When Dirk Koetter’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on Andy Reid’s Chiefs on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, it will make for a reunion that goes back not merely to their days at the University of Missouri or Texas El-Paso immediately before that.
It harkens to their very roots with the now-defunct Division II program at San Francisco State, where they sold hot dogs amid campus protests to augment the football “budget” and taught classes and took 10-hour bus rides and made about $22,000 a year.
“How simple life was back then,” Koetter, in his first season as Tampa Bay head coach, said in a phone interview last week. “And I loved every minute of it.”
A blast, Reid called it. And he laughed repeatedly as he recalled it in all its splendor: from making use of rickety State Car 15 — “a beauty,” he said — to transporting the grill on its roof for the hot dogs and the one shared office for all assistants and games that might draw 5,000 people.
“Humble beginnings,” joked Bob Stull, the UTEP athletic director who hired them in El Paso and brought them to Columbia after the 1988 season.
It remains one of the mysteries of the universe that things didn’t work out at Mizzou for Stull’s staff — though Koetter and Reid still wonder how everything might have played out had Mizzou won the Fifth Down game against Colorado in 1990.
“I remind (Eric) Bieniemy of that all the time,” said Reid, referring to his running backs coach who played for Colorado back then.
Among others of note with Stull in Columbia before he was out with a 15-38-2 record were another prospective NFL head coach in the making, Dave Toub (now the Chiefs’ special teams coach) and, later, another future NFL head coach, Marty Mornhinweg.
Just the same, it seems like much more of a curiosity that Reid and Koetter sprouted into NFL head coaches after being part of a three-man (full-time) staff at San Francisco State in the mid-1980s.
“It’s wacky,” Reid said.
As it happened, the program under Vic Rowen was a relative Cradle of Coaches.
Rowen also cultivated NFL coaching great Mike Holmgren and Bob Toledo, who went on to coach UCLA. Chiefs tight ends coach Tom Melvin was a grad assistant there under Reid, too.
The entire experience was energizing and eye-opening for Reid.
But maybe all the more so for Koetter, who was 26 when he arrived in 1985 from Highland High in his native Idaho and was skittish in some ways.
Each lived with their wives in walking distance of the campus, where the elder Reid (then 27) already had lived a couple years (Koetter said “he was like the mayor of San Francisco State” … back when Reid showed his considerable personality more often.)
The two men typically walked to and from work together, days often extending from around 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.
When they’d part about 400 yards from Koetter’s apartment, Koetter usually sprinted home out of worry for his safety.
Koetter saw many a sight he’d never seen before, including the spectacle in the middle of campus when they’d be setting up hot dog sales on Thursdays, with Reid the “guru” of grilling and Koetter serving as a “worker bee.”
Like clockwork, an alarm would blare during lunch, and students would fall on the ground as if dead in what Koetter remembered as anti-apartheid protests and Reid recalled as both that and anti-nuclear.
As for their own cause, the hot dog sales revenues went toward everything from paying for the endless bus rides to filling the coffers of their recruiting budget.
Such as it was.
“The big decision on a recruit was whether to pay for his lunch at the student union or not,” Koetter said, laughing.
More seriously, even as the team went 3-6-1 that year, Koetter and Reid developed a relationship of admiration that stands to this day.
“Phenomenal, phenomenal — unbelievable football coach,” Reid said. “One of the best ones I’ve ever been around. I had no doubt he’d get in this league as a head coach.”
The two best head coaches he’s ever known, Koetter said, are Reid and his father. And Reid’s sheer knowledge and way with players has always set him apart.
That belief in each other led to another pivotal stage of their careers.
Koetter was hired by Stull at UTEP for the next season, with Reid going to Northern Arizona.
But when there was an opening for an offensive line job in El Paso a year later, Koetter “begged” Stull to interview Reid for the job.
Toub, who had played at UTEP, was strength and conditioning coach and took Reid out for lunch on his interview to report back to Stull on what he thought of him.
“Guess I must have said something good,” Toub said, laughing. “We hit it off, too, right away.”
Reid also remembered getting the use of what he believed was Koetter’s car, a powder blue Mercury Cougar that he took to be a nod to his background as a Brigham Young Cougar.
The real key to the hire, though, might have been Reid’s answer when Stull, who had a background coaching the line, asked him some basic philosophical and strategic thoughts about offensive-line play.
“He spoke for two hours on the subject,” Stull said, laughing.
So Reid and Koetter became an instrumental part of the revival of a downtrodden program.
The Miners had won 21 games in 14 years before Stull arrived. They won 21 in his three seasons, highlighted by a 10-3 record in 1988 that made Stull one of the hottest names in the country and earned him the Missouri job — where Koetter was his offensive coordinator and recruited in Kansas City.
It didn’t work out at MU, where Reid left after the 1991 season to begin his NFL career in Green Bay with Holmgren — with whom Reid had worked when he was a grad assistant at BYU.
But Mizzou was another link in these entwined careers that began with improbable roots more than 30 years ago — and a bond that persists to this day even as they compete against each other in an entirely different world.