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June 30, 2013
Henson overhauling Mizzou offense
IT'S MAY 14TH, A TUESDAY. The Kansas City Tiger Club, a booster organization for the University of Missouri, hosts its weekly lunch at the Westport Flea Market. A buffet segues into a guest speaker who answers questions from the fans in attendance.
Today, the speaker is a newbie. Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Henson received his promotion in mid-December, moving from co-offensive line coach into the spotlight. On this Tuesday, the spotlight isn't metaphorical. After eating lunch at a table with fans and his wife, Shauna -- they'll celebrate their fifteenth anniversary in nine days -- the emcee introduces Henson. He heads to the stage, normally used for improv comedy shows.
After a grim 5-7 season that led to the departure of his predecessor, Henson is hoping to elicit some grins today.
He knows how to work the crowd. He starts with the necessary jabs -- a joke at Missouri's former rival's expense, a mention of the desired f-word (fullback) for this group of mainly traditional fans. He tells a story about his family, of a conversation with his daughter, Kate, and son, Will.
Hypothetically, if they had to go to an Oklahoma-Kansas football game, who would they -- a family with roots in Stillwater, now living in Columbia -- cheer for?
"I'd cheer for OU because I can't stand those Jayhawks," Kate replied.
Laughter and cheers from the crowd.
"I wouldn't even go to the game," Will said. "I'd stay in the car."
The loudest ovation so far.
Soon, Henson opens the floor for questions. The first one is eager, direct and loud.
"With (David) Yost gone, we won't have anymore of his boneheaded calls, right?" the grizzled fan shouts.
"No," Henson says with a smirk. "That's because they'll be my boneheaded calls."
Henson's rise from a walk-on offensive lineman at Oklahoma State to the offensive coordinator at Missouri came from a mixture of talent, determination and luck.
Henson walked on in Stillwater after playing high school football in Tuttle, Okla. His playing career didn't end like most walk-ons. Five years and forty starts later, Henson graduated with a degree in secondary education, ready to pursue the career he'd desired since high school.
"I had a great high school coach (Tuttle's Phil Koons, still the head coach)," Henson said. "He was such a good X's and O's guy, and he really got me interested in (coaching). The way he coached me and how tough he was, and how much I looked up to him and respect him, I think that was when I made the decision."
After graduation -- and after a May wedding to his high school girlfriend -- Henson began his coaching career at Kingfisher High School in Oklahoma. He knew it would be temporary. Henson told himself that if he was going to coach, if he was going to seriously pursue this as a career and not just dip one toe in the water to gauge the temperature, then he wanted to "coach at the highest level."
In 1999, he got his first break. It's the luck of the coaching world, where timing and connections can keep one person moving up the ladder while so many others struggle at the bottom. Henson became a graduate assistant at Oklahoma State. He stayed in the position for two seasons before he caught his next break.
Les Miles, the offensive coordinator in Stillwater during Henson's playing career, became the Cowboys' head coach. Henson stayed on with Miles' staff, promoted to tight ends coach less than three years after he graduated.
Talent, determination -- and a little bit of luck.
"Truth is, I was just fortunate in timing," Henson said. "I was married, you know, and you don't make a lot of money being a graduate assistant. If I wouldn't have gotten that opportunity to be full-time at Oklahoma State when I did, I probably would be coaching high school football in Texas or doing something. Who knows?
"Two, three years was all I was going to get out of my wife before she would have been like, 'Hey, let's start making some money' or 'I want you to get a real job'," Henson added with a smile.
From there, Henson moved with Miles' staff when LSU came calling in 2005. Three years later, an old friend presented him with another opportunity.
"I'm sitting there, happy at LSU, walking along and I get a call from Barry Odom," Henson said.
Odom, the then-newly announced safeties coach in Columbia, met Henson in high school in Oklahoma. The first time the two hung out came on Odom's official visit to Oklahoma State. Eventually, Odom's career led him to Missouri, where he played against Henson's Cowboys three times in the mid-90s. Since then, the two remained in touch.
"I think our (offensive line coach) is leaving. Are you interested?", Henson remembers Odom asking. Missouri's former offensive line coach (and offensive coordinator) Dave Christensen had recently taken the head coaching position at Wyoming.
"Yeah I'm interested, that'd be cool," Henson said.
"All of a sudden, a month later, I'm here."
Said Odom, now the defensive coordinator at Memphis, "I knew he had expressed interest in becoming an offensive line coach someday. If anything were to open at Mizzou, he asked me to keep him in mind.
"The thing was, there was so little change under Pinkel's staff that I didn't know if it would ever happen... But when Dave left, I was trying to find what direction we would go at Mizzou and I brought his name up to Coach Pinkel. I knew his background and work ethic and I visited with Pinkel about it. He and Josh got in touch and went through the process."
After Missouri's 5-7 first season in the SEC in 2012, offensive coordinator David Yost resigned. It threw an already tumultuous season into more disarray. At the same time, one of Henson's best friends, Todd Monken, moved from his OC position at Oklahoma State to become the head coach at Southern Miss. The two friends already had discussed the scenario -- if one of them became a head coach, the other would follow as offensive coordinator.
Suddenly, Henson had two jobs at his finger tips.
"The decisions were not easy at all. I got to the point where I probably thought I was going, and you've got a good friend that you've spent a lot of time with. You've talked about this before -- If this happens, I want you to come and do this for me. I'm thinking, 'Boy, that would be really awesome.'... But I'm more excited to stay here at Missouri and help get this thing turned around."Talent, determination, luck.
In the end, Henson stayed on at Missouri after some reshuffling. He become the offensive coordinator, keeping his duties as co-offensive line coach with Bruce Walker. Andy Hill, the former receivers coach, took over Yost's spot as quarterbacks coach. Missouri hired Pat Washington, a long-time position coach in the SEC, to coach wide receivers.
"The decisions were not easy at all," Henson said. "Any way that it worked. It wasn't easy to think, 'I'm going to leave Missouri and go to Southern Miss.' I really like working for Coach (Gary) Pinkel and I really like living in Columbia, you know. My family is very happy here. We've got a great staff and a great group of guys. It's a great staff to work on. Good people. You get comfortable, I don't care where you're at, you get comfortable somewhere and you like it there, that's not an easy decision to say, 'Well, I'm going to leave and go somewhere else.'"
Henson drops a hint on how close he came to leaving Missouri, before he was offered the coordinator position.
"My kids love it here, and they're crying when..."
His voice trails before he starts again.
"On the flip-side of that, I got to the point where I probably thought I was going, and you've got a good friend that you've spent a lot of time with. You've talked about this before -- If this happens, I want you to come and do this for me. I'm thinking, 'Boy, that would be really awesome.' You're good friends. You know the guy is a good coach, and there's a certain trust level and relationship level at that point, so then you're saying no to all that, to stay at Mizzou, which is fine.
"Is that easy? No, I wouldn't say that. But are (the decisions) hard? I don't know if any of this is really hard. It's just life decisions. It's not life or death. It was something I was excited for, whether I went to Southern Miss with Todd, and I know he's going to do a great job.
"But I'm more excited to stay here at Missouri and help get this thing turned around."
"It's funny in this position," Monken began. "Sometimes you go from wanting an opportunity to sometimes having too many. It's like with girls. Sometimes you have none, other times you have too many."
IT'S JUNE 20TH, A THURSDAY. Henson meets with coaches in a conference room inside of Missouri's training facility, and dissections of plays and schemes can be heard from the waiting area, from the three black-leather chairs with tiger-stripes as accents. Henson comes out, ready for an interview but embracing the soon-to-be-official start of summer, with the heat finally arriving after a late start.
He wears a t-shirt, shorts and sandals. He jokes that he doesn't want his picture taken below the waist, in case people think he's not working hard.
There's a relaxed aura that Henson carries, much like the guy he's replacing. Yost's mop of bleached-blonde hair is noticeably absent from Columbia after 12 seasons with Gary Pinkel. Henson doesn't yet have a "thing", something he's known for by the public. There's no trademark for this clean-cut Oklahoma native, at least not yet.
Yost may have been "The Guy With the Hair." For now, Henson's is just "The New Guy."
It's a blank slate for Henson. Sure, he already has a long coaching career, 12 years and counting despite his young age (37). But no one pays attention to the position coaches, at least outside of places named Austin or Tuscaloosa or Athens. Always held accountable by his colleagues and players, Henson is now held accountable by the fans.
They'll be his boneheaded calls, after all.
There's the unknown, however. What kind of calls will they be? Pinkel and Henson said early they would stick with the spread, a system that best fits Missouri's personnel. Henson's career began around pro-style, multiple offenses, and his time at Missouri was his first under a true spread offense.
"I felt like after a year or so, I felt really comfortable in it," Henson said. "Not that I wasn't comfortable from the beginning. I just didn't have a great understanding of what we were trying to get done and know where I could give suggestions to help out."
Along with the ability to coach the offensive line, Henson said he accepted the initial job at Missouri in order to "help grow (his) philosophy as a coach, what (he) liked and believed in."
"I think it's important to see different things, to be exposed to different lines of thoughts," Henson said. "I think it helps you grow as a coach. All those things helped prepare me for this opportunity."
Henson and Missouri are keeping the tweaks to the offense under wraps. But there's a good indication for what type of system to expect come August 31. Just look at Henson's biggest influences.
First, there's his time as a tight end coach. Henson said coaching tight ends allowed him to learn both factors of offense -- run and pass -- to prepare for a future as an offensive coordinator. He uses the word "multiple" in terms of his use of tight ends. They can be split wide. They can be on the line. They may even be in the backfield.
But "multiple" carries more meaning.
He cites Mike Gundy, the former OC (now head coach) in Stillwater under Les Miles, as another big influence.
"I thought he was great at setting up a game," Henson said, "At setting up the big play. This, this, this, then THAT. I thought he was great at that. We were great at that time at throwing the ball way down the field, play-action, getting a lot of big plays with play-action. If we did one thing as good as anybody, that's what we were really good at."
Then there was Jimbo Fisher, who Henson worked under at LSU. Henson said Fisher's stream-lined play calling stood out the most.
"He had an unbelievable system of communication and declarations for the offensive line, for the quarterback changing protections or throwing hot (routes)," Henson said. "It was very multiple and it fit a lot of different personnel, a lot of different skill-sets for different kinds of players to be able to use:
"Fullbacks. Four-Wide. Empty. So on and so forth."
Henson continues. Gary Crowton took over at OC after Fisher left for the same position at Florida State. The innovative coordinator gave Henson a long look at spread concepts, and also taught him to look at the minutiae of the offense.
"(Miles) was a Michigan offensive lineman," Henson said, "and the technique it takes to go in there and get physical, smash guys running the football and what it really takes to get it done, run the ball over and over again, where they can't stop you and you demoralize teams that way.""He was kind of one of the original spread-offense guys," Henson said. "Throwing the bubble screens, doing all those things when he was at (Louisiana) Tech as head coach. And Gary was a great teacher. He would sit and do what he called 'detail plays.' He loved going in and just talking about plays and route concepts, every little detail, every little thing everybody did versus every single coverage."
Yost carried on the spread-offense torch in Henson's development. His time under Yost taught him about developing quarterbacks to fit a system, utilizing empty sets and reading blitzes from a spread formation.
Ultimately, of course, Les Miles has been the greatest influence on Henson, at least from a philosophical standpoint. On offense, Miles taught Henson one thing above all else.
"He was a Michigan offensive lineman," Henson said, "and the technique it takes to go in there and get physical, smash guys running the football and what it really takes to get it done, run the ball over and over again, where they can't stop you and you demoralize teams that way."
He pauses. He hasn't coached a game in his new role yet, but dammit, that 50-word run-on sentence said with a firm intensity -- it makes you want to believe this is how an offense SHOULD be run.
He adds, "I cut my teeth with him, for eight years," a statement of grit and determination to back-up his claim.
Henson is an amalgam of those parts, a creation of Gundy, Fisher, Crowton, Yost and Monken, under the influence of Miles. He doesn't need to say what his offense will be. After those descriptions, it's coming into focus.
While his colleagues can't offer much insight into Henson's style of play calling, Odom and Monken know what type of coach Missouri now has as its offensive coordinator.
"He's a real diligent worker," Monken said. "He's always had a real passion for doing it better than they do, trying to figure out a way. I think they're getting a guy who will pour his whole heart into moving the ball down the field."
"From knowing him as a person, he's an extremely hard worker," Odom said. "His attention to detail is very high on his priority list. Listening to him talk and coach, the base fundamentals of football is something he stresses.
"Josh will put his stamp on it, with what he wants to do with the offense."
In this time of looking for clues and hints of exactly what that stamp will be, a picture stands out. It's framed, resting on a shelf against the wall in Henson's office. A black-and-white image of the Missouri Sweep (AKA Student Body Right), a running play used under Dan Devine. The image shows a contingent of blockers getting to the edge, the running back following behind, smash-mouth football at its finest.
But, like so many hints, it's just another red herring in the search for Henson's style:
"It's been in Coach (Craig Kuligowski's) office for the last four years," Henson laughed, "and he said he was ready to get rid of it. So he stuck it in my office one night."
Henson knows his life will be different very soon, even if he admits he doesn't feel it right now. He has, however, told his kids what to expect:
"They're not going to be cussing at Coach Yost in the stands anymore. It's going to be Coach Henson that's the idiot."
Henson, the father, feels comfortable about warning his kids because they've already shaped his football career. You can trace his coaching stops by the coaches he's worked for, worked with. You can also trace those stops by his children.
Will, 10, was born in Stillwater in 2002. On Wednesday, Oct. 16, Shauna Henson went for a doctor's appointment, where she discovered that labor would be induced that evening. Josh Henson left the hospital to go back for practice, before returning to the hospital for the procedure. The Cowboys had to prepare for a big game against Nebraska, a team they hadn't beaten in 41 years.
Henson jokes that Les Miles forcibly removed him from practice, guiding him out by his arm to go to the hospital and await the delivery.
Will was born late that night. Three days later, Oklahoma State upset Nebraska.
"As soon as it was over, I went to pick up Shauna and Will from the hospital," Henson said. "That was a pretty good day."
His daughter, Kate, was born in Baton Rouge in 2006. Shauna's due date was April 5. A few weeks earlier, Henson spoke with then-LSU offensive line coach Stacy Searels.
Searels, now the offensive line coach at Texas, predicted that Shauna would give birth on April 1st, the date of LSU's spring game.
"He said the only two practices he missed were two spring games when each of his daughters were born," Henson said.
The night before the spring game, Henson and his wife left an alumni golf tournament when Shauna's water broke. Early that morning, they headed to the hospital.
"I call Coach Miles at 6:30 or 7 in the morning and tell him I won't be there," Henson said. "He thinks it's an April Fools' Joke, so it takes me a couple of minutes to convince him that this is for real. Sure enough, April 1st, spring game, I miss it. Just like Searels said. That was a hell of a coincidence."
While his new promotion contains plenty of baggage -- baggage that he's warned his children about -- Henson said ultimately, he can't be worried about what's typed on keyboards or yelled in bars or cursed in the stands.
"If you listen to it, it's just like the players looking at the scoreboard," Henson said. "If you're down by ten points, you can sit there and beat yourself up. I could sit there and think, 'Well, this guy says I'm not any good on the message board' -- Who cares? The truth is, when things aren't going well, you've got to work your tail off. It's work. It's attention to detail. It's preparation that makes things go better.
"It's the same for the players that it is for me. I know that stuff is going to come with the job. At the end of the day, you've got to be confident with yourself and what you do. You've got to know you're not perfect but you've got to be good enough to get the job done."
IT'S MAY 14TH, A TUESDAY. Henson's hour-long question-and-answer session with fans finally wrapped in Westport. Those questions ran the gamut -- from who the starter will be at quarterback, to how star running back Henry Josey is progressing after the knee injury in 2011, to whether recruiting is an issue. Some questions were courteous. Others were not.
A year ago, Missouri's offense finished 11th in the SEC in points per game and total offense. It will be the players on the field that decide Missouri's fate in its second SEC season. But should the offense falter, it will be Henson who bears the weight of the criticism.
Henson waits by the door, shaking hands and thanking fans for coming, a true politician. Afterward, when the crowd is gone and only the organizers of the event remains, he turns to one and asks:
"How'd I do?"