State of the Hogs: Code Red produced fun in 1998

By: Clay Henry
Published: Saturday, April 15, 2017
Arkansas defensive coordinator Keith Burns instructs players during practice April 2, 1998, in Fayetteville.
( David Gottschalk)
Arkansas defensive coordinator Keith Burns instructs players during practice April 2, 1998, in Fayetteville.

— It was something I planned to bring up, but Keith Burns beat me to it. The former Arkansas coach and player brought up “Code Red” as we reminisced in the southwest corner of Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

It was one of the highlight games of the 1998 season, a 42-6 victory over Alabama, perhaps the moment everyone knew that Houston Nutt had rallied the troops in his first season as head coach. Burns was sharing the defensive coordinator role with Bobby Allen.

Truth be told, the Hogs were running Nutt's defense, an eight-man front with safety Zac Painter cheating from the strong safety position, much as Burns played rover for Lou Holtz. Burns was the guy who stirred the drink, creating some fun on that side of the ball.

It was Burns who gave the defense the Code Red identity, with some bizarre pre-game rituals that made even Nutt feel uncomfortable at times. That Alabama game was one of those times.

Burns wanted to talk about it Saturday afternoon as we watched the Razorbacks in their second scrimmage of the spring. He thought it looked like the Hogs were having fun. He said that should always be the goal with football. He was in town over Easter to visit son Tanner, a quality control assistant for Arkansas coach Bret Bielema.

I found Burns in a chat with Allen, both still good friends. They were standing on the far end of the action, studying the moves of the new 3-4 defense as coached by coordinator Paul Rhoads. Old defensive coaches tend to do that.

But before we could start to discuss the inner workings of the 3-4, Burns turned to me with a question: Do you remember Code Red?

Well, yes. How could you forget it. The real coming out for Code Red was that Alabama game, the third game of the '98 season. There is talk from the current Arkansas head coach about a different version of Code Red. Nothing Bielema does resembles what Burns had his defense do in 1998.

In talking with Arkansas players afterwards, it was mentioned by defensive end C.J. McLain that the Hogs had basically taunted the Crimson Tide on Friday as the visitors emptied from the team bus for their walk through. The Hogs chanted “Code Red” over and over and shook the team bus before the players got off.

“That's about right,” Burns said.

Allen, perhaps still wondering about the merits of such a stunt, just smiled. He confirmed it all with a nod of the head.

It was really an incredible weekend. The Hogs pounded the Tide into throwing in the towel. All-star back Shaun Alexander did what amounts to a quarterback taking a knee after bursting through the line late in the game. Yes, he ran straight out of bounds.

“I've never seen that before or after that,” Burns said. “He did it like a quarterback would on a scramble. But he's a big, old running back. True submission.”

Back to the Code Red, it was something Burns created to make playing defense fun. And, he said you better make it fun. He recalls the brutal practices under Holtz, noting it wasn't always fun, something he would always remember as a coach. There was mention from players before the '98 season that practices under former coach Danny Ford were similar to that, nothing resembling fun. They practiced three times a day at the bowl site two years before, making everyone miserable in Miami, Fla. How do you do that?

“I don't think they'd had much fun before we got there,” Burns said. “I had players tell me about what they had been doing on defense (under Miles Aldridge). It wasn't fun. So we did some things to create some blitzes and then the Code Red was something to make them believe in football again. Make it fun. Go after people. Even if you don't get there, there is the illusion that you are coming. Move.

“You have to believe, you have to have fun. It wasn't much fun under Lou. That's what I see as I'm watching these guys play. I think the players like Bret, like to play for him. Tanner says they do. I think the defense likes Paul. I think what I see them doing is fun for them, movement and blitzes.”

But the Code Red the Hogs used under Burns was brash, unorthodox and like nothing I'd ever seen. Meeting Alabama's bus? Pounding on the locker room door on Friday?

“We did that for most of two years,” he said. “We tried to make the timing where no one was there. It's about doing something and then backing it up with your play. You have to own it.”

Burns owned it, although Nutt wasn't always 100 percent in. After the Alabama game when I found out about it, I went to the coaches locker room. Nutt had already met with the media 30 minutes before news broke in the locker room about the Friday stare down.

“Go talk to Keith,” Nutt told me. “Code Red, that's his deal.”

Burns popped out of the locker room all aglow. Yes, it was his deal and he was proud of it.

“I didn't think Alabama would be down there when we left the Broyles Center,” he said. “We had our meetings before going to the team hotel. We were coming across the field, about where the Razorback logo is. Someone came back and said, 'Coach, they just got here. We can't do it.'

“I was turning them around, but C.J. McLain said we aren't going back. We are doing this.”

The Alabama team was not off the bus, so it quickly escalated into going behind the stadium first, the locker room next.

“Yes, we did shake the bus,” he said. “And, the managers were in their locker room, so we pounded on the door like we usually did.”

It continued on the road, too. At Tennessee, there was no outside door to the Vols locker room.

“We had to go through a door, go down a hall and then make a turn to get to the locker room door,” Burns said. “We did it. I am still a little amazed we did. But once you start something, you keep doing it.”

The only time there was an actual confrontation was Alabama.

“I didn't mean it to be like that, it just happened,” Burns said. “But it was kind of fun.”

It's Urban Legend now. Some even say the teams had a throw down outside the locker room. That's not true. And, it wasn't the entire team, just the Hogs' defense.

“The Code Red was our defensive motto, so it was just us,” Burns said, noting that offensive players later wished they had been along for the confrontation.

There was talk Saturday about the new defense the Hogs are installing. Burns recalled the move to the eight-man front the Hogs played in 1998-99. The brilliant piece in '98 was the conversion of Zac Painter to safety.

“He'd played corner,” Burns said. “We wanted a safety with speed to blitz and cover. He was perfect. He'd been the most maligned player on the team before we got here. What we did with him was our crowning achievement as coaches.”

Do the Hogs have anyone like that? There were some coaches watching Saturday who think they saw one. Kevin Richardson, who blitzed out of the nickel spot on Saturday, might be something akin to Painter. He's got cover skills as a converted corner. He can tackle like a safety. He was in the backfield plenty on Saturday.

The other thing that is becoming more obvious, the Hogs plan to play more zone out of the 3-4 than they did in the 4-3, and I'm mainly talking about the linebackers. How many times did you see a mismatch with middle linebacker Brooks Ellis chasing a back or a tight end either horizontally or vertically? That was man-to-man coverage.

“The way they are going to play defense in this 3-4 is probably perfect for what Brooks could do,” a veteran coach told me Saturday. “I think you can play zone with your linebackers in the SEC. If you lack a little speed, that's the way to deploy at the second level.”

Rhoads must agree. He spoke Thursday about his Pitt defenses, always in zone. With smart play at linebacker, he didn't have to change to nickel and dime packages. And, it made it tougher for quarterbacks to account for blitzes since the second level looks were zone.

The beauty of the 3-4 was obvious Saturday when both Ty Storey and Cole Kelley were frustrated when blitzes appeared on both sides, or alternated. Kelley was flushed once, straight into the blitz. Offensive coordinator Dan Enos went crazy because it was the stuff they had worked against earlier in the week, with the proper move emphasized, a step up into the pocket.

Starting quarterback Austin Allen hit that look perfect several times, stepping up with a quick dump down or a scramble into space. It's something he's learned through experience.

Bielema hit his coaching points hard throughout the day. He gave the team a strong lecture when Rawleigh Williams tried to reach the ball across the goal line with an extended arm midway through the scrimmage.

Bielema stopped things, then preaching the bad example of the bowl game when Drew Morgan lost the ball on a reach. Morgan wasn't mentioned, but most figured out exactly what the head coach was referencing.

Burns agreed. It was a perfect time to coach.

Just after that, there was a discussion about the linebackers on the field in the 3-4. Morgan's younger brother, Grant, was with the ones. He's a walk-on from Greenwood, Burns was told.

Boom, Morgan stepped between the guard and center to make a tackle, slithering through a tight space.

“On cue,” Burns said. “Nice play. I like it.”

Earlier, I sat high in the south end zone to get a back view of the defense to see the blocking. My companion was a retired SEC official. We were 30 rows up from the goal post.

“This is the view I've always had calling games,” he said. “You see it develop and from this look, it's always obvious what football is about. It's blocking and tackling. You see it happen. And, you know when a team can play.

“You think it's not about blocking and tackling, ask Nick Saban. He'll tell you. The look from here tells you. This is still a work in progress, this Arkansas team. But I like it a little more than I did this point last year. They couldn't block. They can now.”

At that we focused on the left tackle, sophomore Colton Jackson. The Conway product sealed the edge on three straight plays.

“I'm not sure he could do that last year,” he said. “I think they may have something now.”

My last source on the day was a retired coach. He echoed the sage words from the old official.

“Leverage, blocking and tackling,” he said. “That's all football is. Now, you can scheme that to some degree. I've seen Arkansas' coaches do that the last few years, both with Jim Chaney and Dan Enos. They both can do that with the best of them.

“But at some point, adjustments happen and the players must have some football IQ. You hear different phrases for that, but it's about seeing something new happen middle of the game. At that point, it's about experienced players making the adjustments on the fly.

“So why is that important? When you get after halftime, the coaches aren't as responsible as the players. They have to be experienced enough to realize this is not what we practiced and not what we expected and flip the switch. I don't think the linemen last year were able to do that.

“So the experience they have now, that's a major plus. All of those guys have played a little. They have a little better feel, a little more football IQ. It's more important in that offensive line. That blocking part only comes through experience. Yes, they must be gifted with size and agility, but the football IQ of playing that position only comes with time on the field, practice and games.”

Burns knows that. He said that's just as important as talent. He's coached at the NFL, in the Pac-12 and in the SEC. He's now a high school head coach in San Jose, Calif., at Archbishop Mitty. His team played in a state title game last season. It's still about building a base of football knowledge, knowing all of the situations so it's reflex.

“I'm having the time of my life,” he said. “I wanted to coach high school all my life. I had a chance to go back to L.D. Bell (in Hurst, Texas) to coach my alma mater when I was with John Robinson at Southern Cal. He talked me out of it.”

Burns picked between Archbishop Mitty and Mountain Home three years ago after leaving the NFL as an Oakland assistant.

“I should have done this a long time ago,” Burns said. “I almost came back to Arkansas. I like the lakes and the rivers. I've still got a place on Grand Lake that I bought when I was head coach at Tulsa. Coaching high school is a blast. It's about having fun. You better make it fun.”

That's what Code Red was all about. Keith Burns reaffirmed that Saturday.

But I've got another version of fun. It's whipping Alabama, 42-6.


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