Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
State of the Hogs: NFL vet Washburn owes 'everything' to Arkansas
Senior defensive assistant Jim Washburn watches drills, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016, during practice at NFL football training camp in Davie, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
FAYETTEVILLE — It has been nearly 20 years since Jim Washburn turned off the recruiting road, but he's unchanged on what he thinks is the answer for Arkansas to win in the Southeastern Conference: hit East Texas as hard as possible.
When a reporter reached Washburn via telephone Wednesday, the retired NFL coach was walking his dog on his farm near Santa Fe, Tenn., southwest of Nashville. There are daily thoughts about his coaching career, including one of his favorite stops, a four-year stint with the Razorbacks under Danny Ford that ended in December 1997.
“I always think about my time at Arkansas,” Washburn said. “How could I not? It was the biggest break in my life. It saved my coaching career."
Ford, the former Clemson coach, knew of Washburn, who had been at South Carolina. Ford hired his one-time rival to help rebuild the football fortunes at Arkansas.
Without question, Washburn's ability as a coach and recruiter was a big part of what got the Hogs going in the SEC. Washburn landed some top recruits in East Texas to help the Hogs win the SEC West in 1995.
Washburn said it's the fertile recruiting grounds along U.S. 59 from Texarkana to Houston that ought to be the first target for Arkansas coaches outside of the state.
“Just put every one of your coaches on that highway, 30 miles on either side of it,” Washburn said. “You hit that hard, I think you can win a national championship with that talent. It's amazing.”
Washburn signed several dozen from that area. He will never forget the commitment of three from that area in January of 1996 – while they were on a recruiting trip to Texas A&M.
“Kenoy Kennedy, Randy Garner and Bryan Smith were all picked up on the same jet for a trip to A&M,” Washburn said. “My office phone rang that Saturday afternoon. It was Kenoy. He said he had some news for me. I figured this was going to be bad news.”
It wasn't. All three had decided on the plane ride to A&M that they really didn't want to make the trip because they were going to be Razorbacks.
“One of the A&M coaches had left them in his office for a few minutes, so they called me,” Washburn said. “I'll never forget it. Bryan Smith didn't stay at Arkansas, but Kenoy and Randy were both great players.
“I still say that Kenoy had the single best high school video I'd ever seen. He hit this guy on the dead run and his helmet popped off and went backward 15 yards. I can still see it. Kenoy was a little Steve Atwater, just a great player.
“You can get a whole bunch like him just going up and down U.S. 59. I know it because I did. Just work the relationships there. You'll get them to Arkansas.”
Washburn was not retained by Houston Nutt in the transition in December 1997. He still says he understands.
“Houston didn't know me,” Washburn said. “Why would he have kept me? I wouldn't have kept someone I didn't know. But, I believe this: I was about to hit a home run in East Texas that winter. I'd been working that ground for four years and I was about to commit the best players in that region. There were about 10 to 15 in the top 100. I could go up against Texas and Texas A&M in recruiting and win. I was winning that year, about to win big.
“But Houston had his staff. He knew his coaches. They'd been with him. That's what you do.”
It worked out for Washburn. He worked one year at Houston before latching on with the Tennessee Titans, who he coached in the Super Bowl. There were also stints with the Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins.
“I worked last year with the Dolphins and decided to come back here to Nashville,” he said. “We've got a home there and the farm here in Santa Fe. We are about to sell the house in Nashville.
“A pension from 18 years in the NFL is pretty good. I took the lump sum payment. If I'm smart, I can make it the rest of my life on this.”
Washburn probably doesn't deserve what he got in his first try in big-time college coaching. He was one of four coaches at South Carolina hit with charges for distributing steroids in a scandal that rocked the college football landscape. He took a plea of three months at a halfway house.
But the real fallout was that he was blackballed from collegiate coaching. He bounced around the Arena League and with the London Monarchs of the World League until Dick Vermeil took up his cause.
“I was defensive coordinator with the London Monarchs and I sucked,” Washburn said. “I'm a defensive line coach, pure and simple. But I got lucky. Vermeil came over to work some of our games. He stayed with us for one week and he liked me.
“Dick was working with Coach (Frank) Broyles on the ABC broadcasts. He told Coach Broyles to take a chance on me. He said, 'Frank, he's a convicted felon, but you need to hire him. I'll vouch for him.' He did.”
It actually didn't work out at first.
“The first year they had a job, Coach Broyles couldn't get it done,” Washburn said. “It happened the next year. Of course, Danny is the one who wanted me, but it took Coach Broyles going to bat.”
Presumably, Broyles had to convince some at both Arkansas and the NCAA that Washburn deserved a second chance.
“I will be thankful to the people of Arkansas – and that starts with Frank Broyles – for the rest of my life," Washburn said. "I was driving a truck hauling food for hogs. I had gotten in trouble, out of big-time coaching. Frank saved me.
“I owe everything I've got to Coach Broyles. Please write that because it's true. Now it's also true that Danny wanted me, but he couldn't make it happen without Coach Broyles."
Ironically, Ford and Washburn were bitter rivals from their time in the Palmetto State.
“We recruited against each other," Washburn said. "I didn't like him and he didn't like me, but we got over it.”
Washburn gave Ford a “thank you” phone call last winter after retiring.
“I'd gone back to Columbia (S.C.) for the funeral for Billy Michael, a former captain for Coach Broyles at Arkansas,” Washburn said. “Billy was one of my mentors. I got to thinking about all of the coaches I'd worked for and I just wanted to check up on some of them. So I got Danny's phone number when I was in Columbia and texted him. He called me right back.
“Coach Ford told me that he was watching over a few cattle, but his main hobby was checking up on his former coaches. He said my text got me back in the loop.”
Washburn said it's amazing how Broyles keeps popping up in his life.
“So my wife and I are at Billy's funeral, guess who does the eulogy?” Washburn said. “It's Barry Switzer. He started talking about what it means to be a Razorback and telling stories about what happened in Fayetteville. He and Billy were close.”
Michael was on the staff with Washburn at South Carolina.
“When I went through the steroid deal, Billy spoke for me in front of the grand jury,” Washburn said. “He was about one of the few friends I had in coaching who stood up for me.
“That's why I say Razorbacks are like no others. My wife and I keep saying that. We were reminded of that listening to Switzer talk at Billy's funeral. No one else talks about their school quite like a Razorback does.”
Washburn calls his time in Fayetteville special.
“We loved it there,” he said. “Jeremiah, Brady and Jessica all loved those four years.”
Jeremiah Washburn is the offensive line coach under offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains with the Chicago Bears. The elder Washburn beams when he talks about all three of his children. He just returned from Uganda where Jessica is working in an orphanage.
“Jeremiah went there on a mission trip and thought it changed his life,” Washburn said. “Jessica went back with him and stayed. She's going to be there eight more months.
“Sandy and I just got back from one month there. It's hard to explain the impact it makes on you. We bitch and moan about the things that happen to us. No one in this country has a right to whine about anything. You know that when you've been there.”
Washburn is proud to be a part of the first SEC West title for the Hogs. He still marvels at that 1995 defense coordinated by Joe Lee Dunn.
“Joe Lee was a genius,” he said. “He could have been successful as a doctor or a lawyer, he was that smart. What he did with our defense was remarkable.
“He won at places, then they didn't as soon as he left. Go look.
Washburn said Dunn had a unique style.
"He didn't wear headsets," Washburn said. "He called it all from the sidelines. He saw things that no one else could see from the sideline.
“What he'd do that was so tough to defend was send two blitzers through the same gap. He'd overload an area.
“Go back and watch tape of what he did to get Steve Conley free on the edge. Steve had 14 sacks, second in the nation in '95. You couldn't double team him because of the other things that were going on.”
It was a style that some thought was too risky.
“You have rules in coaching,” Washburn said. “You've heard them, stay wider than the widest, deeper than the deepest. Joe Lee broke every one of those rules.”
The magic wasn't just in Xs and Os, but was what happened in training camp. Dunn's August workouts were brutal, but his defenses were in wonderful condition.
“Joe Lee called them 'Packer Days,'” Washburn said. “He fashioned them from what Vince Lombardi did at Green Bay. He started the practice with three minutes of up-downs, then two minutes of 40-yard runs. Then, after a few days, it would be three-and-a-half minutes of up-downs and 1:45 of 40s. He added to it until we'd do 15 minutes of up-downs in fast pace.
“Anyone who ever participated in Packer Days will ever forget them. I took them to Houston with me that next year. It worked.”
Jim Washburn coached Steven Conley to 14 sacks in 1995. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo by Stephen B. Thornton)
Would it work today?
“I don't think so,” Washburn said. “This is a different day. That was in a day when you could wear out a player. Coaches are afraid of players now.”
Washburn still recalls some favorites from his Arkansas days. Rogers defensive end Waylon Wishon is one who stands out. Wishon had lettered two years before Washburn arrived, but he was a different player as a senior.
“Really, he wasn't very good when I got there,” Washburn said. “But he wanted to be good. I worked him and showed him one pass move and he perfected it. I'm going to admit that I probably cheated a little because we'd stay up there late at night and work on it. Waylon would work in the middle of the night.
“So he used that one little move and it worked for him. He got eight sacks his senior year. It's a breakthrough by someone like that you don't forget. To me, that's more important than what you can do with a five-star recruit. I think that's the epitome of what being a Razorback is all about.
“You talk about players like Waylon Wishon, Mark Smith and Nathan Cole, they are players that I just won't ever forget.”
Cole's story resonates with Washburn. He is the son of Richard Cole, a captain at Alabama under Bear Bryant. He lettered four years at Arkansas and graduated in 1998.
“Nathan just did something that most would never fathom,” Washburn said. “I got a call from Chris Chalmers that Nathan had just left Pfizer. He had climbed the ladder and was making millions. He was in charge of all of South America and Latin America, but he felt empty. He said all he was doing was making money.
“Nathan walked away. He's starting a Christian college in Memphis. He's going to teach and work. His story trumps all the rest to me.”
Washburn's story is pretty good. It gets better when he starts talking about Broyles.
“Do you see him?” Washburn said. “Can you give him a message for me? Tell him I love him and thank him every day for what I've got. It's because of him.
“Coach Broyles called me that day (in December 1997) and told me to come home from recruiting. I guess someone would say that was tough, that I was going to get fired. I couldn't be mad at him. He got me started again. I love him.”
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