a head coach.

But when Rams President John Shaw set out to hire the 22nd coach in franchise history, Linehan wasn’t exactly what he had in mind.

“He’s a person that made the original cut to six, but we started the process with a bias towards a defensive coach,” Shaw said. “Even though he made it in the top six, we weren’t originally focused on an offensive coach. He was on the list, but I just thought we might interview him down stream a little bit because we wanted to look at all of the defensive candidates first.”

In fact, the Rams were so focused on finding a defensive coach; most of the league knew that Shaw and Co. would actively seek someone with that type of background for the position.

Shaw began the search for the Rams next coach before the end of the regular season, as he formulated a list of about 30 potential candidates for the job. Shaw spoke with numerous friends around the league and a pair of services that had information on all of his candidates.

In addition to a defensive-minded coach, Shaw also preferred a younger, dynamic type of coach.

“We thought when we started this we were taking an approach that would be unique this year,” Shaw said. “Now, I feel people are looking at us and saying that we are doing the same thing as everybody else. The reality is in December we knew we would make a change and that we would be looking to hire a young coordinator. I am surprised by the number of teams that have done it too.”

Of course, when that process started, it appeared said young coordinator would be one with a defensive background. The Bears’ Ron Rivera and New York’s Tim Lewis fit the bill as young defensive coordinators on the rise and were names prominently involved in the Rams’ search.

After Shaw made the initial list of six candidates to be interviewed, Linehan fell in line somewhere behind the likes of most of the defensive coordinators. When Shaw’s efforts to get Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson in for an interview were rebuked by Johnson, Shaw bumped Linehan back up into the mix.

By the time Linehan’s interview, which was the second the Rams conducted after meeting Dallas defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, was done, Shaw and President of Football Operations Jay Zygmunt began to rethink their initial strategy.

“We knew after we spoke with him that it would be a possibility that we would shift which says volumes about Scott,” Shaw said. “When we first interviewed him we knew that this was a live candidate and that we might shift our thinking.”

Linehan’s interview was so impressive that the Rams did indeed rethink their philosophy. Instead of coming in with a vision for what the offense would look like or how he wanted to attack defense, Linehan came in with a vision for the team on and off the field.

“We’re going to start by unifying as a team, and that’s in all areas,” Linehan said. “What I think that we have to understand is that we’re going to do things together, we’re going to make decisions together and we will come to the right decision. We’re not always going to agree, but we’re not going to be disagreeable about it. That’s what the most important thing is, and that’s the plan in all phases of the organization.”

With a wife and three children and coming from a home as the youngest of seven kids, family has always been the basis for what Linehan does. That vision became his blueprint for what he wanted to do and helped make Shaw and Zygmunt shift their focus in a different direction.

“He had a unique combination of intelligence, aggressiveness, approachability and toughness that just kind of came out in the interview,” Shaw said.

Adding to the alteration in type of coach they were searching for was the fact that it became apparent early in the process that it would be difficult to find a good offensive coordinator to complement a defensive coach, much more difficult than it would be to find a talented defensive coordinator to complement an offensive coach.

Talented former coordinators such as Dom Capers, Dick Jauron and Jim Bates have flooded the defensive market, perhaps allowing the Rams to take an even closer look at Linehan.

“We were looking to change our culture a little bit,” Shaw said. “When we finished evaluating the candidates for offensive coordinators were…that’s a hard slot to fill right now in this league. we have been an extremely productive offensive team.

“We had to ask ourselves if we wanted to sacrifice some of this offensive productivity at the expense of bringing in a defensive coach. So that was hard to figure, trying to balance how we could maintain our offensive productivity and at the same time improve our defense significantly. We ultimately decided that Scott could do that for us.”

With that, Linehan became the clear choice for the Rams and he quickly agreed to become the head coach. Make no mistake, though, just because Linehan has a background in offense (he will handle the play calling duties for the Rams), doesn’t mean he isn’t focused on getting the defense turned around.

“I think one of the problems that happens when you get such a wonderful, dominate offensive scheme, like they have had here, that sometimes you get that little brother syndrome,” Linehan said. “And a lot of it is just bringing them into the fold as far as part of the whole concept. Everybody has the same vision and goal as a team here. I think we have to play identical styles. I know it sounds kind of crazy, but we basically have to have the same goals up in reverse order in both rooms so that we’re all playing together and on the same page, and know that sometimes what you do offensively can help protect your defense too. Establish those things so that we as a group go look each other in the eye and say we’re doing what is best for the team. And I think that is why it is so critical that we evaluate this as bringing in quality people on the defensive side to get this accomplished. That’s why it’s not just what I know, it’s not so much their competency and what’s in their brain, I’m talking about the coaches, it’s how they affect those players in a positive way so that they can play with that attitude.”

With all of that traveling and moving he has done in his career, Linehan has grown accustomed to changing places and moving. Now, for the first time in a while, Linehan can finally feel at home.

“The hardest part for me has been moving around,” Linehan said. “I have moved so much I have kind of gotten good at it. The best part of this was telling my family that we are going somewhere where we can build a home and stay in one place.”