New Titans O-coordinator Jason Michael (center, formerly of the Chargers) must find a way to better exploit the talents of QB Jake Locker (left) and tailback Chris Johnson.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — New Titans offensive coordinator Jason Michael made a new friend the summer before he quarterbacked Western Kentucky University to the 2002 NCAA Division I-AA national championship.
It seems a friend just happened to be friends with Phillip Fulmer, the University of Tennessee coach at the time. Michael and Fulmer hit it off and stayed in touch, even to the point of Fulmer calling Michael soon after WKU won its national championship to offer congratulations and a job as graduate assistant.
"Coach (Fulmer) asked me if I wanted to coach, and I did," said Michael, who was introduced Wednesday as offensive coordinator by newly hired head coach Ken Whisenhunt.
"(Fulmer) said, ‘We have a position here, so we’ll figure it out.’ It was an unbelievable opportunity at the time. That was the door that opened for me."
Michael had already been laying the groundwork for coaching after his college playing days. That’s why he absorbed anything and everything from then-WKU coach Jack Harbaugh, whose sons are NFL head coaches Jim Harbaugh (49ers) and Jon Harbaugh (Ravens).
In fact, Jim Harbaugh was still playing quarterback in the NFL, but was also listed as an assistant coach on his father’s staff. Getting to work with the Harbaughs set in motion what was soon to be a whirlwind rise though the coaching ranks, which eventually landed him a job as NFL coordinator.
"It was an unbelievable group of people in Bowling Green at Western Kentucky at the time," Michael said.
"Going from working with coach Jack Harbaugh, to have a chance as a college athlete at the time to be able to go work out with an NFL quarterback in Jim when he would come into town, or to be able sit in spring football when Jon came down and spend a few days with the staff and speak to the team, those are things that Jack created there."
But within a few weeks of winning the national title, the now-graduated Michael exchanged WKU red for UT orange, spending the 2003-04 seasons working under Fulmer. He then coached in the NFL as quality control coach for the Raiders (2005) and offensive quality control coach (2006) and tight ends coach (2007) for the Jets.
Fulmer came calling again in 2008, this time hiring Michael as tight ends coach. But Fulmer would get fired, leaving Michael searching for a job. He landed as an offensive assistant and eventually quarterbacks coach for the 49ers (2009-10), before being hired as tight ends coach for the Chargers the last three seasons.
In 2013, Michael worked under Whisenhunt, the Chargers’ first-year offensive coordinator. While helping install Whisenhunt’s offense and coaching Antonio Gates, one the NFL’s premier tight ends, Michael was the coach’s right-hand man.
For Whisenhunt, hiring Michael as the Titans’ O-coordinator was a no-brainer. On Wednesday, he also introduced new Titans defensive coordinator Ray Horton, a 20-year NFL coaching veteran, including the last three in a similar role with the Browns.
"I sat (working) in a room with Jason for almost a year to the day," Whisenhunt said of Michael, a Louisa, Ky., native, "and we grinded through a lot different things. And you garner so much respect for the job that they do. And you see how they coach the players.
"You see what he did with Antonio Gates. You see his contribution in all aspects of what we’re trying to get done. You want those guys with you, because you know what you are going to get out of them."
There is no doubt, however, of who’ll be in charge of the offense. Whisenhunt was offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers before becoming head coach of the Cardinals (2007-12), guiding the club to the only Super Bowl in franchise history (2008 season).
Last season, San Diegoâs offense finished fifth overall in yards per game (393.3) and fourth in passing yards (270.5). The Chargers lost to the Broncos in the wild-card playoff round.
Indeed, it will be Whisenhunt continuing to call plays from the sideline during games.
"One of the things that I have valued so much in my time of calling a game is communication during the course of the game," Whisenhunt said.
"… To me, calling plays is a little bit of a team effort because you are getting information from what they see, what they anticipate, plays that you say, ‘Hey, Jason, remind about this play or remind me about this situation.’ The communication of that part is so critical."
Whisenhunt doesn’t know yet whether Michael will be in the press box or on the sideline during games. Either way, Michael already understands the expectations of coordinating under the offensive-minded Whisenhunt.
"First off, coach Whisenhunt is a great play-caller," Michael said. "Having spent the last year with him and learning so much from him, he’s good at that. He likes to do that.
"What my job or what my role is in this deal is to kind of facilitate the organizational part of what we are doing. He is going to be in a lot of meetings. Other times he is going to have to step out with other responsibilities. My job is to be on the same page with him."
Hired nearly two weeks ago, Michael has already spent time with fellow Titans assistants and personnel staffers, including general manager Ruston Webster, assessing talent at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. He anticipates being finished watching every Tennessee game from last season and breaking down all the offensive players by end of this week.
"We know what we want to come in here in terms of the system that we want to run," Michael said. "But there are tweaks and different things we will do based on the evaluating of players.
"We’ll go through each one of those guys, talk through them and sit in here and grind through those and kind of see where we are, where we feel our strengths and weaknesses are, where we have to bring competition in to enhance whatever position or whatever that need may be."
Beyond the return of running back Chris Johnson (1,422 total yards, 10 TDs in 2013), who has a base salary of $8 million next season, the burning offensive question lies with the future of oft-injured but talented quarterback Jake Locker.
Locker (1,256 yards passing, 10 total TDs in seven starts) missed nine games last season — two with a shoulder injury and the last seven with a foot injury that is still being rehabilitated — but showed flashes when healthy.
Come the fall, Michael will be the third Tennessee offensive coordinator during Locker’s career (drafted in 2011).
"It is not an easy process," Whisenhunt said of Locker learning a new offense yet again, "but hopefully it will be pretty stable from this point going forward. Jake strikes me as the kind of player who will really throw himself into it.
"We’ve tried to do things in the past that’s the least impactful on the players about them trying to learn."
Other offensive assistant coaches hired to work under Whisenhunt and Michael include: Mike Mularkey (tight ends), John McNulty (quarterbacks), Bob Bostad (line), Kevin Patullo (receivers assistant) and Mike Sullivan (line assistant).
Offensive assistants retained from former coach Mike Munchak’s staff include Shawn Jefferson (wide receivers), Sylvester Croom (running backs) and Arthur Smith (line/tight ends assistant).