Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Craddock found coaching passion playing professionally in Italy
Joe Craddock played two seasons of professional football in Italy.
FAYETTEVILLE Out-of-season football leagues have dominated headlines in recent months.
The XFL is being restored in the coming year and the Alliance of American Football both launched and folded since the Super Bowl.
Poor management doomed the AAF, but in two months it provided exposure for players trying to extend their football playing days past college.
Joe Craddock can relate to that feeling.
Now in his second year as Arkansas’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Craddock is nine years removed from his own foray into playing professional football in the spring. Craddock played two seasons as a quarterback for the Parma Panthers of the Italian Football League.
“I’m just a small-town country boy from Chelsea, Alabama, so to go to Italy was a chance for me to see the world,” Craddock said. “Nobody from my family had ever been overseas, except for my papa in World War II. To be able to see those things and travel across Europe, that was an experience that I didn’t think I could turn down. I didn’t want to turn it down.”
Craddock, who played two sports in college at Middle Tennessee, had to forfeit his senior baseball season to play in Italy’s spring league. At 5-10 and without a great 40-yard dash time, Craddock thought overseas would provide his only chance at professional football.
Shortly before Craddock joined the IFL, the Parma Panthers were made famous by native Arkansas author John Grisham’s novel “Playing for Pizza.” In fact, Craddock read some of the book to prepare him for life in Italy.
“It was very, very similar to the book,” Craddock said. “(Grisham) came over to do research on another law book, and his taxi driver was a player on the Bologna Warriors. He got to talking to him and found out there was a league.”
Grisham embedded himself with the Panthers and wrote a fictional account of an excommunicated NFL quarterback named Rick Dockery.
“I didn’t make as much money as he did,” Craddock said with a laugh.
Joe Craddock set numerous passing records during his two seasons playing in Italy. (Photo courtesy Parma Panthers)
But Craddock did have a lot of success. He holds all of Parma’s single-season passing records, and, in most instances, the top two spots.
In two seasons, Craddock completed 61.4 percent of his passes and threw for 5,934 yards and 81 touchdowns. He was intercepted just 13 times in 651 attempts.
“We just slung it around the yard,” Craddock said. “The competition was a step down from (NCAA Division I). It was more like a D-3, if I had to put it in those terms. The competition wasn’t great, but it was really cool because the other Americans that you were playing against were great players.”
Parma lost in the semifinals in his rookie season and won the league championship in his second year.
Craddock didn’t stick around for a third season. By then he was coaching stateside at his high school alma mater, Briarwood Christian Academy on the outskirts of Birmingham, Ala.
Because the Italian season ran from February to July, Craddock was home during the American season. He volunteered at Briarwood in 2009, then was promoted the following year.
His high school coach, Fred Yancey, recalls watching film with Craddock on a Sunday night and offering him the team’s coordinator job. Craddock was only 24 years old.
“I handled the offense, and I wasn’t going to make him the offensive coordinator immediately,” Yancey said. “But we talked football for a couple of hours, and it was obvious that he needs to be our offensive coordinator. In the meeting that night, I told him, ‘Joe, I want you to be our play caller and our OC.’ He was just thrilled to do it.”
Craddock knew the system. He had led Briarwood to its only state championship win as a senior and also quarterbacked the team to a couple of state semifinals.
Craddock didn’t have a teaching job. Instead he was a maintenance worker for the school and took care of maintaining the football and baseball fields.
“I liked that much more than sitting in a classroom,” Craddock said.
Briarwood lost in the Alabama 5A state championship game in Craddock’s first season and in the semifinals the next year. But he made an impression on Yancey.
“I knew back then that he was a gifted guy,” Yancey said. “I give myself credit for having good judgment. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and that was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. He was perfect for us.”
Yancey said Craddock brought several wrinkles to the playbook learned from his time in Italy, but it was the leadership skills learned that stood out the most.
“Over the years I always felt like I had a good idea of who I needed to be jumping on and who I needed to be patting on the rump,” said Yancey, who retired last year after a 49-year coaching career. “Joe was a young coach, but he was quick to understand that there were times that he needed to be very demanding and make sure he didn’t back up a little bit, and there were other times he needed to back up.”
And he could teach the game. In Italy, Craddock and his teammates would go into schools and teach American football to children during their physical education classes.
“Instead of Rome or Florence or major cities, living in Parma there wasn’t a whole lot of English spoken,” Craddock said of Parma, located in northern Italy about 90 miles south of Milan. “I had to really learn how to teach the game of football in another language. It helped me in my coaching career because I had to really get down to the basics and really enunciate and talk about each specific thing.”
There was also a language barrier with the team. IFL leagues could only have three Americans on their roster, including coaches.
At 32, Craddock was hired as Arkansas' offensive coordinator - the youngest to hold the position in the SEC. (Photo by Ben Goff)
“Even the guys on my team, they spoke broken English,” Craddock said. “I’ve got a Southern slang, and it wasn’t the same slang as European English. They didn’t understand a lot of what I was saying. I had to slow down and, being the quarterback, tell everybody, ‘Hey, this is what I want you to do.’
“I really had to teach what I wanted, which I think jump-started my coaching career.”
Craddock left Briarwood for an entry-level position at Clemson, where he met Chad Morris. By 29, he was the youngest offensive coordinator in major college football while working for Morris at SMU.
He turned 33 last year in his first season as a coordinator in the SEC. Craddock was offered the quarterbacks coaching position at Clemson just as he was leaving for SMU with Morris, but he wasn’t going to be the offensive coordinator, his eventual title at SMU.
“I’m not even a little bit surprised Joe has moved up the ranks fast and that he’s had success,” Yancey said. “And there’s more to come, I’m telling you. Joe is a rare find.”
This article originally appeared in Hawgs Illustrated
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