Share this article

print logo


Somebody pinch me. These new Bills coaches actually like to talk. Sipowicz couldn't have gotten a straight answer out of the old regime. Ask Gregg Williams a question, he recites the NFL Encyclopedia.

His new offensive coordinator, Mike Sheppard, is no slouch either. Sheppard talked for more than an hour Thursday. For all I know, he's still down there talking. He's got stories. He ought to have stories. This is his 14th job in 25 years.

"I played minor-league baseball for one year," Sheppard said. "I signed an Angels contract and played with the Portland Mavericks, before Jim Bouton did. You remember Kurt Russell, the actor? His father Bing bought the team. Kurt was good enough once to make it to Double-A. He played on that team. I played a year of minor-league baseball with Kurt Russell. True story."

He did not play it very well. Sheppard tore a tendon in his thumb on his first day of camp. In his first exhibition game, he homered. He also threw a grounder into the stands from shortstop. They moved him to third base, and then out of the game altogether.

It was just as well. Sheppard's destiny was in football coaching. He got a job at his alma mater, Cal Lutheran. He served two years as a grad assistant at Brigham Young. In 1979, eager for something permanent, he visited California, intending to apply for a high school head job.

"I stayed at my wife's parents' house," Sheppard said. "So I pick up the paper and it says 'U.S. International University in San Diego has decided to upgrade its football program. Sid Gillman is the new athletic director and Tom Walsh is the coach and they're looking for assistants.' "

This was perfect. At BYU, he'd worked under Doug Scovil and LaVell Edwards, masters of the passing game. Here was a chance to work with Gillman, who had built those great passing offenses in San Diego.

The next morning, he was in the tiny coaching offices at USIU. He and a red-haired guy were up for one job. Walsh took the other guy into his office. Gillman grabbed Sheppard. They talked awhile, then Gillman said "How much do you need?" Sheppard stammered. Gillman said "How does $5,000 sound?" Sheppard said it sounded great.

Gillman walked to the other door and told Walsh to get rid of the redheaded guy. He had the guy they needed to hire.

"True story," Sheppard said. "The moral is, you've got to work hard for your opportunities. But sometime you've got to be sitting in the right room."

If that's the case, then Sheppard has sat in the right room an awful lot over the years. Whatever it was that Gillman saw in him that morning in 1979, a lot of people have seen it over the years on his steady ascent through the coaching profession.

He's been a coaching gypsy, and at every step of the way, he was involved in the passing game. The roster of coaches he's worked under reads like a who's who of the forward pass: Scovil and Edwards; Gillman; Ernie Zampese; Ted Tollner; Ted Marchibroda; Kevin Gilbride; Mike Holmgren.

"I was just lucky, really," he said. "If you don't tick anybody off too much, you can stay and learn. You get better. I've been lucky to be around really great mentors."

Now he finds himself in Buffalo, an offensive coordinator. Just as the new general manager, Tom Donahoe, saw himself in Gregg Williams, Williams must have seen himself in Sheppard: Bright, driven, a student of the game, a good communicator. A composite of those under whom he's studied.

Like Williams, the 49-year-old Sheppard has been preparing all his life for this challenge. He has studied the passing game all the way back to Paul Brown. He called the plays for Marchibroda as receivers coach in Baltimore. He had the title of offensive coordinator in San Diego under Gilbride.

But this is the first time he's had ultimate control of an NFL offense. Sheppard will bring the West Coast offense to Buffalo. It sounds exotic, but it is basically an attacking offense, based on quick quarterback reads and short drops and timing.

Timing is everything. Williams has put together a staff of men like himself, who are facing the challenge of their lives, whose time has come. We're in for some ride if they can coach as well as they talk.

There are no comments - be the first to comment