IRVING, Texas — The class, as Bob Surace remembers it, was War and Peace in the Nuclear Age. Given the status of the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union at the time, it was a topical subject.
As the professor lectured on and on about the Cuban missile crisis or the Afghan war or the Berlin Wall or whatever it was that day, Jason Garrett’s mind wandered.
“We’re sitting in the back of the class, and he’s drawing up plays,” said Surace, then a freshman center, now Princeton’s football coach. “And then he’s handing them to the defensive backs in the class, ‘Hey, how would you defend this?'”
Garrett starts his first full year as the Dallas Cowboys’ head coach Sunday against the New York Jets. He went 5-3 as the interim coach last winter after owner and general manager Jerry Jones fired Wade Phillips. He has made changes to his coaching staff, to the roster and to the team’s training facility, and everything has followed a well-thought-out plan.
“He always knew what it took to be successful, and you’ve got to be willing to put in the time and effort. He always did that and always will because that is his makeup.
”— Princeton asst. head coach Steve Verbit
It seems as if this was a position he was born to hold even if he says coaching was never a calling. He wanted to play forever until he couldn’t. Forever lasted until he was 38, after one year in each the World League and the Canadian Football League and 12 years in the NFL.
But Garrett is a coach’s kid and coaching is the family business.
He grew up outside Cleveland with his father, Jim, an assistant coach for the Browns. Over the summers, those players would end up at the Garretts’ Monmouth Beach, N.J., home and run routes. Jason Garrett’s brother John is the Cowboys’ passing game coordinator and tight ends coach. Another brother, Judd, is Dallas’ assistant director of pro scouting and previously spent eight years as an assistant coach for various teams.
“It’s amazing the perspective you have being a coach’s son, being a player — of what coaches do and what organizations do,” Jason Garrett said.
Garrett is a fan of coaches. Any coach. Any sport.
Over the winter, he spent three days with Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle spent a day with the team this summer. Garrett even referenced Phil Jackson at one point.
During training camp, he mentioned his high school baseball coach, Fred Heinlen, to explain why he wears the same clothes — gray shirt, blue sweatpants — to practice every day. One day, Heinlen spent 45 minutes discussing how the team would wear its uniform.
“And then he said, ‘Distinguish yourself with your play, not with your dress,'” Garrett said.
From football, he talked about the influences coaches such as Jimmy Johnson, Norv Turner and Nick Saban have had on him.
“He has a way about him,” said Pete Carril, Princeton’s Hall of Fame basketball coach. “He’s very friendly but he’s very strong, too. I don’t think you can take advantage of him. He sees a lot. I use that word, ‘see,’ in basketball a lot. He sees an awful lot.”
Carril thought a passage he read recently in a book about Ben Franklin — “Well done is better than well said” — summed up Garrett.
Garrett would sit in the Jadwin Gymnasium stands and watch Carril’s team practice. He and the coach would pepper each other with questions. Carril, who coached junior high football for only a few years, would want to talk about why he threw a certain pass at a certain time. Garrett would want to talk about the now-famous Princeton offense with all the back-door cuts.
Garrett was — and is — a “why” guy.
Steve Verbit was Princeton’s defensive line coach and coordinator, and is the Tigers’ assistant head coach now.
“Somehow we got into this routine of every day during the season and he’d have a 24- or 28-ounce bottle of Gatorade and he’d sit in my office, and we’d just talk and talk,” Verbit said. “He’d want to talk about defense because he was an offensive player. But he wanted to talk about the NBA or any sport. Not just sports. History. It could be music. He wanted to get to know everyone and really see what their opinions were on various subjects.”
Garrett’s first coaching job came in 1990 after he was cut by New Orleans. He returned to Princeton as an unpaid assistant, working with the freshman team. Two years after he was named the Ivy League player of the year and still scratching for a life in professional football, Garrett spent his time working out and staying in shape and coaching quarterbacks.
“We probably tried in every way, shape or manner [to scare him out of coaching],” Verbit said. “Because of the opportunity to have an unpaid assistant or intern working with you, he did a lot of the tough jobs in terms of breaking down the tape and the data input. His days were short and his nights long but he always knew what it took to be successful, and you’ve got to be willing to put in the time and effort. He always did that and always will because that is his makeup.”
Over the years as a player and coach, Garrett has filled notebook after notebook. The pages are filled with game plans and route combinations and what defenses like to do against certain formations. But they also are filled with what those coaches said during particular times of a season, whether it was going well or poorly.
Occasionally he sits in his office now and pours over the notes for ideas or tips.
In 2008, he went with Troy Aikman to Key West, Fla., to visit with Johnson. The idea was to do some fishing, drink some beers and remember the good old days.
But Garrett wanted something more. It was another chance to learn, like he did from his father, like he did from Heinlen, like he did from Verbit, like he did from Carril, like he did from Krzyzewski and like he did from Saban.
Like he had done his whole life.
“I tell our players this all the time — if you have a chance because of the positions we’re in to be around somebody who is really great at what they do, don’t be frivolous with that time,” Garrett said. “Don’t be asking him about his car or his house or whatever. Let’s get to the good stuff. Let’s talk to some of these guys who are great and maybe we can benefit from those situations.”
Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas