Published Wednesday, June 5, 2013 AT 8:14 AM / Updated at 10:33 AM
Bill Callahan’s comeback
Sam McKewon Omaha World-Herald

Define irony: The coach who gutted Nebraska’s option offense for a West Coast passing attack has been tasked with calling more running plays for a NFL team that passes too much.

Former NU coach Bill Callahan already worked under the big top of the Dallas Cowboys circus. Now he’ll inhabit one of the three rings in the tent as the Cowboys’ offensive playcaller. If he truly desires a return to the head coaching job – and I believe he does, perhaps even in college – here’s his audition. Coordinator for an embattled head coach, Jason Garrett, whose butt is flaming from the hot seat. Employee of the NFL’s most mercurial, meddling owner, Jerry Jones. Collaborator with a $100-million quarterback, Tony Romo, who leads the world in blind, thrown-while-I’m-spinning-in-the-air interceptions.

“I’m honored, I’m flattered to be a part of this,” Callahan told reporters Tuesday in his usual eager schoolboy manner. I can imagine a hundred fans reading that quote and trying, on the spot, to mimic it. (Bo Pelini’s Ohio accent is easy to identify, but hard to imitate. My wife and her family are from Cleveland, and try as I might to bug her by duplicating her inflection, I only bug her more by not coming particularly close.)

Callahan’s played the good soldier since Tom Osborne dismissed him in November 2007, working as the Jets’ line coach – building a pretty good line in the process – until 2011, after which he moved to the Cowboys, who still don’t have a great line, in part because their QB has the talent to run himself into sacks and commit various other junior high mistakes. The mounting-to-overwhelming dissatisfaction Nebraska fans heaped on Callahan is good prep for Jones’ nearly-maniacal gaze on his treasured possession. The strength of the microscope he’s under now could only be stronger if he were head coach. (And if Callahan has a good year calling plays, you never know – he just might supplant Garrett. With Jones, anything is possible.)

ESPN showed a stat early Wednesday morning that Dallas had the second-highest percentage of passes among its offensive plays last year, continuing a Garrett trend that generally works in the NFL, just not with Romo. Callahan has to balance out the offense a bit and work with Romo, whose new contract basically entitles him to have as much of a say in the offense as anyone in the franchise. A quarterback of Romo’s age should, I think, but when a professional wrestler questions your mental acuity – Stone Cold Steve Austin said Romo has a tendency to (crap) the bed – it’s not the most encouraging sign.

It’ll be on Bill to balance the ego of Jones, warbling leadership of Garrett and inconsistency of Romo by calling plays he already must know Romo could blow up in five different ways.

I only covered the final, doomed year of Callahan’s tenure at Nebraska – so I’ll freely admit I didn’t see his best hour – but I’ll be curious how long Callahan’s patience behind the scenes lasts.

Hardened by years of being a grunt and a position coach – of knowing how to mask frustration for the sake of job security and advancement – Callahan knows how to play the thoughtful, “oh, boy, yeah” role to the press. That conceals a ferociously organized, demanding persona that rubbed superstars in Oakland wrong enough for them to still grind an axe a decade later. This same persona ultimately had a tin ear for Nebraska culture, a tin ear for the commitment of his 2007 team and a strange need, in his final weeks, to sacrifice his defense at the altar so his offense could run up massive yards/points in losses to Kansas and Colorado. I can still recall when, on a Big 12 teleconference call, Callahan stepped all over Joe Ganz’s record-breaking performance against Kansas State, touting Ganz as a “product of the system” more than the individual achievement.

“You could see his development ooze all over the field,” he said of Ganz. A fairly unforgettable line. Never heard Shawn Watson or Tim Beck utter anything quite like it.

Now, I’ve written before that I – that most workaday folks – can actually identify with Callahan in several ways. He had an unremarkable entry into football. The guy was a Division III quarterback. He fetched coffee. He learned the value of loyalty to his peers, like Kevin Cosgrove. He learned the value of having the best players to cover for coaching mistakes. His background taught him what most of our backgrounds teach us. Put in the time. Bust your hump. Learn to develop two sides of oneself – the ego and the eager one. Become a workaholic. In a revealing story written by former World-Herald reporter Mitch Sherman just before Callahan’s firing, Callahan drives by HiMark Golf Course often and wonders to his right-hand man, Tim Cassidy, why they don’t play a course that so often seems empty. Cassidy pointed out that most courses are empty at 6 a.m. – when Callahan drove by it on the way to the office each day. Cassidy said in the same article that Callahan didn’t like to eat at restaurants because he feared fans would wonder why he wasn’t focused on football.

There’s an essential insecurity there – an inability to control the reaction of your critics – that marked Callahan’s time as Oakland’s head coach and Nebraska’s head coach. And to the extent that we all have our insecurities, it’s that one proclivity of Callahan’s – to lose patience, crawl in the shell, to cling to that play sheet as if it were the Torah, Koran and New Testament all in one – that he’ll have to overcome in Dallas, where he’ll coach the league’s most consistently thrilling/maddening quarterback, if he wants another shot at head coach.

It’s right out of the Callahan playbook to use the words “honored” and “flattered” to describe playcalling duties. Appreciation and approbation were never the man’s struggle. Advancement is.

About Sam McKewon

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him at sam.mckewon@owh.com. And follow him on Twitter at @swmckewonOWH. And call him at 402.219.3790.