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Former Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan during a game against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. Linehan has reportedly been hired by LSU as its new passing game coordinator.

On a brisk evening in northern Kentucky, the former Louisville football coach spoke through the spotty static of poor cellphone signal.

"So you guys are hiring my man Scott Linehan, huh?" he said.

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Meet John L Smith. Most people just call him "John L." He's out of coaching right now, spending most of his time with his grandchildren in the quiet, rural town of Shelbyville, just about 30 miles east of Louisville.

No, John L's not completely removed from mainstream society. Monday's news that LSU hired Linehan as its next passing game coordinator reached him about as fast as anyone. He always figured his old assistant coach would return to the game, and he's glad that Linehan, a former NFL head coach, is back at the college level.

See, John L was the last person Linehan worked for before he left for the pros, embarking on a meteoric rise that included historic offenses and sudden falls.

Long before Linehan's recent falling out as offensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys, he was the orchestrator behind the potent Louisville offenses that produced one of the most successful three-year stretches in school history.

Back in the late 1990s, the Cardinals were considered a little ole Conference USA program, a team, like many others at its level, that was cast aside by the computer-based BCS ranking system of its era.

John L unified his coaching staff within the underdog status, and they shared the goal of building a successful program that would be attractive enough to get poached by a prestigious conference when the NCAA's next realignment happened.

Linehan's competitive nature and command of scheme was at the center of Louisville's success, his former boss said, a push that eventually led the program into the former Big East Conference in 2005.

No, John L is not coaching right now. The 71-year-old has taken a year break after a three-year stint at Kentucky State. But if he were coaching, and if he had a vacancy on his staff, he'd hire Linehan on the spot.

"He's one of my all-time favorites," he said. "I love him dearly."

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Raised levels

Why is Linehan returning to college coaching?

Perhaps it's an even further question: Why is a former NFL head coach and 14-year offensive coordinator in the pros returning to be a passing game coordinator at the college level?

The coaching position wasn't even a consistent piece of LSU's full-time staff until Ed Orgeron hired Jerry Sullivan ahead of the 2018 season.

Even then, the position was seen as an extra wide receivers coach, a replacement for the full-time tight ends coach position that is no longer a part of Orgeron's staff.

Passing game coordinator only became glamorous in Baton Rouge upon the 2019 arrival of Joe Brady, the bright, young assistant coach whom Orgeron tasked with reconstructing LSU's offense in tandem with offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger.

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The role toed the line between wide receivers coach and full-blown co-offensive coordinator, and Brady's influence on the Tigers' record-breaking offense last season was enough for him to become the first non-coordinator to win the Broyles Award for the nation's top assistant coach.

Record book entries. Joe Burrow's Heisman Trophy. A national championship.

Those pegs were enough to elevate passing game coordinator — a coach Orgeron says focuses on third-down game planning and red zone situations — toward a level where it was suddenly a highly-important, highly-scrutinized position.

Brady, who left LSU for an offensive coordinator job with the Carolina Panthers, was offered a three-year, $4.95 million extension to stay in Baton Rouge.

Orgeron, pleased with the spread system Brady installed from his two-year stint as an offensive assistant with the New Orleans Saints, returned to the NFL to maintain the offense he wanted.

And Linehan's football life was born right at the forefront of what became the modern spread era.

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'Spreading it out'

Like so much does in football with Orgeron, his hiring of Linehan somehow stems back to former Miami coach Dennis Erickson.

Orgeron was Erickson's defensive line coach for the Hurricanes from 1989 to 1992, back when "The U" won two national championships with Erickson's flashy, spread offense and an attacking defensive front — qualities that Orgeron has prioritized emulating at LSU.

Erickson formed his football philosophy as the offensive coordinator at San Jose State in the late 1970s. Jack Elway, the father of Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback, John, was the head coach at the time. Erickson was introduced to John's legendary high school coach, Jack Neumeier, who taught Erickson his spread offense he famously dubbed "basketball on grass."

Erickson brought the system with him to his first head coaching job at Division I-AA Idaho in 1982. It was then, scouring the recruiting trail in southern Washington, when Erickson landed on an impressive quarterback at Sunnyside High named Scott Linehan.

Linehan's combination of intelligence and competitiveness fit perfectly within the offense, the retired coach said, and Linehan finished his career in Moscow, Idaho, throwing for 7,018 yards and 45 touchdowns from 1982 to 1986.

"He's been spreading it out his whole career," Erickson said.

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Linehan's 57 pass attempts on an Oct. 6, 1984 game at Nevada are still tied for seventh all-time in the Idaho record book. He led the Vandals to the Big Sky Conference championship in 1985, then threw for 3,954 yards, 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions his senior season.

"Everybody does (the offense) now," said Smith, who was Erickson's defensive coordinator at Idaho from 1982 to 1985. "It's spread. It's one-(running) back. It's stuff that we did for years and years. Scotty was very instrumental, and, you know, that changed the culture throughout the United States. That quick passing game, and spreading the field horizontally as well as vertically? He was special. He learned it all." 

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Rags to rings

Linehan never won a championship ring in Idaho.

It was somewhat of an irony that his first job out of college was selling rings for Jostens Jewelry.

Class rings. Championship rings.

One day, Linehan decided he wanted to go back and chase the real thing.

Smith was the head coach at Idaho in 1989, when he said Linehan came to his office and asked for a job on his staff.

"Are you stupid?" Smith said.

"No," Linehan replied.

"OK," Smith said. "I'm going to pay you zero, and get your butt back to work here tomorrow."

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So began Linehan's 13-year collegiate coaching career, most of which was spent on Smith's staffs. He started as a wide receiver coach at Idaho, and after a season at UNLV in 1991, Smith hired him back as his offensive coordinator.

It's a routine that happened often. Smith's prized assistant kept becoming a commodity.

Linehan was an offensive coordinator and wide receiver's coach at Washington from 1994 to 1998 until Smith hired him back again when he was rebuilding his staff at Louisville in 1999.

As a defensive coach, Smith valued Linehan's expertise and dedication to the scheme they all once ran together with Erickson in Idaho.

"Wherever I was," Smith said, "if I had a spot open, it was, 'Come on in. You know what to do. Here's what we've done. Take the ball and run so I can go spend time in the other room.'"

Louisville never scored fewer than 30 points per game while Linehan was the coordinator from 1999 to 2001. The fledgling program at a basketball school won consecutive C-USA championships in 2000 and 2001, and Linehan's offense helped produce future NFL players like Super Bowl champion wide receiver Deion Branch and quarterback Dave Ragone.

"Not only did he know about (the spread), he knew what it looked like through a quarterback's eyes," said UTEP defensive coordinator Mike Cox, Linehan's teammate at Idaho who coached alongside him at Idaho, Louisville and in the NFL. "I think we got those two things together and that made him very valuable."

Linehan returned to Smith's office in 2001, after an 11-1 season in which Louisville finished No. 17 in the AP Top 25, and told him he was leaving for the NFL.

He was going to be the offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings.

"His career has been meteoric," Smith said. "He went from coming off the street, selling rings, to all of a sudden, he was coaching in the NFL."

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'That's just the way the game is'

It wasn’t all just meteoric for Linehan.

Sometimes the meteor fell to the earth.

Yes, Linehan was once a sort of Joe Brady himself — a wunderkind coach who commanded a dazzling Vikings offense with Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss that ranked within the NFL’s top 4 in total yardage from 2002 to 2004.

He was the coach former LSU coach Nick Saban lured away with a lucrative three-year contract to join his first staff with the Miami Dolphins in 2005, a position he only left to become the head coach of the St. Louis Rams in 2006.

It was in St. Louis where Linehan faced his highest level of scrutiny. He was fired after an 0-4 start in 2008, ending a brief tenure in which multiple reports say an aging and limited roster blended with his inexperience as an NFL coach to create a very public mess.

“Sometimes, you can’t judge a head coach all the time because of the wins and losses that you’re sometimes put in,” said Cox, who was a defensive assistant on Linehan’s St. Louis staff in 2007 and 2008.

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Linehan rebounded as the offensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions, and the franchise finished no lower than sixth in the NFL in total offense in Linehan’s final three seasons, just before he was hired away by the Dallas Cowboys in 2014.

Linehan’s five-year tenure in Texas also had mixed reviews despite three NFC East division titles, three NFL rushing champions and a Rookie of the Year in quarterback Dak Prescott.

But Linehan was fired again after a 10-6 season in 2018, when the Cowboys offense was blamed in part for an underachieving team that was expected to push for the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance since 1995.

That’s where the bureaucracy of the professional sport comes in, Smith said: An owner tells a head coach to make a change or else, an assistant catches the blame, gets the boot, and a year later, the head coach gets sent to the chopping block himself.

The Cowboys went 8-8 in 2019, and head coach Jason Garrett was fired in January.

“That’s just the way the game is,” Smith said. “Yeah, there’s going to be criticism. Unless you win every game, you’re going to get some criticism at some point and time. But doggonit, I’d rather have a guy winning more than half than the guy losing more than half."

"I think he did some wonderful things there," Smith added. "I think it's good that he's back at the college level now."

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Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.