TAMPA, Fla. — Thirty-seven seasons into his coaching career, Dave Wannstedt understood he had options. His name carries weight, his experience is deep and his reputation is strong enough that at least one of his current players, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Eric Page, views him as “a legend.”
At first glance, though, Wannstedt’s hiring in February as the Bucs’ special teams coordinator seems out of place. The veteran has held many positions in the college and professional game, from head coach to defensive coordinator to defensive line coach to linebackers coach, but “special teams coordinator” was a bullet point absent from his NFL resume.
But this move goes beyond titles. It is about trust. It is about potential. It is about belief in a direction by coach Greg Schiano, who served as a defensive assistant (1996-97) and defensive backs coach (1998) with the Chicago Bears under the man who has found a new home with Tampa Bay.
“I trust Greg, and I think he trusts me,” Wannstedt said Monday. “I was excited about the opportunity of coming here and being part of this. … At this point in the game with me, it comes down to people and believing in people and what someone is trying to do.”
The symmetry in a Wannstedt/Schiano reunion is easy to see. Seventeen years ago, Schiano had served as a graduate assistant for Rutgers (1989) and Penn State (1990) before working as a defensive backs coach for the Nittany Lions from 1991-95. Then Wannstedt gave Schiano his first NFL coaching opportunity, a chance that made future opportunities possible: Defensive coordinator at the University of Miami (1999-2000), head coach at Rutgers (2001-11), head coach at Tampa Bay.
Back in Chicago, a trust formed between Wannstedt and Schiano. The young assistant was assigned to work on third-down packages with the secondary. When it was time to talk third-down defense, Schiano’s attention to detail made an impression on Wannstedt, one that lingers more than a decade later.
“It didn’t take him long before the players realized that, hey, this guy knows what he’s doing,” Wannstedt said of Schiano. “He’s not going to put you in a situation where you’re surprised by anything.”
Which is what Schiano will receive from Wannstedt in the veteran’s latest stop. The role might seem odd, but it is not completely foreign; Wannstedt worked extensively with special teams in his time as the University of Pittsburgh’s head coach from 2005-10. He replaced the fired Bob Ligashesky, who oversaw a group that was 30th in the NFL in kickoff returns last season (20.3-yard average) and tied for 19th in punt returns (9-yard average).
Wannstedt’s presence comes with other benefits. He is another sounding board for Schiano as he transitions into his second season as an NFL head coach. He is another voice to offer perspective.
Schiano’s job is to provide a vision. Wannstedt will be present to help him focus it.
“We have a tremendous mix of guys like (special assistant) Butch (Davis) and David who have a ton of experience in this league and major college,” Schiano said. “They’re guys I go way back with. We know each other, ins and outs. They come from the same background. My guys that came with me from Rutgers – they know because they have been in the program and know what my expectations are.”
The expectations are simple for Wannstedt to understand, because in some ways, they are his own. Wannstedt’s presence is an example of Schiano’s willingness to adapt, to introduce someone unafraid to challenge him. Wannstedt’s fingerprints are on Schiano’s career. The same influences that were introduced in Chicago will carry in meeting rooms at One Buc Place this year.
Word about Wannstedt’s reputation has spread among players within those halls: He is fiery, he approaches special teams with the same intensity he used as a head coach, he motivates with his presence alone.
“He has a real deep voice. I think that gets guys going,” Bucs wide receiver Eric Page said. “On special teams, it’s just like it’s a regular game. He’s on it every play, every situation. It doesn’t matter if he’s teaching it or walking through it. He has done it every time. I admire that. It makes you work a little harder too.”
“He’s very passionate about what he does,” Bucs wide receiver Chris Owusu said. “That’s the first thing you notice, especially in the meeting room. He has that atmosphere that he’s a winner. That’s the type of coach we need here.”
Wannstedt is the type of coach Schiano hopes can help lift his franchise to the top of the NFC South. Wannstedt trusted his instincts. Schiano presented a plan to his old mentor, and Wannstedt was intrigued. Roles for the two men may have changed over 17 years, but there is one constant from their time together in Chicago: A belief that sound vision can go far.
“It’s exciting,” Wannstedt said. “We’re a young team. We’re a hungry team. Anytime you’ve got that combination, you’ve got a chance to be successful.”