Dave Aranda knew he needed to save up more money than just the cost of a flight from California to Baton Rouge and back.
After all, what would he eat and drink during his week’s stay on a friend’s couch in Louisiana’s capital city?
Turns out, each day he ate at a $2 pizza buffet and slurped down free Gatorade while watching Gerry DiNardo’s final LSU football team conduct spring drills in 1999.
“Once I got there, that was it,” said Aranda, Wisconsin’s former defensive coordinator hired Friday for the same role at LSU. “All of the money I had was for the flight.”
Aranda is scheduled to return to Baton Rouge soon for the first time since that cross-country, couch-surfing, educational trip he made 17 years ago.
He’ll have more cash this time around, of course, and he’ll be the one doing the teaching.
Aranda will arrive in Baton Rouge not as a graduate assistant at a Division III school but as LSU’s new defensive coordinator. He agreed to a three-year contract that will pay him $1.3 million in 2016, according to a FoxSports.com report Saturday. It does not include a clause tying him to LSU coach Les Miles’ tenure, like the other assistants’, the website reported.
“Last few days have been a whirlwind,” Aranda said Saturday during an interview with The Advocate, his first since his hire.
A whirlwind? You betcha. LSU made contact with Aranda on Thursday, a day after the Badgers beat Southern California in the Holiday Bowl. The deal was “sealed,” Aranda said, on Friday and announced Friday night.
“It’s been hectic,” he said. “I’m excited for it to settle down and get back to football.”
Aranda is a 39-year-old, up-and-coming West Coast guy with a quiet, cerebral personality, a defensive guru whose system takes no true formation.
He’s a communicator and a thinker — not a yeller and a screamer. A football nerd, he’s a guy who talks about the “math of football” and babbles on in technical jargon whenever he gets the chance.
No wonder they call him “The Professor” or “The Defensive Coordinator Whisperer,” nicknames he has accumulated during his meteoric rise to football prominence.
Aranda leads a variable, attacking defensive scheme bent on disguising and simulating pressure and confusing offensive fronts. The system is focused on physical man-to-man coverage and blitzing linebackers — as much as 30 times a game, he said.
This is no regular LSU coordinator, no 50-something old-school coach with Southern roots, no country-talking 60-year-old.
Aranda never played a college football game and barely played in high school. He refers to his players as “cats” at times.
And his Cali verbiage shined through during the 30-minute interview: “Such a cool time, man.”
He doesn’t hide his love for action movies, either — even throwing in a “Star Wars” reference during his first interview.
“I think we all like action movies, you know what I mean?” Aranda said from his childhood home in Redlands, California, where he’ll camp out at his parents’ home until he leaves for Baton Rouge.
“You want to be the Han Solo and stuff,” he continued. “You want to be, like, that guy — want to be that guy running from the huddle to the play and barking and jumping up and down. I’ve never been that way. Part of me wishes, at times, I could because I like seeing that stuff in movies, you know? But I’ve never been like that.
“I think that’s where that ‘Professor’ (nickname) comes from. All you can be is who you are.”
On the offensive
Sometimes Aranda uses three defensive linemen in the normal down stance. Sometimes he uses two.
And sometimes … well, sometimes he uses none.
“There’s times when there’s no down linemen. Everyone’s standing up,” said DiNardo, the former LSU head coach turned football analyst.
DiNardo, now with the Big Ten Network, traveled to Wisconsin in October. He visited Aranda for a report on the coordinator’s pass-rushing philosophy — the one that helped the Badgers finish no worse than seventh nationally in total defense during his three seasons at UW.
“Dave Aranda calls defenses like most coaches call offensive plays,” DiNardo said.
DiNardo called Aranda’s defensive formation a “30 defense.” The 30 defense is a variation of the 3-4 and the 3-3, but Aranda is quick to dispense of formation talk.
His defenses don’t necessarily have a true formation. They’re shapeless, at times. They have an ever-changing appearance, like the amoeba defense made popular by coach Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks.
Sometimes it might look as if Aranda’s running a 3-3. Other times it looks like a 3-4. Sometimes it’s shaped as a 2-5. There are times — mostly on long third downs — when the formation does not include a single player with his hand on the ground.
“He’ll build around the talent set he has,” said Bill Busch, the current Rutgers defensive backs coach who worked under Aranda at Utah State and Wisconsin.
He has done that in the past. Aranda’s defenses have varied based on location. At Hawaii in 2010-11, he ran mostly a 4-3, mixed with some 3-4, he said.
In a one-year stint as Delta State’s coordinator in 2007, he ran a 3-3-5, and Utah State employed a 3-4 during his one season in 2012.
His first season at Wisconsin in 2013, the Badgers switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4, but they “played very much like a 4-3,” Aranda said of that transition year. “A lot of D-linemen, so we played to those strengths.”
Aranda’s Wisconsin defense in 2015 played more of a traditional 3-4.
“Two years recruiting, we had a lot more linebackers,” he said. “It just depends on who you have, what they can do and all of that.”
What will he run at LSU? Aranda isn’t clear on that, but the Tigers’ linebacker depth is slim — especially compared to the plethora of defensive backs and the return of what could be every defensive line starter.
“So much we do is simulated pressure,” Aranda said. “So there are things where all you’re doing is bringing four guys, but it looks like more than that. That’s the thought really. You’re attacking protections. You’re identifying how people block, and you’re trying to set up your defense so they block it that way so you can attack the weakness.
“I think there are some corners at LSU that can blitz. I think there are safeties at LSU that can blitz,” he said. “I know there are linebackers that can.”
Aranda’s philosophy is to create one-on-one mismatches for his pass rushers. How does he do that?
He confuses offensive linemen by having his defenders — defensive tackles and defensive ends included — stand up. This goes against traditional football formations: three or four defensive linemen, their hands on the ground, rushing the passer with offensive linemen blocking them. But what if the O-linemen don’t know who the defensive linemen are and who will rush the passer?
During Saturday’s interview, Aranda referred to this as “dictating” the terms of the game. His defensive scheme isn’t defensive at all — it’s offensive.
“He definitely has a little more of an attacking style of defense, man-to-man with the corners in some fashion,” Busch said. “He likes to figure out ways to change things up. He’s extremely multiple. He has a few different packages.”
“Probably the smartest coach I’ve been around,” said Karl Scott, Louisiana Tech’s safeties coach who was a graduate assistant under Aranda in 2007 at Delta State. “He’s going to approach the game a different way. He’s more substance than splash.”
‘A bad deal’
The Arandas’ small Hawaiian apartment reeked of coffee in December 2011.
“We were fired in Hawaii, and for two weeks I’m kind of sitting around making pots of coffee all day long because I have nothing else to do,” Aranda said. “And then I get a call from Gary Andersen saying he’s interested in talking to me.”
Every coach has his big break. This was Aranda’s. The call came while he sulked around his tiny apartment refilling the coffee machine, his unemployed wife and small children, on holiday break from school, watching this poor state of affairs.
“It’s a bad deal,” Aranda said.
That’s why that call was so important. At the time, Andersen had just finished his third season as Utah State’s head coach. The Aggies won four games his first two seasons and seven in the previous year. They had not finished in the top 49 in total defense any of those seasons and ranked 101st or worse the first two.
With Aranda leading Utah State in 2012, the Aggies finished 14th in total defense. Just two of their 13 opponents that season cracked 20 points.
Wisconsin hired Andersen to replace Bret Bielema, and Aranda followed his head coach to Madison — a plush job for a guy just a year removed from that coffee-reeking tiny apartment on an island in the Pacific.
“It’s hard to be fired in Hawaii,” Aranda said. “It’s probably the hardest place to get fired, the time change and all. I think people kind of forget you’re up there. I’ve never been one to work the phones or call. You’re basically kind of sitting around with no one calling.
“So much of it is football,” he said later. “My skill set is very limited. There’s not a whole lot.”
There’s a lot of football in that bald head, though, especially for someone who never played the sport on a college level.
Aranda had six operations to his right shoulder. All of them, he said, came during his high school career as a guard and linebacker in Redlands, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles.
Forget about playing in college — Aranda barely played in high school. These weren’t easy surgeries.
“Now, a lot of times, it’s not as invasive as it was then,” he said. “Then, they’d open you up and do the whole thing.”
Aranda needed to attend a junior college to get his academics in order. He acted surprised that he completed the feat, and then he laughed about his attempt to revive his playing career at Cal Lutheran, a Division III school north of Los Angeles.
“It was going to be a comeback and all that,” Aranda said. “That lasted, maybe, two weeks and then (I got) injured again and then started coaching.”
The coaching actually began a year before that. While in junior college, Aranda coached the Redlands junior varsity. During his four years as a student at Cal Lutheran, he studied philosophy — and eventually graduated with a degree in the discipline. But he also was on the football staff, moving up from videographer to student position coach and then graduate assistant.
He spent much of the offseason during those years traveling to various college campuses, learning and digesting football. He drove to Arizona State, UCLA and San Diego to visit the NFL’s Chargers.
He visited USC, too, meeting with Trojans defensive graduate assistant Dave Doeren, now head coach at N.C. State, and USC’s defensive line coach. His name: Ed Orgeron, now LSU’s defensive line coach.
“Doeren would give me all of the USC film. Jason Tarver (now with the San Francisco 49ers) would give me all of the UCLA film, and I’d take it back, look at it and try to use it to help the guys at Cal Lu,” Aranda said. “Everything was so close, I’d just drive.”
Except LSU. He saved up for that flight, arriving in Baton Rouge in the spring of 1999 to learn from then-LSU defensive coordinator Lou Tepper and D-line coach Joe Cullen. That entire staff was fired about eight months later.
“I was there for the whole week. I remember walking around. There’s a CiCi’s Pizza. Made sure I ate there because I didn’t have any money,” Aranda said. “We had a girl that went to school at Cal Lu who was a graduate assistant LSU trainer. I just stayed, like, on her couch. I remember there was a baseball game, and I just remember standing room-only for that stadium. Just a cool thing. It’s way different than anything I’ve seen.”
The drive from Cleveland, Mississippi, to Auburn, Alabama, is no fun.
It’s a winding, 400-mile route on two-lane roads across rural states that takes — if you’re lucky — six hours to complete. That did not stop Aranda from making the haul in 2007 while defensive coordinator at Delta State.
Aranda’s trek to meet with Auburn’s defensive staff — at the time led by Will Muschamp — came sandwiched between a spring football practice and a staff meeting the next morning.
“He made a trip from Delta State to Auburn to talk ball and drove back the next morning,” said Scott, who then was just hired as the graduate assistant at the Division II school. “He has these books he carries around, a stack of notebooks. I guarantee you we’d be able to go through those things and find out how football was created.”
Aranda is a wealth of football knowledge, and he never let titles prevent him from mining someone for more. He has visited a guy like longtime NFL coordinator Wade Phillips, and he also called up a then-little-known defensive coordinator at tiny Tusculum College in Tennessee.
That guy: Ron Roberts.
“Heard me talk at a clinic,” Roberts said. “Called me to talk football. Called out of the blue. Wanted to start talking ball.”
In 2007, Roberts, now head coach at Southeastern Louisiana, plucked Aranda away from Cal Lutheran for his first big shot.
In his one year at Delta State in 2007, the Statesmen won the Gulf South Conference and led Division II in pass-efficiency defense, ranking second in total and scoring defense.
“He’s one of the brightest football coaches out there,” Roberts said. “He’s a football junkie. He’s got different approaches to certain things. When he starts talking, he’s going to grab some players’, coaches’ and everybody’s attention. There’s something different about it.
“When he grabs the pen and gets on the board,” Roberts continued, “everybody knows he’s the smartest one in the room.”
These aren’t boring presentations from “The Professor,” either. In fact, Scott said one of Aranda’s greatest assets is communicating his knowledge to players. He’ll make the most random reference when delivering the info.
He might start one presentation with, “When you’re watching a Bruce Lee movie ...”
Scott laughed retelling that story. It’s just goofy, quirky Dave Aranda — a defensive mad scientist with a quiet, self-depreciating style who, yes, wants to be a head coach one day.
“He’s going to be a rock star,” Scott said.
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter, @RossDellenger.